[1st Allocated Day]
Considered in Committee
[Mr Lindsay Hoyle in the Chair]
We begin with amendment 16.
On a point of order, Mr Hoyle. I could not help noticing in your excellent selection of amendments that you have selected in the second group Government amendment 55, which, as I see from my amendment paper, is a starred amendment. That is not surprising, since it was tabled, I understand, at 9.35 pm last evening in a disorganised, spatchcock, humiliating climbdown. I accept the Government’s humiliating climbdown with good grace, but how usual is it for a starred amendment to be called and, presumably, divided on in Committee of the whole House?
The good news is that I was in charge of selection, and it is well within order. It is unusual, but that is where we are at. We will now continue, because I know that the hon. Gentleman wants to get us under way.
I beg to move amendment 16, page 1, line 4, at end insert—
‘(2) The Chief Counting Officer shall declare whether the result of the referendum is that a majority wish the United Kingdom to leave the European Union.
(3) The Chief Counting Officer may declare that a majority wish the United Kingdom to leave the European Union only if—
(a) a majority of total votes cast in the referendum in the United Kingdom are against the United Kingdom remaining a member of the European Union, and
(b) a majority of the votes cast in the referendum in each of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are against the United Kingdom remaining a member of the European Union.”
This amendment imposes a double majority requirement for withdrawal, which would have to be supported by a majority the whole of the UK and by majorities in each of its four constituent parts.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 49, page 1, line 7, leave out “31 December” and insert “1 July”.
The amendment would require the referendum to take place before 1 July 2017.
Amendment 50, page 1, line 8, leave out “2017” and insert “2016”.
The amendment would require the referendum to take place before 31 December 2016.
Amendment 4, page 1, line 8, at end insert—
‘(3A) No later than ten weeks before the date on which the referendum is to be held the Secretary of State must lay before both Houses of Parliament an independent report by the Office for Budget Responsibility on the implications for the sustainability of the public finances of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union.”.
The amendment would require the Secretary of State to publish, ten weeks before the referendum, a report by the OBR on the consequences of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union.
Amendment 5, page 1, line 8, at end insert—
‘(3A) No later than ten weeks before the date on which the referendum is to be held the Secretary of State must lay before both Houses of Parliament a report on the consequences of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union for each ministerial departments’ responsibilities.”.
The amendment would require the Secretary of State to publish, ten weeks before the referendum, a report by each Secretary of State on the consequences of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union for their areas of ministerial responsibility.
Amendment 6, page 1, line 8, at end insert—
‘(3A) No later than ten weeks before the date on which the referendum is to be held the Secretary of State must ask for and lay before both Houses of Parliament any assessment made by the Bank of England on the consequences of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union.”.
The amendment would require the Secretary of State to publish, ten weeks before the referendum, any assessment by the Bank of England on the consequences of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union.
Amendment 46, page 1, line 8, at end insert—
‘(3A) No later than ten weeks before the date on which the referendum is to be held the Secretary of State must lay before both Houses of Parliament a report by the Office for Budget Responsibility on the consequences for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership of the United Kingdom leaving or remaining a member of the European Union.”
The amendment would require the Secretary of State to publish, ten weeks before the referendum, a report by the OBR on the consequences for TTIP of leaving or remaining a member of the European Union.
Amendment 47, page 1, line 8, at end insert—
‘(3A) No later than ten weeks before the date on which the referendum is to be held the Secretary of State must lay before both Houses of Parliament a report on the consequences for negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership of the United Kingdom leaving or remaining a member of the European Union.”
The amendment would require the Secretary of State to publish, ten weeks before the referendum, a report on the consequences for negotiations on TTIP of leaving or remaining a member of the European Union.
Amendment 54, page 1, line 8, at end insert—
‘(3A) Before appointing a day under subsection (2) the Secretary of State shall lay before both Houses a report on materials which any Minister of the Crown, government department or local authority or any other person or body whose expenses are defrayed wholly or mainly out of public funds or by any local authority intend or expect to publish in the period of 28 days ending with the date of the referendum that—
(a) deals with any of the issues raised by any question on which the referendum is being held;
(b) puts any argument for or against any particular answer to any such question; or
(c) is designed to encourage voting at the referendum.”
This amendment requires the Government, prior to setting a date for the Referendum by regulations subject to the affirmative procedure, to publish a report on what publications which would normally be prohibited by Section 125 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 the Government intends or expects to publish in the four weeks before the referendum.
Amendment 11, page 17, line 37, in schedule 1, leave out paragraph 25 and insert—
‘25 (1) Section 125 of the 2000 Act (restriction of publication etc of promotional material by central and local government etc) applies in relation to the referendum during the referendum period with the following modification.
(2) Section 125(2)(a) of the 2000 Act has effect for the purposes of the referendum as if, after “Crown”, there were inserted “including ministers in the Scottish Government, the Welsh Government, the Northern Ireland Executive and Her Majesty‘s Government of Gibraltar”.’
The purpose of the amendment is to apply the “purdah” arrangements that govern ministerial and official announcements, visits and publicity during general elections to the campaign period before the referendum.
Amendment (a) to Schedule 1, leave out “modification” and insert “modifications”.
Amendment (b), at end add—
‘(3) Section 125(2) of the 2000 Act has effect for the purposes of the referendum with the addition of subsection—
“(e) advocacy on any issue having a bearing on the outcome of the referendum””
New clause 3—Restriction on publications etc—
‘(1) This section applies to any material, which—
(a) provides general information about the referendum,
(b) deals with any of the issues raised by the referendum question,
(c) puts any arguments for or against any outcome, or
(d) is designed to encourage voting at the referendum.
(2) Subject to subsection (3), no material to which this section applies is to be published during the relevant period by or on behalf of—
(a) the UK government,
(b) the House of Commons or House of Lords,
(c) the devolved administrations,
(d) any local authority,
(e) public bodies, or
(f) the European Commission and European Parliament.
(3) Sub-paragraph (2) does not apply to—
(a) existing material made available to persons in response to specific requests for information or to persons specifically seeking access to it, or
(b) anything done by or on behalf of—
(i) a designated organisation,
(ii) the Electoral Commission, or
(c) the Chief Counting Officer or any other counting officer, or
(d) the publication of information relating to the holding of the poll.
(4) In this paragraph—
“publish” means make available to the public at large, or any section of the public, in whatever form and by whatever means (and “publication” is to be construed accordingly),
“the relevant period” means the period of 28 days ending with the date of the referendum.
(a) A breach of the rules set out in this section, will be an offence.
(b) A person guilty of an offence under this section, is liable—
(i) on conviction on indictment, to a fine;
(ii) on summary conviction in England and Wales, to a fine;
(iii) on summary conviction in Scotland or Northern Ireland, to a fine not exceeding the statutory maximum;
(iv) on summary conviction in Gibraltar, to a fine note exceeding level 5 on the Gibraltar standard scale.’
The New Clause prescribes a period of “purdah” in the four weeks before the referendum.
New clause 4—Referendum Fairness Board—
‘(1) There shall be a committee of privy counsellors, to be called the Referendum Fairness Board, whose duty is to consider any alleged breach of section (Restriction on publications etc) which comes attention of any of its members.
(2) Each of the following presiding officers for the time being may appoint any privy counsellor as a member of the board—
(a) the Speaker of the House of Commons,
(b) the Lord Speaker,
(c) the Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament,
(d) the Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, or
(e) the Presiding Officer of the National Assembly for Wales.
(3) The Board shall prescribe its own rules of procedure, which must include procedures for—
(a) instituting legal action to interdict or injunct any further breach or repetition of an alleged breach, and
(b) drawing to the attention of the relevant prosecuting authority any serious or continuing breach of section (Restriction on publications etc).’
The New Clause provides for swift enforcement of the “purdah” rules which would apply under the linked New Clause in the four weeks leading up to the referendum.
There is a link of continuity between amendment 16 and the point of order that I made—that the theme should be one of respect. There has been a great deal of talk about respect by the Prime Minister in recent years, but particularly since the result of the election of last month. He said, for example:
“Governing with respect means recognising that the different nations of our United Kingdom have their own governments, as well as the UK government.”
The amendment is about giving acknowledgment to that respect in relation to the European referendum. [Interruption.] Does the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) want to intervene? If so, then of course I will gladly allow him.
He was just stretching his legs, I suspect.
On the subject of respect for all nations of the United Kingdom, the amendment puts forward the view that a simple majority across the UK would not be enough to have the UK exit the European Union but that we would have to pay attention to the voting in the four constituent nations of the United Kingdom. It is not unusual, in international terms, even in federal and confederal states, for there to be a so-called double majority—in this case, a quad lock between Scotland, England, Northern Ireland and Wales. In America, 14 states can block a constitutional amendment, even if they could comprise only 5% of the population. My hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Ms Ahmed-Sheikh) will go through some of the other international examples where even in federal and confederal states there is a double lock or a blocking minority with regard to the constitution, recognising the component parts of those states.
Does the right hon. Gentleman not accept that matters such as this are determined at the UK level, so the reason Scotland is voting with the rest of the UK as one is that the Scottish people themselves voted last year to remain part of the United Kingdom, and therefore, on matters of foreign affairs and the European Union, we speak as a nation with one voice?
I think that even the Prime Minister and many of his right hon. and hon. Friends would concede that Scotland is a nation and that the United Kingdom is a multi-national state. I suspect that terminology is not the key problem with the Conservative party in Scotland and why it reached the nadir of 14%, its lowest result for over a century, in last month’s general election. If the hon. Gentleman fails to recognise the nationality and nationhood of Scotland, which is a theme running through the ranks of the Conservative party, then the road back to having two MPs as the summit of the Tory party’s ambition, as opposed to the current lonely one, will be a long, hard road indeed.
It is exactly because the United Kingdom is a multi-national state that we should recognise that respect, as evinced by the Prime Minister, is about more than a simple majority across the UK; it must also give reference to the component nations of the United Kingdom.
I welcome the right hon. Gentleman back to this House. Is not the analogy with the United States a little tenuous, because we are talking about international relations and treaty relations, and in the United States treaties will be determined by the Executive with confirmation by the Senate of the whole of the United States and with no veto for the constituent states?
I was merely pointing out that there are a number of international examples. As I said, my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire will go through some of those in some great detail. This is not unusual in matters of constitutional import.
There is no doubt that a constitutional referendum on whether the United Kingdom should be part of the European Union carries constitutional implications. It is not unusual internationally, even in a federal or confederal state, to have more than a simple majority on such matters, and also reference to the various component parts of that state. If that is the case for a confederal or federal state, surely it should be so much more the case for a United Kingdom of four component nations.
The right hon. Gentleman is being generous in giving way. Will he confirm my suspicion that his secret wish—the perfect result, from his point of view—is for Scotland to vote yes and England to vote no? Personally, I would regard that as a disaster. Does he agree that if Scotland voted to stay in the European Union and England voted to leave, the end of the United Kingdom would probably be quite imminent?
I am always dubious about accepting a Conservative interpretation of the secret wishes of the Scottish National party. The sole Liberal Democrat Member with a Scottish constituency is in considerable trouble for trying to publicise what he thought were the secret wishes of the First Minister of Scotland, in a manner that no doubt will be fully investigated. No, the secret and public wish of the Scottish National party is for us to secure a yes vote in the referendum.
However, the right hon. and learned Gentleman does have a point, and the First Minister of Scotland has put her finger on it in her usual adroit fashion. If, across the United Kingdom, there was a majority vote against staying in the EU but Scotland had voted in favour, that could very well provide the material change in circumstances that the First Minister would indicate made another constitutional referendum on Scottish independence well nigh inevitable. With his usual insight, the right hon. and learned Gentleman has put his finger on an important point.
I see that this right hon. and learned Gentleman has stopped stretching his legs and now wants to intervene.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. It seems to me that he, too, has put his finger on the issue, which is essentially a political one. Although he might wish to change the current structure of the United Kingdom and there might be arguments in favour of a federal or other solution, that structure currently clearly provides that the decision should be taken in common. In those circumstances, although there might be terrible fallout from a result that produced separate outcomes in Scotland and England, that fallout would be political and would not justify the amendment.
Let us continue the point exactly on that question. It was as a solution to the scenario painted by the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) that the First Minister put forward the idea of having the quad lock or double lock system for the referendum. It is up to the Committee, of course, whether it accepts the amendment or not. If it were accepted, the scenario painted by the right hon. and learned Gentleman would not come to pass because it would be provided for in the terms of the referendum itself. If, on the other hand, the Committee chooses to reject the amendment, the possibility of that scenario remains open.
I will make a wee bit of progress and then give way.
The amendment is phrased so that it would protect any of the four component nations of the United Kingdom. However, given the arithmetic, it would be unlikely for the numerically dominant nation, England, to be outvoted by any of the smaller nations. However, it is entirely possible and credible that things might happen the other way round.
The amendment is fair to all four component nations, and the theme underlying it is one of respect. It is up to the Committee to decide whether the national statuses of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom are important enough to be given that respect.
Several hon. Members
I am spoilt for choice. Given that we are on a theme, I give way again to the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield.
It seems to me that the question is about not lack of respect, but what decisions are taken in common and in relation to what decisions we give a veto to the different component parts. The right hon. and learned Gentleman argues—it is a perfectly persuasive argument—that there should be an effective veto in each component part. However, there is an equally perfectly valid argument that the decision is ultimately a political one for the Government and that the Government would be entitled to take a view that, in the interests of the community in its widest sense—all the component parts—they should come to a decision one way or the other, irrespective of the fact that one component part did not want that decision.
I congratulate the right hon. and learned Gentleman on intervening at such length without attracting the ire of the Chair. That was adroitly done. The question of whether there is respect will be judged on whether amendment 16 is considered as a valid and interesting point for debate. I was taking the Prime Minister at his word when he said:
“Governing with respect means recognising that the different nations of our United Kingdom have their own governments”.
If the Prime Minister wants to recognise respect, the Government will take the amendment seriously. I will listen to what those on the Treasury Bench say, when they make their contributions, about whether Scotland is a country or a county—let us put it that way—and about whether it is a serious matter of import or just something to be swept aside. That is a matter for the Government’s reaction.
There should be some sort of lesson in the spatchcock, humiliating climbdown, to which I referred earlier. It is true that the Government did not say over the past few weeks that they would not have the referendum on the same day as the national elections in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—they could have said that at any point over the past two weeks, but they chose not to because they wanted to keep that option open—and then found last evening that they were likely to secure a humiliating defeat in Committee and, in a desperate scramble, they had to produce a last-minute amendment. My contention is that if they had shown a bit more respect over the past two weeks, they would not have had to engage in the humiliating climbdown last evening.
Is the right hon. Gentleman really saying if, for example, a majority of people in England, Scotland and Wales voted to stay in the European Union and 51% of people in Northern Ireland voted to leave, with 49% of them voting to stay, that that 2% in Northern Ireland could hold the rest of the United Kingdom to ransom? That is the import of his amendment 16.
Far be it from me to be the one who stands up for the rights of the people of Northern Ireland, but that is the consequence of being in a multi-national state. Nations within a multi-national state should be recognised as more than regions, counties or areas and should not be counted by population; they are national entities in their own right, and that confers a relationship of respect.
Although the hon. Gentleman and I may disagree on amendment 16, I know we were at one in insisting that this Government show respect to our respective nations in not having the referendum on the same day as our national elections. Our success on that matter indicates the advantage of working together, and I hope we are able to do that on a number of aspects of the Bill.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
I am very tempted to do so, but I can see that the Chairman is encouraging me to move on to our other amendments in this group, new clauses 3 and 4, on the whole question of how the Government should behave in a referendum campaign.
The members of this group of 56 speak from the standpoint of being totally united in our support for the European Union—we are pro-European to our fingertips —but that does not mean we would be willing to accept a referendum that was in any way biased or rigged by the Government. Just because they are pro-European, and the suspicion is that the Government may wish to bias the referendum in the pro-European direction, does not mean that that would be right and proper. It does seem to SNP Members that if the rules of purdah about the behaviour of a Government during an election campaign are correct, as recommended in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 all those years ago, that must pertain during a referendum campaign as well. In new clauses 3 and 4, we have set out in some detail what a referendum code of conduct for the Government should be.
It is astonishing that the Government should think that the exclusion of any such restrictions from the Bill would be meekly accepted by a majority of Members in Committee. It is entirely wrong for the Government to do so. We have a very recent example of why it would be very foolish for the Committee to take the Government at their word in saying that they would not engage in behaviour that breached the normal standards of purdah in the upcoming referendum campaign.
Let us take the scenario or possibility that, at some point in the course of the referendum campaign next year or the year after, the no side moves to the front. In that scenario, let us just assume that, to try to get the yes result that the Prime Minister wishes, he needed a last-minute initiative. With no rules or restrictions saying that new political initiatives should not be made at governmental level during the last 28 days of the campaign, what would stop the Prime Minister doing a tour of the capitals of each of the Governments across Europe—suspending Question Time in the national Parliament—and stop their flying as one to London to announce a new commitment, a new undertaking, a new pledge, a new vow? A new vow might be made to the people of the United Kingdom saying, “Only if you vote yes will we secure these new terms, which we did not mention before the campaign started, but which we now, as good Europeans, undertake to offer to the people.” Let us just say that, under those circumstances, that vow was influential in persuading enough people, perhaps one in 20, to switch their vote and to vote in favour, and let us just say that, after the dust had settled, all those European leaders did not really want to go forward with the full extent of the vow they had made. How would people in the United Kingdom view that situation? Would it not be rather better for the Bill to state explicitly that during the last 28 days—and only during the last 28 days—of a campaign period, the people must be able to make a judgment on the arguments that are property presented, without the use of the governmental machine to bias the result one way or the other?
When the Government explain why they want to wipe away these rules, I hear them say, “Of course, Government cannot really function in a purdah period. We won’t be able to make representations to the European Council. It will be impossible to do so over a 28-day period.” But that is what happens in each and every general election that we fight. In April and May, I did not notice that the Administration of this country ground to a halt. In fact, a lot of people thought it was better not having a fully activated Government during the campaign period. If it can be done in each and every general election, it can certainly be done in this referendum campaign.
Even more insidious than the role of the Government in making political announcements is the role of the civil service. In normal times, the civil service quite rightly views impartiality as following the policies of the elected Government. That is what the civil service is there to do; it is not meant to be neutral on issues, but to follow Government policy. When it comes to the purdah or quarantine period in an election or in a referendum, however, it is the job of the civil service to be impartial over that 28-day period.
The right hon. Gentleman is making not a party political point, but an important cross-party point. The Committee on Standards in Public Life made that case in 1998, when it reported—this relates to section 125 of the 2000 Act—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.”
The then Government accepted that point.
And the point has been broadly accepted since. It is not just a question of the Government accepting that point, however, but of having them live by it. In the Scottish referendum, which is what I was clearly alluding to, the UK Government accepted the principle of a purdah period and all that, but despite that, they went ahead with what I would argue was the governmental, political initiative of the vow in the last few days of the campaign.
Despite the fact that the UK civil service should have been neutral in that 28-day period, that was not the case, particularly of Sir Nicholas Macpherson. I notice that his knighthood has recently been enhanced in the recent honours list—let us all congratulate Sir Nicholas on his extra honour for services rendered. In particular, the Treasury had a referendum unit working through the purdah period to place in the press stories hostile to the yes side of the argument. I know that many right hon. and hon. Members on the Conservative Benches who were on the no side of the Scottish referendum campaign did not feel that that was particularly objectionable at the time, but I ask them to imagine how they would feel if they were arguing on the no side of the European referendum debate and Her Majesty’s Treasury and its civil servants under Sir Nicholas Macpherson did the same thing. That is exactly what will happen unless the House sets rules that have to be abided by.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it does not matter which side one is on? Even people on the yes side should not want their victory to be tainted by the perception of a fix.
Absolutely; that is why I am making this argument from the yes side of the campaign.
I am suggesting not only that the rules should be written back into the Bill, but that there should be an enforcement mechanism. I commend new clause 4 to the Committee. It suggests that there should be a fairness committee of Privy Councillors, of which I am one. Who knows? I might be favoured in such a recommendation. The committee of Privy Councillors, selected by the Speaker of this House and the Presiding Officers of the Assemblies of Northern Ireland and Wales and the Parliament of Scotland, would have the job of making sure that the rules were abided by. It would have the power of injunction in England and interdict in Scotland to prevent the publication of anything that it believed may breach the rules of purdah, and the right to refer matters to the prosecuting authorities. New clause 3 sets out the appropriate penalties for Ministers who have the audacity to breach the rules of purdah and for civil servants who forget that they are there to serve the public, not their political point of view.
I commend those proposals to the Committee. I will listen closely to the debate. I know that many right hon. and hon. Members have similar concerns. I say to those on the Treasury Bench that, just as they were mistaken not to understand the resentment at the lack of respect that was shown by floating the idea of holding a referendum on the same day as our national elections in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, they would make a grave mistake if they did not understand the cross-party concern about a potential breach of purdah by Ministers and the civil service. I hope that our proposals are given proper and due consideration.
I rise to support amendment 11.
I congratulate the Government on having the good sense not to press ahead with their proposal to hold the referendum on the date that they had set out. That shows that they were listening and I urge them to continue in that mindset.
I will be very brief because I want to make only three points in this debate. First, it is unseemly at best for the Executive to exempt themselves from the legal, electoral and constitutional arrangements that they find inconvenient during any electoral process. We had the period of purdah during the Scottish referendum. The arguments that have been made sound like the arguments of civil servants and lawyers that Ministers have been too keen to listen to. Under the full glare of scrutiny in this House and in the media, those arguments have sounded increasingly self-serving.
Secondly, there is a reason why we have purdah: it is to prevent the Government of the day from affecting the independence or fairness of any electoral process and from using the machinery of government to do so by spending taxpayers money, using the press or using other resources that are available to them. The fear is that the Government at all levels—central and local—could use taxpayers’ money to support one side of the debate, potentially changing its course. The precedent that that would set in this country would be extremely unfortunate. We require the independence of the civil service and the government machine to ensure that our electoral process is not interfered with unduly.
My third point is about the perception or optics of this matter. After any referendum, particularly one that, as we know from previous debates on Europe, will arouse great passions on both sides, we require the result to be regarded as fair, reasonable and legitimate if there is to be any chance of the country coming together on the issue once the voters have spoken. If people believe that they have been bounced or that the result is the consequence of a rigged process, it will be extremely difficult for the country to come together, and the political consequences will be intense. It must be seen that the legitimacy of the process is related to the fairness of the process. That is what is being put at risk by the Government’s proposals.
It is clear from the letter that came from my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe earlier today that the Government recognise that they will have to make changes to their proposals in the Bill. There are two ways of doing that. The Government can either remove the current restrictions, as they have in the Bill, and set out their own code of conduct on Report—in other words, tell the House what they will be able to do—or accept amendment 11, return to the legal status quo and ask the House on Report what exemptions they should be permitted to have. There are crucial differences between those two processes. The first suits the Executive and allows them to dictate the terms to Parliament in respect of what they want; the second asks that Parliament be given due respect and be allowed to set out the exemptions that it believes are acceptable.
I have not once, in 23 years in the House of Commons, voted against my party on a whipped vote. I urge my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe not to force those of us who are in that position to take an alternative course tonight.
It gives me great pleasure to make my maiden speech during the Committee stage of the European Union Referendum Bill—a topic that is close to my heart and the hearts of my constituents in Hampstead and Kilburn. Indeed, this topic cropped up frequently in the 22 hustings that we had during the election period and was raised by many people. It is indicative of the debate that goes on in my constituency and of the highly engaged residents in Hampstead and Kilburn—a constituency that I am so proud to represent here at Westminster.
What can I say about my constituency, with its deep history and its intellectuals—the melting pot of cultures and ethnicities that is Hampstead and Kilburn? I do not believe that any other constituency has the radical background that we have in the arts, social awareness, politics, architecture and poetry.
We are home to one of London’s paradises of walking and swimming. We welcome all political leaders who want to take a walk on Hampstead heath and meet fellow walkers. [Laughter.] Many years ago, two leaders of literature, Samuel Coleridge and John Keats, took a famous walk on Hampstead heath, where they discussed a thousand different things. Perhaps if they took a walk today, instead of talking about metaphysics and nightingales, they would talk about econometrics and the blue bird of Twitter—indeed, about Milifandom and the Cameronettes.
We are proud to have housed George Orwell when he wrote two of his most famous books: “Nineteen Eighty-Four” and “Animal Farm”. He was down and out in both Kilburn and Hampstead. As someone who raised the importance of privacy, he might turn in his grave at the knowledge that there are now 32 CCTV cameras within 20 yards of the very room in which he wrote “Nineteen Eighty-Four”.
As a constituency that has elected a female MP for 23 years, we are proud that we once housed Marie Stopes, who pioneered birth control for women in the aftermath of world war one. Even today, my constituency nurtures the likes of Bradley Wiggins, Mitchell and Webb and Zadie Smith, but for me, the most important part of my constituency is the resilience of the people who live there—the teachers, the doctors, the nurses, the public sector workers, the trade unionists, the small business owners and, yes, the bankers and lawyers as well.
Those are the people who, in 1966, caused national shock by electing a Labour MP in the form of Ben Whitaker. They turned that blue-stained seat Labour. Ben Whitaker was a man who showed the world that Hampstead is part of a London where affluence and social conscience go hand in hand. Ben Whitaker’s time in the House was important but, for me, what really stands out is the work he did in raising international awareness of the plight of Armenians, and the support he gave to a war-torn Bangladesh in the 1970s.
In 1992, my constituency decided once again to go against the blue national tide and elected my predecessor. What can I say about her? A woman in love with social justice. A lady with more than just a touch of class. Glenda Jackson, the queen of Hampstead. I remember her fervent opposition to the Iraq war, her powerful rhetoric against tuition fees and her advocacy of women’s rights. Perhaps her most dramatic moment was when she stole the show by defying all the bookies and winning the seat for Labour by just 42 votes in 2010. I am pleased that her formidable Conservative opponent now sits on the Government Benches as the hon. Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp), but not as the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn.
On 7 May this year, my constituency elected the daughter of a political asylum seeker. My mother came to Kilburn in the 1970s because 19 members of her family had been assassinated at home. My mother and my aunt were the two surviving daughters of the founding father of Bangladesh. I am pleased to say that they are in the Gallery today, listening to my maiden speech. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]
My mother came to Britain because this was a safe haven for her. Her story tells us that immigration is not simply an economic phenomenon. Britain has been seen for many years as a safe haven for political freedom. We must not let that slip away. An ill-conceived net migration target that includes refugees and asylum seekers is, frankly speaking, immoral, and it should put us to shame.
In my constituency we have shown our welcoming attitude to migrants from Ireland and to refugees fleeing political persecution in Nazi Germany. I am proud to say that that tradition stands today in Salusbury World, the only refugee centre to be based in a primary school. In my constituency of Hampstead and Kilburn, we recognise the link between aspiration and immigration. We recognise that public services will be put under pressure because of a larger population. We recognise that housing will be put under pressure, but we still recognise the benefits of immigration, and how it enriches us.
We believe that the Government should be able to take the benefits of immigration and ensure that it translates into prosperity. We think the Government should be able to maintain standards in housing and public services. Think about this: 46% of constituents in Hampstead and Kilburn are foreign-born. Without an open door to immigration, we might not have Hampstead and Kilburn. If we want Britain to remain open for business, we cannot shut the door of the shop.
My fear is that the EU referendum will become a proxy referendum on immigration. Both topics require a cool head and a moral compass. I believe that Members on both sides of the House need to work together to ensure that we give people the right choice to make the right decision when it comes to voting in the EU referendum.
Several hon. Members
Order. We now come to another maiden speech. I call Andrea Jenkyns.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) on her maiden speech—she has an incredible family history.
It is a great honour to make my maiden speech on my 41st birthday. [Hon. Members: “Oh!”] I know—I don’t look it. Birthdays are important occasions in our calendar year. For many of us, Christmas is also an important annual milestone. With that in mind, I would like to talk about my predecessor, otherwise known as the House of Commons Father Christmas. Ed Balls spent a number of years entertaining children as Father Christmas, in stark contrast to his public persona. I always found him personable. We ran positive campaigns and treated each other respectfully. We often discussed our shared love of music. At the election count, he was incredibly gracious. He wished me good luck and said that I would do the job very well. I know it must have been an incredibly difficult evening for him and his family, although it should be noted that, back in February, he called for an extension to paternity leave. The moral is we should be careful what we wish for.
But seriously, Ed Balls progressed to the highest levels of Government, holding the positions of Economic Secretary to the Treasury and Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families. I genuinely wish him well and thank him for his 10 years in public service.
Morley and Outwood is a diverse constituency, and each of its settlements has its own rich history. Morley is perhaps the most patriotic town in Britain. Its St George’s day celebration attracts more than 10,000 people. It is worth going to see St George on horseback. It has been home to many famous people, such as the Liberal Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, pioneering female cyclist Beryl Burton, and Bridget Jones author Helen Fielding. I was tempted to mention ladies’ big undergarments.
Asquith is perhaps Morley’s most famous son. As the Chairman of Ways and Means will be aware, it is 100 years since he was forced to shore up his Government with the Conservatives in a coalition. Fortunately, with the boot having been on the other foot over the past five years, I am pleased to say that no shoring up is required today.
West Yorkshire’s famous rhubarb triangle is centred on my constituency—it once produced 90% of the world’s forced rhubarb. According to the Morley Heritage Centre, which I am glad to be involved with, England’s first Viking Parliament was held in Tingley. Nearby East Ardsley was the birthplace of comedian Ernie Wise. The village of Robin Hood is named after Yorkshire’s best-known folk hero. Robin Hood was a champion of the taxpayer—he made sure the workers got to keep more of their hard-earned money, and might well have sought to fight Morley and Outwood for the Conservatives had he been alive today.
My journey to becoming a Member of Parliament was quite unexpected, but sometimes fate can lead us on a new journey. I experienced career diversity at a young age through my father. He began his career as a lorry driver, then set up his own transport company. In later life, he became something of an inventor, designing walking sticks for the blind and a dog lead that turned into a portable seat.
My career was equally diverse, from a beginning on the shop floor at 16 as a Saturday assistant in a bakery, to having a career in retail management, to running my own business, and then becoming a music tutor in schools. My father taught me that life is what we make it, and that it is not where we come from that matters, but what we do in our lifetime and how we personally contribute to society.
It was the loss of my father in 2011 that led me to be here today. He went to a local hospital for a routine operation but tragic circumstances led to him catching a hospital infection and he passed away a few months later. I became involved in the health charity sector and became a trustee of MRSA Action UK. I championed better standards in our hospitals and campaigned on the importance of finding new antibiotics. I am pleased that our Prime Minister and the chief medical officer, Dame Sally Davies, are leading a global campaign on antimicrobial resistance.
I graduated just last year as a mature student. I studied economics at the Open University and my dissertation was on comparing healthcare systems around the world: their per capita spend and whether it has any correlation with health outcomes. At the same time, I studied international relations at the University of Lincoln. My dissertation asked the question: is British foreign policy endogenous? Does it exist in its own right, or is it influenced by party politics and their leaders? I charted the parties’ policies in three key areas, from 1945 to date, which included looking at Britain’s relationship with Europe. That is one reason why I chose to make my maiden speech during this debate.
In the past two years, the topic of the European Union has proven to be of great importance to my constituents. Research into my university thesis revealed that the Conservatives have held a consistent foreign policy view on Europe: to be part of a European trading entity, but not a fully integrated political union. The pro-European-with-a-realist-caveat stance was led by Churchill in the 1940s, peaked during the 1970s, and is still true today of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister.
My research also revealed that the Labour party has had a somewhat inconsistent view on Europe, demonstrated by its manifestos and the actions of its leaders. Its views changed to a more pro-European stance in the mid 1990s, and further integration has been its policy since. In the past few weeks, Labour has again demonstrated an inconsistent standpoint, changing from being against having a referendum and giving the public a voice, to now being in support of it.
I am unhappy with our current relationship with Brussels. There is a lack of transparency on where taxpayers’ money is being spent, and on further integration and political union. I am a proud Brit, a proud Englishwoman and a proud Yorkshirewoman. I stand here today on behalf of my constituents in full support of holding a renegotiation, reform and a referendum. Like many of my Conservative colleagues, I want the best for Britain. We trust the British public to decide.
The Conservatives have the right policy. We must look into renegotiation first. We cannot unsteady the markets and put pressure on our economy by holding a referendum tomorrow. We need to plan to ensure that in two years’ time we hold a referendum and that the British public are given a choice to be either part of a much-reformed European Union or have the option to come out altogether. I, for one, trust my constituents to make this choice. I will fight to ensure they have the opportunity to do so.
Before this year, Morley last elected a Conservative MP in 1931 and some parts of the constituency have never had one. I stand here, in memory of my father, wanting to make a difference in people’s lives. I hope that over the next five years I can prove to the residents of Morley and Outwood that we are a perfect fit, and that my upfront, passionate Yorkshire style resonates with theirs so I can truly become another strong Yorkshire voice in Westminster.
I shall speak to amendments 4, 5 and 6 on the publication of information, and amendment 54, in my name and those of my right hon. Friends, on the application of purdah.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Andrea Jenkyns) on her maiden speech. She enjoyed a famous victory at the election and she is entitled to enjoy it. She spoke very movingly about her father and I wish her well for her time in the House.
I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) on her excellent maiden speech. She reminded us—it was a good reminder —of the reasons why people come to these shores, and of the wonderful chances and opportunities that this great country can bring to people who do come to these shores. I know she brought with her some very distinguished and very welcome guests to watch our proceedings.
Another week has brought more European troubles for the Conservative party. Last week, we had the debacle over collective ministerial responsibility. The Prime Minister was first reported as saying that it would apply, then that he had been misinterpreted, and then that no decision had been taken on the issue. This week, we have had the tabling overnight of an amendment saying that in response to pressure, from the Opposition and from elsewhere in the House, the referendum will not take place in May next year in combination with other important elections that will be taking place throughout the country. We welcome that change of heart from the Government, but I must point out to the Minister that his amendment deals only with the issue of May next year and not May 2017. That is an issue to which we will want to return. There have also been reports overnight that the Government may have something to say about purdah. I will question the Minister more on that as we go.
Amendments 4, 5 and 6 concern the provision of information for the public on the implications of Britain leaving the EU. I say at the outset that this is not the same as a discussion about purdah, which is dealt with by amendment 54 and others. Amendments 4, 5 and 6 deal with information that we feel should be provided at least 10 weeks before the referendum takes place, not in the final four weeks of the campaign.
The UK has been a member of the EU for more than 40 years, so we know what membership means in terms of trade, legal obligations, costs and so on. Of course, the Prime Minister has set out on a renegotiation process that may change to some degree the terms of that membership, but all of that will be made public well before the referendum takes place and people will be able to make a judgment on whatever he achieves in the negotiations. What is less clear, as was pointed out by the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) on Second Reading, is what being out of the EU would mean. The amendments are intended to inform the public debate on this issue.
I have some sympathy for providing as much information as possible during the referendum campaign, but is my right hon. Friend aware that probably the most definitive assessment of the costs and benefits of leaving the European Union has been provided by Open Europe? It says that on the one hand there may be benefits and on the other hand there may be disbenefits, depending on what assumptions are put into the calculation. How does he expect the Government to come down on one side or the other, and which assumptions would go into that assessment?
I have read the work by Open Europe. My hon. Friend is right to say it has made an assessment, but it is one assessment among many—there have been many others. As I go, I will explain why I think there is merit in Government Departments taking a proper look at this.
There has been much talk of whether the UK would adopt the Norwegian model, the Swiss model or some other model of being outside the EU. The Committee will be glad to know that I am not going to go through all the costs and benefits of those models today, but they all raise questions about being outside the EU that have not yet been answered.
Amendment 4 calls for a report from the Office for Budget Responsibility on the implications for the public finances of a British exit. Few would dispute that since the OBR was established it has gained a reputation for both independence and quality. The reports it produces on the Budget and the autumn statement are valued across the House and have helped to inform the debate about fiscal policy in the past five years. In the run-up to the recent election, my party called for the OBR to assess the tax and spending promises of each of the main parties, a demand supported by the Treasury Committee in the previous Parliament, although there was some debate about whether the request had come too late in the Parliament to be brought into being in time for the election.
My right hon. Friend has mentioned some of the work of Select Committees, but he will also know that the Foreign Affairs Select Committee has done some work on the possibility of Britain leaving the EU and following the Norwegian or Swiss models. Will he find a way to ensure that those ideas and findings are brought into the national debate as well?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. All these models need to be examined to see what their strengths and weaknesses might be.
Aside from its regular work on the Budget and the autumn statement, the OBR already produces a longer-term fiscal sustainability report on future trends and pressures, the latest edition of which was published just a few days ago, so it already ranges more widely than the work we are most familiar with on Budgets and autumn statements. Our amendment asks the OBR to produce a report on the implications for the public finances of a British exit. For example, can we assume that the UK would save all its budget contribution to the EU, as claimed by the advocates of exit, or could we expect to contribute some or most of that in return for continued access to the single market? Some countries outside the EU but part of the European free trade area have to make substantial contributions for access to the market. Are there other effects to take into account, such as the implications for the public finances of any migration changes as a result of exit? Would exit have any impact on the long-term demographics of the country that might in turn impact on the public finances? There are a number of issues that the OBR might want to consider that could impact on the public finances.
Will the right hon. Gentleman explain why he and his party objected to my Bill in the last Parliament calling for an independent audit of the economic costs and benefits of our current membership of the EU? Is that not the most fundamental issue about which the public want to be informed before the referendum?
We know the costs of being in. The point of the amendments is to assess the costs of being out. Amendment 5 calls for each Secretary of State to produce a report at least 10 weeks before polling day on the possible consequences of exit for their area of responsibility. I will resist the temptation to get back into the issues of collective responsibility by saying that a report from each Department might test that. That is not the point of the amendment; the point is that EU membership touches many parts of what the Government do, and the public have a right to know about them.
Most obviously, there are the trade issues. What would exit mean for exports, inward investment and some of our great companies that operate across borders? For example, Airbus president Paul Kahn has said:
“If after an exit from the European Union, economic conditions in Britain were less favourable for business than in other parts of Europe, or beyond, would Airbus reconsider future investment in the United Kingdom? Yes, absolutely.”
Vodafone chief executive Vittorio Colao said recently:
“As a company we think it is in the interests of our shareholders and our customers that Britain does not leave the EU.”
ManpowerGroup Solutions UK managing director James Hick said last week:
“Our position on Europe is clear: leaving the EU would threaten jobs and harm Britain’s prospects”.
On a point of order, Mr Hoyle. Excuse me, but I thought we were discussing amendments, not the views of certain businessmen about the EU. Surely we should stick to the amendments.
The Chair can decide what is in order and what is out of order, but I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention.
Of course, some Members do not like hearing these warnings and find them unpalatable, and people are entitled to disagree with them, but there are fundamental implications for trade and investment that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and other Departments with an interest in investment, jobs and trade should study and make information available about.
It is not just about trade, however: what would exit mean for the employment rights that millions of people have today? I think, for example, about the right to paid leave or to be treated equally as a part-time worker, and about the TUPE rights, which apply when a company is taken over and which stem from the acquired rights directive? What would happen to those employment rights, many of which were agreed at the European level, if we left?
Then there is the important area of universities and research. We have some of the best universities in the world, and not surprisingly they do very well when bidding for EU research funds. EU funding provides an additional 15% on top of the UK Government’s own research budget. Funds for research projects requested by UK higher education institutions from the European Commission rose from £424 million in 2008 to £714 million in 2012. My local university, the University of Wolverhampton, receives £3 million a year for research work and £20 million a year for knowledge exchange and work with businesses from the EU.
Order. We need to keep tight to the amendments.
Thank you, Mr Jenkin. We do not need any applause. We can save that for another occasion.
I was giving the right hon. Gentleman some time, but we now need to get on to the amendments. As important as Wolverhampton is to him and me, I am sure that discussion of the amendments would be more welcome in the Chamber.
The point is that right across the piece— whether trade, university research or farming and agriculture —there is a strong case for each Department producing a report on the implications of exit, as amendment 5 calls for.
Amendment 6 deals with the Bank of England assessment. As we know, the Bank is independent, but we also know, thanks to a stray finger that sent an email to a journalist rather than a Bank staff member, that the Bank has begun work on Project Bookend, its own internal assessment of the consequences of a British exit. As my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham East (Chris Leslie), the shadow Chancellor, said a few weeks ago, we would expect the Bank to carry out an assessment, but there would be significant public interest in it, so the amendment asks that the Government publish it if they receive it from the Bank.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct that the Bank of England is independent—in my estimation, it is one of the relatively few public authorities in the UK that keeps to that independence—but that creates a difficulty. If the Bank were to make an assessment coming down heavily in favour of the UK remaining part of the EU and warning of alarming consequences if it left, but the electorate voted the other way, the Bank would be left trying to deny its own previous warnings about the credibility of the currency and a range of other things. Its independence gives it a difficulty in making predictions.
I am afraid I disagree with the right hon. Gentleman. It is not surprising that the Bank is carrying out an assessment, but now that that is known, it will be difficult for the Bank to keep it quiet, and the demands for it to be published will grow.
Amendment 54 deals with purdah. Since the Bill’s publication, there has been a great deal of debate about this issue and its application to the referendum. As has been said, the history goes back to the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. Purdah applied during the referendum on the alternative vote in 2011 and the referendum on Scottish independence last year. The Bill proposes to suspend this provision, which means there would be no purdah period and no restriction on what Ministers can produce or say during the referendum period. When my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) questioned the Prime Minister about this last week, he said there were two justifications for taking the course proposed.
I am listening to the right hon. Gentleman’s comments with interest. Is he aware of any other election when purdah has been suspended?
I am not aware of any other occasions.
When my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham asked the Prime Minister, he gave two justifications. First, he said that,
“because the European issue is so pervasive, I do not want a situation where, in the four weeks before a referendum, Ministers cannot talk about the European budget, make statements about European Court judgments, respond to European Councils and all the rest of it.”
He then said the second issue was a bigger one:
“When the negotiation is complete and the Government have taken a clear view, I do not want us to be neutral on this issue; I want us to speak clearly and frankly.”—[Official Report, 10 June 2015; Vol. 596, c. 1179.]
On Second Reading, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) said:
“Everybody in the House would agree that the referendum must be fair and must be seen to be fair, but at the same time the Government—any Government—are entitled to argue their case.”
He had said a few moments earlier:
“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”.—[Official Report, 9 June 2015; Vol. 596, c. 1059.]
The Foreign Secretary sought to reassure the House, telling a fellow Member that if his 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”.—[Official Report, 9 June 2015; Vol. 596, c. 1055.]
We read overnight that the Government would have more to say on the issue, and we wait with interest to hear it. How will they reassure the House that there will not be abuse of the lifting of the purdah provisions, and that there should be the legal framework that has been called for by the Leader of the Opposition? Our amendment does not seek to reinstate the purdah provisions in full, but it does seek clarity on what exactly the Government intend to do or to publish during the referendum period. More clarity is needed than has so far been made available in ministerial statements. What form will expressing a view take, and what form will it not take? The Government need to provide more information, more clarity and more reassurance.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way, and for the pertinent questions that he is putting to Ministers. They and I have been engaged in similar discussions. May I ask, however, why his party has decided not to support amendment 11, which would reinstate purdah, until he has received those assurances? Why is he letting the Government off the hook—or is it part of a Euro-stitch-up to rig the referendum?
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central said on Second Reading, we do not object to the Government’s taking a view, but we want to see a fair referendum.
Will the Government agree to publish a report, a document or a code of conduct, or to provide the clarity that we seek in some other way? If so, what form will that information take? Will it set out clearly what kind of reports or statements the Government think they may need to make? What assurances will the Minister be able to give us about the use of taxpayer funds, beyond the funds that are channelled to the official yes and no campaigns in the normal way, through the Electoral Commission?
Why does the right hon. Gentleman not propose to support an amendment that would reintroduce the very protections that his own party introduced back in the year 2000?
I am speaking to my own amendment, which calls for clarity on the Government’s intentions.
There is an important relationship between the issue of purdah and the amendments relating to whether the referendum can be combined with other elections. The Government have tabled amendment 55, which rules out a referendum in May next year but leaves open the possibility of combining it with other polls in the future. If that were to happen, would purdah not operate in the case of both the referendum and the other elections, or would it be suspended for the European referendum while operating for the purpose of other elections taking place on the same day? I believe that, when Members start to think about those questions, they will realise that the Government did not think them out fully, and that the issues of purdah and the date on which the referendum is held—and, specifically, the issue of whether it will be held as a stand-alone poll—are linked.
Let me now say a few words about amendment 16, which was moved by the right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond). As the right hon. Gentleman said, the amendment requires a majority vote for a British exit from the European Union not only in the United Kingdom as a whole, but in each of its constituent nations.
The United Kingdom joined the European Community, as it then was, as a single member state. Of course there will be different votes in different parts of the country, but we believe that we remain one member state, and that we should make this decision as one member state. Elections and referendums in this country are based on the principle of a majority of one. The Bill proposes not four separate referendums, but one referendum throughout the UK. For that reason, we will not support amendment 16.
I shall speak from a standing position.
May I suggest that perhaps the hon. Gentleman ought to take a seat? The last thing that I want him to do is get himself into difficulty, and take too much out of himself. Please, Sir William, do whatever you feel is necessary,
I will sit down then. I am sorry to have to make my speech in this way, but I have been in hospital for the last four days.
Our problem is this: the situation in which we now find ourselves is not necessary. I speak more in sorrow than in anger, because I have spoken to the Minister for Europe, and we had a good discussion, as we always do. I was also grateful to him for saying in a letter that he was himself grateful for the constructive way in which concerns had been raised. It must be said, however, that the Government have not allayed those concerns, and that is the real point. I shall try to explain why, but let me first congratulate the Government on having listened. They listened over the question of having a referendum at all, they listened over the question of whether we should veto the fiscal compact, and they listened over the reduction in the budget. Those are all positive steps.
Having given the matter as much thought as I could—admittedly, I had an opportunity to do so from my hospital bed—I have to say that, in this instance, I am convinced that the Government are taking a step in the wrong direction. However—I ask Ministers to listen, if they would be kind enough to do so—it is possible for them to retrieve the situation so that there need not be a vote against.
Ultimately, what is raised is a question of trust. There are extremely strong reasons for the provisions in section 125 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, but we have heard very little about those provisions. Let me briefly explain them, so that people will know what we are about to repeal. Most might assume that, given the momentous and historic nature of the EU referendum, what is good enough for a Scottish referendum, a referendum on the alternative vote, and a Welsh referendum—all of which have taken place under Conservative-led Governments in the last few years—ought to be applicable to a referendum that goes to the heart of how we are governed and who governs us.
However, it is not just about trust. We do not know what the outcome of the promised discussions and consultations will be, but we do know that conducting a referendum in a manner that is unfair on the voters is an extremely retrograde step in the kind of democracy that we uphold. The provisions in the 2000 Act were introduced for very sound reasons. I applaud the then Government for that, and, even at this late stage, I appeal to the present Government to think again.
Incidentally, this has absolutely nothing to do with Maastricht or anything like that. There was a rebellion then because we did not have a referendum. On this occasion, we merely wish to ensure that the voters are given a fair choice. That must be one of our prime duties, because we are sent here as representatives of those people. If the Bill is passed, we shall have made a decision to transfer back to those people, by means of an Act of Parliament, the right to make their own decision. Therefore, they will have an absolute right to know that the way the referendum is conducted will in no way be canted or manipulated, whether for yes or no. Taking this out and then asking us to consider on the basis of consultations yet to come seems to me quite bizarre, because if the Government were good enough to accept my amendment 11—I am grateful for the support of many Members on both sides of the House on that—nothing would change in terms of the referendum. It is not going to take place in any immediate future. All we will be doing is re-securing the status quo so that we will then have the restrictions set out in section 125. I will come on to that section in a moment, and demonstrate what we would actually be repealing this evening. This is not just a Eurosceptic argument. This is not about a Eurosceptic position, in essence. It may be that we would prefer to ensure there is a fair vote, but the real question is about our democracy. That, to me, is the main question.
But does not the experience of the Scottish referendum tell the House that not only should the protections that are in statute not be removed from this Bill and that the hon. Gentleman’s amendment 11 should be carried, but that there needs to be an enforcement mechanism to make sure the purdah period is applied and adhered to by Government Ministers and civil servants?
I very much agree, and it may be of interest to Members, if they have not already noticed, that the Electoral Commission has examined not only the Bill but my amendments, and has stated:
“The Commission is therefore generally supportive of proposals to reinstate restrictions on the publication of promotional material by central and local government in the run-up to the poll.”
Even after Second Reading, the Electoral Commission—which is, after all, charged with these duties—has concluded it would be important to retain these restrictions. Some adjustments may need to be made in due course, but we should secure the status quo, then have the discussions, and then have the vote on Report. That would be the right way round.
How far does my hon. Friend want to take this? In a general election, the whole government machinery closes down for four weeks and studies the potential future of alternative political masters and waits to see what the political policy of the new Government will be. In this case, however, the Government at the time of the referendum will be the Government for the next several years, and the Government, as a Government, will have been involved in producing the terms that are part of the referendum. Does my hon. Friend intend that no Minister can act as a Minister, as could be the case if we strictly applied purdah, or take advice for all those weeks on anything that might pertain to an issue in the referendum? Is the Prime Minister going to be prevented from expressing a view? Surely some compromise that is a modification of purdah is required—
Order. The right hon. and learned Gentleman has been here longer than most Members, and he should know that interventions must be short, especially if he wants to make a speech later.
I seem to have spurred my right hon. and learned Friend to a passionate pursuit of his arguments, because he does not want what I am proposing at all. The fact is that the Electoral Commission says the proposal to remove section 125
“could mean that governments and others will be free to spend unlimited amounts of public funds promoting an outcome at the referendum right up until polling day.”
It goes on to say:
“In the Commission’s view, there is a risk that the use of significant amounts of public money for promotional activity could give an unfair advantage to one side of the argument. Unlimited government spending would also undermine the principle of having spending limits for registered campaigns.”
We have already heard about the interference in the Scottish referendum, and what the right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond) said is completely right.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is ironic that the section 125 provisions were adopted by the Venice Commission in the following year and are now universal best practice, and that the Venice Commission has endorsed the fact that there should be a prohibition on Government expenditure in the four weeks of the referendum campaign?
That is absolutely right. I was going to refer to that, but I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making the point.
I want to refer to what section 125 actually does say, because the proposal is to remove that tonight, in the face of our opposition. The explanatory notes accompanying the Bill state what they do:
“These Explanatory Notes have been prepared by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office…to help inform debate”
“in order to assist the reader of the Bill”.
However, paragraph 52 of the notes gives no explanation and simply says:
“Paragraph 25 provides that section 125 of the 2000 Act does not apply for the purposes of this referendum”,
and then mentions a consequential amendment. There is no explanation at all. That itself is a reason for our being concerned about the way this is being done.
I want to return to the question of what we are repealing. What is in the 2000 Act is very sound. It refers to
“any material which—
(a) provides general information about a referendum to which this Part applies;
(b) deals with any of the issues raised by any question on which such a referendum is being held;
(c) puts any arguments for or against any particular answer to any such question; or
(d) is designed to encourage voting at such a referendum.”
It is very comprehensive.
Does my hon. Friend share my concerns that the provisions of section 125 would allow the European Commission to make statements and publish material affecting a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, but would prevent British Ministers or Departments from publishing material to correct or counter such a publication?
Very simply, any suggestion that the European Commission or the EU should be involved in this process is the subject of another amendment I have tabled, and nor should they be allowed to make any provision by way of financing. We can debate that later.
On whether contradiction might be created in respect of the position of Government Ministers in this country, my flow has been slightly diverted by my hon. Friend’s perfectly understandable intervention, but the fact is that Ministers and the civil service are in a position under the purdah rules such that they would not be able to use the machinery of government. In relation to the EU, which I know a little bit about, the machinery of government is extensive, but there are methods that could be applied, with a sensible degree of amendment, to ensure that the restrictions on the matters to which I have referred are complied with, because this is what we are talking about; it is not some generalised assumption that Ministers are going to wander on to completely different paths.
Section 125 lists the material I have already referred to—
“general information about a referendum…any of the issues raised by any question…any arguments for or against any particular answer to any such question”
“designed to designed to encourage voting”,—
and it states that none of that material
“shall be published during the relevant period by or on behalf of—
(a) any Minister of the Crown, government department or local authority”.
It could not be clearer; it could not be more sensible, more sound or more comprehensive.
Would my hon. Friend like to confirm that it is a principle of fairness in all British elections and referendums that individuals—Ministers as well—participate on whichever side they wish under a single campaign, for yes or for no, which has proper controls over expenditure and publications? Does he also acknowledge that there cannot be a third category of intervention by the Government, because that would break the normal rules of campaign funding and control?
I completely agree with my right hon. Friend.
The Government argue—I think we have to accept their argument—that these detailed and broad restrictions are too prescriptive and that they would not be able to carry on with the normal course of government, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) has explained. Does my hon. Friend not agree that there would be too much interference in the normal conduct of government?
I just do not think that makes sense. The bottom line is that we are now so invading the ability of the voters in the referendum to make a free and fair choice, by canting the process and taking all the things to which I have just referred out of the equation, that we could seriously undermine the whole democratic process with respect to referendums. This is simply not a tenable position. If it was good enough for the Scottish and the Welsh, why is it not good enough for the referendum on the EU, which will go even further towards infringing—as we would put it—the role of this Parliament and our democratic freedoms?
I also want to discuss what publishing means. Section 125 of the 2000 Act is very general on this point, and this is what hon. Members are being asked to repeal this afternoon. It states:
“‘publish’ means make available to the public at large, or any section of the public, in whatever form and by whatever means”,
and the relevant period
“means the period of 28 days ending with the date of the poll.”
There are profound reasons for maintaining the status quo at this stage and for retaining the restriction, because once it has been repealed, we would then have to reinvent the wheel, as it were, on Report. That could open a huge can of worms for the Government. The question is: what would the Government not be restrained from doing, compared with some of the things that it is currently stated they would be restrained from doing?
The Minister for Europe has sent us a letter today, 16 June, in which he says:
“It is our clear intention, through the Bill, to provide a straightforward, fair and effective framework for the referendum.”
I have to say to him that I must cast some doubt on that in relation to the questions that are being raised. He goes on to say that it would be “inappropriate” to
“prevent Ministers from effectively conducting the significant amounts of ordinary day-to-day business between the Government and the EU that will necessarily continue during the pre-poll period.”
I have been Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee for five years, and I just do not recognise this at all. There are things that go on in the monumental amount of material that comes in from the European Union, but in my judgment there is no suggestion that anything of this nature would be affected by retaining section 125. The section was applied during the Scottish referendum, which had a European dimension. The same applied to the Welsh Assembly. If it was all right for Ministers to continue to make statements in those circumstances, we should keep section 125 and do as the Foreign Secretary suggested during the Second Reading debate. The Minister for Europe’s letter states:
“The Foreign Secretary said during the debate that the Government will exercise proper restraint to ensure a balanced debate during the campaign.”
This is the moment to ensure that we get this right by keeping the restriction for the time being, having discussions and coming back with specific proposals on Report, on which we can then vote.
I acknowledge that the Minister for Europe has conceded that we have more than a reasonable case. His letter goes on:
“Working out a system that will reassure colleagues and voters that the referendum is a fair fight, yet will preserve the Government’s ability to act in the national interest is not straightforward.”
Well, it would be very straightforward if we kept section 125. He adds:
“It is important that it is legally clear and robust.”
It would make things very unclear and very unrobust if we were to remove the provisions in section 125, which are based on common sense and fairness and on giving voters a proper opportunity to make a fair choice.
I rise to speak in support of amendments 49 and 50, which have been tabled in my name, and to give my support to amendment 54, which was introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden).
The Bill proposes that the referendum be held by 31 December 2017. That is in line with what the Prime Minister proposed in his Bloomberg speech in January 2013. I often wondered why 31 December 2017 had been chosen. I assumed that it was an arbitrary date midway through a Parliament elected in May 2015. In the last Parliament, when the former Foreign Secretary, William Hague, was questioned by the Foreign Affairs Committee, it seemed to come as a surprise to him when we pointed out that under the rotating presidency of the Council of Ministers the United Kingdom’s presidency would begin in July 2017. I do not know whether that had been taken into consideration when the Government produced their original proposal, but it will clearly be a major complicating factor.
We are debating the period of purdah. Just imagine what would happen if there were a meeting of the Council of Ministers in September 2017 and the referendum were to be held within 28 days of that meeting, in the October. What would Ministers be able to do or say during that period? Those Council of Ministers meetings have to be convened and chaired by the appropriate representative of the rotating six-month presidency, and there would have to be a British Minister present to represent the interests of the UK Government. What could those Ministers and their officials say and do during that period? There would be enormous complications if the Bill were to lead to a referendum being held in the last few months of 2017.
Under the constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany, there is a defined period within which the next German election will be held. It has to be held on 27 August 2017 at the earliest, and at the latest on 22 October 2017. One can imagine Chancellor Merkel, Mr Sigmar Gabriel, Mr Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Mr Wolfgang Schäuble and all the other senior figures on both sides of the German coalition being somewhat exercised and diverted from considering matters to do with the possible negotiated terms, or the nature of the negotiation, if we had not yet set the date for our referendum.
It seems, therefore, that any referendum held in the second half of 2017 would have major problems. Amendment 49 recognises that, and provides that the referendum in this country should be held before 1 July 2017—before the United Kingdom takes over the rotating presidency of the Council of Ministers and before the German election campaign. We might bring it forward to the first half of 2017, but I suspect that when the Prime Minister came up with his proposal in his Bloomberg speech he had not considered the election cycle in France. The first round of the presidential election has to be held in April 2017 and the second round in May. We could face trouble with the renegotiations in France if we were to have the referendum later in 2017.
I am listening closely to the hon. Gentleman, but is not the logic of his argument that, with 27 other countries in the European Union, there would never be a good time to have a referendum on our membership of the European Union?
My position on this matter is well known. I am not in favour of referendums, and neither was Margaret Thatcher. She quoted Clement Attlee, who said they were the devices of demagogues and dictators. However, that is a diversion from these amendments, so I will not go down that route.
Does the hon. Gentleman think that it was a mistake of his Front Bench team to go against Labour’s manifesto commitment and to back a referendum?
No. Unlike the hon. Gentleman, if I lose an election or a referendum, I recognise the result. The fact is we lost the election. There will be a referendum and the best thing that we who believe in the European Union can do is to get into the fight and build a strong yes campaign. It is a pity that Scottish nationalists do not accept the result of the referendum they lost last year.
The problem we face is fundamental: the two major countries within the European Union—Germany and France—may be preoccupied with internal political campaigns and processes at precisely the time when we might be concluding the most difficult part of the renegotiation strategy. The solution might be to bring forward the referendum, as amendment 50 suggests, to before the end of 2016. That would still give time for the renegotiation to proceed, and for the Government to have a piece of paper to wave, saying it is a protocol that can be implemented later in future treaty reform, but not at that time. It could still provide the fig leaf that the Prime Minister will need if he is to claim that he has fundamentally renegotiated the terms of our membership. It will also give enough time for a considered campaign to ensure that there is a clear majority for our country staying within the European Union.
The other advantage of bringing forward the referendum is that it cuts the period of uncertainty for the Koreans, the Americans, the Chinese and the other countries wishing to invest in the United Kingdom. They would have less uncertainty than they would have if we left the referendum to the end of 2017. One of the strongest arguments against a referendum is the economic and political uncertainty it engenders. If foreign investors, or people planning long-term investment projects, think there is no guarantee that the United Kingdom will remain in the European Union, they will not give priority to investing in our country. They will hold back, or choose to go to a country such as Ireland, the Netherlands or France, where there is certainty over their continuing membership of the European Union.
Reference was made earlier to the position of Norway and Switzerland. One of the great failings of those who believe that we should be outside the European Union is that they have failed to define what we are going out to.
The free trade that Switzerland and Norway have with the European Union is dependent on their complying with rules and regulations that are determined within and by the European Union member states, over which Switzerland and Norway have absolutely no say.
Does that not show the hon. Gentleman what a complete protection racket the whole thing is?
There we have it. We have the authentic voice of those who want us to leave the European Union. They do not want to comply with the rules and regulations. Presumably, they do not want us to have unfettered access to the single market of 500 million people. The Norwegians think better than that—
Order. The hon. Gentleman is straying rather far from the dates that are the subject of the amendment. It is fascinating material, but we do not really need another Second Reading debate.
I was tempted by the interventions, so I apologise to you, Sir Roger, for following the temptation. I will get back to the point.
There is an issue here to do with purdah and how the purdah requirements would apply. There will be great difficulty in holding a referendum at the end of 2017, when we are chairing the Council of Ministers meetings, because of that issue alone. For that reason, I hope that, if we are to have a referendum in 2016, we plan for it now—and that may already be, privately, the Prime Minister’s intention—rather than getting into great difficulties with the way in which it can be conducted, and damaging the United Kingdom’s role and relationship with the other 27 member states of the European Union. Once the referendum is over, assuming that it is won, we must work constructively with our partners to restore the trust and relationships for the future. It is better that we confront the issues early, rather than slipping into some kind of disastrous outcome.
On a point of order, Sir Roger. At various times during this debate, there has been reference to a letter. I was somewhat puzzled because I did not seem to have been sent such a letter. But now, through access to Twitter, it seems I may have found it. What I now have is a letter from the Minister for Europe to various Members on the Conservative Benches—it can be described only as a letter begging for support. I am somewhat disappointed not to have received it, and to have been ruled out of providing such support. If we are debating amendments—this letter specifically gives Government assurances relating to those amendments—should this communications not have been available to all Members, and should it not now been placed immediately in the Library of the House?
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, Ministers are responsible for making available their own documentation. It may be a courtesy, but it is not a matter for the Chair.
I think I am fairly confident in saying that the starting point of this debate is that every Member of the House—from the Prime Minister and Ministers to the acting Leader of the Opposition and shadow Ministers to the most newly elected Back Bencher—agrees that if we are to have a referendum it must be perceived to be fair. The most balanced position possible must be taken vis à vis those who wish to advocate yes or no, for a variety of reasons, so that the public hear the broadest possible range of views and can make a reasonably objective judgment.
I have never known a referendum settle any question. It certainly has not settled questions of Scottish independence, elected mayors, proportional representation or AV, and does not seem to have settled the European question either. However, I think that those who believe that a referendum is a valuable way forward agree with me that we should bend over backwards to make sure that all those who feel strongly either way on this subject are treated as fairly as possible.
Most of what my right hon. and learned Friend has just said could be applied to democracy itself, yet still we trouble ourselves with it.
Which is why I believe that the parliamentary system of democracy is so very good. A representative body of people elected from time to time have continuous responsibility for step-by-step decisions, and eventually they have to face the consequences of their decisions and can be removed. But we are already going wide of the amendments.
Will my right hon. and learned Friend give way?
I am delighted to see that my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) is able to stand when he feels passionately on the subject. I am sympathetic to the problems he has had, and I am glad that he was able to speak from a sedentary position, which I had never seen before. I will finish making my point before I give way.
I hold my hon. Friend and those who agree with him in the highest possible regard. We in the Conservative party have to be careful that we do not repeat the folly of Harold Wilson and tear our party apart in the course of a referendum campaign. After quite a few decades of this battle, I continue to be on excellent personal terms with those of my hon. Friends with whom I disagree. It is best that we proceed by putting forward our respective views of the public interest. We must certainly not divide the strong purpose of the Government, who have been so recently elected with the support of the whole Conservative party.
Will my right hon. and learned Friend allow me?
Let me make a little more progress. I hope that my hon. Friend’s constraint will stop him leaping up too frequently; I will give way in due course.
I do not believe that there is any bad faith anywhere. Everyone wants those who campaign and the public to feel that the referendum has been conducted with absolute fairness. I am surprised, therefore, that, in these opening days of the European referendum process, so much passion is being excited by procedural issues. I will not describe them as footnotes, but, although they are important, none of them will make the faintest difference to the result on the day of the referendum. If we asked most of our masters—the public—whether purdah was followed properly during the campaign, they would not have the first idea what we were talking about. So my first plea is for a sense of proportion.
My plea to my right hon. Friend the Minister—I do not think I need to make it because I have seen the letter, which did not get to me either; I have just been shown it—is to live up to his undertakings. It is right to bend over backwards to reassure my right hon. and hon. Friends that there is no conspiracy, that they must not leap into paranoia, and that the intention is to hold a referendum in which the British public will be able to reach a view on balanced presentations. It seems to me that Ministers have started doing this straight away. I got the impression from the Second Reading debate that my right hon. Friends on the Front Bench were as surprised as I was at the sudden excitement about the rules in what should have been a fairly routine Bill paving the way for the referendum.
Will my right hon. and learned Friend give way?
I will give way in a moment.
The Prime Minister has announced that he will suspend the rules of collective responsibility and that members of the Government will be able to campaign on whichever side they choose. We now have the letter giving an undertaking that the Government will depart from section 129. People seem to think that there is something magic about 5 May 2016, so we will not hold the referendum on that date. I have sympathy with Ministers; they are being derided. The moment they make concessions to all these impassioned pleas, they suffer the fate of all Ministers and are immediately accused of a humiliating U-turn and held up for ridicule.
Some of my right hon. and hon. Friends and perhaps others in the Scottish National party are difficult to calm down and reassure. I ask them to accept, as I accept, that every effort is being and should be made to satisfy fears about the propriety of the campaigning period.
My right hon. and learned Friend’s rather Hush Puppy approach—saying that there is really nothing much that we need worry about, and that Parliament is far better at doing this than the people—seems somewhat dangerous and disrespectful of the voters. We have had a lot of referendums over the years. He says that purdah would not make a difference anyway. Does he think that the Electoral Commission is wrong when it says that disapplying section 125 of the 2000 Act would enable the Government to spend unlimited sums of money?
I once gave evidence to an inquiry chaired by Sir Nigel Wicks into the workings of the Electoral Commission, and my recommendation was that it should be abolished as a useless quango, but that is a wider issue.
Of course we have had referendums, but my hon. Friend has never accepted the result of any referendum if he disagreed with it—for the sound reason, for which I respect him, that he has strong personal principles and convictions. I took part in the referendum 40 years ago. No serious Member of Parliament on either side of the argument changed their beliefs one jot the day after the result of the poll was announced. Tony Benn, who was personally responsible for floating this innovation in British politics, was one of the first to start demanding that we left the European Community within a few weeks of the announcement of the result. The Labour party was committed to leaving the EU by the time we got to the 1983 election, having shed a high proportion of its members to the Social Democratic party. My hon. Friend the Member for Stone and I agree that we must not repeat the mistakes of the past.
Will my right hon. and learned Friend give way?
Let me move on a little and perhaps reassure my hon. Friend. I am prepared to be persuaded that, despite my bewilderment that so much importance is being given to the procedure, we should bend over backwards to reassure my right hon. and hon. Friends that the Government are acting in good faith and will hold the campaign in a serious way. So I accept that 5 May 2016 is verboten—absolutely ruled out. It is a sacred day in the next two years on which it is not possible to put an additional question on the Scottish referendum—[Hon. Members: “European.”]—on membership of the European Union. So it has been decided not to hold it on 5 May.
I could not care less on which precise date the referendum is held, as long as it is held properly. I do not think that 5 May is a remotely important subject. I might have argued that it would have been a good idea to raise the turnout in our electoral process. There is an argument that if elections for various things are held on the same day, the turnout for some elections might go up from its current pathetic level. Apparently, however, it is thought that the poor electorate would be puzzled and confused—that they would vote in their local council election thinking that the Germans were playing a key role in the whole thing and that the questions would be too complicated and they would muddle up the documents.
I will not, however, deride an argument to which I am prepared to concede. I listened to the right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond) move the amendment on behalf of the Scottish National party, and I am prepared to say that I am wrong and he is quite right. I hope he is reassured that 5 May 2016 is now firmly ruled out: on that day the public shall not be asked whether this nation’s future lies in or out of the European Union. As Members may gather, I do not take that particular point as seriously as I obviously should. Everybody else felt passionately about it on Second Reading, but I do not think it is important.
I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend to the extent that I have every respect for the British people and am sure they are capable of considering two separate issues at the same time. I do not have a crystal ball, but I suspect that my right hon. and learned Friend is on the other side of the argument from me. The real problem with holding local or Assembly elections on the same day as a referendum is that Members of a political party—
Order. The hon. Gentleman’s intervention is becoming almost as long as the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s speech.
The point is that Members of the same political party may well campaign on different sides of the referendum question while at the same time being on the same side for the local elections. That is the key reason we need to have them on separate days.
If, on the day of the referendum poll, a member of the electorate does not realise that different Members of both the Conservative and the Labour parties—at the very least—are campaigning on different sides of the campaign, I regret to say that we will all have failed, because that member of the public will have been singularly uninformed about the progress of about 20 years of debate, during which that has always been the case. But there we are: the issue of the date has been determined. The Government have given way and have been derided for doing so, and I will spend no more time on the subject.
The more serious point—although I do not think this is a serious problem—is the suggestion that the absolute statutory rigour of purdah should be applied to the Government as a whole acting as a Government throughout the final four weeks of the referendum campaign. I have already made this point during an intervention, but it is important.
People are suggesting that the whole Government machine should be switched off for those four weeks on a whole list of issues. They say it would be improper that any public body, the Government machinery or any Minister purporting to speak as a Minister should be allowed to engage in anything that might be designed to encourage voting in the referendum or to express a Government view on any issue that might be germane and regarded by people on either side of the argument as relevant to the outcome. I ask my hon. and right hon. Friends at least to pause—as I am personally prepared to do—until Report, which, as I have discovered from this mysterious message on Twitter, is when the Government will make proposals that might reassure people but that might fall short of the full rigour of the rather odd referendum legislation that we passed a few years ago. Obviously, that legislation did not exist when we last had a referendum on Europe, when the Government were deeply divided and very odd messages came out.
Given that everybody is going to concede to my hon. and right hon. Friends anything that can reasonably be seen to put any legitimate fears to rest and to reassure them that this is a sensible approach, we cannot ignore the risk that one might, rather oddly, be closing down the whole machinery of Government for some time. I have already cautioned against conspiracy theories and paranoia. We all know that individual members of the Government will go out and give their own personal views on one side or the other—they are allowed to do that.
Will my right hon. and learned Friend give way?
In a moment. Why on earth should a Minister not be allowed, as a Minister, to advocate that people might be encouraged to vote? As the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) rightly asked, would a Minister who goes to Brussels for a difficult meeting on an aspect of agricultural policy or of the research and development budget be told by his officials that they would melt away the moment he expressed a view on an issue that might have been raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone or me in the referendum campaign?
I think we have received genuine undertakings. Everybody wants a fair referendum, so let us not resort to the legalism of section 129—[Hon. Members: “Section 125!”] That shows my regard for legalisms, despite my being a lawyer: section 125 is very important! When we get to Report, let us take a considered look at what would happen if we threw the whole weight of the law at this issue and had one of Her Majesty’s judges adjudicating on whether the pronouncements of some Parliamentary Secretary in Brussels had broken the statutory injunctions and he should have been reduced to silence.
May I say how much we are enjoying my right hon. and learned Friend’s speech? His casual wafting around of various sections, whether they are the right ones or not, reminds me of one of those lovely days when he said that he had not bothered to read the Maastricht treaty. Will he clarify something that seems to be a bit of a caricature? He says that the whole of Government would have to be closed down and that Ministers would not be able to engage in any business at all, but surely that could only possibly be true if the European Union was so involved in every nook and cranny of this country’s affairs that it could not possibly function without those relationships. Is not that the whole point?
Order. Before we proceed, in case there was any implied criticism, I have to say that, although the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) might be rambling around the European Union, this is a broad-ranging set of amendments. I have listened to him very carefully and he is, in fact, in order.
I hope I am not being too light-hearted, but this has been a long debate. I have already confessed that the issues have not engaged me as passionate issues of great principle to the same extent as they have engaged others. I was genuinely surprised to hear Eurosceptics take off and pronounce that there was a monstrous conspiracy in all the details. I am trying to reassure them that if there was any risk of a conspiracy, it could be laid to one side. I will treat the arguments with every due solemnity.
I am not saying that every Minister in the Department of Energy and Climate Change—although this might apply to them—or the Scotland Office would necessarily find that they could not do anything. It is not like during an election, when they would not be allowed to go into the office or take any decision of any kind, but the proposal could be very wide-embracing indeed. It is all very well for people to dismiss light-heartedly—though perhaps they are not speaking in the same tone as I am—the Prime Minister’s warnings that there would be a serious impact on the conduct of business, but I think that that is what would happen.
To repeat the point I made earlier: strict purdah stems from long before the statute was passed. It stems from the rules for a general election, and they are right. Once we get into the campaigning stage of a general election, the Minister is the Minister only if he or she is required to sign something that has to be signed. When an election comes, the party political Minister is prevented from taking any decisions. Nothing can be changed. The civil service goes into its totally non-political mode because the whole point of that election is to decide which political masters are going to return to the Department, so that eventually we again have a Government who are able to act.
What we are discussing is a referendum being held by a Government. It is part of the Government’s policy to hold the referendum. The Government have been negotiating a deal as part of their policy on reform to supplement the arguments in the referendum. The Government will continue to be the Government for the next three or four years and will have to live with the consequences of the referendum, so what is being argued is that these men and women and the civil servants who support them should all switch off for four weeks, stop having an opinion on these issues and, unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Stone and myself, the day after the election pretend that they now agree with the enlightened view of the electorate and that they are going ahead and taking all the decisions on whatever is now the position.
I am sure there is a balance to be struck. I would deplore it if the Government were to spend taxpayers’ money on sending out ridiculous pamphlets and so on. That would misfire. I expect the Government to be in favour of a yes vote. I will be campaigning for a yes vote. I do not want the Government to squander taxpayers’ money and plainly abusing their position by putting out material that I might not wholly agree with anyway. The electorate would react if it was obvious that the Government were resorting to using the machinery of government for campaigning. But the statute is too severe. I hope we will not all get carried away and that we will allow my right hon. and hon. Friends the chance to come back with a sensible compromise.
Let me move on. I am sure the Whips will be very happy, but I am taking rather longer than I intended. I am attracted by the Opposition amendments, although I am not going to support them, as I shall explain in a moment. The shadow Minister, with unusual naiveté, seems to believe in evidence-based politics. He obviously believes that the more rational information is produced objectively and placed before the public, the more certain one can be that the correct result will be arrived at.
But this is politics. This is the European issue. Nothing of that sort has intruded into the debate on the European Union for the past 30 or 40 years, and it will not do so now. The Government have tried to move in that direction. The Foreign Office carried out the most objective study of the division of powers—the division of competences, in the jargon—[Interruption.] Precisely. I hear colleagues behind me shouting out, “Whitewash!”, by which they mean that the study came to the wrong conclusion, in their opinion. Evidence-based politics was rejected the moment it emerged. It could not find that the balance of competences, as negotiated by successive Ministers of all political persuasions over the previous 40 years, contained anything that was to the disadvantage of the British public.
The reaction was not to try to challenge any of these arguments with any new facts, but to try to bury the document, which most members of the public were never allowed to hear about. I suspect that it has not been picked up—it is pretty voluminous stuff—by very many Members of this House, let alone people outside, but it is a noble aspiration.
I have one serious reservation about what the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) proposes. He suggests that those pre-eminently independent bodies, the Bank of England and the Office for Budget Responsibility, should be, as it were, enjoined by this Bill to produce those reports, which is quite attractive. I have the highest regard for the Bank of England and the Office for Budget Responsibility. We should all vigorously continue to ensure that their independence is maintained in every possible way, but there is a danger of politicising them. The Bank gives its opinions all the time, as most central Banks do, about the outlook for the economy, the latest statistics and the way things are unfolding. Central bank governors become notorious for talking a kind of obscure, slightly ambiguous mandarin language. That is precisely to try to avoid getting themselves immersed, which the Bank and the OBR would do if they seemed to be leaping into something that is a partisan opinion or appears to be a position of strong partisan support for one question or another.
I am sure, as is the right hon. Gentleman, that if these reports are produced, the people I know in the Bank of England and in the Office for Budget Responsibility would agree with the right hon. Gentleman and me about the implications of leaving the European Union, but my right hon. and hon. Friends would shout, “Counterfeit! Fraud! Political fiddle!” and the damage to the reputation of those two institutions would be fatal. So, tempted though I am to support this rare excursion into trying to have some enlightening information on some of these difficult subjects, I do not think the Bill and the right hon. Gentleman’s amendments will suffice.
Briefly, on the issue of the Bank of England, we know that it is preparing such a report anyway. The issue is whether people will see it or not.
Precisely. If I were the Governor of the Bank of England—some might say thank the Lord I am not, though it is quite an interesting job—I would not feel I wanted to publish such a document because I would suddenly find myself in the middle of the most emotional political debate going on in the country, and that is not where the Bank of England should be. On that serious ground, I think the amendments are interesting and I hope I discover what the views of the Bank of England are. They will probably be leaked, although central banks should not leak. I do not think we should enjoin the Bank to produce what would inevitably be ferociously controversial documents.
I conclude as I began. I find all these debates a little bewildering. I have not the slightest doubt that the British public will not allow this referendum to be run on any basis other than that of reasonably fair objectivity on both sides, and we should beware of making the mistake of slipping into the Bill rigidities which, if we are not careful, will start causing totally undesirable results when the reality of the referendum takes place.
I support amendment 16 and new clauses 3 and 4 in the name of my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond) and other hon. Members.
I hope I can welcome some clarification from the Government later on the question of holding the referendum on the same day as the elections in Scotland and the elections for the Assemblies in Northern Ireland and Wales. An aspect that has not received much attention is that of the effects of the franchise. EU citizens have the right to vote in our general elections in Wales and in Scotland. The Government here in London propose to exclude them from the referendum. If the referendum and the election were held at the same time, one can picture the spectacle in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales when EU citizens turn up to vote, cast a vote and then are cast out. They are being prevented from voting on our future in the EU. That spectacle would cheer the hearts of despots throughout the world, from Moscow to Damascus to Pyongyang.
On the declaration of the results and the so-called quad lock, there are particular EU issues pertaining to Wales. I would say that these are national issues. On Second Reading I referred to the value that we as a multilingual society derive from membership of a multilingual and multicultural European Union. This may not figure as largely elsewhere in the UK as it does in Wales—it is a particular Welsh issue.
Wales is one of the poorest parts of Europe—it is at the same level as some former Soviet bloc countries—and we have derived much benefit from EU regional policy. Again, that is of national significance to Wales. We are also very dependent on EU agricultural support. There are other issues relating to manufacturing and demography, but I will not go into those now. All those factors might or might not decide the result in Wales—I cannot say whether they will—but they are legitimate national interests and should be respected as such.
We have a particular national interest. It might be different from the national interest of our neighbours. As the Government intend, their national interest will trump ours. I think that there are only two ways to go on the respect issue: either to respect or not to respect. The current proposals potentially will not respect, which is why we will support amendment 16.
I will endeavour to be as brief as possible in order to allow other Members to speak. I will speak primarily to amendments (a) and (b) to amendment 11, which stand in my name, but also in support of amendment 11, which stands in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash). I thank my right hon. Friends the Minister and the Foreign Secretary for the positive way in which they have engaged with the entire party on these questions. We are grateful for that dialogue. I think that absolutely proves that we are not in some re-run of previous grief. This debate is not even about Europe; it is, in fact, about how to conduct a fair referendum.
I have some experience of referendums, because I set up the “North East Says No” referendum campaign in 2004, which turned around a two-thirds majority in favour of a north-east Assembly into a 4:1 defeat. We operated under the provisions laid down by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, which worked pretty well. The purdah provisions restricted what the Government did, although they are probably not tough enough. They did not prevent the then Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, changing the Government’s policy on what powers that putative Assembly would have only a few days before the postal votes went out. When we rang up the Cabinet Secretary to complain that the Deputy Prime Minister had breached the purdah rules, we were told, “That’s a matter for the Minister, not for me.”
That underlines the argument that the purdah rules are not tough enough, rather than that we should not have them at all, because they prevented civil servants from becoming embroiled in referendum questions, or being used by Ministers to promulgate the case that the Government wanted them to promulgate, and that is the vital protection. It is principally towards the impartiality of civil servants that I want to address my remarks, particularly given that, I am proud to say, I have been elected unopposed to the Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee. I very much hope to persuade my fellow members of the Committee to address some of these issues during this Parliament.
I am disappointed that the Labour party has abandoned the principled position it adopted on purdah when it implemented the 2000 Act, which is quite extraordinary. I ran into Jack Straw, the former Foreign Secretary, this morning, and he was thoroughly disappointed to hear that the Labour party was backing off from supporting the constitutional legislation that it had implemented. Those ideas did not just come out of nowhere; they were ideas for a fair referendum that arose from the unfairness of the conduct of the first Welsh referendum, which were addressed by the Neil committee, which became the Committee on Standards in Public Life—the key is in the name. It was regarded as essential to have a period when the machinery of government cannot be involved in supporting one side or the other in a referendum campaign. The Electoral Commission would like 10 weeks, rather than just four weeks.
There are certain myths about purdah. The Government do not grind to a halt during a general election. Ministers even attend meetings of the Council of Ministers during general elections. However, during a general election a Minister cannot use their Department to promulgate information or to brief the press in a manner that is intended to affect the outcome. We want the same to apply in the referendum.
The letter from my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe, which the right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond) has now seen, does not actually provide the reassurance that is required. In fact, by explaining what is contemplated, it confirms precisely the opposite. For example, it states that the Government,
“having taken a position on the outcome of our negotiations with the rest of the EU, will naturally be obliged to account to Parliament and the British people.”
There is absolutely no problem about accounting to Parliament in any purdah period about any matter at all, because it is privileged. There are no purdah rules that apply to anything that any Minister would say on the Floor of the House of Commons.
But are we seriously to believe, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) indicated, that civil servants should be used to put out press releases on matters that are being addressed by the referendum question, because that is what he is saying? That is precisely what should not be allowed. The idea that this will prevent Ministers from saying anything, and that somehow Ministers will not be able to take part in the referendum campaign, is clearly tosh. I seem to recall the Prime Minister being very vociferous in the run-up to the Scottish independence referendum, right to the last day of the campaign. However, he was unable to use his ministerial car, fly at ministerial expense or use the machinery of government to promulgate the messages he wanted to get across. There might have been a rather frustrating moment when he said, “I want to put out a statement”, and the Cabinet Secretary would have had to tell him, “I’m sorry, Prime Minister, but you can’t do that now that we are in purdah. You will have to do that through the no campaign or through your party.” That is exactly right. What is the point of the expenditure limits for the yes and no campaigns if the Government have 80 special advisers and thousands of press officers able to issue press releases, brief the media and organise media tours for Ministers? That is precisely what should not be available to Ministers during the closing stages of a referendum campaign.
I support that amendment, of course. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it would be even worse if we happened to get to a situation in which the leadership of the two main political parties were campaigning on one side? That is an even more important reason to have a proper purdah, if the referendum is to be seen as a free and fair.
It is a simple matter of principle, which is why I think we would be right to press this to a vote if necessary, unless the Government accept our amendment. I really hope that they will, because it would simply put purdah back into the Bill, where it should be. I commend my right hon. Friend the Minister for saying that he wants dialogue on what the problem actually is and on how it can be addressed by amending the purdah regime, rather than scrapping it altogether and relying on assurances based on advice from civil servants who have clearly got it wrong.
I want to focus in my final remarks on the impartiality of civil servants, because this is really about what they can and cannot do. They must be in a position to protect their impartiality. They must be able to say to a Minister, “No, Minister, we are in purdah, so I cannot do that now. You must do that yourself or through some other organisation.” If they are not subject to purdah, it is the job of civil servants to support the Government of the day by carrying out the instructions of their Ministers, so they will be obliged to put out press releases, to help Ministers make the case and to use the machinery of government unfairly to support one side or the other.
I draw the Committee’s attention to the report that the Public Administration Committee produced just before the general election, “Lessons for Civil Service impartiality from the Scottish independence referendum”. The report shows that the Scottish Executive abused their position by sending out a rather political White Paper, some parts of which read more like an SNP manifesto than an objective Government document—that is always the danger with Government publications—but at least they did not send it out in the purdah period, at the most sensitive moment.
Not only that, but the advice of the permanent secretary at the Treasury, Sir Nicholas Macpherson, on currency unions was published in a completely unprecedented move on the basis that he had to “reassure the markets”. That was his excuse, and I am afraid that we regarded it as only an excuse. Are we to say that Ministers will agree to civil servants publishing their advice during the purdah period? Perhaps they might even be instructed to publish their advice during that period.
The hon. Gentleman makes the point that what Governments do outwith the purdah period is quite different from what they can do within that period. Is he aware that there was referendum unit in the Treasury, which during the 28-day purdah period was briefing in favour of the no campaign in the referendum? Can that possibly be right? Should not that sort of practice be stopped before an upcoming European campaign?
There is a serious question about whether civil servants should be closely involved in referendum campaigns over a period much longer than 28 days. There is a serious problem for the civil service if it allows such things to happen. That is why one of the main recommendations of our report is the addition of a paragraph to the civil service code to the effect that what applies to civil servants in general elections should apply to them equally in referendums. That would prevent civil servants who are put in difficult positions, and perhaps asked to do things that they know are not in the spirit of the code, from acting in such a way.
The underpinning of the principle of civil service impartiality during a referendum now rests on section 125 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. If we do not press the amendment, we consent to the removal of that protection from the Bill. My right hon. Friend the Minister cannot ask us to do that. It is an issue of principle, and he is asking us to accede to completely the wrong principle. As I have said, I believe that he has been given very wrong advice. Far be it from me to speculate about how many Eurosceptics there are among the permanent secretary community, who might want a bit of extra freedom about what they get Ministers to do during a referendum campaign.
I am deeply disappointed that the Labour party has abandoned all its principles, but we know that it is split on the matter. On Second Reading, it was in favour of scrapping purdah. At Prime Minister’s questions, it was against scrapping purdah. Last night, Labour Members were going to vote for amendment 11, but today they are no longer going to do so. I think that they are in a bit of a muddle, and I suspect that quite a few pro-EU Labour Members would like to help to rig the referendum in favour of the yes campaign. [Interruption.] I see I have provoked the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). In the interests of brevity, I shall not invite him to intervene.
Unless we insist that the provisions for purdah remain in the Bill, we are acquiescing in the dilution of an important principle.
My hon. Friend has insisted, and I understand this, that any safeguards relating to a purdah period should be in the Bill and should be made clear by statute. As I understand it, the Government’s undertaking, by means of the Minister’s letter, is to table amendments on Report, which would go into the final Act of Parliament and have legal force. It is not a matter of relying on the assurances of civil servants; it is a matter of law. If that is correct, it may go some way to alleviating the concerns of Government Members.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing the Committee’s attention to that point. We should all be grateful for the fact that the Government have listened, but they are still requesting that we withdraw the amendment. To do so would be to concede the principle that purdah might not exist in statutory form. The Labour party’s amendment on purdah would not actually create purdah; it would require the Government to produce a list of things. What we want in the Bill is purdah. If the Government are not prepared to accept that principle now, on the Floor of the House, I fear that we will have to force the amendment to a vote, because it is a matter of principle.
He is not in his usual place, but may I commend the hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash), whose health is fragile today but who has still turned up to fulfil his parliamentary duties? I apologise for the fact that I had to leave the debate for 20 minutes to chair a meeting.
I want to speak about amendments 46 and 47, but before I do so, I will say a few words about purdah. I remember the original legislation going through the House. It came about as a result of concerns expressed about what had happened prior to other elections and referendums. At the time, I thought that a number of lessons had been learned about the need to ensure that purdah existed, so that confidence could be expressed in the outcome of a referendum. For the life of me, I cannot understand why the Government are varying the procedure this time. They have not advanced any consistent argument in which I can have any confidence. When we are dealing with such a controversial matter, why stir up such controversy over such a relatively minor point? I do not understand the Government’s motives.
I am minded to support amendment 11. Although the Government have assured us that we will return to the matter on Report, I would like some certainty at this stage, which we might vary on Report. I am quite attracted to the idea of a fairness commission, as proposed in new clause 4. I was a bit anxious when I learned who might be a member of such a commission, but I agree that there needs to be a mechanism for dealing with any unfairness.
I will be brief, because we are running out of time. I have tabled two amendments concerning the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. Several hon. Members have campaigned doggedly for openness and transparency regarding the negotiations on that proposed partnership between the EU and the US. I accept that it would be out of order for me to go into any detail about that, but the principle is this. For two days in the Chamber, we have debated sovereignty and democratic rights in relation to Scotland and the EU. TTIP may result in Parliament handing over sovereignty and democratic decision making not only to the EU but to transnational corporations and an investor dispute panel of corporate lawyers, meeting in secret. Their decisions could affect regulations governing health and safety, food safety, labour rights and even our recent attempts to achieve some sort of regulation of our finance sector, but we have not had any debate that resulted in a democratic decision of the House. We have had Adjournment debate after Adjournment debate, but there has been no report from Government on the progress of the negotiations. Why? Because the negotiations are held in secret. There was a debate in the European Parliament only last week. When a report was eventually produced, 200 amendments were tabled, and the EU Commission has backed off and delayed the matter.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech and bringing TTIP into the argument. Does he agree that if the EU is seen as a vehicle for imposing TTIP on us, that would have a significant bearing on the outcome of the vote? Millions of trade unionists will be fearful of voting in favour of the EU because they may get TTIP with it.
I thank my hon. Friend for bringing me back into order. That is exactly my point. If we are to have any chance to shape the Prime Minister’s negotiations with other European leaders, this is our opportunity. I want to place on the agenda what is happening with TTIP. I want the Prime Minister to address that in his discussions, and when he reports back to the House and the country about the way forward, I want him to detail the achievements he has made, to open up the transparency and openness of those negotiations.
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. In the discussions in Europe in relation to some of the subjects that he has just mentioned, there is also the issue that the Government will negotiate about matters such as wages and terms and conditions, which affect people in this country. We have not had a lot of debate about that, either.
This debate has allowed us to place some of those issues on the agenda. The major issue with TTIP is that the Prime Minister, until now, has not seen it as particularly relevant or important to give us a direct report on those negotiations, so those negotiations have remained secret. Therefore, the purpose of my amendment, which I will not press to a vote, is to identify it as an issue on which we need a report. That will help to ensure, to echo the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins), that in the referendum, people can make a decision based on the consequences of further European membership for the concrete aspects of the treaty that will affect their lives. My hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) made exactly that point. This will affect labour rights, including working conditions, health and safety, and wage levels.
In addition, TTIP could affect the ability of a sovereign Government of this country to make a decision on policy. I give just one example that we have debated in the past. I want to ensure that there is no further privatisation and that some services that have been privatised are brought back into public ownership—for example, the railways. If TTIP goes through, a sovereign Government could be prevented from implementing those policies. I want the Prime Minister to go to Europe and say, with regard to TTIP, “On the issue of the referendum I want to ensure that we maintain the sovereign right of this Chamber to take a decision that its Government can then implement without undue interference from transnational corporations who can then head off to arbitration panels meeting in secret.”
I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point about sovereignty—many hon. Members are concerned about that—but surely one of the biggest challenges facing Europe at the moment is youth unemployment, which in Spain has only just gone below 50%, and which would be reduced if transatlantic trade volumes increased.
I do not want to take up any further time, but that is an excellent point. That is why, in most of the assessments undertaken to date, we have looked at job losses rather than job increases.
Amendments 46 and 47 simply say that before we come to the decision on the European referendum the Government must publish a report on TTIP and its processes. The OBR should look at the economic aspects, but Government overall should consider all other aspects of policy. We need to receive information about the implications of this treaty and the European role in it, and whether, therefore, we would want to remain within the European Union as a result.
I do not wish to press the amendments, but I do think we need a serious debate about the agenda that the Prime Minister is to construct for the negotiations prior to the referendum.
It is a pleasure to participate briefly in this debate. I want to direct my remarks towards amendment 11, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash).
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) and I probably agree on two main points: first, that neither of us has yet seen a convincing case made for pulling out of the EU; and secondly, our shared and gentle cynicism about the amount of froth and hyperbole that is generated in this Chamber. That said, I must politely disagree with his approach to what this Bill does with regard to section 125 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. I served on the Committee that considered the Bill that became that Act, and there was a lot of anxiety about the capacity for referendums to be manipulated. Doubtless there was quite a lot of hyperbole in the Committee as well. We argued for a 10-week period of purdah, as opposed to 28 days, because that was what the Electoral Commission was suggesting and what the Neill committee had proposed. Nevertheless, we ended up with 28 days, and I have seen nothing in the period since to make me think that the system does not work, broadly speaking, perfectly well. I am sure there will sometimes be complaints that the rules are being infringed and we ought to try to improve on that, but when all is said and done, the system seems to have worked remarkably well.
I confess that I was therefore rather surprised, when I looked at the Bill we have before us, to find that section 125 had been arbitrarily deleted without any real explanation being provided whatsoever. A justification for that deletion has not been made. I anticipate that my right hon. Friend the Minister will shortly tell us that the Government will go away and review the matter, and I will be very pleased to hear that. I have to say, however—I hope he will forgive me for doing so—that that is a reflection of the rather strange and cack-handed way in which, from time to time, the Government seem to behave when approaching legislation. Either they think that all my right hon. and hon. Friends who feel very exercised about this are going to miss this deletion, or it is an open invitation for discord that takes up quite a lot of the time of this House.
In my view, section 125 could properly have been left in, and the better course of action would have been for my right hon. Friends on the Front Bench to come up with an amendment of some kind if they really thought there was going to be a major problem during the purdah period in the run-up to the referendum. It is very important that when this referendum is over, the people who participated in it are able to say that it was fairly conducted, provided that reassurance does not come at great cost.
It seems to me that the Government have got themselves in a bit of a hole. They have come up with a deletion and now there appears to be something of a stand-off. I have enough confidence in my right hon. Friend the Minister to accept the words in a letter of a cast-iron assurance—which I hope I shall hear repeated shortly at the Dispatch Box—that the Government will go away and reconsider the matter, and come up with a proper amendment on Report.
As a Buckinghamshire colleague of my right hon. Friend the Minister, I have great admiration and fellow-feeling for him. We were at Superhero Beaveree in Chalfont St Peter only on Saturday doing mirror mazes together, and he is a lovely man. However, I do not want to base my life in society on the assurances of a particular individual; I want to base it on the law. I would like the Government to accept amendment 11, change the law and come back with specific points that address the problems that have been have raised.
I appreciate my hon. Friend’s point. Governments, like the world, move in mysterious ways. If I may gently coax the Government back to the path of righteousness, as I think we are probably succeeding in doing, I, for one, will be broadly content.
On hearing assurances from my right hon. Friend the Minister that the Government will reconsider this and return on Report with a proper amendment, I will be quite prepared to continue to give them my confidence in this matter. However, if the Government were to be using this as a device to come back whenever Report takes place and try to wriggle out of this obligation again, I would regard that as a rather infamous thing to do, and I am afraid I would not be in a position to support them at all on this matter.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that we require that statutory protection and a code of conduct would not be good enough?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Certainly, I would be much happier to see the return of section 125 and the introduction of some one-off qualifications for the purpose of this particular referendum. That would be the ideal, because it would preserve the principle of section 125. That would be better than coming back with a set of regulations. I have read the letter. It has a whole series of assurances, but that is not a proper way in which referendums should be conducted. The problem historically—not necessarily in this country—is that referendums have been systematically abused, with many assurances being given. That why this House should, on this matter, fix the Government with a clear responsibility to come up with a legal framework. I see my right hon. Friend the Minister nodding.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, on principle, it is best to leave it in and come up with amendments in September rather than remove it and then reinstate it in some amended form?
Yes, but my experience in this House is that it is quite frequent in Committee for a Bill to be criticised, for the Government to give assurances that they will remedy it, and for hon. Members to accept those assurances. That is why I have no difficulty in proceeding along the usual established route.
I look forward to hearing from my right hon. Friend the Minister a proper response from the Government. On that basis, I would like to allow others the chance to speak.
I rise to support amendment 16. I also take this opportunity to pay tribute to the excellent maiden speeches we heard from the hon. Members for Morley and Outwood (Andrea Jenkyns) and for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq). It is great to see members of the black and minority ethnic community participating in the politics of this country.
The Scottish National party values Scotland’s positive relationship with the European Union and the social and economic benefits that it brings to Scotland, so we will continue to make the case for Scotland’s membership, in this Chamber and beyond. I welcome the sign that this Government are possibly listening to the views of SNP Members and to the position of the devolved Governments and Assemblies across these nations. I hope that the Government’s exercise in reflection will continue throughout discussions and decisions taken on this Bill and, indeed, beyond.
Given that the Government have decided to accept that they should treat all parts of the UK with some respect, at least in relation to the Bill, I encourage them now to step fully into the light. Timing is not the only issue that unites opinion across the constituent parts of the UK. We believe that if the UK is to leave the EU, a majority not just across the whole UK but in each of the four nations—a double majority—should be required, to safeguard the future prosperity of Scotland and prevent it from being taken out of the EU against the will of its people.
It would make no sense to take such a fundamental and damaging decision without a democratic safeguard that respected the decision of voters in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. If Scotland were dragged out of the EU after it voted to stay in, that would clearly not only cause catastrophic damage to our economy but have major constitutional implications. That view is also supported by the Welsh First Minister. Earlier this month, he joined the First Minister of Scotland in signing a statement declaring:
“Any decision to leave the EU, taken against the wishes of the people of Wales or Scotland, would be unacceptable and steps must be taken to ensure this does not happen.”
We agree, and look forward to the support of Welsh colleagues in the Lobby today.
This week has also seen debate on the Scotland Bill. Although my colleagues and I will continue relentlessly to argue for maximum powers to be transferred to the Scottish Parliament so that we can build a better, stronger and fairer society, I take the Government’s view at face value when they say they want to make the Scottish Parliament one of the most powerful devolved Parliaments in the world. If they are serious, they should accept the amendments that mirror the approach taken in some federal states such as Canada and Australia, which require a similar sort of territorial requirement on such issues. My right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond) also alluded to the USA in that context.
I will not give way, as I do not have much time. I apologise.
In the days before Scotland’s independence referendum last year, the Prime Minister called the UK a “family of nations”. If he means what he says, and if the Government back him, surely all members of the family should have a voice of their own. During the referendum, we were invited to lead the UK, not leave it.
Let me be clear. I welcome the constructive and positive moves—alternatively referred to as a “cave- in”—from the Government to rule out holding the referendum on the same date as the Holyrood elections next year. I am heartened that they are listening and acting, in this instance, to support Scotland’s best interests in relation to the timing of the vote. But that must be the start of the listening exercise, not the end. The House should pay careful heed.
If Scotland were to be taken out of Europe, despite voting as a nation to remain in it, that would inevitably provoke a strong reaction among ordinary voters in Scotland against the settlement that we agreed last September. The safeguards that we propose could avoid that outcome. We urge the Committee to support our amendments and I commend them to the Committee.
I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) and my hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Outwood (Andrea Jenkyns), who made maiden speeches in this afternoon’s debate. Both spoke with warmth and conviction. The House looks forward to hearing from both hon. Ladies many times during their parliamentary careers.
The amendments that we are debating cover a wide range of issues. The House will expect me to spend most of my time addressing the arguments about the proposal to disapply section 125 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. However, I will start by addressing amendment 16, moved by the right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond). I was not surprised that he and his party should have moved such an amendment or that they had the support of Plaid Cymru in so doing, but I doubt whether the right hon. Gentleman will be shocked when I say that the Government do not intend to accept it.
Amendment 16 does not make sense in the context of the Bill. The legislation is about holding a vote; it makes no provision for what follows. The referendum is advisory, as was the case for both the 1975 referendum on Europe and the Scottish independence vote last year. In neither of those cases was there a threshold for the interpretation of the result. The Government take the view that, in respect of EU membership, we are one United Kingdom. The referendum will be on the subject of the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union and it is therefore right that there should be one referendum and one result. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will choose not to press his amendment.
I say briefly to the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes), who spoke to amendments 49 and 50, that the timing of the referendum should, subject to the deadline at the end of 2017, depend on the progress of negotiations at European level. I do not think that the inflexibility introduced by his amendments would be helpful in that process.
The right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden), who spoke to amendments 4, 5 and 6, was right to say that the British public will expect information to be provided about the consequences of the UK’s leaving the European Union. For the most part, that will clearly be the job of the designated campaign organisations for the two camps during the campaign. However, at the end of a period of renegotiation, the Government will obviously want to set out their conclusions and reasons for the recommendation that the Prime Minister and the Government will make at that point. In the past I have mentioned that that could be done through a White Paper or some other such communication. It would not be right for specific requirements to be set out, especially at this early stage even in the negotiation process, about what the Government would be obliged to publish at a given time ahead of the referendum. Neither is it necessary to define in statute responsibilities on the Bank of England or the Office for Budget Responsibility. As has been said by others during this debate, they are independent entities, and ultimately it is for them to decide whether and how to express their views to a wider public.
I move on to section 125 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. In response to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), I highlight to the House the fact that schedule 1 provides for a disapplication of section 125 in relation to this referendum and no other. The underlying statutory framework would continue unless Parliament decided that it wanted to have a similar provision for disapplication for any future referendum.
Will the Minister give way?
Yes, but I do want to respond on the detail.
Many Conservative Members will trust these Front Benchers and I accept his remarks about section 125, but does my right hon. Friend not accept that a precedent would be set and that many of us would be worried in case, under different Governments, referendums were not conducted on the fair basis that he and I both want?
I want to explain to the House why section 125 causes some real difficulties. We should not be under any illusions about the starting point. It is not at all the same as the purdah guidance that is published by central Government at election time. The purdah traditions for both national and local elections rest on convention. With section 125, we are talking about a very wide-ranging statutory prohibition on Government activity. In the words of the section, public bodies are banned from publishing material that
“deals with any of the issues raised by any question on which such a referendum is being held”,
as well as general information, putting arguments or even setting out the competing arguments, and encouraging people to take part in the referendum. The definition of publication in the section is very broadly phrased: the word “publish” is defined as making material
“available to the public at large, or any section of the public, in whatever form and by whatever means”.
Under section 125, there is a very wide-ranging ban on what the Government can do.
Will the Minister give way?
I will not give way, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me. I have about eight or nine minutes, and I want to respond to the debate.
That ban would clearly cover printed material and some electronic communications, although it is fair to say that when PPERA was drafted we were not in an age of social media and interactive digital technology—Twitter, Facebook and other such accounts—and there is a serious question about what would be captured by the phrasing of section 125 as it stands.
Section 125 would be unworkable because the world and normal EU business will not stop for the referendum. Let me take the example of the very active public debate about migration, particularly at the moment from north Africa, but also about what is happening at Calais. It should be common ground that when we get to the referendum campaign, questions to do with migration, freedom of movement and the accessibility of welfare will form part of the debate. During the four weeks, section 125 would prevent the Government or any public body from making any comment not necessarily on the referendum question but on an issue that might be discussed in the Council of Ministers meeting or in response to a European Court of Justice judgment. The Government need to be free to respond in the national interest and to conduct ordinary day-to-day EU business, and that freedom would not be permitted if we left section 125 as it stands.
Will the Minister give way?
Will my right hon. Friend give way?
I will give way to my hon. Friend.
I just want to place on the record the fact that I really do challenge that interpretation of the section. My right hon. Friend says that he has counsel’s opinion: let him lay it before the House, or we will obtain counsel’s opinion of our own.
My hon. Friend is obviously free to take legal opinion of his own, but if he looks again at the wording of section 125 and applies it to the conduct of EU business, he will find that there would be very serious problems in carrying out day-to-day business in the national interest at EU level if the section is left untouched.
We believe that applying the section would be inappropriate because the referendum is taking place as the result of a clear manifesto commitment to negotiate the terms of the UK’s relationship with the European Union and to put them to people in a referendum. Section 125 could make it impossible to explain to the public what the outcome of the renegotiation was and what the Government’s view of that result was.
The Government must be able, and legitimately should be able, to offer their views, including up to the day of the referendum. However, as I have said, the Government are not a campaign: it is not the Government’s job to supplant the role of the lead campaign organisations during the referendum campaign, and it is certainly not our intention to act in that way. We recognise and understand the strength of feeling that exists on this issue, and I am grateful for the constructive and courteous tone in which the debate has been conducted both this afternoon and in private conversations outside the Chamber.
My right hon. Friend said that the Government may not be able to give their view on the outcomes of the renegotiation. Surely that cannot be true. It cannot be the case that the renegotiation will only be finished within the purdah period.
What I am saying is that the Government will need to be able to say why they have come to the conclusion and recommendation that they have reached.
As the Foreign Secretary said and as I repeated on Second Reading last week, the Government will exercise restraint during that period. We have listened to what colleagues in all parts of the House have said and are therefore committing ourselves to table amendments on Report to write into the Bill measures that will provide reassurance on that point. I accept completely the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) that it is vital that the British public and both sides in the referendum debate accept that the referendum is being conducted fairly and therefore feel able to accept the result.
I have had concerns about the implications of the complete removal of section 125. Does my right hon. Friend recognise that the sustainability of the result of the referendum, whatever it may be, will depend on whether the public has confidence in it, and that the assurances that we have all received from the Foreign Secretary and from him today must be delivered in full?
I completely understand that concern. I repeat that we will not ask the House to rely only on the words of Ministers from the Dispatch Box. We have made a commitment to introduce into the Bill changes that give expression to the assurances that we have given.
On a point of order, Sir Roger. Some of my hon. Friends were asked, in courtesy to the Committee, to shorten their speeches so that the Minister would get to speak. Is the Minister not going to extend the same courtesy to those who should be summing up on the amendment? If that does not happen, there will be other occasions when the Minister can be talked out.
That is not strictly a point of order for the Chair. The Minister knows whether to sit down or not.
We will ensure that there is a clear mechanism so that in the four weeks before polling day, the Government will not undertake a range of activities that most would regard as the province of the campaign, such as issuing mailshots, running commercial advertising campaigns and emailing voters in one way or another.
There are various ways in which that might be done. Some colleagues have talked about a code of conduct. The Opposition have tabled a constructive amendment, which we welcome, but there are some technical problems with it, not least how the Government could anticipate what might be published by all public bodies, which is required by the text of amendment 54. As an alternative to a code of conduct, we could include provisions in the Bill that would restrict Government activity to particular named forms of publication or prohibit the Government from taking part in specific forms of communication.
We will not programme the Report stage until the autumn, which provides ample time for Ministers to consult parliamentary colleagues in all parts of the House to understand their concerns and views more closely, and to frame a set of amendments that will command the widest possible consensus in the House on Report. That is probably the best way to ensure that the referendum is conducted on a basis that everybody believes to be fair.
We have always been clear that it is not our intention that the Government should be a lead campaigner in the referendum. It is right that the Committee should seek reassurance from us on that point. We are happy to bring forward the amendments that I have described and, in the meantime, to discuss proposals with hon. Members in all parts of the House. However, I believe that section 125 of the 2000 Act is deficient for these purposes and urge right hon. and hon. Members not to press the amendments that would impose the provisions of that section on the referendum.
Three hours having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings, the debate was interrupted (Programme Order, 9 June).
The Chair put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair (Standing Order No. 83D), That the amendment be made.
Question accordingly negatived.
The Chair then put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (Standing Order No. 83D).
Amendment made: 55, page 1, line 8, at end insert—
“and must not be 5 May 2016” .—(Mr Lidington.)
This amendment prevents the Secretary of State from appointing 5 May 2016 as the day on which the referendum is to be held.
Clause 1, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Further provision about the referendum
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
With this it will be convenient to take the following:
Amendment 9, in schedule 1, page 6, line 6, after second “period”, insert—
“of not less than 16 weeks”.
The purpose of the amendment is to ensure that the referendum period lasts for at least 16 weeks.
Amendment 20, page 6, leave out lines 23 and 24.
Amendment 28, page 6, leave out lines 23 to 31.
Amendment 24, page 6, leave out lines 25 to 31.
Amendment 53, page 6, line 33, at end add—
“(ix) the total number of permitted participants shall be limited to a number specified by the Electoral Commission to ensure broad equality of resources between those campaigning for each of the outcomes of the referendum and those taken into account for the purposes of this provision will be the first persons to give notice under section 106(1) of the 2000 Act.”.
The amendment would require the Electoral Commission to ensure that during the referendum campaign, the total spend of the campaign on either side of the referendum would be broadly equal by limiting the number of participants, taking into account moneys spent by business, government, the European Commission and the campaigns themselves.
Amendment 32, page 6, line 33, at end add—
“( ) Nothing in this Schedule alters the law governing charitable organisations in any part of the United Kingdom to confer an entitlement to participate in a referendum which would not have been possible prior to the coming into force of this Schedule.”.
Amendment 29, page 7, line 5, leave out “any of sub-paragraphs (v) to (viii)” and insert “sub-paragraph (v)”.
Amendment 22, page 7, leave out lines 16 to 19.
Amendment 30, page 7, leave out lines 16 to 23.
Amendment 26, page 7, leave out lines 20 to 23.
Government amendment 14.
Amendment 33, page 12, leave out lines 18 and 19.
Amendment 41, page 12, leave out lines 18 to 25.
Amendment 37, page 12, leave out lines 20 to 25.
Amendment 10, page 12, line 38, at end insert—
“(6) For the purposes of paragraph 6 of Schedule 15 of the 2000 Act a permitted participant must not accept a relevant donation, irrespective of whether or not it meets the requirements of the 2000 Act and this Act, if the donation is funded directly or indirectly in whole or part from moneys, resources or support disbursed or allocated by or at the direction of the European Commission, its agencies or any related European institution to the donor or via other parties to the donor.”.
The purpose of the amendment is to ensure that no funds or support provided directly or indirectly by European Union bodies have a bearing on the outcome of the referendum.
Amendment 45, page 12, line 38, at end add—
“( ) Nothing in this Schedule alters the law governing charitable organisations in any part of the United Kingdom to confer an entitlement to make a donation during a referendum which would not have been permissible prior to the coming into force of this Schedule.”.
Amendment 42, page 13, line 6, leave out “any of the paragraphs (c) to (f)” and insert “paragraph (c)”.
Amendment 43, page 13, line 10, leave out “any of the paragraphs (c) to (f)” and insert “paragraph (c)”.
Amendment 36, page 13, leave out lines 12 to 16.
Amendment 44, page 13, leave out lines 12 to 22.
Amendment 40, page 13, leave out lines 17 to 20.
Government amendment 15.
That schedule 1 be the First schedule to the Bill.
That schedule 2 be the Second schedule to the Bill.
That schedule 3 be the Third schedule to the Bill.
On a point of order, Sir Roger. I seek your guidance. The Committee has just agreed to Government amendment 55, which states that the referendum will not take place on the same day as elections in May of next year, but other amendments that we did not get the chance to discuss fully this afternoon also deal with the date of the referendum, including amendment 3, which is in my name and those of my right hon. and hon. Friends. Can you give the Committee any guidance on whether there will be time to debate those further amendments on Thursday?
If the right hon. Gentleman is referring to amendments 3 and 7—I think he is—it will be a matter for the Chairman of Ways and Means to consider them for debate on Thursday. I think the answer to the right hon. Gentleman’s question is yes, there is the opportunity, or there is likely to be the opportunity, for debate.
Further to that point of order, Sir Roger. Does the same apply to amendment 17, which is also in that category? We would not want to lose any opportunity to debate further the extent of the Government’s humiliating climbdown and acceptance that they should show courtesy to the people of Scotland.
The answer to the right hon. Gentleman’s question is no, because that was not debated under the group.
On a point of order, Sir Roger. Many colleagues were expecting a Division on amendment 11. May I ask your guidance on when we can expect that vote?
Amendment 11 comes later in the proceedings. Whether or not that is the subject of a Division will be a matter for whoever is in the Chair later in the day. My expectation is that there will be a Division, but that is a matter for the Chairman at the time.
My view about the clause is that we have managed to have a wide-ranging debate. In the interests of brevity, I do not think much needs to be said on the subject. We really ought to get on to other matters, including the question of European Union financing. I have no further comments to make on clause stand part.
(Gainsborough) (Con) rose—
Order. I am at the disposal of the Committee and looking for hon. Members to speak, but there appears to be no one but Sir Edward Leigh.
Is it appropriate that I speak to my amendment 53, Sir Roger?
Amendment 53 would state that
“the total number of permitted participants shall be limited to a number specified by the Electoral Commission to ensure broad equality of resources between those campaigning for each of the outcomes of the referendum”.
I refer the Committee to the Member’s explanatory statement, which states:
“The amendment would require the Electoral Commission to ensure that during the referendum campaign, the total spend of the campaign”—[Interruption.]
Order. Will Members leaving the Chamber please do so quietly? There are people who wish to hear the debate.
I was just referring to the explanatory statement. It is very helpful that the Public Bill Office now publishes explanatory statements, as it makes it much easier for us to understand amendments.
Amendment 53 would require the Electoral Commission to ensure that the total spend by either side during the referendum campaign was broadly equal by limiting the number of participants, taking into account money spent by business, government, the European Commission and the campaigns themselves. My amendment—I am prepared to take advice from the Government if it is defective in any way—would ensure broad equality of spending, which is surely what we all want.
The current regulatory regime on referendums is provided by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. The grant of public money to a designated organisation cannot exceed £600,000 and the grant of public money to both sides must be of equal amount. The yes and no campaigns can therefore spend about £500,000 each. That is perfectly fair and we all understand that. However, on top of that limit, extra funding is permitted to political parties based on their share of the vote at the last parliamentary election. That means the Conservative party will be allowed to spend £5 million, the Labour party £4 million, the UK Independence party £3 million and the Liberal Democrats £2 million. The Scottish National party will also have pro rata expenditure.
The current presumption—we must assume this will happen—is that the leaderships of the Conservative party, the Labour party, the SNP and the Liberal Democrats will be in the yes camp. Labour is keeping its options open, but we know it is pretty well committed to being in the yes camp with the SNP and the Liberals. It is also a pretty fair presumption that the Conservative party will be there as well. My problem—this is a really serious issue that needs to be addressed by the House—is that the official yes campaign could have a funding pot of up to £17 million, as opposed to a limit of £8 million for the no camp. That is a huge difference in resources and could well affect the outcome. Even if that does not affect the outcome, it will lead people to feel that this will not be a fair campaign. On top of those amounts, any registered participant will be allowed to spend £500,000. The total spending cap comes to £25 million overall.
Do the figures my hon. Friend is referring to include Government expenditure? The Minister, responding to the debate on the previous group of amendments, said the Government should not be a lead campaigner in a referendum, thereby implying that it will be a campaigner and spend Government resources. Are Government resources restricted in any way?
That is why this debate is important. When the Minister replies, we want further and better particulars. We really want to know whether Government expenditure will be a part of this. The Government have enormous resources through all the Government Departments and it would be unfair if there was a mismatch in total spend for both sides of the argument. The yes campaign in 1975 spent the equivalent in today’s money of £11 million, compared with £1 million by the no side. The no side in 1975 were outspent 10:1, and that simply cannot be fair. Such things may have been more accepted in those more forgiving days, but I do not think they would be accepted now when there is widespread disillusionment about politics and a widespread feeling, which may be unfair and I know the Government want to act in an entirely honourable way, that the result could be fixed by the political establishment. The political establishment, encompassed by all the leading political parties except UKIP, big business and the European Commission, could have a massive and decisive preponderance of spending.
The 2000 Act provides for an entirely different regulation to what existed in 1975. It still looks far more likely that one side will have much higher spending limits than the other, which is inimical to our sense of democratic fair play. It is possible that the voters will be—or could feel, which is just as important—overwhelmed by spending on one side. Spending caps in constituency elections are basically equal. I know this is a UK-wide referendum, but that actually makes it more important, because there is huge interest both within and outside the country. The coverage in the European press is massive and will only get greater, and the European Commission and foreign Governments are very exercised about it. It is incumbent on the Minister to tell us what he plans to do about it and how he will address the problem I have articulated. If I am wrong, I am happy to listen to the Government and to be reassured, but they have to reassure the Committee.
Aside from the inherent inequality, there are deeper concerns about the potential effects. Let us consider the results of the Scottish referendum and the following general election: one side can win a referendum, but afterwards, if people feel the arguments were not entirely fair, there can be a massive shift of opinion. If a yes result is secured through massive overspend, there is a danger—dare I say it?—of a UKIP backlash, just as we have seen an SNP backlash, and this tidal wave can overwhelm people. It is essential, therefore, that there is a feeling of fairness. We need an open debate in which both sides are funded broadly the same and can put their arguments. If the yes campaign wins by the force of its arguments, I, as a democrat, would be the first to accept that it won fair and square, but there has to be a feeling of fairness.
The hon. Gentleman talks about an SNP backlash, but by the time of the independence referendum the SNP had been in power in Scotland for seven years.
I do not want us to repeat yesterday’s debate, but we all know that there was a shift in public opinion following the Scottish referendum, so we have to be careful.
The UK is lucky not to suffer from the money-infused politics of the United States, where power goes to the highest bidder or spender. As we all know, it is virtually impossible to have a serious intention of becoming President without access to millions of pounds of spending or unless your name is Bush or Clinton. We do not want to replicate that situation here. British voters are very resistant to such a culture. We have been brought up in our constituencies knowing there is fairness and that all sides roughly spend the same.
Has my hon. Friend noticed my own amendment about restricting the money that will surely come from the EU and European Commission? They are described by the Electoral Commission as foreign sources, but they are not. Are they not actually part and parcel of what applies to us under the European Communities Act 1972?
It would be ironic if the European Commission were a major player—but actually why should it not be? It is entitled to its point of view and to put its case. It has massive resources, however, to which we have contributed greatly, as my hon. Friend says. Nobody minds the Commission having a point of view, but we know what it will be, and we do not want its spending to come on top of all the rest, as it would create a sense of unfairness.
The official yes side in the AV referendum spent £3,436,000, and the official no side spent £2,595,000, so although the no side was outspent, spending was broadly not too dissimilar and fairly low, and voters still rejected the proposal. That is fair enough. Although the yes side spent a bit more, the arguments were well put. We all understood the arguments and there was broad acceptance of the result. There was no backlash and people felt the whole thing was fair, and in any event the result was clear: two thirds voted no.
Now, let us consider other referendums that I do not think have been conducted as fairly as our AV referendum. In 2008, voters in Ireland rejected the Lisbon treaty, only effectively to be told they must vote again, until the “correct result” could be obtained. The behaviour of the pro-EU side in the subsequent 2009 referendum campaign has resulted in several legal challenges in Ireland. One campaigning group even offered Irish citizens resident on the continent free Ryanair flights home, provided they canvassed for a yes vote. Before Lisbon, Irish voters also rejected the treaty of Nice in a 2001 referendum, but the Government pushed through a law on the last day before the Irish Parliament broke up for Christmas to remove the responsibility of the Referendum Commission to ensure that voters were informed of arguments on both sides in a balanced way. There is a great deal of unhappiness about that in Ireland. I should have thought that the yes campaigners could have won anyway.
We want to ensure that when it comes to our own referendum it is clear to everyone that there has been fairness. In the case of other EU referendums, when the stakes have been incredibly high and when it has been possible for huge amounts of money to be spent, there have been allegations of dirty tricks. We do not want that to happen in our own country. Our Government must show that they will insist on a free, fair, balanced and clean referendum, with equitable arrangements for all sides. As we know, a large proportion of the populace is already somewhat disengaged from and disenchanted with politics, and allowing such an overspend by one side would only deepen those feelings. It would reinforce the idea that the deck is stacked and the game is rigged.
Members in all parts of the House are profoundly aware of how difficult it can be to engage ordinary people in the political process. Too often, we meet with responses such as “What is the point?”, “It will not change anything”, “It is all fixed anyway”, and “If voting changed anything, they would abolish it.” We reject that, as politicians and as people who value debate in the House of Commons. We want the referendum to be fair. However, the mindset of many people out there must be acknowledged and challenged.
Public confidence in our parliamentary democracy is a matter of grave concern, and this referendum is a crucial turning point. The very fact that it is taking place is testimony to the Prime Minister’s having kept his word, and that has meant a great deal in the context of restoring confidence in the whole EU debate and in our democracy. As I have said several times, and as everyone knows, no one under the age of 55 has yet had a chance to vote yes or no in a referendum such as this. There is now a great opportunity for a really good debate, and for both sides to be given broadly equal funding to enable them to put their arguments.
Finally, let me say to the Minister that more needs to be done. The Government need to ensure that this problem is addressed.
As Members will know, my party has some experience of referendums. I assure Members in all parts of the House that SNP Members will act constructively when it comes to this referendum—if it goes ahead—and that, like the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), we want to see a fair referendum.
It must be said that we were not originally in favour of the referendum. It was not in our manifesto, and, given that—as Members will know—we won the election in Scotland, we think that we have a mandate to bring that manifesto to the House. We also think that there has been no significant change in the position. I struggle to see where the Prime Minister is gaining any of the friends whom he will need to gain if he is to see the concessions he wants. He seems to be going about things in a way that is losing him friends and influence throughout Europe.
However, if—as appears increasingly likely—the EU referendum is indeed to go ahead, we want it to meet the gold standard that was set by the Scottish independence referendum, which featured a level of democratic activity that Members in all parts of the House will have welcomed. The turnout of between 85% and 86% was far higher than any election turnout in recent times, and the public became involved in the democratic process to an extent that we had not seen before. Our wish for public involvement was one of our reasons for wanting 16 and 17-year-olds to vote in the referendum, and 75% of them took the opportunity to do so.
The Scottish referendum was notable for the diversity of the campaigning groups—many of which my hon. Friends were involved in—and the huge upsurge in democratic involvement. All of us, in all parts of the House, think a great deal about how we can involve young people more often, and how we can ensure that more groups are involved in the democratic process. Regardless of whether people voted yes or no in that referendum—I know that Members of this House campaigned on both sides—I think it valuable for us to draw lessons from a robust experience of democracy that won plaudits throughout the world. None of us should ever lose sight of that, and all of us should take some pride in it.
We will support any amendments that provide for a fair playing field and a positive campaign. What turns people off—as we saw in the independence referendum campaign—is negative campaigning and scaremongering. Members in various parties will be well aware of that. We want to talk about the benefits of Europe. The Prime Minister talks about powers that may need to be returned and we all talk about areas in need of reform, but why do we not have a positive debate about where we can have more Europe and more engagement with the EU? I am talking about areas like security issues and the challenges we face in the Mediterranean and a resurgent Russia and the problems in Ukraine at present.
We also want to see a greater social Europe. After all, people went over to Europe to campaign for a living wage. That is another area we could look at, as is climate change. No state can tackle climate change on its own, so why do we not look for more powers for Europe to tackle it?
So, yes, we will talk about, and engage in, reform in this debate, but reform should be a two-way process. It should be about more powers for Europe as well as fewer.
We want to play a constructive role. Even though we were against the referendum—we have made that clear—and we voted against it, we are willing to draw on our experiences in the independence referendum, where the Government are willing to listen, and to pass on what we learned from a very positive referendum role model.
The right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) said earlier that the referendum must be fair, and described procedural issues as footnotes. That is one area on which we will disagree. SNP Members have some experience of purdah periods during referendums, and we would very much like purdah to be followed and we want it to be respected. We do not want to see any vows being thrown up in the days before the referendum process.
Scotland has shown that a referendum provides a democratic opportunity. We do not think this referendum as it stands meets the gold standard set by the Scottish independence referendum. However, we are willing to work with Members across the House to make sure it does, and I hope they will accept some of our amendments.
I rise briefly in connection with some amendments standing in my name, such as amendments 32, 29, 22, 30 and 26, relating to provisions in the Bill that struck me as very strange to begin with. They seemed to envisage that royal charter bodies and certain types of charity should become permitted participants as campaigners in referendums and permitted donors to referendum campaigns. The matter of charities and the function of the Charity Commission is the responsibility of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, and it is something we have taken a great deal of care and interest over. I have made inquiries of the Charity Commission, and I am extremely grateful that it has furnished me with a comprehensive note explaining that this is a slightly bizarre tidying-up exercise. It brings the provisions in this Bill into line with what was agreed in the Lobbying Bill which is now an Act from the last Parliament. The Charity Commission is very clear that the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 does not give the charities it covers a general power to campaign or make donations to campaigns.
I will be grateful if the Minister replying to this debate makes it clear that there is no suggestion that charities are being empowered to be donors or participants under this Bill. They are of course governed by charity law and the regulations set down by the Charity Commission. Those are still enforced. This Bill does not alter charity law. When we were conducting the north-east says no campaign, some charities—I shall not embarrass them now by naming them—did allow their logos to be used on the yes campaign website. We quickly made our concern about that clear to the Charity Commission, and they were quickly instructed to take down their logos as this was a misuse of charitable funds and of their logos.
Charities are not intended to be involved in political campaigning. Of course, many of them are involved in campaigns that have political implications—for example, anti-slavery and child trafficking campaigns are legitimate campaigns—but they are not allowed to get involved in party political campaigns. Charities can be punished for making donations to political parties, and it is important for them to understand that this also applies to donations and participation relating to referendums, as set out in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. That is all that these provisions are intended to do. I therefore do not intend to press my amendments to a vote.
It strikes me that any intervention by a charity would pale into insignificance when compared with the imbalance that is being locked into the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), when speaking to amendment 53, drew our attention to the fact that political parties would be allowed to participate pro rata according to the vote they received in the general election. Incidentally, the European Union was not a major issue at the general election. It was an issue, but not the major one, and the election result hardly constitutes a mandate for spending on this scale.
If the Government were released from purdah, or if we could not contain what the European institutions were able to do during the referendum, the issue of charities would be very small beer. It is important, none the less, for the charities to realise that they must not get themselves into difficulties by misinterpreting the provisions of the Bill. I would be grateful if the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose), would reiterate that that is the case.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin). I recall that, once upon a time, he stood for a group of radical young Conservatives north of the border. I think they called themselves the White Rose group. We were wearing white roses during the debate on the Queen’s Speech in his honour, and I dare say we would welcome him back to try his luck again north of the border some time. He spoke wisely about ensuring fairness in a referendum campaign. I agree that the restrictions on charitable groups contained in the amendments pale into insignificance when compared with some of the other imbalances—or dangers of imbalance—in the legislation that we are trying to correct.
The hon. Gentleman was also right to mention the activities of Sir Nicholas Macpherson, which his Committee quite rightly brought to book, and the dangers of a lack of observance of civil service impartiality, particularly during a campaign period. I should say that Sir Nicholas threatened to reach for his lawyers when he saw an advance copy of a book that I published recently. It is available for £12.99 at all good bookshops. [Laughter.] In a letter to the editor of The Scottish Sun newspaper, he said that he was considering his “legal options for redress”. I am pleased to say that, in the interest of freedom of speech, the articles in the newspaper went ahead, as did the book. As yet, we have not heard from Sir Nicholas’s representatives—Sue, Grabbit and Runne, or whoever the permanent secretary to the Treasury uses these days.
We have reached an extraordinary situation when we find ourselves lecturing charities and regulating their activities without any evidence that any charity is about to breach the fairness rules—except for the rather slight evidence mentioned earlier in relation to the north-east referendum some years ago—but we are not concentrating on the hugely serious potential imbalance that could result from the activities of Government Ministers breaching purdah or from civil servants breaching impartiality rules. By all means, let us have assurances about the range of amendments that have been proposed. Incidentally, never in any European debate in this House have I seen such a small number of speakers ready to address the amendments before us. Let us examine the amendments by all means, but let us also remember that this is a small matter compared with the other matters that we have been discussing.
Earlier in the proceedings, I was astonished to see real concern being expressed across the Chamber about fairness and impartiality in relation to what could happen during the campaign period. I was also clear that if the Labour party had been prepared to adopt a more robust stance, we could have had it written into this Bill the impartiality that we previously had through the observance of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 rules. There was even enthusiasm for an enforcement mechanism, without which rules and regulations have no effect whatsoever. I think that Labour will look back at those lost opportunities and recover a little bit of political momentum. Its Front-Bench team was quite extraordinary today, in its lack of answers to the question of how, when the opportunity beckoned, to defeat the Government in a major matter and to ensure fairness and impartiality in the observance of legislation that a previous Labour Government had passed.
I am extremely grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. I find myself in a surprising degree of agreement with what he is saying, but there is a chance that the sinner repenteth, because similar amendments may come forth on Report.
As I understand it, and I am open to correction from Sir Roger, the sinner may get a chance to repent even before that. Amendment 11 has still to be called in our proceedings, so the sinner may get a chance to repent on Report, at the eleventh hour or at 7 o’clock this evening. Let us all hope that the sinner does repent whenever they choose to.
As I am being quoted, may I just say to the right hon. Gentleman that I shall not be taking repentance at that time?
I wish to make it absolutely clear for the record that the only sinners to which we are referring are those who were previously located on the Labour Front Bench. I am not talking about anyone else in the House.
There is a serious point. Whatever side of this referendum campaign we want to adopt, and if we are all agreed that it is important that everyone sees the referendum as fair and square, the rules should be drawn up in such a way to give a proper contest—a square goal, as some of my Glaswegian colleagues might say. If there is to be a genuine and fair contest, it does require us, when opportunities present themselves to defeat the Government, as they so rarely do, to ensure that those opportunities are taken. I appeal to the Labour Front Bench Members—perhaps they will communicate this to their colleagues—to see that that opportunity still beckons to ensure that that can happen later in our proceedings.
The Government’s position across a range of matters seems to be somewhat disorganised. I know that there was a great anxiety on the part of Government to rush forward with this Bill immediately after the general election. Perhaps they wanted to catch out the Labour party, which was still in a state of leadership limbo. A number of things already in our proceedings tell us that insufficient thought has gone into the Government’s position. There was that extraordinary climbdown, or cave-in, on Government amendment 55. I welcome the fact that respect has belatedly been shown to the nations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but it does not have the smack of a Government that have considered their point of view. Across a range of matters, particularly with regard to purdah, there is a sign that the Government have not sufficiently thought through their position.
Earlier, I was told that it is in order for the Minister for Europe to circulate a letter, only to his colleagues, that says what might happen on Report if people do not press their amendments inconveniently. I see that the experienced hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash), who spoke from a sedentary position—we all welcome him back to his place—is smiling. He has been on the receiving end of many such letters over the years—probably more than the rest of us put together. I do think that it is somewhat remiss of the Government to distribute information only to those on the Conservative Benches.
Earlier, I was struck by the actions of the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke). He had not received the communication, but within seconds of it being passed to him, decided that he was in favour of it. That was a remarkable rush to judgment, I would say, both in terms of the climbdown we have seen on the date of the referendum and of the inadequate thought that has been given to this hasty revocation of the purdah considerations.
Should the Government not be commended for listening and being flexible, rather than condemned?
When in government, I always listened and was always flexible. One interpretation of events might be that, when the Government realised yesterday at about 7pm—when the Democratic Unionist party decided to sign the SNP amendment—that they were about to go down to a defeat not of ones and twos but of 10s and 20s because they could not carry a majority of the House, they prepared what can only be called a 9.35, spatchcock, last-minute amendment and tabled it as a starred amendment with the Clerks. That could be called flexibility and listening or blind panic that they would go down to a defeat. Whether it was blind panic, as most of us think, or whether it was the listening Government that the right hon. Gentleman aspires to, it is a welcome concession.
I should correct the right hon. Gentleman. The correct title of the group to which he referred, to which I and others such as Mr Speaker and one of the Deputy Speakers, the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing), belonged, was called the White Guard.
I want to pick up the right hon. Gentleman’s point about the letter. It says that the Government wish to use civil servants to explain the position arising from the renegotiation during the purdah period. If the referendum is not going to be about the Government’s deal with the EU, what is it going to be about? The letter says that the Government want to use the government machinery for precisely the purpose that they should not be allowed to use it for.
That is an excellent point. I bow to the hon. Gentleman’s memory as to the White Guard as opposed to the White Rose group. I am delighted to receive the information that Mr Speaker was a member. I cannot believe that he was unsuccessful in an election anywhere, but I am delighted to have that information. No doubt I shall use it at some point in the future.
I am afraid that I have just got the letter through Twitter and have not had a chance to examine it fully. The hon. Gentleman makes a serious point that goes to the heart of the profound issues that he and others have raised.
I thought that the white rose was a Jacobite symbol and then a Tory symbol. I am surprised that the SNP has adopted it, but I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for adopting our symbol. Notwithstanding the arguments about purdah—he makes some good points—does he agree that it is important that there is broad equality of spending on both sides?
The hon. Gentleman should be aware that there is a Jacobite white rose. I have always had the hon. Gentleman down for a Jacobin rather than a Jacobite, but there is also the MacDiarmid rose in the poem:
“The rose of all the world is not for me
I want for my part
Only the little white rose of Scotland
That smells sharp and sweet - and breaks the heart.”
SNP Members were adorned by the MacDiarmid rose during the Queen’s Speech.
The point about spending limits is well made. Fairness in terms of spending capacity is one important part of elections and referendums. There is an enforcement mechanism—some may say that it is not always used as rigorously as it could be—for election or referendum spending rules and there are severe penalties for breaching them. There is no such effective mechanism for breaches of purdah or when Ministers or civil servants go clearly outside the purdah rules. I commend to the hon. Gentleman the new clauses, which we will vote on later, which would introduce exactly such an enforcement mechanism to ensure fairness not just in our debates but in a referendum.
The civil service code does not impose any restriction on civil servants as far as I am told. That would definitely have to be dealt with, as the right hon. Gentleman suggests.
I am delighted to have given way to the hon. Gentleman, who is in a sedentary position. His colleague the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin), whose Committee’s report condemned the activities of Sir Nicholas Macpherson a few months ago, has alluded to exactly why that should be done. The hon. Member for Stone is right and I commend him to look at our new clauses 3 and 4, which seek to set out what the rules should be and to provide an enforcement mechanism to make sure that they are adhered to.
You have been patient, Sir Roger, and I know that a number of other hon. and right hon. Members wish to speak. I say to the Government that this debate has already flung up a range of issues. There are severe deficiencies in the Bill, although we certainly welcome the concession on the timing of the referendum, whether that happened as a result of listening or of panic. However, there are other areas on which the Government have not yet convinced me as a pro-European or, I suspect, some of their colleagues who take a different view on the European referendum. The joint view that we hold, as far as is possible, is that we would like to see a referendum that is conducted in a proper and fair manner.
I am going to speak to my amendment 9, which is a simple amendment with very important consequences and implications. It would ensure that the referendum period lasts for at least 16 weeks.
Under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, there is a maximum six-week period for potential lead campaigners to apply and be appointed, followed by a minimum four-week period before the poll. However, the Electoral Commission, drawing on its experience of regulating the rules for the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, has concluded that an alternative approach is needed to the timetable for appointing lead campaigners. The amendment recommends that, should the legislative timetable allow for it, the appointment should take place shortly before rather than during the first six weeks of the referendum period.
The effect would be to provide clarity at an earlier stage for voters and campaigners, and to ensure that the lead campaigners were in place shortly before the majority of the regulatory controls come into force. I cannot think of anything much more important than people knowing who is running which organisations. That would therefore allow for a shorter total duration of the subsequent referendum period—for example, a designation period of six weeks—with a subsequent 10-week regulated campaign period.
This is a massively important referendum and it is pretty astonishing that there is a vacuum on this subject. This is an extremely important amendment. The Minister for Europe is not in his place, but one of the senior Whips is, which is no substitute—
I am the Minister responsible for constitutional reform.
I do beg my hon. Friend’s pardon. He was a Whip a short time ago, but he has now been promoted, on which I congratulate him. I hope he will pass back the message that we really must have a substantive response to this question.
Furthermore, the amendment will extend the minimum referendum period to 16 weeks, thus providing for a minimum 10-week post-appointment period. I am glad to say that the Electoral Commission supports my amendment; indeed, it supports the majority of my amendments. It says that extending the period to 16 weeks
“would go some way to giving designated lead campaign groups the time needed to get their messages to voters, including to plan and effectively use free mailing and TV broadcasts.”
As a matter of fairness—that hallowed expression—I cannot think of anything more important.
I commend my hon. Friend’s amendment, to which I have added my name, but does that not presuppose that the Government will conclude the negotiations and report them to the House well before the 16-week period kicks in, and that it is not legitimate for them then to use the Government’s machinery to explain the deal that they have reached through the purdah period and the 16-week period up to polling day? Does that not suggest that the Government will try to pull a fast one? Would it not be better if they made it clear now that they are going to conclude the deal long before the referendum is called so that there can be a proper and dispassionate debate about it?
I very much agree with my hon. Friend and I will go further and say that in the period between now and Report there will be substantial issues of this kind that we will need to dig into. There are references to counsel’s opinion on the purdah period and views that have been expressed by the Electoral Commission. We had a Bill before us without our having any idea of the outcome of the negotiations. This is not a satisfactory way to proceed.
As one who spent 25 years in very senior practice as a constitutional and administrative lawyer dealing with matters such as the dispute between Canada and Quebec, I can only say that counsel’s opinion is not the basis on which to make political decisions. We as lawyers may be very good at coming up with legal answers, but when I get my hands on that counsel’s opinion, as eventually we did on the Iraq opinion, there will be quite a lot of question marks. As my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) said in an earlier intervention, the Government can take their counsel’s opinion; we will take ours.
That is the position on that important amendment. The Electoral Commission supports the principle behind it. Will the Minister be good enough to give us a substantive reply and support amendment 9? I might not hold my breath about that.
The other amendment in my name, amendment 10—again, I am grateful for the support of hon. Members who have signed it—would ensure that no funds or support provided directly or indirectly by European Union bodies have a bearing on the outcome of the referendum. Is there any conceivable basis on which the Committee of the whole House would think a proper and fair referendum could be conducted if the entire resources of the European Commission and the European Union can be deployed in order to support a yes vote in the United Kingdom? By the way, there is no chance whatever that those bodies will not use all that money. They may have problems with Greece and they do not want a Grexit, but that pales into insignificance.
This is a very important proposal. The Electoral Commission takes the view that it already has controls on direct and indirect sources of campaign funding. Before I come to that, I refer to the situation as it applied in Ireland. I have spoken, debated and been at mass meetings when campaigners have been good enough to invite me in the run-up to referendums in France, Ireland, Denmark—all over Europe. There one sees the power of the state, pouring money down the throats of voters, and the machinery that underpins the yes campaign. I have come across some figures suggesting that in the second Irish referendum the amount of money deployed by the yes campaign after the machinery was geared up was around 15 times the amount available to the no campaign. That shows the scale of the problem.
I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman’s concern is partly due to the behaviour of José Manuel Barroso, the former President of the European Commission, during the Scottish referendum, and whether that model is what he envisages seeing, in amplification, in the European referendum.
It certainly is. I have heard over and over again in this debate claims that, “We all want fairness. We all want transparency. We all want to be sure that the British people are treated fairly.” The fact is that with European Union money there is not the slightest chance of that happening, and the purdah arrangements, by bringing the civil service into the equation, will have exactly the same negative effect.
By extension, the logical conclusion of what the hon. Gentleman has just said is that the Scottish people were not treated fairly last September.
The hon. Gentleman is seeking to draw me down that path, but I have been in this place for 31 years and will not buy that one. I am very glad that we got the vote we did last September, but that does not prevent me from being critical of the manner in which the procedures were followed.
I want to say something else. We have mentioned Mr Barroso. Here we are in the Westminster Parliament, described as the mother of Parliaments, and yesterday the celebrations for the Magna Carta were seen all over the world. The fact is that the traditions of those two things are illuminated around the world. We have fought in two world wars, against unprovoked aggression, and through our Parliament—through Churchill in this Parliament—we managed to save not just the United Kingdom, but Europe. They managed to drop a bomb on this place on my first birthday. Indeed, on the day I was born Hitler invaded Holland and France and Churchill became Prime Minister, but that is another story. The fact is that we have played a massive part in relation to democracy. What really worries me is that allowing the European Union to use its financial resources to manipulate the system is very dangerous.
According to the Electoral Commission, a central principle of its regulatory regime is to ensure—this is important—
“that foreign sources of funding do not have an undue influence on our democratic process.”
As hon. Members know, I have an eagle eye for the danger points. The Electoral Commission states that the 2000 Act, which sets out that regulatory regime,
“already provides that referendum campaigners are only able to accept donations over £500 from certain ‘permissible’ sources. In general, the permissibility rules provide that funding can only be accepted by referendum campaigners from certain UK-based sources. There are also rules and offences related to using permissible donors as agents to circumvent the rules.”
The Electoral Commission therefore put in place its regulatory arrangements. What it goes on to say is extremely important, and I still believe that my amendment would achieve this, because it uses the words “directly” and “indirectly” when talking about moneys, resources or support from any source within the European Union. The Electoral Commission states:
“It is important that the legislation is clear about those organisations that can and cannot participate in the referendum. The Commission’s view—
wait for it—
is that the European Commission does not fall within the list of bodies that can register as a campaigner or donate to other referendum campaigners. This amendment is therefore unnecessary.”
However, the analysis that I have provided shows the reach of the tentacles of the European Union, driven by Mr Barroso and his successors—Mr Juncker and all the others. We must never forget that Mr Barroso has said that the European Parliament, and only the European Parliament, is the Parliament for the European Union. He and his successors do not believe in this Parliament. There is a lot of talk now about national Parliaments, but his comments are on the record.
The Electoral Commission’s view is that the European Commission does not fall within the list of bodies that can register as campaigners. We should look into that carefully, because if the Electoral Commission were wrong, the European Commission might manage to worm its way in, on the scale that it has at its disposal, and subsidise the yes vote. I understand that that happened in Ireland, not to mention other countries throughout the European Union.
The Prime Minister has said that we can find an answer to the problems inherent in the purdah question. The Government acknowledge that there are problems with section 125 of the 2000 Act, but they say that they will get around them. That would include dealing with the civil service, but we must remember that the civil service includes permanent representatives. Members who are new to the House may not know about COREPER, the Committee of Permanent Representatives, which is the most powerful body in the European Union bar none, because it stitches up deals between all the member states. As Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee, I took evidence from our chief representative on that body. I emphasise to the Committee that the evaporation of section 125, combined with the monetary intrusion of the European Union, represents a monumental challenge to our democratic system.
My hon. Friend is explaining coherently how even though the European Commission does not consider itself to be a permitted participant or a permitted donor in a UK referendum campaign, its ability to fund bodies that will be participants or campaigners is unlimited. What about the Brussels-backed CBI, which has already received funds from the European Union, presumably to promote the EU? What is to prevent the CBI from receiving further funds? What restrictions will the Bill place on the CBI’s ability to receive such funds if it wants to donate to other campaigns?
This is vital territory. In a nutshell, we will have to get it right. Opening the floodgates on that money would be devastating, especially if it were to be employed alongside the lifting of the restrictions in section 125, which would bring the whole panoply of the civil service into play. That would be a nightmare scenario, but it is a genuine possibility. I am not convinced that the European Union is not a foreign source, although I will look into that. We passed an Act of Parliament, the European Communities Act 1972, under which we absorbed into our legislation all the treaties and all the functions of the bodies in the European Union. Because they became part of our constitutional settlement—for the time being, I trust—I believe that it would be an uncertain, if not a dangerous, assumption to make that the European Union and the European Commission would not be construed as being based in the United Kingdom as well as in all the other EU countries, in other words, as not being a foreign source. This matter will have to be looked at very carefully. I shall consult and confer with my colleagues as to what we do about these amendments.
Part of the difficulty that the UK has is the way that countries such as Ireland, Cyprus and Malta are to be treated. We also have the Foreign and Commonwealth Office; we do not consider Commonwealth citizens to be foreign but do consider some European Union citizens to be foreign. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office itself is anomalous because the Irish Republic is neither in the Commonwealth nor is it considered legally foreign in the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom’s own mess is contributing to some of the arguments that the hon. Gentleman is making.
I respond merely by saying that there are those who once described the Foreign Office as the Common and Foreignwealth Office, but that is another story.
Will my hon. Friend help me to understand his amendment 10? It appears to bar people who want to engage in the process by donating to the in or out campaign from doing so because of their business interests. For example, a large agricultural company that was receiving basic payment scheme money from the European Union would not be able to donate to an in or out campaign because it was getting that assistance. The same could be said for many industrial companies that may receive grants to extend their factories, or other such support mechanisms.
It is a question of the manner in which the funds or support are provided. As far as I am concerned, the framework of amendment 10 is to do with campaign funding and donations. The interstices and tentacles of the European Union are so extensive that we will keep bumping into these problems. The scale of the moneys in question is so huge that we have to be sure about this. The determination of the European Union bodies to keep Britain in the European Union is such that they will stop at nothing to use every means that they legally can to ensure that the money goes where they want it for the yes campaign.
I will confer with my colleagues on what we do about amendments 9 and 10.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash). I associate myself entirely with the comments made earlier in welcoming him to this debate. I will often disagree with what he says, but I am delighted to see someone who goes to such efforts to express in this Chamber views that are very clearly and sincerely held. I always think that a sincere political opponent is the kind of opponent one likes to have a debate with.
I want to focus on amendments 53 and 32. I have some sympathy with the intention behind amendment 53, but from my experience of the referendum in Scotland last year, I suggest that the last thing anybody should want to do is to artificially restrict or control the number of individuals in organisations who can play their own small but important part in what should be a celebration of grassroots democracy if we get it right; it could be something very different if we get it wrong.
The Scottish independence referendum was the biggest celebration of grassroots democracy that I have ever seen or expect to see. That was partly because neither the political parties nor anyone else tried to artificially control who was and was not allowed to take part. I am sure that on a number of occasions the SNP’s lawyers were quite pleased that they were not in control of some of the things that were happening. That is what made it so much fun, that is what gave us a record-breaking turnout, and that is why public engagement in politics in Scotland is still at a much higher level than it was just a few years ago.
I caution the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) to be careful about artificially restricting this debate to the great and the good and suchlike. A lot of wee people out there have something important to say, and a lot of smaller organisations will have an important part to play, on both sides of the question. We should encourage them to have their say rather than artificially restrict them.
It is interesting to hear so many Conservative MPs complaining that they might get outspent in an election campaign; in almost 30 years of party politics, I do not often remember Conservatives complaining that an election was not fair if one party was being massively funded by big business and was able to outspend all the other parties combined by a factor of five or 10.
There is also an irony in the Conservatives’ concerns that European organisations might dip their oars in this debate, given their negligible worries about the Committees and machinations of Government during the Scottish referendum.
My hon. Friend makes a good and valid point. Conservatives expressing concerns about possible unfairness in the conduct of this referendum are referring to exactly the kind of unfairness that they and their colleagues were happy to exploit in the Scottish referendum.
Order. The hon. Gentleman is making a debating point, which is acceptable to an extent. However, he should stick to this referendum rather than previous ones.
I stand corrected, Mr Howarth; I apologise.
I turn to amendment 32. I understand the intention behind it, as charities should be doing charitable work rather than being engaged full time in political campaigning. However, let me give one example of its possible unintended and undesirable consequences.
One of the two moving maiden speeches earlier was made by the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq). She spoke movingly and passionately about the positive influence that those born beyond the shores of these nations have had on the wider community. It is not impossible to imagine the referendum debate being dragged off in the wrong direction. The hon. Lady perceptively mentioned the danger that the debate about EU membership could be turned by some into a debate about immigration, and such a debate can quickly turn hostile to immigrants as human beings. If that was allowed to happen—and powerful voices in sections of the media will want it to—some citizens might begin to feel unwelcome, vulnerable and threatened by some of the propaganda. The organisations whose job is to make those citizens feel welcome and help them play a full part in our society might find themselves prohibited from speaking out—not about whether people should vote yes or no, but about the need for the tone of the debate to calm down because it was damaging communities.
I say to the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin), who tabled amendment 32, that I understand his intention but we should be careful about the potential consequences. In the past, debate allegedly about Europe has had the tone I have described. Parts of my constituency have significant populations of eastern European citizens, and I have seen the effect on them when a debate about Europe has become a debate about immigration policy and very quickly then about the rights of some of those people to be here. I understand why they might start to feel very uncomfortable.
We were not particularly in favour of the referendum; we did not see it as necessary. If it is going to happen, however, it has to be fair and be seen to be fair. It will not be enough—certainly for some nations represented here—for the Government to say, “It’s fair—and you know it is because we are telling you it is.” In one or two tiny corners of these islands, trust in Her Majesty’s Government is not exactly at 100%. How the Government conduct themselves during this referendum, particularly in respect of a voluntary or compulsory purdah, could go a long way towards changing the trust in which they are held. That trust could increase or it could be damaged even more than at present.
Would the hon. Gentleman extend his remarks to other charities, such as animal welfare charities? Those might have a strong view on how our relationship with the EU affects their ability to do their work on animal welfare or ivory imports, for example.
Like many Members on these Benches, I am not comfortable with the very severe restrictions that have been put on what charitable organisations can and cannot do. A phrase I have often used at hustings is, “If I say we should give money to the poor, I’ll be called a saint. If, however, I ask why they were poor in the first place, they would call me a communist.” There is a dividing line between any kind of socially beneficial charitable work and getting political. Asking why we have food banks, for example, very quickly becomes a political matter. The hon. Gentleman makes a very valid point, but I am saying that specifically in relation to organisations that work on behalf of citizens—some of them will have a vote in the referendum, but shamefully it looks as though some may not—we have to be very careful not unintentionally to prevent them from doing the job for which they were originally constituted.
I did promise to give way to my hon. Friend.
My hon. Friend is making a fine speech. Does he agree that the difference in tone between the Scottish referendum and this one arises because in Scotland we talked about the people in Scotland, while in this referendum the talk is of the British people, which is a shame? The talk should be about the people in Britain or, more correctly, the people in the UK. That is what the referendum should be about, and we should not exclude people who live here because of where they were from originally.
I have always been of the view that people’s nationality should be defined by where they want to go, rather than where they came from, but that definition is not widely accepted.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will take one more intervention, but I will then have to move on.
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the concerns of those in the eastern European diaspora in this country. Being of Polish origin, I have engaged with many of them. It is true that many such communities are concerned about the referendum and its ramifications for them. I very much hope that he will join me in saying to the eastern European diaspora that this is not about them, but about our position in Europe.
I am delighted to do so. I am pleased to confirm, as would all my hon. Friends, that from speaking to people from eastern Europe and other people from beyond the shores of the United Kingdom during the Scottish independence referendum, I know that they not only welcomed the fact they were allowed to take part, but felt more Scots—more British, if hon. Members like—as a result of being allowed to take part. However they eventually voted, the fact that they were allowed to partake in such a massive event for our nation meant that they identified even more strongly with our nation afterwards than they had before.
To conclude, now that it very much looks as though the referendum will happen, we must make sure that we get it right. It has got to be fair and seen to be fair. That means that the funding of the different sides must be fair; it does not necessarily have to be equal, but it has to be fair, open and transparent. We have to know who is paying in the money, and therefore who is pulling the strings of the different campaigns. The referendum must be conducted in such as way that everyone who resides in these islands—even those who, it appears, are likely to be denied a vote—feels that they are still entitled to stay here and can accept the result. The only thing that would be worse than holding a referendum would be to hold one that was seen to be rigged or unfair.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth, and to take part in this debate.
In following the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant), I want to say two things. First, it is great to see the Scottish National party participating in this Union Parliament so vigorously. That is very welcome. Secondly, he just needs to understand that this referendum is about the future of the United Kingdom in the European Union and is exclusively a matter for the people of the United Kingdom.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
No, I will not.
This is a matter for the people of the United Kingdom to decide. Those who are taking advantage of our liberal society are of course most welcome, but we need to remember that it is for the British people to decide our future in the European Union.
No, I will not give way, because all three Members have spoken and intervened ad nauseam. I have a reception to go to for BAE Systems, the fourth largest defence manufacturer in the world, based in my constituency, and I do not wish to detain the Committee more than is absolutely necessary.
On a point of order, Mr Howarth. In a Committee of the whole House, is it a reasonable explanation for not giving way for the hon. Gentleman to say that he has a reception to go to?
As the right hon. Gentleman well knows, that is not a point of order. The hon. Gentleman can give way or not. That is a matter of choice for the hon. Gentleman.
It is quite clear that the right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond) is only distressed because he has not been invited. If he speaks to me very nicely, I might arrange for a wee ticket to be sent to him.
This is a very important subject. I want to put on the record my appreciation for the Prime Minister’s having kept his word to the British people that there would be a referendum on Britain’s future in the European Union. That he has brought forward the Bill so early in the Parliament is highly commendable and indicative of his determination. It is indicative of the current spirit of the Conservative party that this moment is completely unlike 1992, in that we are airing our differences of view and our different concerns in this Committee debate in an amicable spirit, as we try to find the best way through.
There is unanimity in this Chamber that if the referendum is to be successful, it must be fair. Not only do we have to arrange provisions to ensure that it is fair, to the best of our ability; it must be seen by the British people to be fair. There would be nothing worse than to carry out this extensive operation and hold the referendum and, in the end, for people on whichever side of the argument not to be satisfied that the conditions that we in this House laid down for the conduct of the referendum had been fulfilled.
It is right and proper for us to be as precise in framing the rules for the referendum as possible. It is in that spirit that I support amendment 53, which was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), who is no longer in his place, and amendment 10, which was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) and to which I am a signatory.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stone says that the Electoral Commission does not believe that it is necessary to include amendment 10, which would limit the capacity of the European Commission to have any involvement whatsoever in the referendum. The Electoral Commission has made a number of important and valid suggestions, but I need to be persuaded on that point. We all know from our constituencies that when a project has been funded in any way by the European Union, those socking great stars are plastered all over it as though it has been funded by the EU. Of course, all of us in this Committee know that it has not been funded by the EU at all, but by the British taxpayer with money that we have given to the European Commission, some of which it kindly gives back to us.
We need to be very clear that we do not want the European Commission, in any shape or form, sticking its oar into our domestic debate about whether we should continue to be a member of the European Union or seek our fortune elsewhere.
I wonder whether my hon. Friend will clarify his remarks, because I think that amendment 10 could have unintended consequences. Many companies and businesses that have received European funding for a project, such as an extension to a factory to create more employment, would be barred from the process and would not be able to fund one side of the argument or the other. Even if they felt passionately that we should be in or out, they would be excluded by the amendment.
I heard my hon. Friend’s intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Stone, and he makes a valid point that we need to address. However, the purpose of amendment 10 is crystal clear: it is to stop the European Commission getting involved or funding third parties to get involved in the campaign. If a company in his constituency that received support under a European Commission scheme five years ago, three years ago, last year or whenever chose to back one side or the other, one would not be able to say that it was doing so because it had received money from the European Commission, but if the European Commission started to fund organisations that were involved in the campaign, that would be unacceptable. We do not want it interfering.
Would it really matter, because surely both sides will get just about equal funding? Where the funding comes from does not matter in the end if both sides get the same rough amount.
I should tell my hon. and gallant Friend that if he thinks the European Commission will be impartial in those matters, he has another think coming. I am sure he is far more worldly-wise than to give the Committee the impression that the European Commission will be even-handed. There is no evidence whatever that it has done anything other than use our money to promote the European project. That is what it is on about and what it believes it is necessary to do. It shows no signs of reluctance in pursuing that.
That is all I wanted to say. My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough, who is back in his place, is right in his amendment 53 to suggest that there should be equality of resources. Sir John Major was responsible for imposing initial limits on party spending at general elections some time ago. We can all see the absurd situation in the United States, where it cost $1 billion to get President Obama elected. We do not have that absurd system in this country and it is right that we have a limit. My hon. Friend’s amendment moves in that right direction, so I support it.
Just to reinforce the point that the hon. Gentleman makes about America compared with Britain, I was recently on a parliamentary visit to Washington where we met a senior member of the Democratic party. I explained that there were limits on electoral expenditure in general elections in Britain, unlike in America, and he said, “How civilised.”
That is a very civilised remark from a very civilised Member, who together with me champions the cause of the sixth-form colleges. He and I have the finest sixth-form colleges in the country. Mine is slightly better than his, but there we go.
This debate in Committee is important. If we do not refine the detail in every possible manner, compatible with what my right hon. Friends on the Front Bench know has to be done in order to comply with the law and so on, we have Report stage, when things can be sorted out. However, it must be made crystal clear that we will not have the European Commission interfering in that referendum in the United Kingdom in any shape or form. Amendment 10 gives us the vehicle to send the clearest possible message to Brussels that that is something up with which we will not put.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in today’s debate, Mr Howarth, and to welcome the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose), as the Minister responding. The constitution is always in safe hands when it is in the hands of Somerset, so it is reassuring that he is here to respond.
I want to follow on from what my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) said about amendment 10, on EU funding, which was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash), and to which I have added my name. The appearance of fairness within the referendum is at the heart of what the Government must try to do. The Government, like Caesar’s wife, must be above suspicion. It would be wrong if there was any feeling that the referendum was being held improperly, that undue pressure was being brought to bear, or that funding was directed to one side rather than the other—I say that as somebody who supports the Government’s position—but it would be most wrong if British taxpayers’ money funnelled by the European Union ended up being used to campaign for us to remain subject to the European Union.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
It is a delight to give way to the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil).
The hon. Gentleman’s pronunciation is as impeccable in this Parliament as it was in the last one. I congratulate him once again.
The hon. Gentleman mentions the nonsense and unacceptability of British taxpayers’ money going through the European Union and back again. He will be aware, and perhaps bemused and baffled, that there is much amusement in Scotland that Scottish taxpayers’ money funnelled through the UK Government was used in our referendum to campaign succinctly and definitely on one side. I am thinking of Sir Nicholas Macpherson and many others along with him.
The hon. Gentleman had the opportunity to listen to an excellent debate on that very subject yesterday, led by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), but I think I would be in trouble if I went through the question of full fiscal autonomy for Scotland in relation to amendment 10 to the European Union Referendum Bill, so I want to stick to the subject at hand.
The European Union has a budget for this. Indeed, we passed a Bill in 2013 that allows for the European Union to engage in political activity and the promotion of the cause and objectives of the European Union. That money flows to institutions within the United Kingdom and that money comes with strings attached. It is money that is given on the basis that the institutions receiving that money support the objectives of the European Union.
The objective of the European Union is ever greater union. It is therefore not in its interest to allow a member of that union to drift away in any way, shape or form. It will hug it as close as possible.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It would be against the conditions of receipt of that money to use the money to campaign for a member state to leave the European Union.
Some very influential bodies in this country receive money from the European Union. My hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) said that the CBI receives money from the European Union. We know that the CBI is in part funded by Europe. It is therefore under an obligation either to return that money or to support the objectives of the European Union. When the director-general of the BBC came before the European Scrutiny Committee, he was asked about the money the BBC received from the European Union and the strings that that may have attached. Even the most impartial and highly regarded bodies in our establishment receive money from the European Union, and they take on certain obligations in return.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mark Spencer) made a very good point about what happens to farmers in receipt of subsidies that have come from the European Union. Are they then prohibited from giving money to the Conservative party to campaign in the referendum? No, of course not. He may well be right that the amendment needs improving to ensure that people are not captured by mistake.
The hon. Gentleman refers to farmers and their obligations. Is he aware that the National Farmers Union in the UK is suggesting to its members that they should stay in the European Union and is asking them to vote accordingly? Does he have concerns, as I do, about that?
I do indeed. I have no idea whether the NFU receives any money from the European Union. If it did, it would be under an obligation to support the objectives of the European Union.
It is a very insidious aspect of how the EU operates. It is why it likes to put its stars up everywhere: to show us what wonderful things Mother Europe is doing to help us and enforcing compliance with its view of the world. We want to make sure that our referendum is held absolutely fairly, without that influence. In terms of that fairness, I want to come on to the debate on schedule 1 stand part. It is schedule 15, referred to in schedule 1 to this Bill, that comes to the issue of section 125, the exemption from which removes the whole purdah question for the Government.
I have every confidence that the Prime Minister will lead the no campaign. He will come back and say that what is in the interests of this country, if the renegotiation is not exceptional, is that we leave. He has indicated that in speeches and I admire him for making his views so clear. When he does that, I do not want him to be helped by legerdemain. I do not want the no campaign to benefit from the Government being able to use all their resources to get me what I am likely to want in those circumstances. The right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond) expects the reverse. He thinks, I happen to think naively, that the Government will come back and wish to campaign for a yes vote. He likewise does not wish to see them being able to use all the powers at the disposal of the Government to push for what they want.
Those powers are considerable. The ability of the arms of central and local government to influence the media and public opinion and to use its PR resources, press officers and administrative and logistical machinery to help one side or the other is considerable. Whichever side of the argument one falls on, it must be right to hope that the referendum will be more than just a staging post in the discussion about Europe, and that it will help put our relationship with Europe on a firm footing that can last for decades rather than weeks. We do not want anyone on either side feeling that the result was so flawed, because of how it was carried out, that we need another referendum.
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point about putting us on a basis for years to come, rather than months or weeks. In that regard, does he think the Prime Minister should be pushing for co-operation with Europe in more areas, rather than fewer?
No, we co-operate in far too many areas already. I have a lot of sympathy with the SNP’s position in many ways, because it is not entirely different from mine. I want my country, which I view as the UK, to govern herself, and SNP Members want a smaller part of the UK—Scotland, which they view as their country —to govern herself too. It puzzles me that, having got self-government, they want to hand it over to Brussels, but that is a question for them.
My first quibble—the first mistake the hon. Gentleman has made—is that the British Union is not a country, but a union. Secondly, he fails to realise that we only want to change our relationship with London. Our relationship with Brussels would stay the same, under the SNP’s proposals for Scottish independence, which might come very soon.
That is a moot point that was discussed at length during the Scottish referendum campaign and to which I had better not revert.
I want to concentrate on the power, influence and resources of Governments.
I acknowledge my hon. Friend’s cynicism about the Government taking a view one way or another, but does he accept that the Government could express their view neutrally and thereby help to inform the electorate? It is vital that the electorate are informed and can make a decision based on informed opinion, and surely the Government could have a role in making sure that the Great British public are fully informed in both directions.
No, I am afraid that I fundamentally disagree with my hon. Friend. There are stages in this process. That is what the Bill and the Minister’s letter are trying to get at. The Government will have their renegotiation and then come back with a package saying it is a triumph, whatever is in the package. It might have three loaves and two fishes, or it might give us complete control of our own destiny—whichever it is, the Government will say it is a triumph. That will be the Government’s answer, and they can tell the electorate what they have managed to do. From then on, however, it will become a matter of straightforward politics whether someone believes the Government and agrees with what they have done. I approve of the adversarial system in this country. We do not develop our arguments and get to the answer we want by getting authoritative documents from the Government. Actually, such documents always contain a bias. It might not be obvious on first reading, but, reading through the detail, one will see the way the Government want people to go, and that will bolster the position they have set for themselves.
I might be corrected by SNP Members, but, as I understand it, the Electoral Commission put out leaflets during the Scottish referendum campaign agreed between the yes and no campaigns. Even if that did not happen, it might be a way of dealing with the situation. The no and yes campaigns could exchange information and come up with a bottom line, and then that line could be taken and put as a fair choice.
I certainly see no impropriety in that. In the London mayoral campaigns, the views of all the candidates are circulated in a single booklet. That is not improper. Perhaps, however, I am more of a believer in capitalism, in respect of elections as well as the economic structures of the country. I believe that people should campaign for what they want, and should put their own arguments rather than thinking that they could be better put—or even well put—by a nominally independent third party, least of all the Government.
Once the Government have reached a position in this regard, their circumstances are really no different from their circumstances just before a general election. Before a general election, the Government of course want to be re-elected and to carry on doing the great things that they feel they have done, but they are prohibited from using the organs of the state to promote themselves, because that is thought to be a fundamentally unfair way of dealing with the question that is immediately before the electorate.
The referendum in Scotland is instructive in this context. There was a good deal of unhappiness among members of the SNP about the way in which some arms of Government behaved during the period immediately before the referendum. Much though I welcomed the result of that referendum, and much though I thought it was a result to be desired, I think that the Government’s actions in putting their own view at a point that was too close to the deadline was damaging to a cause in which I believe.
The stakes are very high. If a Government have nailed their colours to a mast when it comes to a particular vote—in or out—and that vote does not go their way, a Government will then be in power for two or three years with a vote that they do not wish to live with, because it was contrary to the colours that they nailed to the mast.
That is a very important point, which may be worth discussing when we debate other amendments. Ultimately, the Government must accept the will of the people—that is what we all believe in, and that is why we are all here—but they must deal with that fairly.
There is also the question of where the Government should proceed from here. There seems to be a wide consensus that paragraph 15 of schedule 1 is deeply unsatisfactory, and that the removal of the issue of purdah was simply a mistake. I am willing to trust the Government, so I accept that it was an honest mistake, and not a mistake that was made in an attempt to fiddle the referendum result. I believe that partly because I am a simple fellow who is very trusting of the Government, but also because trying to fiddle the result will damage whichever side wishes to do it.
The British electorate will not have the wool pulled over their eyes. If little bits of legislation are squirreled away into the Bill to make things easier for one side or the other, those of us who are on the other side will campaign on that basis. We will say, “Look, we need to act against this, because people are trying to fiddle us over what is happening.” There is a wonderfully contrary spirit among the British people, who will not be cowed by those who try to trick them.
The explanatory notes relating to section 125 of the 2000 Act were so explanatory that a line and a half said simply, “This is what we are going to do.” For practical purposes, I do not think that my hon. Friend would be entirely right in thinking that the Government got there by mistake, particularly as they had taken counsel’s opinion, which we are determined to ferret out.
I do not know too much about ferreting, or indeed about counsel’s opinion, but my hon. Friend knows only too well that explanatory notes are anything but explanatory. They consist of a complicated a set of notes which, when read carefully in conjunction with a Bill, can shed some light, but I do not think that anyone expects them to be like the Book of Revelation, revealing everything that one could possibly want to know about a Bill. They require Members of Parliament to look diligently at what underlies them.
The Government must examine clause 3 very carefully. They have given undertakings to do so over the next few months, but they need to come back with something that is just as rigorous as what is there already.
Should there not be a clear gap between the offering that the Government have brought back to give to the people and the start of the campaign, which we may wish to call purdah? During the short campaign before the general election, which could be seen as a model, both sides—I am talking just about Labour and the Conservatives—suddenly started to produce new policies. We cannot have that; we want a clear offering followed by a gap, and then the start of the campaign. Does my hon. Friend agree?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend and that point has been made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone. An uncharacteristically weak argument must have been given to the Minister for Europe to read out—he could not have made so poor an argument himself—when he said that if the negotiations have finished it would be very difficult for the Government not to be able to explain them immediately before the election. It cannot be that we will have the referendum two weeks after the negotiations have been concluded. That would be preposterous. There has to be a considerable period of time beforehand, so that what has happened can be understood, debated and campaigned upon. That must mean a period of a minimum of 28 days, as currently set out, but realistically we are going to need three months at the end of the negotiations before we can move straight to the referendum.
My hon. Friend is developing an excellent argument, which perhaps brings out the fact that the amendment I have tabled specifies, fully supported by the Electoral Commission, at least a 16-week referendum period, and then it describes how it should be conducted.
I am well aware of my hon. Friend’s amendment, and I think the Government need to be thinking along those lines. I am going to support the Government this evening; I am not going to vote with my friends in the SNP on this occasion, or indeed with my hon. Friend the Member for Stone, which is more of a break with the habits of a lifetime. There is an important “but”, and I think other hon. Members on the Government Benches share my view: because the Government have made a mistake at this stage, they now need to come back with something better than we would have needed had they not made this mistake. Therefore, the Government’s position of purdah must be a stricter one than they might have been able to get away with had they simply amended the existing restrictions rather than taking them all away and having a completely clean base from which they could have done anything.
Surely my hon. Friend will recognise that in the period before the referendum our relationship with the EU will still be fluid and there may be matters that need the attention of the Government and that could be crucial to an industry or sector of the economy. If he goes down the route of this period of purdah, the Prime Minister might not be able to do a deal or make an announcement on something of fundamental importance to the economy during that period.
I was making a slightly different point. I was saying that it is going to need to be tougher than the Government would have got away with had they come through with a limited change at an earlier stage. The Government said they would scrap the whole of section 125, and there is now suspicion that there was an ulterior motive for that. To allay that suspicion, the Government have to be very specific about the exemptions they want. It might be an exemption to vote in the Council of Ministers, and that would not be unreasonable, but would I give them an exemption to announce from the hilltops that they had lots of money from the EU to build a new factory in a key swing area of the country? No, I would not; I would think that would be about fiddling the result, if they wanted a yes.
A lot of nonsense is talked about restricting the Prime Minister in what he can say. I do not remember the Prime Minister being particularly reticent during the general election campaign, and there is no reason why he would need to be reticent during this referendum campaign. If he is leading the no campaign, or more likely the yes campaign, of course he can say exactly what he wants. All we are arguing is that the machinery of government should not be used. We do that perfectly well during general election campaigns, and we know the difference.
My hon. Friend is right and will no doubt recall the 1970 general election when Harold Wilson, as Prime Minister, was not allowed to reveal the trade figures that came out immediately after the general election even though he knew them and they would have been very helpful to him. So there have been cases in which Prime Ministers were prohibited from making announcements on the basis of purdah, and I think it would be quite right to follow them in the context of a European referendum.
It was pointed out earlier that the reason the Government are so worried about this is part of the problem—namely, that the EU is involved in so many aspects of our lives that what they are restricted from doing will be much broader than it would be for a normal referendum. That makes it all the more important that this purdah is strictly observed.
We are arguing about whether the situation in which our lives are organised by the EU should remain or whether we should do something different. If, in the month or six weeks before the referendum, popular announcements about the EU were made but unpopular ones were held back—or vice versa—that would be completely improper.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Executive in this country and the one in Brussels are perfectly capable of restraining themselves for 28 days? Indeed, it happens every year. It is called August.
My hon. Friend is absolutely spot on. The activities of the European Commission come to a grinding halt for at least the whole of August. Perhaps that is the answer to another question—one that I was less exercised about—on the matter of the date. If we were to hold the referendum in the first week of September, the EU would have been shut down throughout August and there would be no great problem with purdah.
I urge the Government to come back with something pretty serious on this. They cannot get away with most of what they want; this needs to be a thorough purdah. I do not know whether they will do this today, but it is open to them—as a sign of goodwill and reassurance—not to proceed with the proposal that schedule 1 be the first schedule to the Bill. Instead, they could bring forward a new schedule to deal with this problem on Report. That would leave everyone content, and there would be no great opposition or need to press amendments.
Several hon. Members
Order. I have been quite relaxed about Members making interventions but I have noticed that they are getting longer, to the point of being beside the point. Before I call the next speaker, I must point out that I shall now be taking a slightly less relaxed view on interventions.
I hope that, when the Government bring the Bill back on Report, they will give further consideration to the question of campaign spending limits. We are all freshly back from an energetic general election campaign, and one of the finest things about the United Kingdom’s traditions that ensure fair and free elections is the fact that we have pretty strict expenditure limits in each constituency. Those of us who were the incumbents fighting to retain our seats were rightly subject to rules stating that we could not use our incumbency in any way, as that would have provided us with an obvious advantage. We could not use our ability to raise more money, for example, because there were strict limits in place.
Those strict limits applied for a five-month period. We had the long campaign period, which was subject to expenditure control, followed by the short campaign period. It is the short campaign period for the referendum that we are talking about today. I believe that it was right to impose the campaign limits early, because political parties are increasingly campaigning well in advance of the general election proper, and it looks as though the referendum campaign will kick in well before the referendum proper. Indeed, there are clearly already stirrings, even before this Bill has passed through the House of Commons.
It is good that we all have to face the challenge from a number of candidates, any one of whom has a reasonable chance of raising the maximum that we are allowed to spend in a given constituency. It is quite a large sum for an individual to raise, but it is quite a modest sum for someone who has a reasonable amount of support or who asks for small or medium-sized donations from a range of people. It is not that difficult for a relatively popular party or candidate to raise the money needed in order to spend right up to the constituency limit, to give them the maximum chance in the challenge.
I understand that the sums will be rather bigger in a national referendum campaign, and that if one side is a lot more popular than the other, that would give it an advantage not only in the vote but in the amount of fundraising it could do. But I do think that, under the current Bill, the very large sums that would be available, because of the way the parties and some of the supporting organisations are thinking, are thoroughly disproportionate. That would give the impression of unfairness, and the British people have a great sense of fairness. Many people on the yes side have a sense of fairness and would prefer it if the referendum campaign were conducted with more equal sums of money, so that the weight and quality of the argument matter more than access to funds and special ways of messaging.
My second point is to support those who are talking about the duration of the campaign. The campaign proper could well be limited to four weeks. An awful lot can be said in four weeks. Those with little interest in politics will get rather bored if the referendum campaign dominates the news and media for more than four weeks. Given the natural interest of quite a lot of people in this subject, and the enthusiasm of many of those who wish to campaign on either side, there will, in reality, be a longer period. There should be a long and a short period, as there is in a general election, so that there is proper control of the messages and the money spent in the longer time period, although it would be up to either side, or both, to take the view that they really do want to concentrate their spend and their message in the last four weeks because they might be afraid of overdoing it. I suspect though that they will want a longer period, so we will need some kind of regulation on the longer time period—the full duration of the campaign proper.
My third point is to support those who have raised serious issues about the expenditure of public money, particularly about the expenditure of European Union money. It would be wrong for the European Union to spend any money intervening in a British referendum over whether the United Kingdom stays in the European Union. It is, after all, United Kingdom taxpayers’ money. On current polling, we know that there is a split of opinion, with very substantial bodies of opinion on both sides. People would be very reluctant to see their tax revenue taken by the European Union and then spent on putting out messages and propaganda on just one side of a very contentious referendum.
I must remind the right hon. Gentleman of what happened in the Scottish referendum. The only difference was the way that it was funded. In the United Kingdom, funds are collected centrally and go to London. If the European Union had the same model, they would be collected centrally and go to Brussels and then given out again. The point is that it is taxpayers’ money. In Scotland, we saw our taxpayers’ money come back to the UK Government and used against one side of the referendum campaign.
I quite understand, but I am suggesting something different. I am suggesting that to have a completely fair and independent referendum, there should be much stricter controls over the expenditure of Government money.
I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his revelatory tone and words. He said that he wants a stricter and fairer system, so his commentary on the Scottish referendum is instructive and very welcome.
The result in Scotland was pretty conclusive, so the expenditure of Government money was not the crucial thing that made the difference to the result. The result speaks for itself. But we can always learn from past experiences. For my choice, I do not favour the expenditure of public money on interfering in elections and referendums. I am known to be careful with public money anyway, and I would not want the money to be spent on this area. It is for individuals to decide what they wish to do by way of political intervention, and they can make their own decisions. If we let them have more of their own money to spend, they may wish to spend it on interventions in elections. That is how I would rather it was done. In this case, it would be particularly counterproductive for the European Union to spend some of our money, which we send to them, on intervening on one side. It would cause enormous resentments. Indeed, the no campaign might even welcome it as it would be a cause in itself which it would make use of if this became a clear use or abuse of public money.
I raised the issue of the EU on Second Reading. I had a helpful letter back from the Minister for Europe this week. Will the right hon. Gentleman comment on his final paragraph? He says:
“I would trust the proper diplomatic relationships with Governments and institutions, and encourage them to stick by their duty to respect the right of the British people to take their own decision responsibly.”
I do not feel that I can trust the EU on this very important issue. Does the right hon. Gentleman feel that?
I am afraid that I do share some of the hon. Lady’s worries. I would like to see that clearly stated in writing and as an act of policy from the EU itself. That would probably be much appreciated in many sections of the United Kingdom, so that we can be sure that there would not be clumsy, unwarranted or unwelcome interference. It would be a double irony if the EU were using our money to do it. That is what makes it particularly difficult. UK taxpayers of both views would be paying the money to the EU, but only one side of the argument would be funded by that money.