I must inform the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of Mr Alex Salmond. Before I ask the Foreign Secretary to move the Second Reading of the Bill, the House will not be surprised to hear that some dozens of colleagues are seeking to catch my eye and a time limit will have to be imposed. Front Benchers are not constrained by it, of course, but the Foreign Secretary and his shadow are nothing if not sensitive to the wishes of the House and I am sure they will want to balance the need to cover the subject thoroughly and take interventions with the interests of other colleagues in having the chance to contribute.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
This is a simple, but vital, piece of legislation. It has one clear purpose: to deliver on our promise to give the British people the final say on our EU membership in an in/out referendum by the end of 2017. For those who were present in the last Parliament, today’s debate will be tinged with a sense of déjà vu: we have, of course, debated this Bill before. So before I start, I would like to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (James Wharton). His European Union (Referendum) Bill in the last Parliament was passed by this House, but sadly was blocked in the other place by the opposition parties. He deserves the credit for paving the way for the Bill we are debating today.
Let me also pay tribute to my noble Friend Lord Dobbs who sponsored the Wharton Bill in the other place, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) who reintroduced the same Bill in the following Session.
The commitment on the Government side of the House to giving the British people their say has deep roots.
Will the Foreign Secretary give way?
I am going to make a little progress, bearing in mind Mr Speaker’s exhortation.
It is almost four decades ago to the day that I, along with millions of others in Britain, cast my vote in favour of our membership of the European Communities, and like millions of others I believed then that I was voting for an economic community that would bring significant economic benefits to Britain, but without undermining our national sovereignty. I do not remember anyone saying anything about ever-closer union or a single currency. But the institution that the clear majority of the British people voted to join has changed almost beyond recognition in the decades since then.
There must have been some strange juxtapositions in the campaign held in the 1970s, in which I took a very active part. Most of the debates I took part in were about the pooling of sovereignty and the direct applicability of European legislation without parliamentary intervention, which was a very controversial subject, and, besides, ever-closer union was in the treaty to which we were acceding.
Call me negligent, but as an 18-year-old voter in that election, I did not actually read the treaty before I cast my vote.
Treaty after treaty—the Single European Act, Maastricht, Amsterdam, Nice and Lisbon—individually and collectively have added hugely to the European Union’s powers, often in areas that would have been unthinkable in 1975, and that change has eroded the democratic mandate for our membership to the point where it is wafer-thin and demands to be renewed.
Two weeks ago I was in North Uist and met one of my constituents, who is from Germany. She has lived in North Uist for 25 years and she voted in the Scottish referendum, but she cannot vote in this referendum. Why were the Scottish Government more generous to and more understanding of her rights as a citizen for 25 years than the Tory Government? Why is she excluded?
If the hon. Gentleman can bear to stop wagging his finger and wait a little, I will come to the question of franchise.
To many people, not only in the UK, but across Europe, the European Union has come to feel like something that is done to them, not for them. Turnout in last year’s European Parliament elections was the lowest ever, dropping to 13% in Slovakia. The fragility of the European Union’s democratic legitimacy is felt particularly acutely by the British people. Since our referendum in 1975, citizens across Europe from Denmark and Ireland to France and Spain have been asked their views on crucial aspects of their country’s relationships with the EU in more than 30 different national referendums—but not in the UK.
We have had referendums on Scottish devolution, Welsh devolution, our electoral system and a regional assembly for the north-east, but an entire generation of British voters has been denied the chance to have a say on our relationship with the European Union. Today we are putting that right. After fighting and winning the general election as the only major party committed to an in/out referendum, in the face of relentless opposition from the other parties, today we are delivering on our promise to give that generation its say.
In the Foreign Secretary’s opening remarks, he referred to the number of changes that have taken place since 1975, when there was last a referendum. Can I take it from what he said that unless the British people have a right to reject all those changes brought about without a referendum he will not be satisfied? Or, can he at least set out today what it is that the Government wish to take back, rather than simply condemning his and all previous Governments since 1975?
The answer to question No. 1 is no and the answer to question No. 2 is that the Prime Minister has set out in a series of speeches, articles and interviews, and in the Conservative party manifesto, the key areas where we require change to the way that Britain’s relationship with the European Union works if we are to be able to get the consent of the British people to our future membership.
Conservative Members have long been clear that the European Union needs to change and that Britain’s relationship with the European Union needs to change. Unlike the Labour party, we believe that Brussels has too much power and that some of those powers need to be brought back to national capitals. In a world whose centre of economic gravity is shifting fast, Europe faces a serious challenge. If we are to continue to earn our way in the world and to secure European living standards for future generations, the EU needs to focus relentlessly on jobs, growth and competitiveness. Bluntly, it needs to become far less bureaucratic and far more competitive.
With the European electorate more disenchanted with the EU than ever before and with anti-EU parties on the rise across the continent, it is time to bring Europe back to the people, ensuring that decisions are made as close to them as possible and giving national Parliaments a greater role in overseeing the European Union. Such issues resonate across all member states. Change is needed for the benefit of all to make the EU fit for the purpose of the 21st century.
I applaud my right hon. Friend’s opening remarks and the Prime Minister for making certain that we had the Bill. May I ask the Foreign Secretary one question? In the last statement made by the Prime Minister in the previous Parliament, he clearly said that he wanted reform and a fundamental change in our relationship with the EU. Will he explain what the second part of that means in practice and in relation to the debate?
My hon. Friend’s question is germane to the point I am making.
For the good of all 28 countries, there are things that need to be done to reform the way in which the European Union works to make it more competitive, effective and democratically accountable. However, the British people have particular concerns, borne of our history and circumstances. For example, we are not part of the single currency and, so long as there is a Conservative Government, we never will be. We made that decision because we will not accept the further integration of our fiscal, economic, financial and social policy—[Hon. Members: “We made it!”] The hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) says that Labour made that decision. Is it the position of the Labour party that we will never join the single currency? I have not heard that position being articulated from the Labour Benches. It would be a seminal moment in our parliamentary history if Labour was able to make that commitment today.
We made that decision because we will not accept the further integration of our fiscal, economic, financial and social policy that will inevitably be required to make the eurozone a success. So, in answer to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash), we need to agree a framework with our partners that will allow further integration of the eurozone while protecting Britain’s interests and those of the other “euro-outs” within the EU. Because we occupy a crowded island with a population that is growing, even before net migration, and a welfare system that is more accessible than most and more generous than many in Europe, we are far more sensitive than many member states to the impact of migration from the EU and the distorting effects of easy access to benefits and services and of in-work welfare top-ups to wages that are already high by comparison with many EU countries.
In the Conservative party manifesto, we therefore committed to negotiate a new settlement for Britain in Europe—a settlement that addresses the concerns of the British people and sets the European Union on a course that will benefit all its people. The Prime Minister has already begun that process by meeting 15 European leaders, and at the European Council in June he will set out formally the key elements of our proposals.
I understand my right hon. Friend’s point about the pressures of increased numbers coming to work in the United Kingdom, but will he take a moment to pay tribute to the hard-working eastern Europeans from Poland and elsewhere who have come here, worked hard, paid their taxes and contributed to our society?
I am very happy to do so. I do not think anybody—or at least not very many people—in this country has a problem with those who come here to work hard, pay their dues and make a better life for themselves while contributing to the UK economy. They are the not the focus of our concern. Our focus is on the distorting effect of easy access to our welfare system.
The Secretary of State said earlier that he thought Brussels had too much power. Will he tell the House which powers affecting the United Kingdom Brussels has too much of? Will he also tell us whether he would consider it a success or a failure if the Prime Minister failed to repatriate those powers?
I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman has just fallen into the obvious trap. He knows that a negotiation is a negotiation. He asks me to set out a list of powers for repatriation, then invites me to say that the Prime Minister would have failed if we did not achieve the repatriation of every single one of them. No sensible person with any negotiating experience would approach a complex negotiation in that way.
I need to make some progress.
There are those who will say that this process cannot succeed, that Europe will never change, and that our negotiations will not be successful. Looking at the record of the last Labour Government, I can see why they would say that. Under that Labour Government, there was a one-way transfer of powers from Westminster to Brussels. They gave away £7 billion of the hard-fought-for British rebate but got absolutely nothing in return. They presided over a massive increase in the EU budget, they signed us up to the eurozone bail-out funds and they failed to deliver on their promise to give the British people a say before ratifying the Lisbon treaty. Labour’s record on Europe was one of dismal failure.
In the last Parliament, however, we showed what could be done. We showed that, even in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, change could be achieved by adopting a tough negotiating stance and a laser-like focus on our national interest. We cut the EU budget for the first time ever, saving British taxpayers billions of pounds. We took Britain out of the eurozone bail-outs that Labour signed us up to—the first ever return of powers from Brussels. We vetoed an EU treaty that would have damaged Britain’s interests, we brought back control of more than 100 police and criminal justice measures and we secured exemptions for the smallest businesses from EU regulation. Our record in the past five years shows that we can deliver change in Europe that is in Britain’s national interest.
The Foreign Secretary is taking a lot of noise and advice from those on the Labour Benches, but many of my colleagues and I remember sitting here, Friday after Friday, while they bitterly opposed the European Union (Referendum) Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (James Wharton). I presume that my right hon. Friend welcomes the sinner who repents today, but as he takes all that advice will he just remember that if we had taken the advice of Labour, Scottish National party and Liberal Democrat Members, Britain would now be languishing in the euro?
Does the Foreign Secretary believe that, when the Prime Minister completes these unspecified negotiations and decides to campaign for a yes in the referendum, my next-door neighbour the hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) and his allies who held the Major Government hostage will ever be satisfied?
I will let my hon. Friend the Member for Stone speak for himself in the course of the debate. I am sure, however, that he will await—with a healthily sceptical approach—the return of the Prime Minister from Brussels with that package, and that he will consider it carefully and analytically, safe in the knowledge that underpinning this whole process is an absolute commitment to allow the British people to have the final say on this issue in an in/out referendum.
None of the concessions that the Prime Minister has so far obtained from the European Union, including the veto of the fiscal union treaty, has fundamentally changed our relationship with the EU. How does he intend fundamentally to change that relationship?
My hon. Friend is right, of course. I have already mentioned an area in which we need fundamental change in the way in which the European Union operates. It is now a Union with a eurozone of 19 member states at its core, and those states will integrate more closely together. There needs to be an explicit recognition that those who are not part of that core do not need to pursue ever-closer union. There needs to be an explicit protection of the interests of those non-eurozone members as the EU goes forward. That is an example of an area in which we need specific structural change to the way in which the European Union operates.
I must make some progress.
Of course, negotiating with 27 member states will not be easy and it will not happen overnight, but we expect to be able to negotiate a new deal that will address the concerns of the British people about Britain’s relationship with Europe, which we will put to them in the promised referendum. The Bill provides the mechanism to do that. It sets in stone our commitment to hold the referendum before the end of 2017. Of course, if the process is completed sooner, the referendum could be held sooner. So the Bill allows for the date of the referendum to be determined by regulations, made by affirmative resolution.
The Bill provides for the wording of the referendum question on its face. In 2013, the Electoral Commission assessed the referendum question posed by the Wharton Bill. The Commission recommended two possible formulations. This Bill specifies the simpler of the two:
“Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?”,
with a yes/no answer.[Interruption.] Hon. Members need not answer now; they can wait until the designated referendum day. The Electoral Commission will of course report again on this Bill and we look forward to its assessment.
It would be perfectly possible not to accept the Prime Minister’s negotiating stance but to want to remain a member of the European Union. Should we not have a specific vote on the Prime Minister’s recommendations as well as on the retention of membership of the European Union?
No. We made a proposal to the British people, it was put to the test in the general election and we have received an overwhelming mandate to progress. That is what we will do.
The Bill also sets out the entitlement to vote in the referendum. Since this is an issue of national importance, the parliamentary franchise is the right starting point. It means that British citizens in the UK or resident abroad for less than 15 years and resident Commonwealth and Irish citizens can take part. The Bill extends the franchise in two very limited respects: to Members of the other place who meet certain qualifications and to Commonwealth citizens resident in Gibraltar. Members of the other place cannot take part in elections to this House on the grounds that they are already represented in Parliament, but it is clearly right that the franchise should be extended to them in the referendum. Gibraltar will also be deeply affected by its outcome. It is part of the European Union and its economy is closely bound to its relationship with the EU. Of course, Gibraltar already takes part in elections to the European Parliament as part of the South West of England. During debates on the private Member’s Bill in the previous Parliament, there was cross-party support for Gibraltar’s inclusion. I hope that that will remain.
We will extend the franchise to Gibraltar only with the consent of the Government of Gibraltar, and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe has already agreed the principles for achieving that with the Chief Minister. Wherever possible, the Bill leaves it to the Gibraltar Parliament to make provision to implement the referendum in Gibraltar. The Government of Gibraltar intend to introduce their own referendum Bill, which will be complementary to the UK legislation.
Some will argue that we should extend the franchise further to 16 and 17-year-olds, perhaps, or even to citizens of other EU countries resident here. We do not agree. This is an issue of national importance about Britain’s relationship with the European Union and it is right that the Westminster parliamentary franchise should be the basis for consulting the British people. I concede that there are those in the House who will wish to debate whether that franchise itself should be extended to 16 and 17-year-olds, but the Government are not persuaded and that is a debate for another day. It would be wrong to include 16 and 17-year-olds in this referendum as an addition to the Westminster franchise.
I reject, too, the suggestion that EU citizens living in the UK should be included. The referendum is about delivering a pledge to the British people to consult them about the future of their country. It would be a travesty to seek to include EU nationals whose interests might be very different from those of the British people.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s comments about Gibraltar, which will be warmly welcomed by the people of Gibraltar and which recognise that Gibraltar is a particular case. Will he also accept that many of us who supported my Bill and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (James Wharton) in the previous Parliament did so on the basis of the parliamentary franchise? I strongly urge my right hon. Friend to stick to that and not be drawn into debates about broader issues of the franchise that are not part of this Bill’s proposals.
Speaking as somebody who worked in the Treasury between 1999 and 2005, may I remind the Foreign Secretary that it was a Labour Government that designed the five tests, a Labour Government that carried out the assessment and a Labour Government that kept us out of the single currency? It is thanks to a Labour Government that we are not in the single currency today.
I want to press the Foreign Secretary again on the question of extending the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds. The answer he gave about why we should not do it—because it is an issue of national importance—is the main reason he should do it. He said that he did not want to deviate from the franchise for Westminster, but he is already doing that by extending it to peers. Why not let young people have a say on their future, which is what this Bill is about?
Has the Foreign Secretary seen the national opinion poll today that shows that the majority of British people want to stay in the European Union, but a reformed European Union with a form that is in not only the British national interest but that of continental Europe and our 27 European partners? Does that not underline the importance of European leaders listening not only to this Parliament but more importantly to the British people, both through this Parliament and directly?
Yes, and today we are ensuring that our partners in Europe understand that this is not about making a deal in a smoke-filled room with a few politicians but about delivering a package that satisfies the British people. My assessment has been for a long time and remains that the great majority of the British people want Britain to remain inside the European Union provided we can get the reform of the EU and of Britain’s relationship with it that satisfies and answers the crucial points we have set out.
On the question of European nationals voting in this referendum, will the Foreign Secretary confirm whether any of the referendums held in other European countries have been open to all other European Union citizens living in that country—[Hon. Members: “Scotland!”] It is not a separate member of the EU.
As far as I am aware, that is not the case. I note with interest that just this weekend it was reported that Luxembourg, an open and very pro-EU country, has decided not to extend its parliamentary franchise to the very many EU citizens who are resident in Luxembourg.
Although the central issue at stake in the Bill is simple and the three key variables—the date, the franchise and the question—are dealt with in the first two clauses, running a referendum is not straightforward. The remainder of the Bill, which includes 38 pages of schedules, deals with three important but technical areas. First, in clause 4(1) it establishes a power to set the conduct framework that will determine how the referendum will be run. Secondly, in clause 4(2) it creates the power to set more detailed conduct rules and combination rules to determine how the vote would be run alongside other electoral events should the chosen dates coincide with any. Finally, the Bill establishes the detailed campaign rules, updating the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 where necessary, taking into account the lessons of both the Scottish independence and alternative vote referendums and the recommendations made by the Electoral Commission.
The Bill also disapplies section 125 of the 2000 Act, and as this aspect has received some media attention I shall elaborate on the Government’s logic. Section 125 places statutory restrictions on Government publications in the final 28 days before the poll. There are operational and political reasons for disapplying it in this referendum. If left unaltered, section 125 would stop the Government “publishing” material that deals with “any issue raised by” the referendum question. In the context of this referendum, that is unworkable and inappropriate. It is unworkable because the restriction is so broad that preventing publication in relation to any issue raised by the referendum could prevent Ministers from conducting the ordinary day-to-day business of the UK’s dealings with the European Union and inappropriate because the referendum will take place as a result of a clear manifesto commitment and a mandate won at the general election.
That mandate is to renegotiate the terms of the UK’s relationship with the European Union and put them to the people in a referendum. In the light of the outcome of those negotiations, the Government expect to take a position, and if we have been successful, as we expect to be, the Government will want to explain what has been agreed and how the British people’s concerns have been addressed. We will want to make a recommendation on where the national interest lies, and Ministers will want to be able to continue making the case, up to referendum day, without being constrained by fears that, for example, the posting of comments on Twitter accounts could constitute publication.
Let me complete my remarks on this section, and then I will come back to my hon. Friend’s point. I hope that I will clarify the matter for him.
Clearly, it will be for the yes and the no campaigns to lead the debate in the weeks preceding the poll. The campaigns will be designated by the Electoral Commission, and will receive a number of benefits, including a public grant and eligibility to make a referendum broadcast and to send a free mailshot to voters. I can assure the House that the Government have no intention of undermining those campaigns, and they do not propose to spend large sums of public money during the purdah period prescribed by section 125 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendum Act 2000. A vibrant, robust debate in the best traditions of British democracy is in all our interests. If my hon. Friend’s concern is that the Government are thinking of spending public money to deliver doorstep mailshots in the last four weeks of the campaign, I can assure him that the Government have no such intention. The Government will exercise proper restraint to ensure a balanced debate during the campaign.
I remember that one of the arguments that I made on my party’s behalf during debates on the Political Parties, Elections and Referendum Act 2000 was that the purdah period should be extended, not restricted. While I understand the points that my right hon. Friend makes, and while I expect that I shall argue for a yes vote in the referendum—although I shall wait on the Prime Minister’s renegotiation —we have to be careful to provide a level playing field and make it clear that the Government will not abuse their position. For that reason, I hope that the Government will focus on this issue. The change that is being introduced to legislation that we previously said was deficient in this respect could convey an impression that the Government will come in and try to load the dice, and that must be avoided.
I want to ask the Foreign Secretary a particular question about the renegotiation. I think that there is virtually unanimous agreement in the House that the import duties currently imposed on cane sugar coming into Europe are unfair. Will he confirm that that item is on the list for the renegotiation that he has been telling us about?
I am delighted to see that the right hon. Gentleman is robust in his defence of the interests of Tate and Lyle—his constituents—and I will take that representation and put it with the many others from both sides of the House about particular areas that we need to raise in the course of the discussion.
I need to conclude my remarks because many Members wish to contribute.
Few subjects ignite as much passion in the House or indeed in the country as our membership of the European Union. The debate in the run-up to the referendum will be hard fought on both sides of the argument. But whether we favour Britain being in or out, we surely should all be able to agree on the simple principle that the decision about our membership should be taken by the British people, not by Whitehall bureaucrats, certainly not by Brussels Eurocrats; not even by Government Ministers or parliamentarians in this Chamber. The decision must be for the common sense of the British people. That is what we pledged, and that is what we have a mandate to deliver. For too long, the people of Britain have been denied their say. For too long, powers have been handed to Brussels over their heads. For too long, their voice on Europe has not been heard. This Bill puts that right. It delivers the simple in/out referendum that we promised, and I commend it to the House.
This Bill will set before the British people a clear and simple question: should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union? It is 11 words, but the answer will have profound consequences for the future of our country, as the people of the United Kingdom make the most important decision on our place in the world for 40 years. It is a decision that will affect the future journey of our proud and great islands; it is a decision the consequence of which will be felt by the people of our country for decades and generations to come; and it is a decision that will shape not only how we view our place in the world but how the rest of the world sees us.
We support the Bill and its passage through Parliament, but we also support Britain remaining a member of the EU. The same cannot be said of all the right hon. and hon. Members on the Conservative Benches.
I am delighted that the Labour party now agrees that the British people deserve a choice and a vote, but does the right hon. Gentleman not understand that the British people want a very substantial reduction in migration into this country, and does that not require this Parliament to regain control of our borders from Brussels?
We agree that the European Union needs to change. Like many people, we want to see reform in Europe on benefits, transitional controls, the way the EU works and how it relates to national Parliaments. We also want to see the completion of the single market in services to boost jobs and economic growth here in the United Kingdom. We need to co-operate to achieve those things, but the EU needs to recognise that there is a growing demand across societies in Europe for greater devolution of power at the same time. We need to co-operate and devolve, and the EU’s task in the years ahead is to reconcile those two forces.
Given that the EU has fundamentally changed since the early 1970s when we joined it, it is right that the Bill has been introduced. Whatever the result of the referendum, we can now all agree with that. Will the right hon. Gentleman address the issue of fundamental change in our relationship? Given that the majority of European capitals are moving closer and closer to political union, does he accept that the negotiations aiming to accommodate countries that do not wish to go down that road are terribly important? What guarantees will the Labour party be looking for when it comes to those negotiations?
The hon. Gentleman would recognise that there are differences of view within the EU about its future direction. Membership of the euro is an example of that. The last Labour Government took the decision that we would not join the euro. We are still against joining the euro, and I cannot foresee any circumstances in which it would be in the British economic interest to do so; but other European countries take a different view. The challenge for Europe is to accommodate those, while keeping together 28 countries for which co-operation is vital in the modern world.
The Conservatives criticised us when we were in office for taking the people further into Europe, but let us remind them when they complain about the free movement of labour that they signed up to the single market and the British people never got a referendum then; they signed up to Maastricht and the British people never got a referendum then; and they implied that we would have taken them into the single currency, but we had the five economic tests.
My hon. Friend is entirely right. There are lots of people who have changed their minds on Europe. I remind the House that as recently as June 2012 the Prime Minister told a press conference in Brussels:
“I completely understand why some people want an in/out referendum. . . I don’t share that view. That is not the right thing to do.”
Does my right hon. Friend agree that those of us who were in the House for John Major’s Administration watched the Government party fall apart under the pressure of their rows on Europe, and that we look forward cheerfully to it happening again?
It is clear that my hon. Friend takes great pleasure from the discomfort that is already evident on the Government Benches. For those who wish to study the history, it is interesting that here we are, 40 years on from 1975, and the same thing is happening, but in mirror image. It is the Conservative party that has agreed to a referendum in order to try to deal with splits.
I shall make a little more progress, then I will give way further.
Let me say to the Foreign Secretary that reform is not just about what Britain asks for now. It is about the building of alliances and the making of friends, as the Prime Minister now understands only too well, and it is an approach that can bring considerable change over time. I think I made the point previously, with reference to the proportion of the EU budget that is spent on the common agricultural policy, that there has been a very significant reduction over a period of 40 years. That demonstrates that change is possible by building alliances and arguing the case. The EU will need to continue to reform in the years ahead.
Does the shadow Secretary of State agree that an example of the need for radical reform of our relationship with the European Union and reform of the European Union as a whole is that if the UK were not currently a member of the EU, no one would be suggesting that we join? What does he think?
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that if this referendum is to be considered free and fair it would be wise to ensure the neutrality of the civil service and the machinery of government? Would he look sympathetically at any amendments to try to enshrine in the legislation an appropriate period of purdah?
We would be very happy to look at all amendments that come forward during consideration of the Bill on the Floor of the House. We have some amendments that we will table. I shall come to those in a moment. I agree with the Foreign Secretary in this respect: once the Government eventually reach a view, they are entitled to explain it to the British people. Indeed, they will have to explain their view to some of the members of the Cabinet. Therefore, it is reasonable to ensure that the Government are able to do that.
Can the right hon. Gentleman explain exactly what he thinks Ministers will have to be able to do that they were not doing during the Scottish referendum or the AV referendum? I seem to remember Ministers giving lots of explanations of their view. Is he concerned that this might be an opportunity for the Government to call the referendum so soon after the deal has been concluded that the British people do not have a chance to digest what has occurred—a snap referendum designed to get a certain result?
As I understand the argument, it relates to section 125 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 and the definition of “material”. That is what that section says. It would not be sensible for any Government to find themselves constrained from explaining to the people the Government’s view, because the people are entitled to hear from the Government of the day, as happened in 1975.
My right hon. Friend will realise that the issue is so toxic to the Conservative party that it caused a previous Prime Minister, John Major, to question the parentage of some of the members of his Cabinet at that time. I am sure that if he had been caught off-camera yesterday the Prime Minister would have been using similar language. On the point made by the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin), is it not true that we might reach the date of the referendum but agreements significantly changing our relationship with Europe will not have been agreed? That will be subject to subsequent negotiation, particularly if treaty change is required, so we will be asked to vote for something that will take place in the future and we will not have the final detail agreed across Europe.
In order for the result to be accepted and for it to be long lasting and settle the question for a generation, it is very important that the process is seen to be fair on all sides. Ministers are perfectly at liberty to say what they like in interviews and as they go round the country making speeches, but there is a big difference between that and public money being used to send out leaflets and promote one side of the debate. It is very important that the spending limits are designed to ensure that spending is equal on both sides and both sides have a fair say.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who is extremely generous with his time. A number of constituents have already been in touch with me, as the House might imagine, about the issue, and some have raised the question itself. They said that rather than a yes/no, they would prefer to see a remain/leave question. Does my right hon. Friend have a view on that?
My view is that the question is perfectly clear and very simple. I do not think that anyone who goes into the polling station on the day, whenever it is, will not understand the consequence of voting either way.
As well the negotiations taking place in Europe, it is clear that an equally important set of negotiations is taking place within the Conservative party on this subject, and they are not going terribly well, are they? We have been asking the Prime Minister for his list of negotiating demands and we are still waiting. We are still not clear whether there will be treaty change or not. This week, the Prime Minister apparently told journalists at the G7 that he had decided that he would succeed in the negotiations and therefore all Ministers would be expected to support the line. We know that that did not go down too well with certain Ministers, who came face to face with the prospect of having to choose between their jobs and their Euroscepticism.
Then, lo and behold, faced with a choice between backing the national interest or the Conservative interest, the Prime Minister did what he always does—give in to his party. The explanation was that his remarks had been “over-interpreted”. I do not know whether this was a case of lost in translation, but the newspapers today were pretty disobliging about the Prime Minister’s decision, with references to “Downing St chaos” in The Daily Telegraph, “weak and uncertain” in The Times, and “great EU-turn” in the Daily Mail.
We are none the wiser as to where the Government stand or what the answers are to those questions, so for the benefit of the House let me try to summarise where it seems the Government have got to on our membership of the EU. The Prime Minister is probably for in, but he cannot say definitely that he is in or out because a lot of his MPs are for out, unless they can be persuaded to be in. Meanwhile, the Foreign Secretary, who used to be leaning out, now appears to be leaning in, while other members of the Cabinet who are for out read yesterday that they would be out unless they campaigned for in. Now it seems they might be in even though, after all, they are probably for out. In, out, in, out—it is the EU Tory hokey-cokey, a complete mess.
It is perhaps an ill-chosen day to talk about the history of parties changing views on the matter, as 32 years ago to the day Gordon Brown and Tony Blair were elected to this House, as was I. They were elected on a manifesto of leaving the European Union. They subsequently changed their views, as the right hon. Gentleman has changed his view on the need for a referendum and the need for a renegotiation. Can he explain the reasons for his change of view and what changes he wants to see in Europe prior to the referendum?
First, I set out earlier the changes we would wish to see, but change is not just a function of one particular moment in time. Secondly, there has been a general election and there is now going to be a referendum. As we argued consistently, uncertainty about Britain’s place in Europe is not good for the British economy, so we should get on and make this decision so that the British people can have their say, and I hope they will reach a decision to remain in the European Union.
I am going to make some more progress, because I have been extremely generous in giving way.
On the franchise, the Government are right to use the same basic approach as 40 years ago in the last European referendum and as 33 days ago in the general election—in other words, the parliamentary voting register. I do not begrudge extending the franchise to a particular group of 790 people, but I say to the Foreign Secretary that if we are going to extend the franchise to 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 80 and 90-year-olds in the House of Lords, I think we should also extend it to 16 and 17-year-olds. On this side of the House we are in favour of giving these young adults the right to vote in all elections. This is an issue of principle—it is about giving them as citizens the right to participate in our democracy.
I suspect that during the course of this debate and the Bill’s Committee stage we will hear arguments against doing that, but I simply say that they will have a ring of familiarity about them, because on every single occasion in the past 200 years that someone has had the temerity to suggest that the franchise should be extended, the forces of conservatism—with a small c—have said, “Don’t be ridiculous”; “It’ll undermine the fabric of society”; or, “They are incapable of exercising the necessary judgment.”
After all, during debates on the Reform Act 1832, landowners said that the only people who could vote were those who had an interest in the land—the people who owned it. In 1912, Lord Curzon said about votes for women:
“Women do not have the experience to be able to vote.”
If we substitute the words “16 and 17-year-olds” for the word “Women”, we will see that exactly the same argument is being made today. Indeed, the same argument was made when a Labour Government lowered the voting age from 21 to 18. It is the same old excuse of an argument against giving people a say, and it is completely at odds with the other rights we already give to 16 and 17-year-olds, including the right to work, pay tax and join the armed forces. [Interruption.] I am well aware of what the Foreign Secretary is saying, but they can also be company directors and consent to medical treatment—it is a long, long list.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is odd that the Government’s position on the Wales Act 2014 is to devolve to the Welsh Government the power to decide whether 16 and 17-year-olds can be given the vote? The Government are giving that power to Wales and it has been exercised in Scotland, yet they are blocking it in this instance.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Prime Minister was not forced to give 16 and 17-year-olds the right to vote in the Scottish referendum? He agreed that that would happen, so what is different now? Why should English and Welsh 16 and 17-year-olds, and Scottish 16 and 17-year-olds, be treated differently for this referendum?
I agree completely with my hon. Friend. When the Minister for Europe winds up the debate, perhaps he will give the House an explanation as to why the Government are not minded to move on this issue.
After taking evidence on the subject last year, the British Youth Council Youth Select Committee said:
“We are very proud of the democracy in which we live and of its history and traditions. We are absolutely convinced that 16 and 17 year olds have the aptitude and the appetite to take a full part in that democracy.”
I agree. This House has debated on many occasions how we can encourage more young people—the Foreign Secretary made the point about the lower rate of participation—to participate in our public and political life. How can we get more young people involved in our democratic life? What better way to do so than to give 16 and 17-year-olds the opportunity to take part in this momentous decision, which will affect their lives and their futures just as much as it will affect ours?
Does the shadow Foreign Secretary agree that, since nearly one in four 16-year-olds can expect to live to 100 years of age and will be living with the consequences of this decision for far longer than Members of this or the other House, and given that they have the mental capacity to weigh up these decisions and the enthusiasm to take part, we should extend the franchise?
I agree with the hon. Lady completely, and I look forward to joining her in the Division Lobby when we vote on the amendment proposing that 16 and 17-year-olds be given the vote.
The second thing I want to say about the detail of the Bill is that we feel the referendum should be held on a separate day. The Bill specifically allows Ministers, by regulations, to make provisions to combine the referendum with other polls, but, as the Foreign Secretary will be aware, that contradicts the advice of the Electoral Commission, which could not have been clearer:
“The Bill should be amended to make clear that an EU referendum cannot be combined with the significant elections already scheduled to take place in May 2016, and should be held on a suitable separate day to any other poll.”
To those who argue, “If we combine it with other polls, that will lead to a higher turnout,” I simply pray in aid the example of last September’s Scottish referendum, which was held on a separate day.
The evidence is very clear: if we put before the British people a big decision with very considerable consequences —that is what this referendum will be about—they will know what is at stake and they will come out and vote, and we should trust them to do so. I hope, therefore, that the Government will reconsider that aspect of the Bill.
Turnout is obviously an issue of concern for all of us. Does my right hon. Friend agree that using the low turnout of 18 to 24-year-olds to deny the vote to 16 and 17-year-olds defeats the object? Surely we should be using this Bill and a healthy, vibrant debate about the future of Europe to get both age groups out to vote in the referendum.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right and makes a powerful point. We want a debate and for everybody to participate, and we want the British people to make that judgment.
The third thing I want to say on the detail of the Bill is that, as I have already argued, the Government have a responsibility to ensure that voters have enough information to be able to make an informed decision. That should include an independent assessment of the economic consequences of leaving the European Union and what that would mean compared with our remaining a member. I presume that that is why, as the Foreign Secretary has said, section 125 of the 2000 Act is to be disapplied.
Finally on the detail, the Bill requires that the referendum must take place by December 2017. That should give the Prime Minister long enough to conclude the negotiations, but I hope the Foreign Secretary will agree that the sooner the decision can be taken, the better, because uncertainty is not good for anyone, not least when businesses have begun to say, “We will need to consider our future place in the United Kingdom.” Uncertainty does not contribute to that.
I am going to bring my remarks to a close, because so many other Members want to speak and I am bearing in mind Mr Speaker’s strictures, which were kindly put.
This Bill is important, because it will give the British people the chance to have their say, but it is in the end just a mechanism for that decision; the really important thing is the decision itself. The notion that Britain’s future prosperity and security lie somehow in turning away from the European Union, in the hope of somehow getting a better deal, makes no sense in a world that is increasingly interdependent. It is not that Britain could not manage outside the European Union—[Interruption.] I have said that before and I say it again, because we have to have an honest debate. The truth is that it would come at an economic cost, because our partnership with Europe helps us to create jobs, secure growth, encourage investment and ensure our security and influence in the world.
It is not that we do not understand that some communities feel more of the consequences of a rapidly changing world than others.
No; I am going to bring my remarks to a close.
All of us have a stake in answering the following questions. Where will the jobs for our children and grandchildren come from? How will we grow our economy so we can continue to support the NHS and an ageing population? How do we combat climate change, terrorism and insecurity? The answers lie in co-operation. We should have confidence: we are a nation full of ideas. We invented the television, the jet engine and the world wide web. The best way to continue to use the talents of this great country of ours to turn ideas into jobs is to work with others and to take advantage of the investment that comes from being in the European Union. We gain from ideas generated in other countries, from lowered trade barriers and from people coming in with their talents. We have always traded with neighbours near and far, and we must remain an outward-facing country.
We also believe that, in this year of all years, we should remember the contribution that European nations coming together has made to the cause of peace on this continent of ours. That achievement is all too easy to take for granted, but it would have seemed extraordinary to our forebears and ancestors sitting here 100 years ago, after centuries of war across Europe, if someone had said, “I’ve seen the future, and this is what Europeans working together can achieve.” We believe in the strength of the argument for remaining part of the European Union. Labour Members are already making it, and we will continue to do so. It will be for the British people to decide.
This is a great day, a remarkable moment: we have a Conservative majority—now, I am delighted to hear, backed by the Labour Opposition—that will deliver a Bill to give the people of the UK a choice on who actually makes their laws and regulations. The mentors, sadly dead, who encouraged me to come to this place more than 20 years ago, such as my predecessor the late Lord Biffen of Tanat and the late Lord Ridley of Liddesdale, would be delighted that we have the opportunity to go back to the question of whether this country voted in 1975 to join a market and, as the shadow Foreign Secretary has commented, have the benefits of a market, embrace the world and get our full seat back on organisations such as the World Trade Organisation, and not be told what to do by the political and judicial arrangements that we are currently under.
This is a glorious moment in history, because the eurozone will inevitably move to become a co-ordinated country, in which significant amounts of money are shifted from the northern wealth-creating areas of Germany and Holland to southern Europe, and we have a chance of really radical change. I am delighted that the Foreign Secretary expounded that today and that the Prime Minister has made a start. We have a real chance.
I am glad to have the endorsement of those key figures from the Opposition Benches.
I want to touch on two points. First, I strongly advocate that the Prime Minister gets the maximum time for his negotiations, and I would like the referendum to be held in late 2017. Secondly, on the question, I favour two positives, rather than having one side as a negative.
The issue that really concerns me, however, is the suspension of purdah. I am afraid that I was dismayed to read the Foreign Secretary’s comments on ConservativeHome this morning, which are nonsense. The rules of purdah have developed steadily over 20 years. We have just fought a general election very satisfactorily, during which the wheels of government continued to turn without attempts to use taxpayers’ money to influence the way people voted.
I want to take the House through the long process that goes right back to 1996, when the Nairn report called for referendums to be brought within election law. The result of the Welsh referendum, when the Conservatives were in total disarray, was extraordinarily narrow: 6,721 was the majority across Wales, or 168 per seat. By any standards, that was a very marginal result. Particularly in north Wales, near where I come from, there was widespread dissatisfaction at the fact that the result was affected by very significant Government interventions.
In October 1998, Lord Neill of Bladen’s Committee came up with some absolutely key recommendations. I want to cite Vernon Bogdanor of Oxford University—he taught the Prime Minister a thing or two about politics, philosophy and economics—who, in a very telling contribution, said:
“I hope also the Committee will make some suggestions about referendums because one purpose of a referendum…is to secure legitimacy for decisions where Parliament alone can not secure that legitimacy. For that legitimacy to be secured, the losers have to feel that the fight was fairly conducted.”
That issue is absolutely fundamental: the British public have a real sense of fairness, and if they have a sense that this referendum is rigged, the result will not be legitimate.
On that basis, the very distinguished figures on the Neill Committee stated:
“We believe it is perfectly appropriate for the government of the day to state its views and for members of the Government to campaign vigorously during referendum campaigns, just as they do during general election campaigns. But we also believe that, just as in general election campaigns, neither taxpayers’ money nor the permanent government machine—civil servants, official cars, the Government Information Service, and so forth—should be used to promote the interests of the Government side of the argument. In other words, referendum campaigns should be treated for these purposes in every way as though they were general election campaigns.”
They also said:
“We believe that it is extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, for the government of the day to offer purely objective and factual information in the course of a referendum campaign, especially when, as will usually be the case, itself it is a party to the campaign. We believe governments should not participate in referendum campaigns in this manner, just as it would be thought to be wholly inappropriate during a general election campaign for the government to print and distribute, at the taxpayers’ expense, literature setting out government policy.”
Their recommendation 89 stated:
“The government of the day in future referendums should, as a government, remain neutral and should not distribute at public expense literature, even purportedly ‘factual’ literature, setting out or otherwise promoting its case.”
I stress that very senior, respected figures on both sides of the House have participated in this long debate over the past 20 years. In an Adjournment debate on the Neill report on 9 November 1998, there was a significant contribution by the then Home Secretary Jack Straw, but, on the Conservative side, the now Lords Fowler and MacGregor of Pullham Market were absolutely clear in calling for full implementation of Neill. Sir Norman Fowler, as he then was, said:
“However, we accept the findings in the report and believe that legislation based on it should be introduced with the proviso that it should implement all the major proposals. There should be no cherry picking of one proposal, leaving the others to one side.”—[Official Report, 9 November 1998; Vol. 319, c. 59.]
Second Reading of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill was on 10 January 2000, introduced by Jack Straw. Interestingly, Mr Speaker, there was a significant intervention, at column 36, by the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow). Only you could use such a phrase as this:
“I am sure that the House has listened to the right hon. Gentleman’s historical exegesis with great interest.”
Very pertinently, as the first person to raise the issue of time, you went on:
“If he is against the purchase of votes, how does he justify promoting a Bill that will allow the issue by Ministers of official press releases in support, for example, of the abolition of our national currency, while regulating the activities of campaigning organisations in any such referendum for up to six months, thereby preventing the supporters of national self-government from effectively arguing their case?”—[Official Report, 10 January 2000; Vol. 342, c. 36.]
That was a most pertinent intervention because the issue of time reappeared in Committee.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), who has sadly left his seat, argued hard on the amendments, and, Mr Speaker, you and I participated on the issue of special advisers. Respected figures such as my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes) and my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash), and a number of us who have held this party together through the long winter of opposition, all made the point that 28 days was not sufficient. We were absolutely clear that we did not like Jack Straw’s proposals on 28 days. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield said:
“we are worried that the 28-day period on its own will be insufficient. The particular mischief is that there will be a preliminary period, in which the campaign that will be set up in opposition to the view that the Government want to put forward, but which they will subsume into their own campaign organisation, is not up and running because it has not received validation from the commission.”—[Official Report, 16 February 2000; Vol. 344, c. 1062.]
Lord MacKay of Ardbrecknish, another distinguished Conservative, said:
“I believe that purdah should apply during the whole referendum period. I consider that to be fair and equitable.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 22 November 2000; Vol. 619, c. 884.]
A helpful intervention came from the Electoral Commission yesterday:
“We are therefore disappointed and concerned that the Bill includes provision to remove the restrictions on the use of public funds by governments and others to promote an outcome right up until voters cast their vote.”
No, I want to finish my comments because other Members want to speak.
The question we have to ask is why this power, which has been debated by serious Members on both sides of the House over a 20-year period, resulting in what Conservative Members thought was the very unsatisfactory compromise of 28 days, is being lifted arbitrarily. We have fought a number of general election campaigns during which cars continued to be made, cows continued to be milked and the world did not stop.
It absolutely must be taken on board by the Government that if the British people sense that there is no fairness and that the referendum is being rigged against them, because a deluge of local government, national Government and, above all, European government money and propaganda can be dropped on them—there will not just be election material, as the Foreign Secretary said, but reports, briefs and analyses on the terrifying consequences of the vote going in a certain way—it will be unacceptable and will go down extremely badly with the British people.
What really worries me is that this extraordinary, incredibly important event in our history could be seen as illegitimate, and that whatever system of government for this country emerges after the referendum might not be seen as valid. I appeal to the Foreign Secretary to go back, talk to the Prime Minister and remove this arbitrary suspension of the process of purdah that has been thrashed out over 20 years.
I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “That” to the end of the Question and add:
That this House declines to give a Second Reading to the EU Referendum Bill because it fails to meet the gold standard set by the Scottish independence referendum in terms of inclusivity and democratic participation, in particular because the Bill does not give the right to vote to 16 and 17 year olds or most EU nationals living in the UK, the Bill does not include a double majority provision to ensure that no nation or jurisdiction of the UK can be taken out of the EU against its will, and the legislation does not include provision to ensure that the referendum vote cannot be held on the same day as the Scottish, Welsh or Northern Ireland elections.
I congratulate the Prime Minister on his singular achievement—his 31-day achievement. Thirty one days does not seem like a huge amount of time, but in terms of holding the Conservative party together on Europe, the last 31 days have been a great achievement. Hannibal crossed the Alps in 17 days, but that pales into insignificance compared with the 31 days of calm before the Bavarian blunder of yesterday blew the gasket on the Conservative party’s divisions over Europe.
It said in The Times today that quoting your own speeches is the first sign of political madness. On that basis, the Prime Minister is pretty far gone. I want to share with the House the full bouquet of the absurdity, apparently in all sobriety, of the Prime Minister’s statement yesterday. What he said, quoted on the front page of The Times today, was:
“That is what I said. I feel that there was a misinterpretation, which is why I woke up and read the newspapers and thought: ‘I will repeat what I said and make that very clear.’”
Well, that puts that one to bed, doesn’t it?
At Question Time today, I lost count of the number of times the Foreign Secretary started to answer a question by saying, “It’s very clear”. I have always had an enormous suspicion that when members of the Treasury Bench start their answer to a question by saying, “It’s very clear,” we can all be sure that it is pretty opaque. Opaque is exactly what the Prime Minister’s position is right now on collective responsibility.
As was said to the Foreign Secretary at Question Time, this is not the hypothetical question of whether the Prime Minister and the Government will recommend a yes or no vote, although most of us, if we could get a bet on that one, would be pretty certain of the outcome. This is the simple question of collective responsibility. When the decision is reached, whatever it may be, will it pertain to all members of the Government? Will collective responsibility apply?
The nation would like to hear a debate about the United Kingdom’s relationship with the EU; not these silly jibes. Will the right hon. Gentleman explain why his party is so keen to get powers back from London, but never wants any power back from Brussels?
I remember when John Major, as Prime Minister, ironically thanked the right hon. Gentleman for resigning from the Cabinet so that he could consolidate and secure his leadership of the Conservative party.
The SNP’s attitude is that we are a pro-European party. We believe that controlling 99% of our taxation revenue would be genuine independence, as opposed to the sum of 12% that we control at the moment or the 20% or so that we will control under the proposals that we debated yesterday. That is why we are proud to say, as are so many other countries, that we can be independent within the European Union. The idea that the right hon. Gentleman portrays—that a country cannot be independent in the European Union—is not widely shared across the continent. It might just be that the right hon. Gentleman and his friends are wrong in being out of step with all other Europeans, as opposed to him and his friends being correct about their idea of independence within the European construct.
The question of whether or not there will be collective responsibility in respect of the referendum is capable of being answered as a matter of principle. I hope that the Foreign Secretary or his colleague will address it in those terms when they wind up the debate this evening.
Will the right hon. Gentleman explain why the same arguments that were deployed by people like him to say that we should join the euro—thank goodness we did not—are now being used by people like him to say that we cannot possibly consider leaving the EU? Does that not underline that he is Braveheart in Scotland, but slaveheart in Brussels?
One wonders how long it took the hon. Gentleman, when he was lying in bed this morning, like the Prime Minister, working out how he would deploy that bon mot in the debate, to come up with that.
The hon. Gentleman mistakes me, incidentally. He should reflect on the speech that I made in this Chamber only last week. I am not one of those people who argues that the UK could not possibly be out of the European Union. In my speech last week, I warned against a parade of establishment figures talking down to people and saying, “You can’t do this. You can’t do that.” I am not one of the people who argues that case. The essence of my case for being in the European Union is a positive case about what Europe should be doing, not about what it should not be doing. I hope that at some point in this debate, we will get to the stage where what is said to be wrong with the European Union is not things like hard-working Polish people being able to repatriate their child benefit to Poland. There must be more to this country’s relationship with the rest of Europe than matters of such smallness.
I will move on to the essential nonsense of this referendum and why my party will oppose it in the Lobbies this evening. When someone proposes a referendum, it should be because they are proposing a significant constitutional change, whether it be the alternative vote, Scottish independence, Scottish devolution or Welsh devolution, and they are looking for democratic sanction—the sovereignty of the people—to back that change. That is not the position of the Prime Minister. Nobody seriously believes that he wants to take this country out of the European Union. The referendum is a tactic that is being deployed as a means of deflecting support from UKIP and as a sop to Back Benchers. Nobody believes that the Prime Minister wants to take the country out of the European Union.
The suspicion, which is already developing in this debate, is a result of that essential contradiction in the Government’s proposition. The suspicion is coming, incidentally, not just from the hardened Eurosceptics—or Europhobes, perhaps—from whom we have heard on the Government Benches, but even from the hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) and the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), who questioned why it looks as though the Government are trying to stack the deck in the referendum before the campaign has even begun. The questions about the campaign limits and the purdah period are coming not just from people who are opposed to the European Union, but from Members of great experience who are concerned that the Government are already moving to imbalance the referendum campaign.
Let me tell right hon. and hon. Members who do not share my view on Europe what exactly will happen if we go into the campaign and the polls start to close or perhaps the no side even moves ahead. We will find Sir Nicholas Macpherson parading things in front of Select Committees of this House; we will find civil servants compromising their impartiality; and we will find the Prime Minister suddenly making a promise, a commitment, a pledge or a vow, and saying that he has found some new policy initiative to turn the argument, in total defiance of any idea of a purdah period.
My advice—and it is free advice, honestly given—is that Members should lock things down in the Bill, otherwise all their worst fears will come into being. With great respect to the Foreign Secretary, they should not trust his bona fides in saying that he just wants a fair game and fair play. If we want to secure a proper and decent referendum and avoid the deck being stacked, we should lock it into the Bill through amendments.
We have detailed reasons for opposing the referendum in its current form. I say to the Labour party that I am surprised by its argument, “We lost an election, and we therefore have to change our policy”, as the acting Leader of the Opposition said just the other day. Does that apply to all the policies that Labour fought the election on, or just to the policy on the referendum?
I have to say, the right hon. Gentleman is doing absolutely nothing to reduce the reputation for self-satisfied smugness that preceded him before he was re-elected.
I speak as someone who has believed for well over a decade that we should have a referendum on our membership of the EU. If it was right for the Scottish people to have the referendums they wanted on establishing the Scottish Parliament and on Scottish independence, why is it not right for the vast majority of people elsewhere in the UK to have the referendum that they definitely want on Britain’s membership of the EU? Why should the right hon. Gentleman’s party troop through the Lobby to try to prevent that? Why should he deny people in Dudley their say on this issue?
Is it in order for the right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond) to say that that I was campaigning against a referendum just a few weeks ago, given that one of my local pledges was to support a referendum and I have been in favour of a referendum for well over a decade? If he knew anything about what I have ever said on the issue, he would know that.
You are correct, Mr Speaker, but the record will show that what I said was that the hon. Gentleman was campaigning on a manifesto. I did not realise that the Labour party had two manifestos, one for Dudley and one for the rest of the country. Perhaps in future elections it will accept the hon. Gentleman’s wisdom, and who knows, it might transform its political prospects if the Dudley manifesto becomes the UK manifesto.
With great respect to the hon. Gentleman, I was trying to point out that the argument that a party should change its position because it loses an election is being used selectively in the Labour party at the moment. Those of us who were in the House yesterday heard Labour’s spokesperson on Scotland put forward a position identical to the Labour party’s position before the election, yet Labour’s catastrophic result in Scotland makes its English result pale into insignificance. If the argument for the Labour party changing its position because it lost the election applies to a referendum on the European issue, why on earth is it not changing its position on the Scottish issue or many others on which it was soundly beaten? We will maintain our position against the referendum in the Lobby this evening.
In particular, we cannot see the argument against 16 and 17-year-olds being allowed to vote in the referendum. In an era when political engagement and turnout has been at its lowest ebb, the inclusion of that age bracket in the Scottish referendum contributed to its being one of the most exciting and engaging political debates of all time. I say to the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) that in fairness to the Prime Minister, I should record that he was not a deep enthusiast for 16 to 18-year-olds having the vote in Scotland. There was enabling legislation to allow the Scottish Parliament to go ahead with that.
Scotland now has a politicised population of 16 to 18-year-olds. Of course, the notion of education and engaging the young non-elite of the nation is a comparatively recent phenomenon in parts of these islands—we were doing it in Scotland some three centuries before it was applied around here. We have just sent one of the youngest MPs since the 17th century to this very Chamber from Scotland, and we are extremely proud of that.
Let us have a think about 16 to 18-year-olds in Scotland. Last September, they were voting in the Scottish referendum. This May, they were excluded from voting in the general election. Next May, they will be included in voting in the Scottish elections, and then they will be excluded again from voting in a European referendum. The right hon. Member for Leeds Central rather amusingly referred to the Conservative party’s hokey-cokey position on the referendum, but what about the in-out position of 16 to 18-year-olds in Scotland? Those people have demonstrated that they are much more wise and able to understand politics than when the Foreign Secretary was a callow youth and did not understand what he was voting on in 1975. They have demonstrated their ability to engage in these debates, and it would be deeply insulting to the young people of Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland to exclude them from the upcoming referendum.
I have a letter from a young constituent, Matthew Terras, who got to vote in the referendum and will be old enough to vote on Europe, but who speaks for the young people in his school. He points out that they feel “discarded” by being excluded from the Europe referendum. The referendum in Scotland has engaged our young people, and the Bill could be a chance for the House to engage young people across the UK. Matthew speaks up on behalf of his whole school, and I commend to the House thinking again about excluding young people from the referendum.
Both the Conservative and Labour parties have played into the Scottish National party’s hands on many occasions, but this issue is so important that I appeal to the Foreign Secretary not to play into our hands but to allow 16 and 17-year-olds to vote in the referendum.
Then there is the question of European citizens. Why should they not have a vote in this referendum? We allowed European citizens to vote in the Scottish referendum because our view of nationality has a civic basis. Unlike Conservative Members, with their narrow-minded nationalism and narrow view of people’s interests, we take a broad view of the matter. We believe in civic nationalism—we believe that if someone engages in a country, lives in a country, works in a country and pays tax in a country, they are entitled to vote on the future of the country.
We have a Member of the Scottish Parliament, Christian Allard, who is my MSP—the Member for North East Scotland. I go to Christian whenever I have a difficulty across the north-east of Scotland that requires resolution. He is a fine, distinguished Member of the Scottish Parliament, but he is to be denied a vote in the European referendum. He has been in Scotland for 25 years, contributing to our community. Why on earth should he be denied a vote?
The franchise to be used is not the general election franchise, because Members of the House of Lords are to be empowered to vote. I know that Conservative Members are frightfully worried about the idea of prisoners being accorded the right to vote because of the European convention, but there are six ex-prisoners in the House of Lords who will be enfranchised by the Foreign Secretary’s proposals. The Foreign Secretary says, “Of course Members of the House of Lords should be able to vote. However, this is an advisory, not a binding, referendum. The House of Lords will have its say on whether a proposal is enacted after the referendum.” However, the Government cannot say that it is to be a general election franchise and then start to change the franchise.
What about the position of other Europeans? It is not the case that all other European citizens are to be denied a vote in the referendum. Citizens of the Irish Republic will have a vote. So will citizens of Malta and Cyprus, because of the Commonwealth entitlement. How can it be argued that some European citizens should be able to vote but others should not? [Interruption.] The Foreign Secretary says it is simple: I suggest—and I say this with some experience of having to conduct a franchise that can be defended in the courts —that the argument that some European citizens but not others should be included will be extremely difficult to sustain if subjected to challenge in the courts. I warn him that he will not find it as easy as just saying to the House that it is obvious that some people should be given the vote and some should be denied it.
On the question of the double majority or quad lock, why should it be the case that Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland—or, for that matter, England—should be taken out of the European Union against the will of that nation? [Interruption.] From a sedentary position, the Foreign Secretary says that it is because we are a United Kingdom, but it was the Prime Minister who said only last September that the essence of the United Kingdom was that it was an equal partnership of nations. He said that we in Scotland should lead the United Kingdom: he did not say that we should leave Europe. Of course, it would be outrageous, disgraceful, undemocratic and unacceptable to drag Scotland out of the European Union against the wishes and will of the Scottish people.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. He is surely aware that the population of London, which is the powerhouse of our economy and dependent on relations with the European Union, is almost double that of Scotland. Using his argument, should not London have a separate say too?
I know that many people in the Labour party find the argument about the difference between a country and a county or city very difficult. I advise the hon. Gentleman that there are many routes to revival for the Labour party in Scotland, but suggesting that Scotland is not a nation, or is equivalent to a city or a county, is not one of the best avenues. All the four component nations of the United Kingdom should be treated with equal respect.
The subject of respect comes to the issue of whether the referendum might be held on the same day as the Scottish, Welsh and, possibly, the Northern Irish elections. I am sure that Ministers on the Treasury Bench will have heard the huge opposition to such a proposal from all those nations, but that does not come only from representatives of those countries or even of London. It also comes from the Electoral Commission, which—last December—not only said that was a bad idea, but gave clear advice to the Government. It said:
“Any government introducing legislation for future referendums, not only in Scotland but also those held across or in other parts of the UK, should also publish at the same time its assessment of the implications of holding other polls on the same day. This will enable legislatures (including the Scottish Parliament and the UK Parliament) to consider the relative benefits and risks of the proposal as they scrutinise the referendum Bill.”
So the Electoral Commission recommended that should be done “at the same time”. We are now discussing the Bill on the Referendum. I ask the Minister for Europe where the assessment is that the Electoral Commission called for in such unambiguous language.
May I take the right hon. Gentleman back a moment to his arguments about the franchise? Is he arguing that prisoners should be empowered to vote in the referendum? If they should be in the parliamentary franchise, which arguably—under the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights—they should, that might be an argument for their inclusion, but I noticed that, when he was First Minister in Scotland and the matter was being debated here, the silence of his Administration on the subject was deafening.
The silence was action. The Government that I led defended in court—I am surprised the right hon. and learned Gentleman did not follow the proceedings of the Scottish courts on the matter—an attempt to enfranchise prisoners in the Scottish referendum, and we were right to refuse that. I merely pointed out that ex-prisoners in the House of Lords will be enfranchised by the Government’s proposals while fine, upstanding European citizens who have never done a thing wrong in their lives, such as Christian Allard MSP, are to be denied a vote. I am truly surprised that someone with such a liberal reputation—the right hon. and learned Gentleman may be the last liberal in the House—should make such a point. Perhaps he is campaigning for some Select Committee and trying to garner support from the Tory Benches.
Before the right hon. and learned Gentleman attempted to distract me, I was making an important point about the clear injunction—to use an English term—from the Electoral Commission that if a Bill for a referendum left open the possibility of holding elections on the same day, an assessment should be published at the same time. That was what the Electoral Commission said last December. Ministers have said that they are considering that, so where is the assessment that the Electoral Commission required to be published? Where is the Government’s assessment of the pros and cons of holding an election on the same day? It would be unacceptable to the people of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to have the European referendum held on the same day as our national elections.
The Bill is badly based on nonsense and a contradiction. The Prime Minister, who is introducing the Bill—although he is not here with us today—does not actually want to withdraw from the European Union. Major constitutional referendums should be held on a proposition honestly held, whether for independence, devolution or proportional representation, and backed up by those proposing it. The Prime Minister proposes to hold the referendum as a political tactic, and that is the contradiction at the heart of the Bill. That is why there is so much suspicion already, not only among opponents of Europe but among proponents of Europe, and that is why the Bill should not be given a Second Reading later today.
I have to tell the right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond) that, though I enjoyed his speech very much, he has not persuaded me to support the SNP amendment tonight. That is not because I no longer have fundamental doubts about referendums. Like every politician of my generation, I prefer parliamentary democracy, but we are where we are and it is obvious that we will have a referendum. I probably will not vote in favour of the Bill tonight, but I shall do nothing to stop it going ahead in principle.
I would only warn my right hon. and hon. Friends that since Harold Wilson made the unwise decision to introduce the institution into our British constitution it has never yet been used to settle any question. The question of proportional representation, for example, is very much alive and kicking. The question of elected mayors does not seem to have been totally resolved by all the local referendums. The future of Scotland, and what I hope will be its continued relationship with the United Kingdom, has been enlivened, not quietened, by the result of the recent referendum. Now we are to have one on Europe again.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that politicians of conviction fight in referendums and accept that they have lost them, but they do not change their fundamental views. I do not believe that my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson) will become an enthusiastic Europhile if he is on the losing side of the referendum, and he will not be surprised to learn that I am likely to be found supporting the yes campaign, but I hope that the referendum campaign will be of the same extraordinarily high quality as the Scottish one, in which I took some small part. I have never known the population be so politicised or have such an intense debate. So far, I have been on the winning side in all the important referendums, and I hope that I will be so again after an interesting campaign.
I think that I have one over my right hon. and learned Friend in that I have been the president of a European trade association and he has not. He really must not muddle the idea of the European Union, which is a political and judicial organisation, and the European market, of which I am a most enthusiastic proponent.
My right hon. Friend appears to believe that we can somehow have all the advantages of the European Union and the market without complying with any of the obligations. I know of no trading bloc that allows anybody entry to its markets on the basis that they will decide whether to comply with its rules.
I approve of the form of words in the Bill for the question but I hope, as the campaign goes on and we all form all-party campaigns, it becomes crystal clear what the question actually means. It is not solely about the negotiations for reform. Personally, I completely concede that the European Union has a lot of defects and is ripe for reform, and I approve very strongly of some of the measures, particularly those in the Bloomberg speech, which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is pressing for—if he can achieve them. However, the yes vote involves a decision on the future role of the United Kingdom in the modern world: how we are best able to further the interests of our citizens, defend our security, develop our economy and bring prosperity. That is the big question.
I will not, because we are under a time limit and other people want to speak. I apologise to my hon. Friend. He and I have debated this frequently.
We are 1% of the world’s population and we represent 3% of the world’s GDP. As a proportion, we are declining yet further. On the question of being in the European Union, we need to get across to people that our effective voice in the world, insofar as we have one, is best deployed as a leading and influential player in the European Union. There will be less interest taken in British views by the United States, Russia, China, India and other emerging powers if we go into splendid isolation. As I have already said, the idea that we can somehow advance our future prosperity by withdrawing from the biggest organised trading bloc in the world, while at the same time, as a Conservative party, advocating wider free trade wherever it can be obtained, is an absurdity.
That leads me to the other argument: what does “out” mean and what does a no vote mean? I look forward to my Eurosceptic friends providing an answer to that, because Eurosceptics have always given different answers. My former hon. Friend who is now in the UK Independence party, the hon. Member for Clacton (Mr Carswell), has a quite different view of what a no vote means compared with some of my no voting colleagues on the Government Back Benches. Does it mean the Norwegian option? Do we stay in the trading area? That would mean we pay a large subscription, accept free movement of labour—Norway has a higher proportion of other EU nationals compared with Norwegians than we have compared with Brits—and comply with all the legislation, rules and regulations of the single market without having any say in them.
Do we go further than that and have the Swiss model? The Swiss model means we would have some access to the single market. However, in those areas we would have to comply with all the laws and rules that would be directly applied and have no influence on what they are.
I cannot as there is a time limit.
The Swiss do not have access to large parts of the market, although I would add that they accepted the free movement of labour. They have no access to European financial services, or any other services. Swiss banks are providing investment and employment in the City of London because Switzerland is excluded from the extremely valuable part of our financial services industry, on which a lot of our prosperity depends. Normally, I find that Eurosceptics do not address that.
Do Eurosceptics wish to go into the wide blue yonder and leave the trade area altogether? That would involve tariffs. That would involve 10% tariffs on vehicle exports to Europe. I doubt whether my hon. Friends are advocating that we should cease to have any access to the market at all. We need to be absolutely clear that the Eurosceptic case is usually that we are so important to Europe that the other countries, if we negotiate strongly enough, will allow us to keep the benefits of membership and give way on the obligations.
As I have said, there are some things that we ought to negotiate. However, we should be wary of getting too carried away by freedom of movement of labour, which is desirable in a trading area. It is a benefit to all members, including the United Kingdom. We should, of course, stop benefit tourism. Benefit tourists are unwise if they come here, because benefits are more generous in Germany, Sweden and in many other places. No doubt they will agree with us on clarifying the exclusion of benefit tourism.
What we need to bear in mind about seeking to go further is that 2.2 million British people are living and working in the rest of the European Union, and about 2.5 million EU citizens are living and working here. If we are going to demand treaty change to permit us to discriminate against European foreign nationals—not other foreign nationals, but European foreign nationals—in our employment laws, our tax system or our benefit system, are they going to forgo doing the same thing to British residents in other countries? There are more British people drawing unemployment benefit in Germany than there are Germans drawing unemployment benefit here. I think that an Englishman working alongside a Frenchman in an international company in France should, if he is doing the same job, have the same take-home pay. I find it difficult to argue why an Englishman and a Polish person working alongside each other doing the same job in Britain should not have the same pay either. Freedom of movement of labour benefits us.
Eurosceptics love to demand treaty change. They do that because they know it is not possible to get treaty change to a complicated 28 nation state treaty before 2017. It takes five or six years. We can have legally binding protocols on particular matters, which has been resorted to, and I am sure ingenuity in the Foreign Office and in the corridors of Europe will produce legally binding protocols for anything we produce. To make a touchstone of treaty change, when there are 27 other Governments who will follow our lead in the process and all start demanding things, is not worth pursuing.
The key issue is to have a campaign, as well as a question, that is absolutely clear. This is about Britain’s role in the modern 21st-century world of interdependent nations. How do we maximise our influence? By using our powerbase in Europe. The alternative, I am afraid, is a fanciful escapist route into isolated nationalism which would greatly diminish our influence in the world and greatly damage our economy.
It is a pleasure to follow my constituent and fellow diner at the wonderful Kennington Tandoori in Vauxhall, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), although he knows I do not agree with very much of what he said.
Today I am here to speak on this particular Bill. I agree with the right hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson) when he said that this is a good day. This is a great day for democracy. Having sat through and spoken in two referendum debates, I am feeling great today, because I am actually going to be with the majority of my party. A small number of very good members of my party, including my hon. Friends the Members for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) and for Dudley North (Ian Austin), argued strongly that support for the right of the British people to decide our future relationship with the EU should have been in our manifesto. If my party had done that, perhaps the election result might have been slightly different. I am very pleased that those on my Front Bench are supporting the Bill on Second Reading. This is a very important day for the British public.
I want to talk about a few aspects of the Bill. The most important thing about this referendum Bill, when it finally leaves this Parliament, is that it gives every single British person, in all of the United Kingdom, the clear feeling, understanding and belief that the referendum will be free and fair—that it is really going to be an opportunity for their views to be heard, and that the vote will mean that they have really been listened to. My concern is that some elements of the Bill could mean that in the end, with the result, they will feel they have not had a free and fair vote.
The first such element has already been alluded to, and I strongly support those on both sides of the House who believe that the purdah aspect is just wrong. I do not believe it proves to the British people that the Government want a free and fair vote. We have to change the purdah situation in the Bill. Any common-sense view would be that it cannot be right to change the purdah restrictions.
No, not at the moment, thank you.
So, the question of purdah is really important.
The second issue is one where I am not in line with some members of my party. Although there is a real debate to be had about votes for 16 to 18 year olds, I do not think that introducing them at a referendum is the right time. If we are going to change our constitution on the right to vote and bring the voting age down, we must ensure it is seriously thought through and cannot just be brought in glibly for a referendum. It should be discussed in this Parliament and a decision should be taken for the next general election, but the referendum is too early for it, so I am not in favour of changing the voting system. I support the Bill on that point and absolutely on the non-rights of EU citizens, other than those who are mentioned, to be able to vote. It would not make any sense at all, and would alienate millions of British citizens.
No, thank you.
So, I am very clear on that question, too, and glad that my party also supports it.
On the wording of the question, the Scottish Nationalist Member who spoke earlier, the right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond), talked about the Electoral Commission. We seem to want the Electoral Commission when we support what it says, then, when we do not support what it says, we do not. On the question, the Commission was very clear. It said that a fairer wording would be:
“Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”
That is very simple, very clear—and not seen as in any way biased. If that were the wording, people would have a vote either to leave or to remain. That has to be looked at, and I know the Commission is continuing to do so. I hope it is one of the provisions that is changed in the Bill.
I tried to intervene on the Foreign Secretary, because I am concerned about funding and about the money for the two campaigns that ultimately will be formed. How do we ensure that the biggest funder of all—the European Union and the European Commission itself—is absolutely clear about what it can and cannot fund? We already know that many of our institutions in this country, including the BBC, get huge amounts of European Union money. It will be absolutely disgraceful if the European Commission is allowed to continue to pour in money which is used for propaganda—that is certainly how it will be seen during the referendum campaign—in our schools and our educational institutions generally. That is a really important issue, and I hope that both Front Benchers cover it when they make their winding-up speeches, because it has not been covered anywhere.
I am very grateful. The hon. Lady raises the spectre of the European Commission intervening. Is she worried that the European Parliament might produce reports prior to the referendum which are extremely biased, as the Westminster Parliament did prior to the Scottish referendum? Might José Manuel Barroso turn up on the “Andrew Marr Show” making ex cathedra statements on behalf of one side of the referendum? Do those types of things worry the hon. Lady?
If I can decipher that, I know the European Parliament does not actually have that much power; I am much more concerned about the unelected Commission, which has the money and spends our money after we have given it to the EU, in the way that it decides is best. I am very concerned about that and I hope it will be looked at.
I do not want to go into the arguments now, because I want to see the referendum campaign get out to the grassroots of the whole country, and to see the kind of campaign that we saw in Scotland on an issue where there were genuinely held opinions and great campaigns. I look back at some of the images from the campaigns in the 1975 referendum. We saw political leaders—including one of my great mentors and a person whom I am very fond of, Peter Shore—and some wonderful debates, all around the country. We have to have that and ensure that everybody feels they are involved. I hope that my party will allow a completely free vote, including for shadow Ministers and other Members, so that everyone has their own say. This campaign is not about politicians or Members of Parliament; it is about the British people, who for all that time have felt ignored and not listened to, and who have seen the European Union change radically since the day in 1975 when many voted to stay in the European Community.
I want to say one other thing: can we please distinguish —the BBC and the media have to distinguish—between people who say they are anti-EU and being anti-Europe? The two things are completely different. It is so annoying to hear supposedly educated journalists, who are supposed experts on this issue, talking all the time about Europe and saying, “So, you’re anti-Europe?” No, I am not anti-Europe. I am anti the unelected, absolute dictatorship that we have from the European Union. That is not being anti-Europe, and we have to distinguish between the two. That is important.
I want to get in one other thing in the last 30 seconds available to me. I have said this so many times to the Prime Minister that I am sure he is fed up hearing it, but it should be conveyed to him. Could he—and my shadow Front Benchers—please stop talking about “Britain”? “Britain” excludes Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, and its people will have a hugely important say in the referendum. We must talk about the United Kingdom. It is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. And on that note, I say, “Support this referendum.”
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Lady, who speaks for Vauxhall. I agree with almost every word she said. I have been sitting next to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), and, although he is a much-revered Member and a man I have known for a long time, I am afraid I cannot agree with his remarks on this occasion.
I am very pleased to support and welcome the Second Reading of this Bill. For almost my entire adult life, Europe seems to have dominated the debate: whether it has been de Gaulle’s efforts to keep us out—in some ways it is a shame they did not succeed; the referendum, in which I voted yes originally; or indeed the negotiations on the Maastricht treaty. That was an exhausting process and, as a signatory with many colleagues to the “fresh start” early-day motion, one that is seared on my memory of my first term in the House.
I welcome this opportunity to clarify our relationship with the other 27 members of the EU, to recalibrate it and then to put it to the people of this country in a vote. It is quite right that we should re-examine that relationship, not least because, at a time when we are tightening the purse strings to pay off this country’s overdraft, we should look at the money we pay in subscription to that expensive club, which was about £9.8 billion on the most recent examination. To get a perspective on that, I was looking at what we contribute to the UN regular budget and to the UN peacekeeping budget, and they amount to £85 million and £301 million. I welcome the fact that the Government have got the review of the balance of competences, which has given us the necessary audit information to move forward, and I hope that the Chancellor and the Prime Minister can produce the reforms that this country and the institution of Europe need to make that institution and our membership fit for purpose. After all, 200 million more people have joined the EU since we signed up to membership of that club.
I have some concerns not just about the Bill but about what might happen. I am worried that this debate will dominate our political landscape for the next two years. It must not override and interfere with our domestic agenda so ably set out in the winning manifesto that took us to election victory, and neither should it be used to split our party, as it has done in the past; there has always been a range of opinions about the EU in our party. We should have an objective negotiation and a plan of action set out by the Government, and then I hope that the leadership will allow individual MPs to promote their views without fear or favour, no matter their rank within or without government.
The timing will be crucial. I urge the Government to lay out more clearly their thinking about timetabling. My experience with the Welsh referendum was that the Welsh Government were determined not to have the referendum at the same time as the elections for the Welsh Assembly. I hear what SNP Members are saying, and I believe that there are some valid arguments to be deployed. In fact, I believe that the referendum is so important that perhaps it should be a stand-alone referendum. I hope that the Government will listen to the views laid out by others with whom I do not agree with politically in any way, shape or form, but with whom I am willing to make common cause when I think they are being sensible.
I hope that the Government will resist the call for the triple lock, quadruple lock—or whatever we are going to call it now. I asked the House of Commons Library to look at the disaggregation by UK constituent nation of the EU budget contributions and receipts. My right hon. Friend the Minister will be interested to know that it clearly shows that although the average cost across the UK in the last year for which figures were available was £48 per head, when that is disaggregated, we see that the real burden falls on England. The cost of membership is £72 per capita in England, whereas in Scotland, it is a mere £2; in Wales minus £74; and in Northern Ireland minus £160. So the devolved nations, which are effectively featherbedded against the real cost of membership, should not be allowed to slant the results of any referendum by demanding an individual country lock on any result.
I will not go into featherbedding and 30 years of oil revenues, but I do wonder where this argument is taking the right hon. Lady. If she believes the referendum should be based on financial contribution, by extension her argument would mean that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland should not get a vote at all. Is she aware that 3.5% of the population, or 13 states, of the United States of America can block a constitutional amendment there?
This is not the United States of America, and the people of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have a vote as members of the UK—and long may they remain so.
We will need clear and straightforward messages, because, as is obvious from the debate so far, there will be myriad voices in the referendum campaign, and the options will not be easy for the man in the street to understand. However, I share the concerns of my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson) about the purdah. When I was Secretary of State for Wales, I ran a successful referendum on more devolution of powers to Wales, but I remained strictly neutral, because I thought that that was the right way to behave, and indeed it was a successful referendum and nobody felt that I had slanted it from my position as Secretary of State.
It is also important that the necessary intricacies of article 50 of the treaty on European Union be spelt out to people. On both sides of the argument, we need to know what would govern the processes and negotiations of unilateral withdrawal. However, the terms of engagement in and around the referendum period with other European institutions must also be made clear. For example, do the Front-Bench team know what plans any of the devolved Governments within the UK have for spending money on this referendum, or indeed what plans the European Commission or other European institutions have? I think we might find money being spent from other directions that will slant the results of the referendum.
I do not share the views of the right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond) on the franchise for 16-year-olds. I was at a school in my constituency when I expressed that opinion, and I thought I would be out of kilter with what they thought, but—surprisingly—many of those young people told me they would not be confident about making the decisions necessary in a general election or referendum campaign. I would, therefore, like the franchise to remain as it is.
We have been a member of the EU for many years, but for the past couple of decades it has been clear that the British public have fallen out of love with it. It is also clear, however, that we cannot stop being European—and nor do many want to stop. I hear from people that they want to reverse the feeling of impotence that has developed over the increasingly centralised European decision-making process. Specifically, they want a fair deal in Europe without disproportionate and disadvantaging regulatory costs. At a time when we are heralding devolution so widely at home, we need to see this principle applied firmly to our EU relationship.
The Bill is about an internal process and, as such, does not constitute the real substance of this debate, but before we can get on with putting our renegotiated position into a shop window for people to examine, we need to pass the Bill so that people know that the process will be fair and not loaded in favour of our remaining in an institution that has seemed to load so many processes in its own favour over recent years.
As someone who has been involved in campaigning for a referendum on this subject for many years—alongside colleagues from both sides of the House—it gives me great pleasure to speak in this Second Reading debate. As others have said, it is indeed a great day for this country.
We are all conscious of the astonishing flip-flopping, reversals and clarifications that have accompanied the Bill, although we have to accept that it is right for the Labour party, the Lib Dems and others to change their minds about it—or at any rate for the people to have changed their minds for them. I very much welcome their change of mind.
The Democratic Unionist party has been a strong and consistent defender of the people’s right to have their say on our relationship with the EU. Speaking for the only party that has been consistent and united on this matter in the House during the last Parliament and beyond—the only party that has consistently called for a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU, dating all the way back to the troubles over Maastricht—I am glad that it is almost upon us. Our long-held position has been vindicated. No one can seriously argue or reasonably maintain that the people should any longer be denied the right to express their democratic will on this subject.
We need to settle this matter for a generation, and whatever the result we will respect the will of the people of the United Kingdom, but that will does need to be expressed. Unfortunately, successive Government back-tracking and broken promises have been the hallmark of efforts to deny the people of the UK a referendum. Labour refused to give a referendum on the Lisbon treaty, and in 2010 the cast-iron guarantee given by the Prime Minister was not delivered on. As I said, therefore, it is long past time the British people had their voice heard. That was clear as we went round knocking on doors during the general election. No one under the age of 57 in the United Kingdom has had any say on our relationship with the European Union apart from politicians and diplomats. The impact of the EU is vast, but the ordinary people feel that they have not given any authority for the decisions to be made by people they do not elect.
I do not want to stray into discussing the merits or otherwise of the UK’s membership of the EU today. The Bill before us is about how the people will decide on that matter, so it is to the Bill that we must address ourselves. Unfortunately, there are already a number of grave defects looming. Let us take the timing of the referendum. With polls as important as the three devolved contests and the Greater London Authority elections in the offing, in our view there can be no question of the EU referendum being held on the same day. Yet far from there being a commitment on that, the Bill specifically allows for that possibility. I can envisage no circumstances in which my party would support the EU referendum being held either before the devolved polls or on the same day as any other ballot.
I hope that other Opposition parties, in their haste to abandon previous opposition to the referendum, do not neglect their duty on that front. I am reassured to some extent by what has been said on the Opposition Front Bench today, because to allow the vote to go ahead on the same day as those polls, contrary to the advice of the Electoral Commission and others, would taint the referendum at source, and that would fail utterly to give the clarity on this issue that we all want.
There are other matters that are disguised to make them look technical, but which are so wrong and so misplaced that they also risk vitiating the very point of this Bill: settling the matter of our membership of the EU one way or another. There is no point in the Government unduly influencing the referendum, because that will simply land them another one, and sooner than they think. If the people believe that the referendum is not fairly held and if they are not allowed fairly to have their say, the demand will grow soon afterwards for another say on this issue. Let us take the spending caps. Why on earth are the Government contemplating a regime that could allow one side to so significantly outspend the other? Why not simply provide an equal spending cap? Why are foreign companies with offices registered in the UK suddenly allowed to participate in the poll? Does the Minister not see what polluting the poll at source will risk doing to its outcome?
Then we have the wording of the question, as chosen by the Government. We on these Benches have no fear of saying no. It is a proud and honourable tradition; it is one, moreover, that has had very little harmful effect on the result of referendums, certainly if we look at what happens in other Westminster-model countries. Our phrase during the Belfast agreement referendum was “It’s right to say no”, and sometimes it is. As a result of that, we have delivered a much better way forward. The question could be “Leave or stay?” or “Remain or depart?”, or any other formula along those lines. Ignoring the clear advice of the Electoral Commission against a bald “Yes or no?” question is wrong in our opinion, and the Government’s behaviour in getting the question in the Bill over the line this evening has been discouraging.
I cannot help but agree with those Members who have already publicly voiced their scepticism about why the Government do not intend to observe purdah over the referendum or why they will not provide in the legislation for a requirement on the European Commission or its many arm’s length satellites to observe it here likewise.
There will have to be changes to the Bill in Committee if it is going to be acceptable, certainly to us. This is not yet the place to criticise the specifics of the Prime Minister’s negotiations, whatever they turn out to be. We on these Benches wish him well in his attempts to renegotiate our relationship with Europe. We wish him well in conveying to European leaders the frustration and strong feeling across the United Kingdom on this issue. We support him in his attempts to re-evaluate and reform our relations with Europe, and I hope he succeeds.
The right hon. Gentleman has been a voice of consistency and reason on this issue for a long time. Will he look sympathetically at any amendment that seeks to enshrine in the Bill that period of purdah, which he recognises is a prerequisite for a free and fair referendum?
Yes, we certainly will. I detect across both sides of the House a desire to come together on some of the changes that have been referred to, such as purdah and the timing of the referendum date. I think there is room for people of goodwill to get together to ensure that we have a fair referendum that fairly addresses the concerns of the people, and that the decision made is reached on a fair basis.
In our view, the Prime Minister must deliver real and tangible changes to the European project and address the concerns that the people of the United Kingdom have with an ever-encroaching Europe, based on ever- closer political union. He must deliver substantial change in those areas that most concern people, including the issue of those coming to this country from other parts of the European Union. The previous speaker, the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan), talked about areas such as Northern Ireland, Scotland and so on being featherbedded. When we have the debate, we will be able to show that the fishermen of County Down in Northern Ireland do not regard themselves as featherbedded. They have been put out of their work and their traditional activities by the EU. Given the extent of our contribution to the EU budget—far more than we get out—they will not recognise themselves as featherbedded.
I have to conclude because I do not have very much time left.
We will stand by our long-held principle that the people of the United Kingdom have too long been denied their democratic right. The case for a referendum is overwhelming, and I am glad it is now supported overwhelmingly in this House, but it is time, when we come to the vote, that we have a real choice. It must be one that is based on the Prime Minister delivering real, substantial change, if he is to have any chance of winning the referendum.
This referendum Bill, which I in principle strongly applaud, is the culmination of over 20 years of campaigning, which commenced with the Maastricht referendum campaign in 1993. I congratulate the Prime Minister on carrying out his commitment, which disproves the allegations and claims made not only by our opponents but even by some of his friends. The reason for the Bill was that he listened. He listened to Back-Bench opinion, and in particular to the amendment that we put forward resulting in 81 colleagues voting for a referendum on the EU issue on 24 October 2011. I urge him to listen again now and ensure that this referendum is fair in its procedures, in its governmental and EU involvement, and in the impartiality of the broadcasting authorities. I also ask him to properly address the question of fundamental change in our relationship with the EU, as I mentioned in my intervention on the Foreign Secretary.
It was Churchill who said:
“Why be afraid to tell the British public the truth?”—[Official Report, 18 July 1946; Vol. 425, c. 1451.]
That is what we have tried to do since those Maastricht days. When I am under attack not only by Nigel Farage but by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), which I was recently, I know I must have got something right. Since Maastricht, we have moved the terms of trade on all essentials in respect of the historic question of “Who governs this country and how?”, which in one form or another has recurred throughout the centuries—about every 50 years from time immemorial. This decision will now lie with the voters, but for it to be conclusive, it must be a fair referendum.
I now turn to what the Prime Minister clearly stated on 23 March, in the full knowledge that it would be part of the general election. In the last week of the last Parliament, he said:
“we have the opportunity to reform the EU and fundamentally change Britain’s relationship with it.”
He then referred to the referendum and added:
“If I am Prime Minister, that is what I will do.”—[Official Report, 23 March 2015; Vol. 594, c. 1122.]
I referred to this in the meeting of the 1922 committee immediately after the general election.
May I take up the hon. Gentleman’s point about the need for a fair campaign on the referendum? It is very important for there to be a balance of voices, representing both sides, in the broadcasting media in particular. Does he agree that for too long the BBC has tended to see the issue of the European Union as purely a Conservative party matter, although people on the left as well as the right take sceptical views?
I entirely agree. The European Scrutiny Committee was unanimous in its report, which was severely critical of the BBC’s failure to be sufficiently impartial in relation to European matters. There will be further discussion of that issue as we continue to debate the Bill.
At the 1922 committee meeting, I made it clear that we would engage not in wilful opposition but in a process of mutual respect and debate. In plain English, what the Prime Minister said on 23 March boils down to the following. He said that he wanted to change the basic principles by which the United Kingdom is connected to the European Union. He carefully distinguished between “fundamental change” in our relationship and mere reform of it. Reform may include some treaty change to include issues relating to benefits and so forth, but they pale into insignificance by comparison with the Prime Minister’s own assertion that he wants “fundamental change” in our relationship with the EU.
In its report on referendums, the House of Lords Constitution Committee made it clear that a referendum would be primarily necessary in the event of a proposition that we leave the European Union, as opposed to mere nibbling at the treaties. I have said repeatedly for years that if we do not achieve this fundamental change, we will have to leave the European Union. That becomes essential if we are to govern ourselves in line with the wishes of the voters in general elections. In his Bloomberg speech, the Prime Minister said:
“It is national parliaments which are, and will remain, the true source of real democratic legitimacy and accountability in the EU.”
Nothing is more important than that when it comes to the government of our country and its freedom.
Other member states may seek to block this action, but they do so at their own peril. They need us politically and economically, and they repeatedly say that they want us to remain in the EU; but then the handouts, the bail-outs, the subsidies and the ideology of political union get in the way. We have positive alternatives to the European Union. Our democracy and our national Parliament are what people fought and died for in two world wars, and it was through their sacrifice that we saved Europe in those two wars. It is not in the interests of Germany, Europe or ourselves for us to remain in the second tier of a two-tier Europe dominated and profoundly affected by a de facto eurozone, which is in reality at the epicentre of the legal framework of the European Union itself, in which we have been embedded by successive treaties and which does not work.
That is the most fundamental point that must be addressed by those who want us to remain in the EU on the present terms. For 20 or 30 years we have had a dysfunctional relationship with the European Union because we do not want to be in political or monetary union, and do not want to be absorbed into something that looks more and more like a state. If those people cannot answer the question how we can be at the heart of this Union on a completely different basis, we will indeed end up as a second-tier member state of an increasingly centralised European Union.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right.
Removing the words “ever-closer union”—which have never been specifically adjudicated on by the European Court of Justice, and merely form part of the preamble to the treaties—will not solve the problem. It does not change the legal obligations of the accumulated treaties, from Maastricht to Lisbon. Notwithstanding their protestations, it will not be the establishment, the EU, the BBC or the self-appointed multinationals with vested interests who will decide these matters. None of those multinationals has advanced a rational argument to support their determination to stay in the EU. That is my response to what was said by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe, who asked the same question of us from the other side of the argument. They were hopelessly wrong about the euro, and have been hopelessly wrong about so many aspects of European debate.
It is the voters who will give their verdict by the end of 2017. It is the voters, and the voters alone, who will decide it, not the massed ranks of the Europhiles. The rolling back of the treaties is imperative to our national interest. Indeed, the 1971 White Paper, on which the European Communities Act 1972 is still founded, clearly stated that we must keep the veto precisely because it was in our national interest to do so. It went on to say that to do otherwise would
“imperil the very fabric of the Community.”
I look at my right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe because he knows that he supported that at the time, in 1971.
My hon. Friend is quite right. In 1971 we had unanimity when making European laws, but once made, they were directly binding. It is the second issue that my hon. Friend is trying to reopen. In the Lisbon treaty, we went for weighted majority voting, because, with 28 member states, giving every Government the right to block any proposal would prevent any decisions from being made.
It was for precisely to deal with that problem that I set up the Maastricht referendum campaign. My right hon. and learned Friend and others have persistently and continuously opposed a referendum, because they have not wanted these matters to be reopened. However, they have been reopened by virtue of this Bill.
I was concerned to hear the Foreign Secretary say on Sunday that the unilateral repeal of EU legislation at Westminster was unachievable, and would lead to our leaving the EU. Of course, the second part of that proposition is inherent in the referendum itself; the voters will decide. The Foreign Secretary invoked the analogy of the yellow card, which has been a dismal failure. When it was applied in relation to the the European Public Prosecutor, the Commission simply ignored the result.
During the Maastricht debates, we were told by the then Foreign Secretary that the Maastricht Treaty was the
“high water mark of federalism”.
That was patent nonsense, as has been demonstrated by so much of the Europhilic commentary that has poured out in a relentless tide of enthusiasm for European integration, and which has engulfed the United Kingdom and Europe as a whole, causing protests, riots and massive unemployment. It will drag Europe down, and will create the very instability that the project after 1945 was intended to avoid.
We need amendments to this Bill, relating to matters such as the purdah arrangements, the question of prohibiting European or governmental money, the question of the impartiality of the broadcasting authorities, the level of expenses, the timing and also, perhaps, the question in the referendum. According to recent opinion polls, trust among the European voters is at an all-time low, and that trust is what lies at the heart of the whole debate. In the words of Lord Randolph Churchill, we must trust the people.
Thank you for calling me, Mr Deputy Speaker. I understand that during my maiden speech I am unlikely to be interrupted. That is good to know, as it is an experience that I have not had since my children learned to talk.
It is a privilege to follow such a long-serving and formidable parliamentarian as the hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash).
I want to pay tribute to my predecessor, Andrew Miller, who served the constituency with distinction for 23 years. In his five years as Chair of the Science and Technology Committee, he commanded the respect of the whole House for his diligent, thorough and fair stewardship, just as he was respected in Ellesmere Port and Neston for his commitment to representing its people. I am personally grateful for all the help and advice that he has given me over the years.
The constituency is largely based on the footprint of the old Ellesmere Port and Neston Borough Council, on which I served for 11 years. It contains rural villages such as Elton, Willaston, Childer Thornton, Burton and Mickle Trafford—and, most notably, Neston, with its thriving market and natural beauty at Ness Gardens. However, the constituency is a largely urban area centred on Ellesmere Port and Little and Great Sutton. There is some major industry: Vauxhall and Essar, although sadly they employ a fraction of the number of people they employed 30 years ago, are still of critical importance.
The borough council’s achievements in diversifying the employment base mark it out for special note. Under the leadership of Fred Venables and Reg Chrimes, great efforts were made to tackle the ravages of unemployment during the 1980s, and decisions that were made then still benefit the constituency today. I subsequently served on the successor unitary authority, Cheshire West and Chester, where I was fortunate enough to work with another stalwart, Councillor Derek Bateman. All three of those men, whose combined time in office was 151 years, were the kind of community leaders who have been the backbone of public service. I for one will always remember the valuable lessons they taught me about respect, loyalty and basic decency—qualities that are too often forgotten in modern politics.
The constituency has historically benefited from investment from the EU and only last year Ellesmere Port was granted assisted area status, which will help accelerate growth. That status lasts until the end of the decade so is a very direct example of what my constituency could lose if we leave the EU.
Existing major employers who strategically invest on a Europe-wide basis will be looking at their plans and asking themselves whether they really want to take the risk and invest in a country whose future is unknown. We are in a very competitive world and we can be sure that major employers such as Vauxhall and Airbus, who between them employ thousands of people in my constituency but also have factories throughout Europe, will be having those other factories pointing out at every opportunity the certainty that they offer. I welcome the opportunity for the country to have its say, but let us have a swift decision and give everyone certainty for the future.
It is not just the investment that is at risk, but also hard-won employment rights enshrined in the social chapter. Do we really want to go back to a time when we had no right to paid holidays, no right to rest breaks, no limits on a safe working week? That would be a return to the dark ages. I saw first-hand as an employment lawyer the importance of those rights in a system that offers no job security. I have met too many people who have given half their lives to an employer, offering loyalty and fidelity, only to find themselves discarded at the stroke of a pen by someone based in an office halfway around the world.
Insecurity at work in all its forms is one of the most insidious facets of modern life. People not knowing whether they will be able to put food on their family’s table at the end of the day and having the spectre of unemployment looming over them can be debilitating, destructive and deeply damaging not just for the individual but for their whole family.
Social justice includes workplace justice and the system as it currently stands does not deliver justice, but even access to that flawed system is denied to thousands of people every year. An 80% drop in employment tribunal claims since fees were introduced should be considered not a mark of success, but a mark of shame, for even the most begrudging would have to concede that some of those 80% have been denied justice and that poor employment practice has won.
I recall speaking to five women who had all worked in the same shop over a few months. All had been denied their pay for periods ranging from between one and six weeks, but not one of them could afford to proceed with an employment tribunal claim. Our rights are only as good as our ability to exercise them, and I do hope a serious appraisal of the fee system takes place as a matter of urgency.
We also need to look at the many ruses and mechanisms used to stop effective workplace protection—be it bogus self-employment, zero-hour contracts or the fact that people have to work somewhere for two years before they get any kind of basic statutory protection. Too many people feel a sense of vulnerability and inevitability about their job and the challenge for us is to value the quality and security of work as much as the creation of the job itself.
So I intend to spend my time here standing up for the people of Ellesmere Port and Neston, but also fighting for a fairer and more secure workplace for everyone in the country.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) on making such a good maiden speech. He will clearly be a strong and eloquent voice for his constituency and he is very welcome in this House.
I rise to speak in favour of this Bill, and I do so as one who believes that it is significantly in Britain’s interests to remain a member of the European Union, and that it will be even more in our interests as a result of the reforms the Prime Minister has now started negotiating.
I have huge respect and admiration for the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), but she said she objects to being called anti-European, which is fair enough, yet she then went on to describe the European Union as a dictatorship. It is a collection of democracies who come together in their mutual interest. Each of those countries is a democracy and to describe the institution as a dictatorship is an inflation of language of the type she disapproves of when she is accused of being anti-European. I do not think that is how the debate should be conducted.
Our Government are represented in the Council of Ministers and the Parliament; that is the democratic check. It can of course be improved—nobody is saying that the EU is perfect—but there are many institutions that need improving. Indeed, Parliament needs improving, but that does not mean we should give up on the many and manifold advantages of parliamentary democracy. That is the attitude with which we should approach the EU.
I am also in favour of the Bill because I am happy to take on in friendly public debate those who want to cut our close ties with friendly neighbouring democracies, and because I believe it is appropriate to have this debate now. The subject of Europe is a curious one in British politics. For a small number of people—some of whom have spoken today—it is an all-consuming passion. For the vast majority of the British people, however, it rarely features in the top 10 things they want Governments to get to grips with.
I will be happy to play a part in persuading the British people that the risks of turning our back on our democratic neighbours massively outweigh the benefits, but I will do this in the spirit of removing a cloud that has hung over politics for too long. Having the in/out debate always hovering around adds an unnecessary level of uncertainty to our national debate on many subjects, and it leaves the rest of the world, particularly our friends, unsure about Britain’s view of its own place in the world.
It has been clear for some time that we are going to need a referendum to clear up this uncertainty. It has been 40 years since the last one. The world has changed, the UK has changed, the European Union has changed. So let’s get on with it. Let us focus the British people’s minds on the choice before us, and see what they say.
I am glad my right hon. Friend has chosen to give way; my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) did not, so I am going to ask the same question. Does my right hon. Friend agree with the Prime Minister when he says that he wants not only reform but a fundamental change in our relationship with the EU?
I will talk about the change in the relationship in a few seconds, but first I want to turn to the Bill itself.
The Government are to be commended on passing the first and most important test in any referendum, which is that it asks a sensible and fair question. Asking whether we want to remain in the EU makes it clear that we are not starting with a blank sheet, but that we have an existing web of relationships, rules, and habits that would be put at risk by a no vote in the referendum.
Those who are most vocal in pointing this out are British businesses. They make the point that for the vast majority of our businesses the EU is not a straitjacket; it is a springboard to the opportunities provided by the global economy. This is as true for small businesses as it is for big ones.
The most recent CBI survey was interesting. It often says that eight out of 10 CBI members support our continued membership, and those who are against membership say it is just the voice of big business. However, if we drill down into that finding we discover that 77% of small and medium-sized businesses said that they support the UK’s continued membership of the EU. All of us on both sides of the House who recognise the importance of small businesses for prosperity, entrepreneurship and job creation should listen to their voices. People often complain that politicians do not listen.
I am sorry, but I am running out of time.
Those who argue that we should pull out of the EU need to set out what Britain would look like—what our economy and country would look like—in their alternative, because there are many alternatives.
Many Members have used the word “historic” in this debate. I claim another historic point in that I think my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), who made the case for our continued membership as passionately and eloquently as he always does, slightly understated his case at one point. He was talking about the undesirability of Norway’s situation, but there was one point he did not add, which is that Norway, not a member of the European Union, of course needs to have access to the single market and, in paying for that access, it is the 10th largest contributor to the EU budget. It has all the alleged disadvantages and none of the advantages of membership. That is a model that the British people would certainly not wish to follow.
I am sorry, I have had my two interventions.
The other option is that of Switzerland. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe also mentioned that but, again, did not make the point that not only does Switzerland not have access to the services market, which would be absolutely essential to the UK, but that it took nine years to negotiate its partial access to the single market. If the referendum vote goes the wrong way, therefore, and the British people vote to come out of the European Union, any British Government can expect to spend at least 10 years trying to renegotiate ourselves back into a position in which we would have any kind of reasonable access to what is, by a significant margin, our largest export market.
I put it to the House that that is not a sensible approach for any British Government to wish to adopt. It would do long-term harm to the economic interests of this country, as well as to our position in the world. I have never understood the proposition that making it more difficult to export to Germany and France makes it easier to export to China and India. I suspect that few businesses would agree with that proposition either. I look forward to it being tested in the coming months and years.
The debate is not only an economic one, and the Bill sets us off on a debate about our place in the world—how we see ourselves and how others see us. In the current state of the world, particularly with the dangers emerging on the eastern and southern flanks of Europe, what would we be thinking about to turn away from our closest neighbours? Are we so confident of a friendly reception in other parts of the world that we can turn to 27 other friendly democracies and say, “We don’t want to be part of a club with you any more”? Would such an act increase our influence in the world, or damage it? Would it make it more or less likely that the US President would pick up the phone to Downing Street in a crisis? Would it make the Indians or Chinese treat us more seriously as trading partners, or dismiss us as a bunch of nostalgic eccentrics?
President Obama has already made clear this week the answer to my rhetorical questions. Our closest friends want us to stay in the European Union. We should listen to their friendly advice. The notion of an Anglosphere, in which English-speaking countries from all over the world can set the rules for themselves is a post-imperial fantasy that I do not think this country should follow.
There is of course—there needs to be—a positive case for continued membership of the European Union, and there is one. There is an idealistic vision of a continent that has spent centuries tearing itself apart with wars that destroyed communities, but in the past 70 years has largely become a haven of peace and prosperity. Ask people in Krakow, Bucharest or Vilnius and see what they think. Britain can be proud of our part in building that peaceful and prosperous continent, and Britain can benefit hugely from continuing to play a full role in its development. Let us have that national debate and then vote yes in the referendum.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to make my maiden speech in this important debate. It is a pleasure to follow the well argued and reasoned case made so plain to all of us by the right hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green).
I am also delighted to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), who I know from his outstanding leadership in local government will be a strong champion for his area. He and I come from the ranks of local government, and we will both be strong voices for local government in the House during this Parliament.
I am pleased to have my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) next to me in the Chamber this afternoon. Without him, I can honestly say that I would not be here. I must also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (John Cryer), who is attending to some other matters outside the Chamber, for recruiting me to the Labour party some 17 years ago. He and I might not always see eye to eye on the question of Europe, but in the case of both my hon. Friends I could not ask for better parliamentary neighbours, mentors or indeed friends.
It is customary to pay tribute to former Members during a maiden speech and I am happy to report that I have been aided in the task by a note from a constituent providing an appraisal of each of my predecessors to have represented my area, whether the old Wanstead and Woodford constituency or, since 1945, Ilford North. He describes my Labour predecessor, Linda Perham, as “quite outstanding”, which is some accolade given that he describes his first MP, a certain Sir Winston Churchill, as “most unsatisfactory”. I cannot comment on the contribution of one of Britain’s most celebrated Prime Ministers as a constituency MP—some around the House and in the other place may be able to enlighten me—but I wholeheartedly endorse my constituent’s remarks about Linda Perham. A librarian, councillor and former mayor of the London borough of Redbridge, Linda arrived in Parliament in 1997, having lived in Ilford North for more than 25 years. Her commitment to public service has continued since she left this place in 2005.
In paying tribute to my immediate and Conservative predecessor, I do so with a warmth and sincerity that is rather unusual following such a closely fought race as ours. I have known Lee Scott for a number of years and our differences have always been political and never personal. He was characteristically affable in the campaign and gracious in defeat. His service to the people of Ilford North and the London borough of Redbridge more widely, both as a councillor and as a Member of this House, is rightly recognised and celebrated. Lee’s work on autism and on human rights in Sri Lanka, in particular, earned him the respect of people across the political spectrum. I wish him and his family the very best for the future.
Ilford North is a large constituency, at least by London’s standards, ranging from Woodford in the west to Hainault in the east. Many have moved to my constituency with dreams of a larger home, good local schools for their children and a better quality of life. Some, like me, have walked a well trodden path from London’s east end, while others made their journey across countries and continents with the promise of decent work and better lives, or sanctuary from persecution. The diversity of my constituency, our community cohesion and the role that migrants have played in shaping our part of London is something I am proud of.
Ilford North is a great place to live, though it is not without its challenges. Our schools are excellent, but oversubscribed. Our NHS services are cherished, but people are waiting too long to see a GP and to get a hospital appointment. Post-war housing development has given generations the chance to enjoy our country parks and open spaces, but rents are becoming unaffordable and home ownership is a pipe dream for too many.
None of those challenges would be addressed by withdrawal from the European Union. The referendum debate will inevitably centre on the economic benefits, and many of those arguments about jobs, trade and inward investment are already well rehearsed and well made by British businesses of all sizes and from all industries. However, the debate extends beyond the simple question of Britain’s continued membership of the European Union to a far bigger question about who we are and where we see ourselves in the world. On the big issues of our age—eradicating poverty and inequality, tackling climate change and safeguarding the security of every citizen—nation states are no longer able to triumph by acting alone.
Globalisation was a trend foreseen by Sir Winston Churchill when he spoke in this House in 1950 of the growing “interdependence of nations”. It presents challenges. Many of my constituents feel left behind. Their concerns deserve to be heard and need to be addressed, but the truth is that withdrawal from the European Union will lead us on a race to the bottom in which deregulation, labour market volatility and a weakening of our industrial base will worsen their living standards. Globalisation presents a world of opportunity for this small island to punch above its weight in the 21st century, if we are willing to seize that opportunity and ensure that every community has a stake in it.
We should be leading Europe, not leaving Europe. This is a question that will define our future for generations to come and it is right that the next generation should have their say. I am proud of the numbers of young people we got involved in my campaign in Ilford North. Like the young Scots who voted in the independence referendum, they are a credit to their generation and demonstrate that they are ready to play a part in shaping their future, which is why I support the extension of the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds. It is their future, as much as ours, that is at stake. I want to see young people from all backgrounds in my constituency daring to dream and backed to succeed. Whether they want to be scientists or business leaders, artists or engineers, they will have the world as their oyster only if they grow up in a country willing to play a leading role on the international stage.
This is the central test for our new Government: will they bequeath a nation more divided at home and more isolated abroad, or will they forge a future in which prosperity is shared and Britain looks to Europe and the wider world with optimism, confidence and leadership? For as long as I continue to enjoy this privilege of representing the people of Ilford North, I will fight for a future in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many, not the few. Every day that I arrive in this place, I will never forget who sent me here. I will be relentless in advocating their cause and campaigning to serve their interests.
It is a great pleasure to congratulate the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) on his maiden speech, which was clear, generous and strong. I am sure that he will make quite a mark in the House of Commons, and I wish him the best of fortune and good health as he enjoys his career here.
Today is a day that we, as democrats, should be celebrating, because we are redressing one of the great democratic deficits in our country. No one in this country who is under the age of 58—happily including myself—has been able to have a say on our membership of the European Union. The world is very different from how it was in 1975 when my parents campaigned on opposite sides of the European question. Then, Britain was the sick man of Europe, with chronic high inflation and with state-owned industries bleeding us dry. It was dominated by the trade union barons. We looked at Europe as a sign of economic success. We looked at Germany and said, “Let’s have a little bit of that!”
But let us look at how Germany and the rest of Europe have changed today, with the chronic crisis in the euro threatening global financial stability and condemning millions of young Europeans to chronic high levels of unemployment. Europe was at the centre of a very different world in 1975. In the middle of the cold war, political interest lay in Europe and in its relationship with the United States and the communist bloc. Today, however, in the era of multi-polar globalisation, Europe finds itself increasingly diminished politically and economically. The choice in the referendum will therefore be made against a very different backdrop.
A question that is often asked, and has been asked in the debate today, is this: if people had known in 1975 what Europe would become, would they have made the same decision? When they joined the common market, they did not know that they were actually joining a mechanism that would have a ratchet effect, taking them nearer and nearer to the destination of ever-closer political union, with no means of redress. People in this country genuinely wanted to be able to co-operate with our European partners when it was in our mutual interest to do so, but they also wanted to keep separate the levers that we might need to use in Britain’s national interest, when that interest was different from that of our leading European partners.
Most people in this country today feel, deep down, that too many of our laws are made abroad, and that too many of the basic democratic decisions affecting the way in which we live are made beyond our shores. They feel that the British people have no means of redress. This is part of a process in which those who live under the law in this country have less and less ability to shape those laws themselves. We simply cannot continue with a European model that is failing systemically. We cannot continue on a 1950s trajectory that is unyielding and unbending. If the European Union ultimately breaks, it will be because it cannot face up to the changing realities of the era in which we live.
Most people in this country do not believe that we should leave the European Union, whatever the circumstances; nor do they believe that we should stay in, whatever the circumstances. Instead, they believe that we should take a rational decision based on whatever renegotiation is achieved by the Prime Minister and the Government. They believe that we should take a rational view, and that we should have reform of all the European Union. This is key: it is not enough simply to change Britain’s relationship with the European Union; we need fundamental change in the Union itself. Unless we get that change, Europe will continue to go in the wrong direction. If we only change Britain’s membership, we will be negotiating a better membership deal for a bad club, and that is not in the long-term interests of the country.
Do not most British people still want what many of them wrongly thought that they were voting for in 1975? They wanted a trade-based relationship with political co-operation when it is in our interests, and they did not want to join a superstate in the making.
My right hon. Friend is perfectly correct. People in this country wanted to join a common market and wanted an economic and trading entity. Many who voted in that referendum believe that by stealth they were sold a pup by being sold into a very different entity on which they were never allowed to give their opinion. That is why we should celebrate what is happening in the Chamber today. We are allowing those people to have a voice, which they have been denied by Governments of both political complexions for many years.
I agree with everything the right hon. Gentleman is saying, but will he also reflect on the fact that there are many people within the Labour movement who feel much the same as he does? I refer him to the leaflet from my hon. Friend the Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins), “The European Union—A View From The Left”, which is well worth reading—
Across the political spectrum in this country, many people believe we have been denied a genuine debate about the future of the country. Those people might come from different sides of the debate, but they have in common a profound belief in our democratic process and the right of the people to be heard rather than being involved in a cosy stitch-up by the political establishment of this country, which is what has happened over too many years. As well as needing profound change in the European Union and in Britain’s relationship with Europe —the question of sovereignty—we need to ensure that any of those changes are enshrined in treaty. As for the points that we cannot have that because it is impossible or that we are only demanding it because it makes the process more difficult, which have been made so far in the debate, let me say to the House that any changes or guarantees that are not entrenched in treaty will not be worth the paper they are written on. The European Court will continue to determine any elements according to the concept of and drive towards ever-closer union. That is why the process needs to be followed in that way.
We in this country are different from our European partners in many ways. That does not mean that we are in any sense better, but we are different. We have a very different concept of sovereignty that is deeply entrenched in our history. We have a different concept of what our democracy is and how it operates and we are one of the few countries, perhaps the only country, in the European Union that never felt the need to bury our 20th-century history in a pan-European project. We are different from so many different perspectives and the one thing with the European Union with which I have the greatest problem is those three words: “ever-closer union”. I do not believe in ever-closer union, because for me the logical endpoint of ever-closer union is union and I do not want to lose our status as a sovereign independent nation to be part of a union in which the union comes first and the nation states come second. That is why this is so fundamental.
Some of us still bear the scars of 1992. That is why we must not rush into the referendum. We must ensure that we have adequate debate and that people do not feel that they have been bounced, or the result will not be as binding as we would like it to be. Finally, the behaviour with which we conduct ourselves is crucial, and I say this especially to my own colleagues. We will have to work together after the referendum is over. How we conduct ourselves, the language we use and how we speak of and to one another will be fundamental to our ability to pull ourselves back as a united party after the referendum. We might do this passionately, but we should do it with tolerance and decency and how we treat one another will influence the judgment of the country on us all.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting). He was very confident in his delivery and I am sure that he will serve his constituents well. I also pay tribute to Lee Scott, his predecessor, whom I knew through his activities for the Tamil community. He was very effective in that role and will be missed in this House for that reason and, I am sure, many others.
When the issue of Europe raises its head in this place, those whom John Major so colourfully and with such bitterness described as “the bastards” normally start to sharpen their knives and, with the mania of Oskar Matzerath, bang the Europe drum. The Eurosceptics are keeping their counsel at present. The Prime Minister’s pirouettes on the issue of collective Cabinet responsibility are worthy of the opening night at the Royal Ballet, but I do not think that the business community will be calling for an encore. The business community wants certainty about the Prime Minister’s negotiating stance and the circumstances in which he and the section of his Government who will follow him will campaign to stay in or come out of the European Union.
We in the Liberal Democrats have changed our position. The coalition had already legislated for a referendum if there were any proposals to transfer powers from the UK to the EU, but it is clear that in the general election a month or so ago people voted for an in/out referendum. It is going to happen and the focus should be on ensuring that we win it. The priority now for my party is first to help secure reforms in the EU that benefit all EU countries. We are not the Eurofanatics painted by the Conservative party. Indeed, the Secretary of State acknowledged in his opening remarks the reforms that the coalition was able to make in relation to the European Union.
Our second priority is to win the battle to stay in the European Union—a market of 500 million people and our largest export market. Some 2.2 million UK citizens live, work, travel, study and buy second homes in other EU countries. I want them to be given the opportunity that my father and our family had to live, work and study in another EU country.
The right hon. Gentleman needs to address that question to his own Prime Minister and get some clarity from the Government about what they will seek to negotiate. Clearly, we are in favour of reforms within the EU; we have pressed for some simple reforms such as ensuring that the Parliament meets in one place rather than two. There are many other EU reforms that we support.
I will not give way. I have given way twice and many other people want to speak.
The Bill is flawed in two respects. The first relates to votes at 16, to which a number of hon. Members have referred. The Bill is about the future of 16 and 17-year-olds. When I visit schools in the constituency, I talk to people about both the disadvantages and the benefits of being in the EU. At some point in the future, those young people may want to pursue careers that take them to other EU countries. Conservative Members may say that they could pursue careers in countries beyond the EU. That is true, but they have a certainty about their ability to pursue a career in EU countries that they do not have for countries such as the US, China and New Zealand, because they would be dependent on the conditions that those countries impose. I want 16 and 17-year-olds to have the opportunity to work in EU countries, so I want them to be able to participate in a decision that will affect their future directly, possibly in a dramatic way. It could reduce their opportunities.
The Bill is also flawed in respect of votes for EU citizens. This is not the general election franchise. We know that it has been modified. It seems strange to me that a French, German or Italian citizen who has lived here, whose children were born here and who has paid taxes here, is not able to participate in something that could affect them and their children in a dramatic way.
I hope that it will be possible to address those two flaws. We will vote for the Bill on Second Reading, but we will seek to extend the franchise because, as the Foreign Secretary said, I do not like it when things are done to people, not for them.
John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): This referendum gives the British people the great opportunity to restore their precious but damaged democracy. For all too long, the British people have had to watch as successive Parliaments have given away their birthright by transferring important powers to the European Union. Big decisions have been taken away from the sovereignty of the British people and given to the bureaucracy of the European Union.
I believe in the sovereignty of the British people and I would like to help them restore it. Before we joined the European Economic Community, the sovereignty of the British people was clear and it worked well. The British people could elect a Parliament. The Parliament was sovereign until it had to face re-election. That meant that the Parliament was responsive to the British people between elections because those elected recognised that if they did not please, did not serve well—if the chosen Government did not govern wisely—they would be thrown out by the British people at the end of the five years. So the sovereignty of the British people required a sovereign Parliament that they could dismiss and they could influence, and much of the architecture of this building and the political architecture of our country was based on maximising the access to MPs and maximising the influence of MPs over the wider Government.
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that in what is now the European Union, it is quite usual for member states to pool sovereignty? Like the democratic process that he talks about, Members of the European Parliament are democratically accountable to their electors and can make decisions on behalf of their constituents in exactly the same way.
States cannot pool sovereignty. They are either sovereign or they have given their power away. The British people do not think the European Parliament exercises control or power over the Brussels machine in the way that this Parliament at its best exercises power over the British government machine. That can be seen from the way that the British electors do not turn out on anything like the same scale in a European election, because they do not believe in that Parliament and they understand that that Parliament has very limited influence over the unelected bureaucratic government in Brussels.
Now that we are in the EEC and it has evolved into the European Union, the fundamental condition that one Parliament cannot bind its successors has been removed. That has completely undermined one of the basic pillars of our democracy. We had the rule that any new Parliament can amend or repeal any law of a previous Parliament. It can reverse or change any decision relating to the future about the expenditure of moneys or the development of policy. The British people now do not have that full sovereignty. If they elect a new Parliament, the new Parliament discovers, as this one is doing, that there are a large number of areas where we cannot change things to reflect the will of the British people because it would be illegal under European law to do so. We find that, because so many vetoes have been removed, we can no longer prevent things happening from the European government that we do not want. Worse still, because there is a whole body of agreed European law and treaty that we inherit as a new Parliament and a new Government, there are very large areas where we cannot fulfil the will of the British people and we therefore cannot please them.
Fortunately, Britain still has a fairly powerful Parliament because we stayed out of the euro. Those countries that went into the euro are discovering that they now have puppet Parliaments. We see the terrible tragedy in Greece, where the Greek people have understandably said that they want a complete change of economic policy. They want to get away from unemployment and recession and austerity from the European Union and have a pro-growth policy at home, and they are told that they cannot do that because it is against European rules.
No, of course I did not, and I gave her very strong advice not to sign up to the Single European Act. She often took my advice. It was a great pity that she did not take my advice on that occasion, because I fear I was also right on that one. She was a very great lady who did hugely important things for this country—not least getting a lot of our money back, which Labour foolishly gave away, meaning that we are much worse off than we need be—but she was not always right. I think that on that occasion she thought it was going to help a market, whereas the truth, of course, is that we do not need European bureaucracy and a lot of laws to have a market; we just need buyers and sellers and one simple rule, which is that, if something is of merchandisable quality in Britain, it should be of merchandisable quality in Germany and France as well. We had that in the Cassis de Dijon judgment and we did not really need all the extra laws that were being imposed on us.
As we can no longer change things, the British people are going to get very frustrated. We saw their frustrations in the last election. Looking at constituencies that elected Conservative MPs and MPs of other parties, it was very clear to me that there was a strong majority feeling that this Parliament should be able to decide who comes to our country and who is given admission, and that this Parliament should decide how generous we should be on welfare benefits and to whom we should pay them. We might disagree among ourselves about how many people we invite in, how much money we give them and when we first pay them—that is a healthy part of our democratic debate—but the position we find ourselves in today is that we cannot decide those things, because the powers to control our borders and to settle our welfare system have gone to the bureaucracy and courts of Brussels and the continent. They are no longer present in the United Kingdom.
Whenever we have these debates, they often come down to a simple issue of trade. I would like to reassure anyone watching or listening to this debate that our trade is not at risk, whether we stay in or leave. There is no need to accept my word for that—I am sure that many people will not—but they may accept the word of the German Finance Minister, who has very clearly stated that he would like Britain to stay in, but that if we leave, of course Germany would want to trade with us on the same terms as she currently does. And why is that? It is because Germany sells us twice as much as we sell her.
I say to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), who would not take an intervention, that there is no way that Germany would want to pay a 10% tariff on exporting Mercedes and BMWs to the United Kingdom; and, because Germany will not want to pay a 10% tariff, nor will our motor manufacturers have to pay a 10% tariff. So worry not: our jobs and our trade are in no way at risk.
We should remember that Britain has faster growing trade with the rest of the world, where we do not belong to a special club, than it does with the rest of Europe, where we do belong to a trade club. There are many such trade clubs around the world, but very few of them are evolving in the European way of imposing more and more government and bureaucracy on their companies and traders, because they believe in prosperity and more free trade. We do not belong to any of those clubs, but we trade extremely successfully with the countries that are in them. If someone is in a club that genuinely promotes trade, they are happy to trade with people from outside that club as well, because they obviously need to be able to trade with the whole of the rest of the world.
Many of us feel that the EU as currently constituted is thoroughly undemocratic. It stifles and prevents the will of a once-sovereign people from being properly expressed. It means that a Government cannot be elected on a prospectus that they can implement in all respects, because the European Union will not let them do so. Above all, the European Union represents the past: it is holding us back. It is something from the last century.
It is a complete myth that the European Union is a body that keeps the peace. The peace is being kept by NATO and by the fact that our partners—France, Germany, Italy and Spain—are all peace-loving democracies. I am amazed that pro-Europeans have such a negative view of our partner democracies in Europe that they think that, without a European bureaucracy, they would all be at war with each other. Of course, they would not, both because they now believe in peace themselves and because NATO and mighty America, as she has done since 1945, are guaranteeing the peace.
Let us get rid of these myths. Our economy is not at risk, and being out of the EU or in a better and new relationship with the EU is the future: it means we can be more prosperous, have more freedom and, above all, restore the sovereignty of the British people. We can restore our parliamentary democracy.
Following the right hon. Member for Wokingham (John Redwood), I must say that in my eyes it was new light from an old window to hear him want to escape the givens of history so readily. I would welcome that being applied in other directions.
Like other Members, the right hon. Gentleman rehearsed some of the strong and passionate arguments that he will bring to the debate that will take place on the back of the referendum, whenever it happens. I want to touch on some of those issues, but also to address the Bill and some of the questions about the quality of the referendum and what we will be afforded.
Hon. Members have made the point that compared with some of the debates on Fridays during the last Parliament, the Chamber looks very different. That is simply because many of us regarded the debates on the private Member’s Bill in the last Parliament as an exercise in which the ADHD wing of the Tory party was pleasuring itself, and we did not wish to spectate or to participate in that exercise. We are now in a different situation as the Bill comes from the Government, and other parties seem to have adjusted their view of the potential of a referendum. That done, we need to ensure that we do not simply rush into pre-emptively debating the referendum, but look at some of the issues in the Bill.
One of the questions is whether the franchise should be extended. I fully believe that the franchise for the referendum should be extended to 16 and 17-year-olds. I openly admit that I believe that 16 and 17-year-olds should have the vote in all elections anyway. In the past, I have tabled amendments to Northern Ireland legislation to give the Assembly that power in respect of its own elections and those for local government, and I have voted for such an earlier franchise here.
I heard the Foreign Secretary say that the question of votes for 16 and 17-year-olds was a decision “for another day”. From listening to what people are saying, we are talking about a referendum on a decision for future generations, so it is wrong simply to dismiss the issue as a matter for another day. As the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) said, nobody is pretending that the arguments for voting at 16 and 17 are the same as those for votes for women, but it is true that the arguments against doing so are invariably the same as those against votes for women—that people were immature, could not make decisions of their own and would derive decisions from others.
The Bill will alter the franchise for the referendum by extending it to peers. When we ask what is going to happen to votes for the young, we should know that four lords named Young and even one named Younger will get votes in the referendum. That is what the Government have done in response to the question about votes for young and younger people in this referendum: five people in the House of Lords will get a vote, but all the 16 and 17-year-olds are ignored.
I share the important concerns raised about purdah. Once people think that there has been any jiggery-pokery on the basic rules, that will create questions and cause consternation, some of which will be abused in a distorted and exaggerated way during the campaign to distract from the core arguments in the referendum. I therefore question why the Government have moved on purdah.
Similarly, on the questions about money, I again think it is important that the Government are not seen simply to be changing the rule in relation to this referendum, particularly given that there will be many questions about where a lot of it will be sourced.
There is also an issue about the wording—whether it should be a yes or no question, and whether it should be as advised by the Electoral Commission. I favour going the Electoral Commission way simply because of the experience in the Irish context, where a very powerful argument has continually been used in referendums: “If you don’t know, vote no.” That has been used time out of number in the context of Irish referendums, with people opposing the referendum creating all sorts of scares, arguments and detailed and technical confusions that nobody can quite settle. Not even the independent Referendum Commission can fully enlighten people about what is or is not involved. That makes it very easy for people to use the argument, “If you don’t know, vote no.”
The hon. Gentleman may make that argument, but that is not how I see it. However, the point I am making is that we need to ensure that the Bill frames the referendum campaign in the right context, so that we are not subject to any allegations that the yes campaign has tilted or framed the thing in a particular way, or that the no campaign is resorting to scares. We all need to be free of those allegations.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the view that the Electoral Commission has taken on what is the most neutral form of question. Does he agree that if that view is confirmed by the research that the Electoral Commission is undertaking between now and August, the Government would be well advised to change the question, because that would build confidence in the whole process?