5. What assessment he has made of public support for holding a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU. (900179)
As it happens, I have made an assessment of public support for holding a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU. The only recent poll that actually matters delivered a clear mandate for the only party that offered a credible commitment to hold such a referendum.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Of course, we have already achieved some success in relation to the fishing industry, demonstrating that it is possible to change things in the UK’s interest within the EU. One of the key drivers of reform is the need for Europe to up its game to generate more economic growth to create the jobs and the prosperity that the continent needs, which will be good for all 28 member states, not just for Britain.
The opportunity presented by the referendum to resolve this profound choice over our role in the world for at least a generation will be wasted if the process is seen as a fix in favour of the establishment side of the argument. Will the Foreign Secretary ensure that he supports and enables independent analysis of the costs and benefits of the choice to be presented to the British people by Committees of this House, and that both sides of the argument in the referendum will be treated and funded fairly?
Yes, both sides of the argument in the referendum will be treated and funded fairly. I shall have more to say about that in the Second Reading debate later. In relation to Committees of the House, my Department always seeks to co-operate with them in any way it can.
The previous Government carried out a detailed assessment of what the European Union has delivered for the people of the United Kingdom—known as the balance of competences review—yet all has gone quiet. Will the right hon. Gentleman tell me when his Government will come forward with an overview of all 32 reports to show the British people what the European Union has delivered, and help to inform the debate?
The balance of competences review was published during the last Parliament. It was always intended to be a factual assessment of the balance of competences that could be drawn on by all parties in the forthcoming debate. As a body of factual information, it is already proving its worth. In fact, a number of other countries in Europe have started to draw on information in our balance of competences review for use in debate in their own countries.
I join the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) in urging the Foreign Secretary to use the negotiations as an opportunity to achieve the fundamental reform that we need of the common fisheries policy—a policy that has been an unmitigated disaster for fishing stocks, the fishing industry and the fishing communities that depend on them. Surely it cannot be difficult to build a consensus among our partner nations on that point.
The Prime Minister’s in/out referendum is widely popular in north Northamptonshire. As my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) said, it needs to be a fair referendum if the result is to be accepted by the nation. Will the Foreign Secretary confirm that the Government will not seek to campaign, and that there will be a purdah period for the referendum?
I understand my hon. Friend’s concern. I think he is referring to the media comments about the proposal to disapply section 125 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. I shall have more to say about that, including a detailed explanation, during my Second Reading speech later today. I hope that I will satisfy his concerns then.
24. Thank you, Mr Speaker, for calling me to speak for the first time in this Chamber.As part of the right hon. Gentleman’s assessment of public support for holding a referendum, what discussions has he had with all parties in Scotland about the massive public support that there is for extending the franchise for the referendum to 16 and 17-year-olds, who will, after all, be the people who have to live longest with the result, whatever that might be? (900198)
Our position is that the appropriate franchise for a United Kingdom question—a question about the future of the whole country—is the Westminster franchise. I know there are people in this House who think we should review the scope of the Westminster franchise, and that is another debate. We are very clear that the franchise for this referendum should be the Westminster franchise, and that it would not be appropriate, as an exception, to include 16 and 17-year-olds.
Many constituents in Basingstoke have expressed their support for a referendum on our future membership of the EU. Local businesses, in particular, are keen for it to happen sooner rather than later. What assessment has the Foreign Secretary made of whether the referendum can be held sooner—perhaps even in 2016—rather than waiting until 2017, as was indicated in the manifesto?
As my right hon. Friend will know, the legislation sets 31 December 2017 as the latest possible date for the referendum, but the Prime Minister has made it clear that we do not intend to wait until the end of 2017. We will hold the referendum as soon as we are ready to do so. The ball will be firmly in the court of our EU partners. If they embrace our agenda with enthusiasm and facilitate a rapid move forward, a referendum in 2016 may be possible.
On the timing, and given the importance of this question for the country as a whole, will the right hon. Gentleman have regard to the respect agenda for the devolved countries of the United Kingdom and guarantee that the referendum will not be held on the same day as the elections to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly, in line with the Electoral Commission’s recommendation?