I beg to move,
That this House notes and regrets that the Government appears set to rush to a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union in June 2016; believes that no case has been made for holding a referendum at such an early stage, and that further, any such needlessly premature date risks contaminating the result; believes that a subject as fundamental as EU membership should be decisively settled after a full and comprehensive debate; notes the recommendations of the Electoral Commission on best practice for referendums; further notes that there are elections happening in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, London and some local authorities in May 2016 and that the First Ministers of each of the devolved administrations have all expressed opposition to a June referendum date; and urges the Government to set the date for the referendum having respect for the May elections as distinct electoral choices.
The referendum on EU membership is one of the biggest decisions that the people of this country will be asked to make in our lifetime. I, for one, am glad that we have been afforded the opportunity to have our say. The Democratic Unionist party campaigned long and hard, when the two major parties were against a referendum, for the people of the United Kingdom to have their say. I commend the Government very much for introducing legislation to allow the referendum to take place during this Parliament.
Today’s debate is about the timing of the referendum and the date on which the vote is held. Some Members who support our motion hold different views on EU membership and, indeed, on whether we should have a referendum at all. However, whatever side of the argument we are ultimately on, we agree that, when the referendum is finally held, there must be the fullest, most comprehensive debate possible, which does not overlap with, or otherwise become enmeshed in, the election campaigns in May for the Scottish Parliament, the Northern Ireland and Welsh Assemblies, and indeed for that matter, for the London Mayor, and other local elections.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for taking an early intervention. Does he take comfort from the fact that the view that he has just expressed has been endorsed by all the party leaders in the National Assembly for Wales—not just the First Minister but the Liberal Democrat leader, the Plaid Cymru leader, the Labour leader and, critically, the Conservative leader?
The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely important point, which I shall come to, about the cross-party nature of the sentiments behind the motion. It is not motivated by one side or the other on the EU referendum debate, or by a party political consideration, and it has the support of a diverse range of parties on both sides of the argument. The issue needs to be taken very seriously by the Government, and cannot be dismissed lightly or set aside easily, given the breadth of support that it attracts from all parties, including the major parties mentioned by the hon. Gentleman: the Conservative and Labour parties in Wales, and the Labour First Minister in Wales. It would be interesting to know the position of the main parties in Scotland.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that having elections to the devolved Administrations and the campaign for the European referendum running in parallel could obfuscate the issues and confuse them? Politicians in the devolved Administrations should concentrate on the principal issues of health and education, and working towards an evolving programme for government.
Again, that illustrates the point. The hon. Lady and I may have different views on EU membership and so on, but we agree on the need for a full and comprehensive debate that is not caught up in the election campaigns for the devolved Administrations. I will discuss that in more detail shortly. .
I commend the right hon. Gentleman and his party for the work that they have done to campaign for an EU referendum for many years, long before it was fashionable. Has he also taken into consideration the fact that there is a European Council meeting scheduled for 23 June—apparently, the Government’s favoured date for the EU referendum? Does he think it appropriate for a European Council meeting—and who knows what reports might come out from that meeting on the day—to be held on the same day as the EU referendum?
The hon. Gentleman, as always, makes an interesting point, which will no doubt have been listened to with great interest by his ministerial colleagues. It is a very valid point indeed.
I wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman’s constituents will pay more attention to the European Council meeting on 23 June than the Northern Ireland fixture against Ukraine on 16 June. Perhaps his constituents have other things in their life, and Europe is not a constant feature in their psyche.
It’s not an either/or.
As my hon. Friend says, it is not an either/or. People are capable of watching the football, listening to the political debate and doing other things. If this is to be an issue, it will be because the Government have chosen to foist the EU referendum on us at the time of the Euro championships, which people will want to concentrate on. That is another good argument for having the debate later. Another good reason is that many fans from England, Wales and Northern Ireland—sadly not Scotland—will be travelling to France. We could avoid the extra cost of postal votes, proxy votes and the rest of it, if we had the vote on a different date.
Given that the right hon. Gentleman accepts that the good people of Northern Ireland can focus on more than one thing at once—football and politics—surely they can focus on local elections and the EU referendum at the same time.
This is an issue not about the voters being confused—it is a bit patronising to talk in those terms—but about the Government’s deliberate choice to rush the referendum by holding it on that date. I will deal with that in more detail later.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that this is not about the voters in Northern Ireland, who are quite capable of concentrating on the European championships—we envy them for being in it—and politics but about the devolved Administrations, who, unlike the one closer to here, respect purdah? If the referendum is on 23 June, the three Administrations will be in purdah for 10 out of 13 weeks. I do not know whether Conservative Members have considered that.
The right hon. Gentleman, from his considerable experience, makes a very salient point.
This debate is not about the substance of the EU referendum argument or the deal that the Prime Minister has negotiated, so I will pass over the details of that deal—it is surprisingly easy to do so. Instead, I want both sides of the House to consider whether the result of the referendum will be morally binding or politically conclusive and whether we will settle the debate for a generation. We can do that, of course, but, on the Government’s current timetable, I fear we will not. This is needless folly, not least for the Conservative party, but there is time, even now, for it to reconsider—that would be in its long-term interests—and I believe it should.
To be clear, there is no suggestion that the public cannot choose or that a compressed electoral cycle would, as some have suggested, be too complex for the voters. Of course the people can choose and understand the issues. This is not about their choice, and still less is it about their ability to choose; it is about the Prime Minister’s desire that they choose in a particular way at a particular time in the rushed referendum that I fear he is set upon.
Why hold the referendum on 23 June? No Minister has made the case for an early referendum—quite the reverse; they have extolled and observed the virtues of Electoral Commission guidance and past polls at all levels, be they general elections, local elections, devolved elections and, yes, both the national referendum in the last Parliament on the alternative vote and the recent Scottish referendum. The House and public are entitled to ask, therefore, why they are seemingly intent on kicking over their own precedents. Why is this poll to be so very different from all that have gone before? What explains the rush and the panic?
Given the congestion of events in May and June, what does the right hon. Gentleman make of the comparative coverage already in the media of the referendum and the elections in our own backyards?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Despite the public’s ability to discern the different issues at stake in the different election questions, the media often fixate on one issue. They will undoubtedly concentrate heavily on the national question of the EU referendum while giving little coverage to the elections in the devolved regions. That is another good argument for why the two should not become enmeshed.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that in Sweden in 1994 two months elapsed between a general election and a referendum on membership of the EU; in Denmark, two months elapsed between the general election and the referendum on the treaty of Amsterdam; in Malta, one month elapsed between two such elections; and in Switzerland, 15 referendums were held in 1992 alone? Is he suggesting that these countries have abdicated their responsibility to the general public?
No, not at all. That is a rather strange argument to make. In Northern Ireland and elsewhere, European elections have been held on the same day as local and Assembly elections. So that is neither here nor there. We have already made the point that people are quite capable of separating out the issues. We are talking about the impact on the functioning of the devolved Administrations and the ability of political parties to campaign and work with others, if necessary, on those issues; about the purdah issue the right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond) rightly raised; and about the media’s concentration on EU issues to the exclusion of devolved issues. This debate is about those important issues, not the question the hon. and learned Lady raised.
On 3 February, the First Ministers of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, along with the Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, wrote jointly to the Prime Minister to set out the case against a June referendum and to argue for the debate to be free from other campaigning distractions. That needs to be taken seriously and treated with the respect it deserves. We hear a lot about the respect agenda and taking on board the views of the devolved Administrations, and that now needs to be put into practice. This is an important moment in this Parliament. Will the Government respect the devolved Administrations?
I was interested to hear the right hon. Gentleman talk about listening to the views of the Electoral Commission. Last Thursday, in questions to the hon. Member for South West Devon (Mr Streeter), who was representing the commission, I asked if it had given a view yet on dates in June. It had—it had only ruled out the 2nd and the 9th. Does the right hon. Gentleman think that says something?
I will come to the Electoral Commission shortly.
The leaders of the Administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have very different views and come from very diverse backgrounds. We have the leader of the Scottish National party, the leader of the Labour party in Wales, the Democratic Unionist party leader and the Sinn Féin leader in Northern Ireland. That is a diverse group of politicians with very different backgrounds—to say the least—but they have come together not out of party political interest but in the interests of the peoples they represent in their respective countries. Whether on the “remain” or the “leave” side, they have set aside party political considerations in the common interest that the referendum should not happen in June. My colleague, Arlene Foster, Northern Ireland’s First Minister, has rightly observed that any premature European referendum campaign would inevitably become intertwined with the Stormont elections. How could it not?
I suspect that the right hon. Gentleman and I will both vote to leave. From a Eurosceptic English point of view—we are self-confident and we know our arguments—we say to the Prime Minister, “Bring it on—no delay, don’t look worried, bring it on!”. We can have a proper debate, and we can win this.
I respect the hon. Gentleman’s point of view. I understand where he, as an English Eurosceptic, is coming from. I hope he respects where we in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales on both sides of the argument are coming from. We will weigh the arguments and consider whether his view should be tempered by the contributions of colleagues from other parts of the UK, some of whom might share his views.
A phrase in the motion stands out as pretty strong stuff, and I would welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s explanation of it. It claims that the
“needlessly premature date risks contaminating the result”.
I thought we had already established across the House that the electorate can both walk and chew gum. I am not entirely sure how the result could be “contaminated”.
It is pretty obvious on an issue that the Conservative party has debated for many decades and the country raised many concerns about, that when the deal is finalised—the “t”s are crossed, the “i”s dotted and all the rest of it—we surely deserve more than a short 18, 17 or 16-week campaign for detailed consideration. If the Conservative party and others are really interested in putting the issue to bed once and for all, I think they will want the fullest and most comprehensive debate possible.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that a consensus seems to be emerging that this serious issue needs to be examined, debated, made subject to dialogue and voted on? We need to have this discussion and debate unencumbered by regional influences, London Mayoral elections and other issues that will undoubtedly feature in the media, sidelining the issues relating to a European referendum, which should take place at a time later than June this year.
I quite agree with my hon. Friend, who sets out the position very clearly.
Only last month, the Prime Minister himself was pretty unambiguous about this matter. He said:
“I’m not in a hurry. I can hold my referendum any time up until the end of 2017”,
“it is more important to get this right than to rush it.”
My fear is that he is rushing it and not getting it right.
As a Welsh Member of Parliament, I have some sympathy with the right hon. Gentleman’s argument on grounds of purdah and for other reasons, but will he help to clarify it by telling us on what date he thinks the referendum should be held? I am also concerned that the longer this is left, the more damaging it will be to the long-term economy of the United Kingdom.
The Government have set in legislation the end of 2017 as the backstop. I generally think that the longer the debate, the better, because it will give people the fullest and most comprehensive debate possible. Personally, I would be content to have the referendum in the autumn. We do not have to go to the end of 2017, but we should certainly go beyond June and not have it enmeshed with the other elections we have mentioned.
Many people are asking the question—it needs to be asked—of what the Prime Minister is afraid of in relation to the summer. What is it that he does not want to risk voters see happening over the course of the summer when they consider the issue of British membership of the EU? What mistakes does he anticipate our EU partners will make? What is he really worried about?
That brings me on to some of scare stories that are going around at the minute and, sadly, getting a lot of currency. Some are silly; some are implausible; some, of course, are simply knockabout stuff, without which politics would be infinitely duller and the papers would have less to write about. However, some are pernicious and should not be casually repeated.
In anticipation of our referendum deciding our membership of the EU on the grounds of what is or is not in our national interest, I entirely acknowledge the right of friendly foreign Governments to say how that might affect them. What I do not accept, and what I can hardly believe has happened from the mouths of serious figures who really should know better, is the sort of absurd nonsense that British exit from the EU could somehow in itself precipitate the rise of Irish republican terrorism again. It is hard to know what is worse about claims such as these—that they are criminally irresponsible, or logically fatuous. Brexit will neither cause republican terrorism, nor make any difference to it. Its cause, wrong and bad as it is, is Northern Ireland’s membership of the United Kingdom, democratically decided and settled—not the UK’s membership of the EU. Those who have claimed in recent weeks that terrorism would be encouraged or facilitated by a leave vote in the EU referendum are peddling scare stories of the very worst nature. I can only hope they are already ashamed of them, and will not repeat them again.
It is worth outlining that every single witness to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, which is looking into this issue, has underscored and reiterated what my right hon. Friend has just said—that there is no chance of terrorism being affected one way or the other by this debate.
My hon. Friend reinforces the point strongly. I look forward to reading the Select Committee’s report when it comes out. It will provide a very useful contribution to the debate in Northern Ireland and indeed more widely.
We have provided for a body to administer these things. The Electoral Commission is not wholly without fault or flaw, but it has been consistently clear on how this referendum should best be conducted. It has said that administrative necessity, the needs of the other elections in the first half of this year and fairness all combine to suggest that the referendum should not, in my view, be on 23 June. Of course, the Electoral Commission is not in charge of the process—the Government are. Indeed, they took to themselves additional powers to determine how this very referendum should be run.
It is interesting that the designation process for lead campaigners is still murky and uncertain, and I wonder who benefits from that. By way of contrast, long before the regulated campaign began in Scotland, both Yes Scotland and Better Together had been designated lead campaigners for their respective sides on the ballot paper. What is the point and what is the reason for the Government to flout for the very first time their own guidelines, as issued by the Electoral Commission? To do so is very telling—and not in a good way.
The Electoral Commission has said:
“We currently do not know when we will be able to run the process to appoint lead campaigners.”
It is now February, and the Government are planning to hold this referendum in June. Frankly, this is not fair play, but foolish game playing. Having taken to themselves the power to set both the date of the referendum and the date of designation for lead campaigners, this puts in front of the Government the temptation, in some people’s eyes, to rig the process. They would be very foolish to succumb to that temptation. Let me say to the Government that the Prime Minister and his successors will sorely regret any perceived fixing of this referendum. We have already debated some of the issues surrounding purdah and so forth, and I think the Government should learn from that debate, as well as from the 40 years of debate within the Conservative party on this issue.
On the advice of the Electoral Commission and the timing of designation, there is a growing concern that the designation process will finish up overlapping the referendum period. In a letter to me, the chair of the Electoral Commission, Jenny Watson noted that the commission had
“recommended that the statutory six week process for the designation of lead campaigners should take place shortly before, rather than during the first weeks of the referendum period. This ‘early’ designation would provide clarity earlier for voters and campaigners about the status of campaigners.”
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it would be unforgivable if the Government were to allow, by sleight of hand, what amounts, frankly, to corruption of the designation process?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. The Government really need to get on with this and get the matter resolved. Frankly, it would be scandalous if matters were allowed to drift and to drag. Again, that would call into question the Government’s handling of the referendum and its fairness. It would give cause for people to question whether they have made the final decision on this matter. If the Government were wise, they would want to ensure that once the people had spoken on this matter in a referendum, everyone would accept—from whatever side and whatever the outcome—that the decision had been properly taken by this country under the proper rules and that everybody will respect it for the foreseeable future. To do otherwise is short-term opportunism.
In conclusion, we need to face up to this crucial issue of the timing of the referendum. We need to ensure that the Government respect the Electoral Commission and that they respect the devolved Administrations in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. On an issue of such import, we must put the national interest above every other consideration. We must respect the rights of the people who go to the polls in May. We must allow for the fullest possible debate on the biggest decision to be made by this country for generations. For those reasons, I commend the motion to the House.
I am delighted to respond to this important debate, and I commend the long-standing support of the Democratic Unionist party for the principle of holding a referendum on the European Union. As was pointed out by the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds), its members were there earlier than many, and I think that their consistency and constancy in respect of that principle can serve as a model for others.
Before we get too far into the debate, let me say that I think it is important for us all to remember that any debate about the referendum date needs to be undertaken in the conditional mood. In other words—if I may make a statement of the blindingly obvious—the date has not yet been set. As the Prime Minister has consistently said, it is renegotiation and then referendum. As the renegotiation is not yet complete, there is, as yet, no referendum date.
Given the breadth of the range of interests among the parties in the devolved nations that are asking for the referendum not to be held in June, and given that no date has been set, why are the Government so reluctant to accede to the views of the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds)?
I am coming to that, but I think it would be, at the very least, disrespectful to the principle behind the European Union Referendum Act 2015, which requires the date of the referendum to be set through a debate in the House on a statutory instrument, under the affirmative resolution procedure, in due course. When that point comes, there will be plenty of opportunities to debate the issue. I think that it would be premature to start ruling too many dates in or out, although I will be specifying the dates that we have already ruled out.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I will, but then I really must make some progress.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way so early in his speech. I realise that we are not talking about a specific date proposed by the Government, but about the principle of opting for certain dates. Will my hon. Friend comment on the appropriateness of holding the referendum on the same date as a European Council meeting?
I know that my hon. Friend is an assiduous follower of matters European, but I suspect that he may be one of the very few people in the entire country who pay quite so much attention to the musings of the European Council. I think that the Council would be honoured to feel that its conclusions carried as much weight with anyone else as they clearly do with him. I shall address some of the broader issues underlying his question in a moment.
I said that the renegotiation was not yet complete and that, therefore, a date for the referendum had not yet been set because I suspected that certain Members might try—gently and kindly, I am sure—to tempt me to commit some hideous indiscretion by revealing a planned referendum date, whether in June or in any other month between now and the end of 2017. For the sake of our collective mental and emotional health, and to save us all an awful lot of time, I thought that I should take this opportunity to advise any amateur Kremlinologists who might be hoping to glean clues about the date of the referendum from close textual analysis of my remarks not to bother, because there are no clues.
Notwithstanding what the Minister has said, will he answer a very simple question? Does he agree with the points that were raised in the letter from the three First Ministers?
I shall address those points in a moment. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will pick me up if he feels that I have glossed over any of them inappropriately.
Let me repeat that there are no clues. Alan Greenspan, the famously gnomic and opaque former chairman of the United States Federal Reserve, once said:
“I guess I should warn you: if I turn out to be particularly clear, you’ve probably misunderstood what I've said.”
He went on to say:
“I know you think you understand what you thought I said but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.”
In other words, clues are to be avoided.
However, even if we do not know the precise date on which the referendum will be held, we know several dates on which it will definitely not be held. It will not be held on 5 May this year or on 4 May 2017, because both those dates are expressly excluded in the primary legislation that we passed last year, and—as was recently promised by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister—it will not be held within six weeks of 5 May this year. Although we do not yet know the exact date, those exclusions are important, because they create and guarantee enough time between the referendum and any other upcoming elections to ensure that the important issues that arise in each set of polls are debated fully and separately in each case.
The Referendum Act specifies a 10-week period between the Government’s publication of their response to the negotiations and the referendum date, presumably because both this House and the other place thought that people needed that period to digest the information. Would it not be wrong for three of those 10 weeks to fall right in the middle of an election campaign affecting over 20 million citizens who will be voting in the referendum a few weeks later?
I am coming to that point. I hope that I shall be able to respond to it adequately, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will come back to me if I do not.
It is important for those issues to be debated fully and separately, because, as we have just heard, 5 May this year will be a very busy time at the ballot boxes. I need mention only a few of the votes that will be held then: votes for the Mayor of London, for police and crime commissioners, and for devolved legislatures in Stormont, Cardiff and Edinburgh.
I am not arguing, as some do, that it is impossible to hold more than one election in the same place and on the same day. The fact that local council elections took place at the same time as the general election in many parts of the country last May without democracy collapsing in a heap shows that voters, and election administrators, are perfectly capable of handling such a situation comfortably. As we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare), everyone is capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time, and I think that the right hon. Member for Belfast North made it clear that that was not the main source of his concern.
I accept what the Minister has said, but does he agree that this particular referendum will absorb the minds and hearts of people throughout the United Kingdom as no referendum has for 40 years, and must therefore be unencumbered by any other electoral considerations?
I agree with part of that. The important point is that the overlap needs to be dealt with extremely carefully. We must not attempt to run two polls at the same time, but an overlap is perfectly feasible provided that we accept a gap of a minimum of six weeks between them. I remind the House that six weeks is the full length of a general election campaign during which we decide who is to govern the country.
I am sorry to tell the Minister that after a six-week general election campaign my constituents are pretty cheesed off with politics. I think we need to understand that not everyone in the country is as excited about politics as we are in this place. A short campaign enables people to focus on the issues, and then to make a decision at the end of that short campaign.
Absolutely. Europe is one of those issues that may be extremely exciting for a small number of people—extremely exciting, perhaps, to a small number of people in this place and in the half-mile that surrounds us—but if we “bang on about Europe” for far too long, we shall run the countervailing risk of starting to turn people off the whole issue, important though it is. A decent period which, after all, we use to decide general elections is what the country and the electorate are used to. It allows plenty of time for a full and in-depth discussion of the issues that need to be covered, without necessarily boring everyone to tears and turning everyone off before they go to the ballot boxes. Of course I entirely accept that a gap will be necessary.
Given that Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom and will continue to do so for a long time, I expect the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom to come to Northern Ireland and campaign for it to remain part of the European Union. It would be helpful if the Minister confirmed that the Prime Minister will indeed campaign in Northern Ireland, but will do so after the Northern Ireland Assembly elections and not before.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving me this opportunity to commit the Prime Minister’s forward diary in such a specific way, although I think it would be a career-limiting move were I to do so. I suspect that she will nevertheless make her point strongly, and my right hon. Friend will have an opportunity to respond to it specifically.
I am sure the Minister would agree that the decision on whether to remain in the European Union is at least as important as the decision that Scotland had to take on remaining in or leaving the United Kingdom. There were 540 days between the announcement of the Scottish referendum and the date of the poll. We are not necessarily suggesting that there should be that length of time before this referendum, but if the Minister is saying that there should be a free and open discussion, the period should surely be longer than six weeks.
This is where I would respectfully part company with the hon. Gentleman. While it would be stretching a point to argue that holding two polls in the same place a minimum of six weeks apart would be somehow disrespectful or that it would prejudice the result of either poll—
Will my hon. Friend give way?
May I just finish this point, then I will give way?
While that would be stretching a point, I believe that it is important to provide enough time for the issues and arguments to be debated fully. A six-week minimum—which is, after all, the length of an entire general election campaign—would provide plenty of time for an extremely full and detailed democratic debate to take place.
Order. I think the Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee, the hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash), is seeking to fox the Chamber. I will not say that he has perambulated around the Chamber, but he has entered, most uncharacteristically, from a different door and he is seated in a different place. There is nothing disorderly about this, but it is mildly confusing and I hope that he might perambulate towards his normal position in due course, because that would make us all feel so much more comfortable.
Thank you very much indeed, Mr Speaker. I love that! The final possible date for the referendum is 31 December 2017. Would the Minister be kind enough to confirm that it is a slam dunk that we would not hold the referendum during the French presidential elections in April and May 2017 or during the German federal elections on 22 September of that year?
May I first congratulate my hon. Friend on sitting in a different place in order to demonstrate flexibility of mind and his ability to take a different approach once in a while, just to keep us all on our toes? On the specifics of his question, I have to confess that those elements have not been factored into any of my discussions on potential dates so far. Perhaps they should be, however, and I will take that information away if I possibly can.
The motion also notes the recommendations of the Electoral Commission on best practice for referendums. The commission has produced reports on previous referendums and we have taken on board many, if not all, of its recommendations in the European Union Referendum Act, including those on pre-poll reporting of donations and loans. We have also taken on board its views in other areas. For example, we followed its recommendation to change the wording of the referendum question. We also consulted it on the draft conduct regulations, which set out the detailed framework for the administration of the referendum poll. Those are just a few examples of how we have listened to the commission’s thoughts.
I am slightly puzzled as to why the Minister is praying in aid the fact that the Government have ruled out 5 May—the date of the elections in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London. My certain memory of the process last year during the passage of the Bill is that the Government did that only unwillingly when they were facing certain defeat on the legislation, so why is he now presenting this as a great Government concession?
I am just referring back to my notes, because I do not think I said that we did anything in that regard. I said that “both those dates are expressly excluded in the primary legislation that we passed last year”—that is, the legislation that this Parliament passed last year. I will leave it to Kremlinologists and others to decide whether that was done under pressure, with grace or in any other way. None the less, I hope the right hon. Gentleman will agree that the will of Parliament was expressed and that it was listened to extremely carefully.
I am sure the Minister will know that the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, of which I am Chairman, is taking an interest in the matter of the date. I also declare my interest as a director of Vote Leave, one of the potentially designated campaigns. May I press him on an assurance that he gave the House in September last year? He said that
“it is important that the designation process means that the decision on who are the lead campaign groups for the in and the out campaigns is properly arrived at that and those groups are clearly designated before the start of the 10-week campaign”.—[Official Report, 7 September 2015; Vol. 599, c. 157.]
Does the Minister stand by that assurance, or is this going to be fudged?
I remember that moment clearly. In fact, I think I was responding to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) in making that point. What I was trying to put across was that I had what I thought was a brilliant solution to the potential problem of any compressed timetable, should there be one, in order to find enough time for both the designation and the full referendum timescale. The original point I was making at that point in our discussions—I think it was during the Bill’s Committee stage, but I could be wrong—was that we could have dealt with the designation process through a negative statutory instrument, which could be made when it was laid, thus allowing the designation process to start early and finish before the beginning of the referendum period. I think that that is what everyone was driving at, at that time.
However, the equivalent of the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments in the Lords felt that a negative statutory instrument was inappropriate and said that a positive statutory instrument should be used. That has made it rather more difficult, as my hon. Friend will appreciate, for me to achieve the aims that we were discussing at that point. If I may, I will take his earnest and strongly made point, and the point that he made earlier to the right hon. Member for Belfast North, to indicate a strong preference for starting the designation process as early as possible, should there be a compressed timetable. I am sure that the various campaigns are already working on their designation submissions and that, were it to be necessary, my hon. Friend would be able to aim for a shorter and very efficient designation process in order to avoid an overlap between the end of the designation and the start of the referendum process.
Does my hon. Friend want to come back to me, perhaps to assure me that I have understood him correctly?
I am most grateful to the Minister for that explanation. However, I believe that he will be bound by his commitment unless the Government put on record before the House agrees to that affirmative resolution procedure that the consequence of agreeing to that procedure might be that the campaigns may not be designated until the referendum campaigns had already started. If there is going to be a referendum on 23 June, which seems to be a possibility, either the regulations will have to be expedited in order to foreshorten the period and allow us to start the designation process earlier or the Minister must put back the date. I am as keen as anybody to get on with this referendum, but not on the basis of undesignated campaigns going into the referendum process without the necessary resources and authority and without being able to plan what they are going to do.
It is helpful for my hon. Friend to remind me of the point that I made last year. We are all subject to the will of Parliament, and because the Lords—in this case—decided in their wisdom to change the process that I was laying out at that point, it is now difficult for me to be bound by anything other than the later expressed will of Parliament. However, I appreciate his point that it would be a superior outcome if we could possibly avoid any overlap between the two processes. I think he is saying that he would prefer to see a rapid process for designation, and to start it as promptly and efficiently as possible, should that be necessary. I will take his strongly expressed point back and ensure that we strain every sinew to accommodate him if we can.
I am conscious that other Members want to speak in the debate, so I shall omit my further comments about the other aspects of the Electoral Commission’s advice that we have either been following or not. I want to make it clear that the process from here on is clearly laid out by Parliament in the European Union Referendum Act. The Act requires the Government to bring forward a number of statutory instruments that are subject to the affirmative process—as we have just been hearing—before a poll can be held. They will cover the conduct rules—the detailed plumbing of how the poll will be held—which are already laid before the House and which I hope are uncontroversial, plus regulations setting the date of the referendum period and the start date of the designation period. Those regulations have not yet been laid, but when they are, this debate will be able to move, at last, out of the conditional tense and into action.
I want to make a point about the compressed time period and the possible date of 23 June. Scottish schools will be about to go on holiday at that point and many of the electorate will be either planning or starting to take their holidays. In some local authorities, 22 June will be the date in question. It would be unthinkable to have a vote of such importance during the English school holidays, yet this vote could actually take place during the Scottish school holidays.
I have to go back to my starting point about being tempted into giving guidance on when the referendum vote might be; that is not a matter about which we are able to tell anybody yet, because we do not have a completion of the negotiations and without that there can be no referendum. The Prime Minister has been very clear on that point, but I am sure he will note the hon. Lady’s point when he considers the matter.
The Government are going to be doing something that has not been achieved for more than a generation. We will be giving people something that I, along with many others in Parliament and across the entire country, have long been denied: a vote, a say, a voice on our relationship with the European Union. Whichever side of that argument we are on, whether we vote to leave or to remain, I hope that as democrats we will all welcome the dawning of that referendum day.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. Just before I call Pat Glass to speak on behalf of the Labour Opposition, I should point out to the House that 18 Back Benchers wish to contribute and some sort of time limit will be inevitable. I know Members will want to get in, and I want to help them, so they will recognise the need for the time limit.
With that in mind, Mr Speaker, I will endeavour to be brief.
Interestingly, we are having this debate when no referendum date has been set, the starting gun has not yet gone off and the deal the Prime Minister is negotiating with our partners in the EU is not yet agreed—if it ever will be. I therefore agree with the Minister—I do not think I am going to say that often—that in many respects this debate is somewhat premature.
The Leader of the Opposition called last Wednesday for the referendum to happen on 23 June. Does the hon. Lady disagree with him?
Now the hon. Gentleman is just trying to get me into trouble. I would never disagree with my leader.
Let me deal with the motion by discussing each of its parts, and I start with the premise that no case has been made for holding an early referendum. May I remind this House that we have been debating the UK’s place in Europe on and off for more than 40 years? I voted in the last referendum. It was 43 years ago, so we are hardly rushing at this.
If the hon. Lady will not make any comment in support of her party leader here at Westminster, what has she to say to the Labour leader in Wales, the First Minister, who has come out strongly against a 23 June date?
He has given his opinion, and of course we will listen respectfully to those arguments, as I am sure the Government will. We know that while all this goes on, uncertainty and instability is created in our businesses and in our economy. We are already seeing the damage done to business confidence in the UK, inward investment and the economy by the uncertainty and the potential risks that lie with an EU referendum and exit. Those uncertainties and risks increase the longer they go on. That is not good for our country, for our economy and for regions such as mine, where hundreds of thousands of jobs depend directly and indirectly on our membership of the EU.
I appeal to the hon. Lady, because she and I are going to be on the same side in this referendum, that we have a positive case and that we should put forward the positive case. The words about “uncertainty” have no place in this referendum, and I hope she will put forward some positive arguments, too.
I, too, hope that we will be able to make a positive case for remaining, but there are clearly risks to business of delay, and they get greater the longer the delay goes on. There are very good arguments to support the view that, as soon as the Government’s European renegotiations are complete, they should get on with having the referendum and ending the uncertainty, which is bad for the whole UK—for jobs, growth, investment and working people.
The motion says that a
“needlessly premature date risks contaminating the result”.
In what way would a referendum five months from now contaminate the result? If there is evidence that holding the referendum on a specific date, whether in June 2016, September 2016 or April 2017, would in any way contaminate the result or lead to greater or lesser risk of electoral fraud, let us see it. I have not seen any such evidence, so I can only assume that what is meant by that statement is that a shorter campaign is more likely to lead to a remain vote. Given that we have had more than 40 years of hearing one side of the argument, are we really being told that the leave campaign arguments are so lacking in substance that four months of campaigning from the other side will devastate its arguments and campaign?
The motion goes on to say that
“a subject as fundamental as EU membership should be decisively settled after a full and comprehensive debate”.
I absolutely agree, but I say again that we have already had 40 years of debating the UK’s place in Europe, so this is not a surprise and it is not happening quickly. It has been 40 years in the making.
The hon. Lady’s party set up the Electoral Commission when it introduced the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, presumably, so that the commission would give advice that the Government would generally accept. The Electoral Commission argues that there should be a six-month period between the regulations and the referendum date, but the Government are set to ignore that. Like her, I am enthusiastic to get on with this, but what consideration has she and her party given to the designation being compressed with the referendum period? Has her party expressed a view on that matter, or does she believe that she and I should discuss it, with a view to when this referendum should be?
The hon. Gentleman has made that point several times, and in many respects I think this is down to those campaigns. This is not a surprise, so they need to get on and get designated. What is the delay? Why are they delaying? They need to get on and do it.
My hon. Friend is a colleague from the north-east, so she knows as well as I do how important the EU is to jobs in our region. Another important European date is almost upon us; the Government have to make an application within the next three or four weeks for EU solidarity funds to help flood victims across our country. Does she agree that the Government should perhaps concentrate on that date first?
Yes, I do. In areas such as my hon. Friend’s and my own, which have been dominated by flooding, that is a big issue.
The hon. Lady will of course be aware that the Northern Ireland Labour party intends to run candidates in the Assembly election, whether or not her party leader agrees. Is she aware of any objections from her colleagues in the Northern Ireland Labour party to the possibility of an early EU referendum in June? Has she heard of any complaints from them?
I thank the hon. Lady for the intervention, but those are internal matters and do not really relate to today’s motion.
I believe that the people of the UK are easily capable of absorbing the issues and making a decision after five months of a comprehensive campaign. As has been said, we have six weeks of the campaign in general elections, with three weeks of the short campaign, yet we are still able to come to a decision. If the referendum is held in late June, we will have had at least 16 weeks of the campaign, in which people can listen to both sides of the case, weigh the arguments and the risks, and make a decision.
The motion talks about
“the recommendations of the Electoral Commission on best practice for referendums”.
The Electoral Commission has said that the referendum date should be separate from a day on which other polls are taking place. Labour agreed with that and succeeded in pressuring the Government to amend the European Union Referendum Bill to stop the holding of the referendum on 5 May 2016. However, the Electoral Commission also said that the final Act, following the amendments made,
“provides a good basis for the delivery of a well-run referendum and the effective regulation of referendum campaigners.”
The bottom line is that if the referendum is held on 23 June or 30 June, that would be more than a month and a half after the 5 May elections. I, for one, believe that the people of the UK are perfectly capable of making an important decision in late June, a month and a half after local elections. To suggest otherwise is patronising and disrespectful.
The legislation also specifies a 10-week campaign period. Therefore, if the referendum was held on 23 June, the campaign period, with all the attendant regulations, would take place in the middle of the Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish and London elections. How can that possibly be a good thing?
That argument has been well rehearsed in the House and it has been very clearly agreed on all sides that people can do two things at the same time.
I want an early referendum, so that this country’s businesses, workers and people can get on with their lives in a safer, stronger and more prosperous union with our partners in the EU. Labour believes that the UK is better off in Europe and it is campaigning to stay in. The European Union brings us jobs, growth and investment. It protects UK workers, the UK environment and consumers and helps to keep us safe in an increasingly unsafe world; leaving would put all that at risk.
I want to finish by reminding the House why the EU was established in the first place. Up until 1945, we in western Europe committed genocide on one another every 30 years. Families such as mine and those of other Members fought and died in those wars. Although I appreciate that the EU is not the only reason why we settle our differences around a negotiating table rather than on a battlefield, it does remain one of the main reasons. In a world in which we are facing Russian expansionism, global terrorism and global criminality, we in the UK are safer as well as stronger and more prosperous as part of the EU, which is why Labour is campaigning to remain.
I am pleased to be called so early in this debate in which there have been many interventions.
May I say to the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds), who proposed the motion, that I welcome this debate, because there are issues around the proposed date of 23 June? As someone who professes to want to leave the Union, I am happy that the date has been set sooner rather than later, but I can understand his concerns, and it is good that we explore them.
On the designation of the Leave groups, the Go groups, or whatever group there is for those who think that we will be better and stronger outside the European Union rather than in it and controlled by it, there is a real concern that the date will mean that they are less able to get their act together. In the end, though, I encourage the right hon. Gentleman to believe that whoever knocks on people’s doors—whether it is a Go campaigner or a Leave campaigner—they will all be asking the same question. There are only two questions on the ballot paper. It is not as though people will be asked which political party they support at a general election. The argument will be made by all groups, whether or not they receive designation, so I am not discouraged about the process, but I can see the point that he is making.
The hon. Gentleman has made a lot of interventions, and some of us have waited to make our remarks within our own speeches, so I will make some progress before taking interventions from those who have already intervened.
As I have said, I am not too discouraged by the designation process, but I can understand the right hon. Gentleman’s point. If several people knock on someone’s door and say why they wish to make the case for leaving the EU, it will only reinforce the views of that person and help them with their decision-making process when they cast their vote. None the less, I do understand that there is a concern for those of us who are waiting eagerly to see what date has been chosen.
I note that the word “contaminating” has been used in the motion. Although I would not use that word in relation to the date, I understand that it does give those who wish to remain in the EU a bit of an advantage. A lot of information will come out later in the year. I am not talking so much about the European Council meeting to which my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) referred. In a letter on subsidiarity, Mr Tusk said:
“The Commission will propose a programme of work”—
by which I believe he means the competences—
“by the end of 2016 and subsequently report on an annual basis to the European Parliament and the Council.”
Therefore, if we do have a vote in June, we will not know what the Commission is proposing on subsidiarity and on the competences that are being brought back. We will only know what our Parliament has control over after that vote. However, some of us in the Leave and Go campaigns believe that we can make the case already, but there will be very thin gruel, as my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) has said, for us to consider.
Another matter that we need to know, but that we will not know by June—we will probably not know it by the end of the year or at any other date—is to do with the proposal that the Prime Minister is currently exploring with other EU countries on limiting benefits across the 28 countries. After looking into the matter, I have found that some countries have very different rules on child benefit. Some have no child benefit; some have benefits for one child; and some have benefits for multiple children. That will be a minefield to explore. We have no details on it at the moment. More to the point, the deal will be struck behind closed doors, so before the date in June we will not know whether any of the deals that may have been agreed will hold up. That is a concern, but I am not sure that we will be any the wiser the longer we leave it. Whichever treaty we have in place either guarantees EU nationals the rights to claim welfare in each other’s countries or it does not. If those treaties do guarantee those rights, I am not sure how legally binding they will be in the future; they could all fall apart two days after the referendum. However, pushing the date further down the road to later in the year will not make us any the wiser.
The motion talks about a rush to the referendum, but I think that there is a compression. For those on the Front Bench with Eurosceptic leanings who currently feel constrained to speak, the compression gives them less opportunity to cite their views in favour of removing this country from the European Union. On that basis, I can see why having a date early might constrain some of our colleagues on the Conservative Benches who are waiting to hear what the Prime Minister delivers on 18 February. That is probably the only conspiracy theory that I can see going around. I personally think that the public would rather get on with this matter. Our Conservative manifesto promise is delivering this referendum. I pay tribute to the Ulster Unionists for their long-standing campaign.
It is the Democratic Unionist party.
I mean the DUP. I am so sorry. I pay tribute to its long-standing campaign. If we push this matter even further into the long grass, none of the questions that I have about treaty change or about what Mr Tusk and his colleagues will allow us to bring back in terms of subsidiarity will be answered until 2017. One of my biggest concerns as a Eurosceptic is that we constantly have to ask 28 countries what they think. Trying to get three or four countries to agree to anything is pretty difficult, but getting 28 countries to agree is almost impossible, which is why I want to leave. We will not have the clarity that the Democratic Unionist party seeks today.
Although I have a slight concern about the designation process, I do think that the groups will sort themselves out. On the May elections, let me offer a scrap of comfort to those who say that the Remain campaign would benefit from an early referendum. I suggest that that campaign may be experiencing voter fatigue. Those of us who feel passionately and strongly about this matter—I add that many of our Conservative Associations feel the same way, even if some of the Members do not—have been out talking to our constituents. I did so on a market stall over the weekend and at various meetings, including one with my Conservative ladies yesterday. I will be out there to vote—it will not matter that we have had a vote six weeks before—because I feel very strongly that, for the first time, I will be able to ask myself, “Do I wish to be in this European Union as it is with all its failings and all its flaws?” My answer will be, “No, I want to leave.”
Those campaigning to go or to leave, however that is framed, will be more agitated and more wishing to get out the front door on whatever date is chosen than those who may feel voter fatigue as a result of being involved in all those other elections. In short, I am reasonably encouraged that people may feel that they have had enough of voting in local elections, mayoral elections and all the other elections and will just sit at home and watch the Romanian rugby match or whatever is on the television on the day. I do not think that we will ever get the clarity that we want. I will be sticking with whatever date is picked, because I would like to get on and resolve this matter. It is a shame—I mean not that it is shameful but that it is an issue for me—that colleagues on the Front Bench who see the matter our way will have such a short amount of air time and a short amount of time to campaign and put their case.
As usual, my hon. Friend is making a tremendously eloquent case. Does she remember that just a few years ago—in the blink of an eye—we were told that merely having an EU referendum would lead to economic instability, threats to our prosperity and threats to jobs and growth in this country? Of course, it was all unadulterated nonsense propagated by Labour and, sadly, to some extent by some people in our party.
Well, we have heard a lot of unadulterated nonsense already. I am amazed that we are invoking the dead. Lady Thatcher, apparently, is speaking from the grave. In her speech in Bruges in 1988, she said:
“We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them re-imposed at a European level with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels.”
I say hear, hear to that. I am sure we will hear a lot of ridiculous comments. A lot of nonsense will be proposed—that we cannot possibly exist outside—
Is it not the case that if the best that the “stay in” side can do is scares, trying to tilt the playing field and invoking the dead when they believe the opposite, we have nothing to fear and we will be leaving?
My right hon. Friend is right. We need to make sure that we have an informed debate. The European Communities Act 1972 gives EU law precedence over British law. Let us not fudge the matter. If the public wish to stay in on that basis, fine. If they do not, they vote to leave. If they want to bring back those competences and the authority that Lady Thatcher was talking about, the date cannot come soon enough.
I make a plea, however: may we please have the argument, not the scaremongering, not the fear factor, not the suggestion that we would be moving the borders to Kent and we would have camps that we cannot control of migrants pushing their way across Europe to come and knock on a British door? That is nonsense. It is fear; it is phobic, and I am disappointed that those arguments are coming out now. Let us talk about what the argument means. To me, it is all about control by this Parliament, rather than being controlled by 28 other Parliaments via an unelected bureaucrat in Brussels.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. I point out to the House that 14 Back Benchers are seeking to catch my eye and the debate has to conclude, with Front-Bench winding-up speeches, by 3.54 pm. So if we can get on to Back-Bench speeches by 2.15 pm, that would be immensely helpful, but I am in the hands of the right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond).
You could not be in safer hands, Mr Speaker.
May I say to the hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) that there was a time when the Conservative party would have been more sure-footed on the designations in Northern Ireland politics? I am not making a particular point about her not knowing the difference between the Ulster Unionists and the Democratic Unionists, but that gets to the heart of the debate and to the heart of why I will support the motion in the name of the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) and his Democratic Unionist colleagues.
We are told, and we were told in particular during the Scottish referendum campaign, that there were four equal parts of this United Kingdom. Now, the democratically elected leaders of three of those four parts, backed up by a range of agreement in the political parties in their Parliaments, have written to the Prime Minister saying that they do not think it is a good idea to hold the referendum in late June because it would conflict with the electoral process taking place in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Members on the Government Benches do not seem to think that that is a clinching argument. Of course it is a clinching argument if we have a respect agenda encompassing the four component parts of the United Kingdom.
The Minister said that we were trying to tempt him into naming the day, which he would not do because of career-limiting implications. We are not trying to get him to name the day; we are trying to get him to name the day when the referendum is not going to be held. It is a question of “calculatus eliminatus”. I commend the poem to him:
“When you’ve mislaid a certain something, keep your cool and don’t get hot…
Calculatus eliminatus always helps an awful lot.
The way to find a missing something is to find out where it’s not.”
We are merely trying to get the Government to exclude 23 June because it conflicts with the important elections taking place in three out of the four nations of this United Kingdom.
When I heard the speech of the hon. Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass) from the Labour Front Bench, I was encouraged because I thought an element of flexibility was moving in, as opposed to last week’s rather foolish declaration of 23 June from the Leader of the Opposition. If it was a good idea for the Opposition parties, supported by many on the Conservative Benches, to combine last year to make sure that the Government did not hold the poll on the same day as the Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish and London elections, why is it not a good idea similarly to combine now to make sure that the 10-week campaign period, as defined in the legislation, does not overlap with those elections? If there was logic in not having the referendum on the same day as the elections, why is there not logic in making sure that the two campaign periods are different as well?
Is the right hon. Gentleman really saying that the people of Scotland—that wonderful country that has played such an enormously positive role in the history of the United Kingdom and produced statesmen, engineers, educators and pioneers across the world—are unable to distinguish between an election for a devolved and unique Parliament and a once-in-a-generation EU referendum? Is he saying that the people of Scotland are too stupid to understand the difference?
The right hon. Member for Belfast North dealt with that point well in his opening speech, to which I am sure the hon. Gentleman was paying the closest attention. We are saying that it is better to have the two campaigns distinct for all sorts of reasons, including broadcasting and the publicity that goes through people’s doors.
My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) pointed out that there were 540 days between designating the date of the Scottish referendum and the poll. Whichever side of that campaign they were part of, people cannot argue with a 98% registration to vote and an 85% turnout in the referendum. In this European referendum, if the date is as specified in a dash to the poll, we suspect, by the Prime Minister, public engagement is unlikely to come anywhere near such a desirable figure.
There is a shabby and sleight aspect to the Government’s argument. I wrote to the Prime Minister at this time last week. I referred to his “junior” Minister, for which I apologise. I said:
“Your junior Minister David Lidington quoted me several times today in the emergency statement as pointing to the necessary 6 week period between the devolved elections and the referendum.
However, while six weeks clearance is a necessary condition it is not a sufficient one.”
I went on to point to the 10-week campaign period, which would start in the middle of the devolved elections. I pointed out the position that the Scottish National party holds on the matter. Despite that, the next day the Prime Minister quoted me and suggested that I had had thumbscrews applied to me by the First Minister of Scotland in order to change my position. The Prime Minister reveals how little he knows that lady. Thumbscrews are not necessary; one glance from the formidable Ms Sturgeon would be more than enough to persuade any politician to see the wisdom of her ways. I have never made the case for a six-week period and I am concerned about the 10-week campaign period.
I am sorry to interrupt my right hon. Friend when he is in full flow. Does he recall that shortly after he stood down as First Minister, the media and the Tory press were full of stories that the new First Minister of Scotland would not be her own woman because she would be bullied by the former First Minister of Scotland? Does he agree that there has been a remarkable switch in roles in that short time?
Another scare story set to rest, as my hon. Friend points out.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about how outrageous it would be to have just a six-week referendum period, but if the designation of the two campaigns is delayed some weeks into the 10-week referendum period, that is what we will finish up with. Does he agree that it would be outrageous for the Government to corrupt the process of this referendum by delaying the designation of the in and out campaigns in the way the Minister suggested might be the case?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. We also agree on another aspect: purdah in referendum periods has not previously been properly observed in this place and by this Government, although it has been observed by the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish Administrations. Having a long purdah period, with a purdah period for the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish elections, and then a further purdah period for a referendum on European issues, would mean that those Administrations had a double purdah period, which cannot be a good thing for governance. I know that that point will not be lost on the hon. Gentleman.
Let me get to the nub of my concern, apart from the patent lack of respect. We have already seen the start of the European referendum campaign, and a thoroughly depressing start it has undoubtedly been. Yesterday’s ludicrous exchange about on which side of the channel there will be a giant refugee camp just about sums up this miserable, irrelevant debate. The truth, of course, is that it does not matter; it will take at least five years to withdraw from the European treaties, and by then we could have 10 times the number of refugees or indeed none at all. No one knows how the bilateral arrangements between Britain and France will be affected. This is a pointless, pathetic, puerile debate, typical of what looks like it will be a depressing campaign—the political equivalent of a no-score draw.
As we anticipated, the lead responsibility for this state of affairs lies with the Prime Minister—this whole mess is of his creation. The time to propose a referendum is when we want to achieve something important, such as Scottish independence, not when we want to achieve nothing at all, as is the case with his sham Euro-negotiations on points of little substance. He has set out the terms for this depressing campaign, which is, to quote the Scottish play,
“full of sound and fury,
The chance of those who are anti-European Union of winning has always been greatest if the campaign is reduced to a competition of scare stories—a war of attrition—to find out who can tell the biggest porkies. That is exactly what is unfolding before our eyes. It is almost as if the Better Together campaign from the Scottish referendum had split in two. We now have two versions of “Project Fear” from opposing sides in the Europe poll. At this rate, the only thing these two campaigns will scare is the voters—away from the polling stations.
The Prime Minister is gambling this country’s entire European future on his sham negotiation and this shame of a campaign—even Jim Hacker would have fought on a more visionary platform on Europe. We need to fight an entirely different campaign in Scotland. People want to hear how we can build a Europe that acts on the environment; faces down multinational power; shows solidarity when faced with a refugee crisis; acts together when faced with austerity; respects the component nations of Europe; co-operates on great projects such as a supergrid across the North sea; and revitalises the concept of a social Europe for all our citizens. That will be a Europe worth voting for, not the Prime Minister’s teeny-weeny vision of nothing much at all.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. I am afraid that, with immediate effect, there will have to be five-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches. I call Mr Paul Maynard.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. It is a pleasure to speak in the debate, and particularly so early. I was not expecting to be raised so far up the list of speakers, but let us take our chances while we can.
I have been struck by the fact that there seems to be a degree of consensus on this issue in the Chamber, on what should be an issue that greatly divides us. We agree on a number of things. We do not know what the date is, and we can all agree on that—even I do not have telepathic powers at Prime Minister’s Question Time quite yet. Beyond that, we have also managed to agree that all our electors—be they young or old, or male or female, and whatever party they vote for—can perform the amazing feat of considering two important issues at roughly the same time. It is a great step forward that we can broadly agree on all that.
Looking at the DUP motion, however, I do not agree that we are somehow in an unseemly rush. I would dispute the use of the word “rush” in the motion. Before Christmas, I had the misfortune to turn 40. It was a chance to look back at my life. Have I gone down a cul-de-sac or down the wrong path? Am I stuck in a rut? Is now the time to throw it all in, go away and run an artisan cheese factory somewhere? Should I get out of politics now? The Whips will be pleased to know that I might just stick with what I am doing at the moment.
None the less, it was a chance to reflect on the fact that I am 40, so I was not born the last time we had a referendum on this issue. It is not that I did not have a chance to vote—I was not even alive when we had the previous referendum. To say that we are somehow in a rush, therefore, misunderstands the long campaign the DUP itself has run to get us where it wants to go. If it had had its way, this would all have been over and done with many years ago—certainly before I was elected to this House. I do not, therefore, accept that we are in a rush.
I do accept, though, that our electors can cope with these things. That goes back to the real reason why we are having a referendum: we want to trust the people. Certain issues are greater than the party divide in this place. Trusting the people is at the heart of what the referendum will be about.
Electors across the board are capable of making important decisions during campaigns that are, by their very nature, compressed. One need only think of the French electoral system, which has a two-week gap between rounds. What happens in the first round dictates the campaign in the following fortnight, and the truth will then be available at the end of that fortnight. For example, a far-right candidate might have got through to the final two in the contest, and a fundamentally different campaign would then have to ensue in metropolitan France. However, the voters manage to cope with that.
Voters are also quite discerning. We need only remember the Darlington by-election of 1983. A chap called Ossie O’Brien won it for the Labour party shortly before the House dissolved for the 1983 election. But a few weeks later, the good voters of Darlington repented of their decision and elected someone else entirely—the current Defence Secretary. I think we all agree that voters are very sophisticated, and they can cope with compression, as well as with doing two things at once. I would therefore urge people to have confidence in their voters.
There was some discussion of the role the media might play. Once again, however, voters in Blackpool North and Cleveleys are more than capable of seeing through what the media are up to.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
In the interests of time, I will give way just this once.
How does the hon. Gentleman respond to the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond) about the impact on the purdah period, given that the devolved Governments might theoretically be in purdah for 10 out of 13 weeks?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point. It is no different, in a way, from what central Government will have to go through. Every Department will have to work out how it engages on European issues during a long campaign and a short campaign.
I am left in no doubt that this is one of those important issues in the lives of my constituents that passes the “stop me in the street” test. If I am out shopping in my local Sainsbury’s, I am already being asked what I think about this issue. The notion that we can somehow say that the campaign does not start until we the politicians say it does, is rather naive. The campaign has started; the number of emails in my inbox is increasing, and people want to know where I stand. I am trying to deal with those queries, as I am sure every other Member of the House is trying. Setting an arbitrary starting point, when we will allow people to think about this issue, will not be possible. The reality is that we have already begun thinking about it, and the media will keep reporting on it. However, my constituents are perfectly capable of thinking about it for themselves. They are desperate to have this vote. Many of them have waited 40 years for it, and they do not want to wait a single moment longer than is absolutely necessary. Many of them have made their minds up already. They want the vote now, without even knowing what the final decision is or what deal might be reached in Brussels.
In conclusion, I recall the words of my former hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere during consideration of a private Member’s Bill a few years ago. Surely, the question now is not what to do, but, “If not now, when?” Now is the time, and we need to move as fast as we can.
The Common Market, as it was known way back then, was founded on 25 March 1957. It did not come into operation until 1958, long before I was born—I know that is hard to believe. [Interruption.] I wish my own colleagues were supportive of that. The aims and objectives of the Common Market were to emulate what the United States had—open markets and no borders. People were jealous of that. The United Kingdom joined the European Union in 1973, just over 40 years ago. Within this timescale of almost 60 years, the United Kingdom has been part of the European Union for just over 40 years.
So why the rush now? Suspicious minds would think that perhaps the deal that the Government, or the Prime Minister and his officials, have almost negotiated is so thin that it hangs by a thread and would unravel. Or is it the case that we are going to see a large influx of people from other countries over the summer? I ask what is the reason because I have not yet heard a convincing argument from the Government as to why this referendum should be held in June.
I would not in any way dispute the hon. Gentleman’s chronology regarding age or anything like that. Could this not also be about the internal cohesion of the Conservative party? Could it be that the Prime Minister is so fearful of the lack of unity in his own party that he wants as short a period as possible for that to be understood?
Far be it from me to go into the internal frictions, if that is the right word, within the Tory party. All parties have their issues to resolve, so I leave the Tory party to deal with that one.
One area that has not been much mentioned over the past weeks and months is the agri-food sector. Our farming community has gone through very difficult times over the past number of years. I do not speak on behalf of the Ulster Farmers Union—I do not have the authority to do so—the National Farmers Union of Scotland, the Farmers Union of Wales, or indeed the National Farmers Union. Whenever they make their decisions, they will advise their members on which way to go. However, when I speak to farmers in my constituency, they are concerned about how things are going to pan out for them in future. Will there be an agri-food industry at all? Do the Government have enough interest in the sector to help and defend it in the years to come, and encourage young farmers into it? A lot of issues across the board need to be addressed.
The European Union Referendum Act 2015 provides for a referendum to be held on the UK’s membership of the EU before the end of 2017. This adds up to approximately 15 months following the Assembly elections, yet some within the Government find it appropriate to send the electorate back to the polls within seven weeks. As we have heard, the European championship will be taking place and some 200,000 people might be out of the country. Of course, people from my constituency will be across the water supporting Northern Ireland. I want to ensure that they are at home when the biggest political decision of their day will be taken. That is vital.
During this debate there will no doubt be accusations that we are undermining the voters, as we have already heard, and that we do not trust the British people to make two different decisions within a seven-week period. Those accusations are untrue. Nevertheless, for the good of our nation, let us allow each voter the time and space to study the arguments and the effects that this will have on them and on their families to come. The EU referendum provides one of the biggest political decisions in a generation. Let us ensure that the right final decision is made and that, whatever it is, we embrace the new era and ensure that the livelihoods of our elderly, our young and our employed are changed for the better.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this debate. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) and his colleagues on introducing this important topic and exploring some of the genuine issues of concern in a very moderate and civilised way.
Whatever date is eventually chosen for the referendum and the campaign period, there will always be perfectly good arguments that can be made against it. In this country, by democratic tradition, we narrow down a lot of the time for holding elections to when it is sensible to do so. Traditionally, unless there is a period of emergency, we have them in the spring, early summer or autumn. There are perfectly good reasons for that. It is not pleasant to be out knocking on doors and delivering leaflets in the wilds of winter. It is important to respect the times when different parts of the United Kingdom have their summer holidays. For example, I would not suggest that we hold a referendum in July because that would clash with the Scottish holiday period, or August in the case of England.
The Scottish referendum was held very successfully in September when we had longer evenings, warmer days, and the full summer period in which to campaign. That would give us more of the time and opportunity that the hon. Gentleman is talking about than a June date.
If the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that he would like a roadshow visit from my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) or my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) to entertain his electors over the summer, he is very welcome to it.
The point I am making is that there are a relatively small number of periods when we can sensibly have an election.
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point perfectly, but, as a matter of interest, what are the arguments against an autumn date, as specified by the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) in opening the debate and as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady)?
I will happily answer that. First, I am not in charge of selecting the date, and I have no objections to June or September. I am merely saying that there are a number of considerations that we have to bear in mind.
Another consideration, more generally, is that there is a delicate balance to be struck between allowing a sufficient period of time for all the arguments made by both sides of the campaign to be properly explored and challenged, and not having so elongated a campaign that we bore the electorate to death or create such a long period of uncertainty that it is unhelpful to our economy. I am not arguing that it should be 23 June, or 18 September or whatever it would be at that time of year, because that is not my job; I am saying that it is about a balance of different considerations.
Where do the views of the First Ministers of all the devolved Governments fit into the balance of considerations that the hon. Gentleman mentions?
That neatly leads me on to the point I was about to make.
In relation to purdah, we have heard about the potential overlap between the Scottish Parliament campaign and the referendum campaign, if the date were to be 23 June; that is hypothetical. I will make two observations on that. First, whenever purdah is, it will be disruptive to the usual governance of the UK Government, the Scottish Government, and the Governments of Wales and Northern Ireland. If it were to be in September, it would cause disruption to the legislative programme of whoever forms the Scottish Government after May. There is a case to be made that it would be less disruptive for one period to immediately follow the other. The Scottish and other Governments could then get on with their full programmes without interruption, rather than being blocked in the autumn. I would also point out that, to avoid future election clashes, the length of the next Scottish Parliament has been extended by a year, so the Scottish Government have more time than was originally envisaged.
If the right hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I have taken a few interventions and have a limited amount of time left.
I am not an expert on what Governments can and cannot do during purdah, but I hope we can have a sensible debate so that if a purely domestic Scottish matter that would have no impact on the EU referendum needs to be introduced during purdah, a way could be found for that administrative work to continue.
There is a precedent on this matter, namely the alternative vote referendum, which was held on the same day as the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland elections in 2011.
That was a success?
I am not arguing that the elections should be held on the same day—we have accepted that they should be held on a separate day and that there should be a minimum of six weeks between them and the referendum—but there are lessons that we can extrapolate from that campaign. The Electoral Commission report on the 2011 AV referendum specifically addresses the issue of media coverage, which a number of Members have raised, and it concludes that it was not an issue. Paragraph 3.60 states that there was
“no inherent disinclination on the part of the media from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland…to cover the referendum; rather, the elections were considered to be a greater priority than the referendum.”
The right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues should not be worried about the capacity of the Scottish media to cover both the Holyrood elections and the referendum over the same period.
Forgive me, but I am down to my last minute and I want to conclude.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) said, this debate is not starting from a zero base. The arguments about Europe are not new. People are already exploring them and have been doing so over many years and many election campaigns. They are perfectly capable of computing the arguments for the devolved elections and for the referendum at the same time. To be fair to the right hon. Member for Belfast North, he is not saying that they are incapable of doing that.
Ultimately, this comes down to a judgment of whether we as a country have the bandwidth in Government, the media and among our voters to make up our minds on the referendum and the devolved elections at the same time. My judgment is that we can perfectly well do that. America combines many elections—presidential, Congress, state and referendums—at the same time. If it can do it, so can we.
As many Members have said, this is one of the most important constitutional questions that perplexes our nation, and the referendum provides probably a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity—it is certainly a once-in-a-generation opportunity—to shape where the nation goes. That is why it is essential that we have a full, frank, proper and considered debate about all the issues that affect our membership of the European Union.
A rushed referendum will only threaten to present to the public a debate that is shaped according to the most baseless of arguments, namely that of “Johnny Foreigner” versus “What will we get out of the European Union?” That is not the way to have this debate, but unfortunately it appears that it is in the Government’s interests to have a debate shaped according to that base argument. If only a limited amount of time is made available for the debate, we will not be able to deal with the issues that affect all our constituents, including issues to do with trade, the rural economy and the social agenda, and, indeed, the very important issue of immigration.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the “stay in” side is worried that it does not have enough disinformation and nasty scares to last until September?
I have no fear that it will promote all those nasty issues, but we should be proud of the fact that we can present a cohesive argument that will convince many people who are at present wavering on the vital questions. That is why we should take time to have a proper debate.
I, like most Members in this House, but probably more than some, am familiar with “Never, never, never” speeches. We witnessed one such speech in this House on 3 February, when the Prime Minister made self-fulfilling “never” prophecies, none of which is even on the agenda. For example, there is not going to be a European army and the United Kingdom is not going to adopt the single currency. That has been ruled out by the people, but none the less the Prime Minister has nailed the arguments of this debate to solid winds that were never up for grabs in the first instance.
Over the next few weeks, we are going to be fed a diet based on soundbites, not on substance. My right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds), supported by the right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond) and others, has stated very clearly that we want the debate to be based on sound, substantive arguments, because the public—our public, our electorate—expect much more. Although I accept the universally expressed view that the public can deal with multiple choice questions, that is not what is at stake. What is at stake is that we have a cogent, clear and sophisticated debate that deals with all the issues.
Some Members have argued that the reason we can rush into this is that the issue of security has already been dealt with and we need to get on with it, but the European Community, which is now known as the European Union, has singularly failed on the issue of security decade in, decade out. It failed to give this kingdom a clear position on the Falklands. It failed to give the UK support whenever we tried to purchase weapons for the Royal Ulster Constabulary in the 1980s. It failed Europe in its lacklustre response to Kosovo. It failed the middle east when we were dealing with Kuwait 1, and it has clearly been an abject failure in recent weeks and months when we as nations have been trying to deal with the important issue of immigration. We should have a proper debate so that the public can be reminded of the catastrophic failures brought about by the EU week in, week out.
Domestically, it is important that we talk about the potential opportunities if Britain exits the Union. At present, my constituents are not allowed even to consider the prospect of what farming would be like post-common agricultural policy. The fact of the matter is that it is our money that is being spent on our farmers by European bureaucrats. I want to have a debate that allows us to focus on where the money comes from—it comes from here—and how we could better spend it if we were not tied to European policy, but we will not have the opportunity to get into the nitty-gritty of that debate and my farmers will go to the polls on the basis of the fear that they could lose their subsidy when that is not right at all. We should have the opportunity to deal with that.
The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee is currently trying to address some of the issues. Every single witness—there have been six or seven to date—has indicated, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North said, that this is going to be decided not by whether it will affect terrorism, but by trade and other issues. We have only brushed the surface of border security in that inquiry so far, yet it is a key issue, given that we are the only part of the United Kingdom that, if we leave Europe, would have a land border with a nation that is in Europe. We need a proper debate about that, but we are not being given the time. I implore the Government to listen and, in the same way as they have ruled out other dates, to rule out June and suggest a more acceptable date, probably in the autumn.
I congratulate the Democratic Unionist party on this debate, which is obviously of interest to many of us, but clearly not to the Labour party, given that its Benches are all empty.
I am sorry—there are two of them, including the right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond), who has defected by the looks of it.
I have heard a rumour that the Labour Members are all in a Trident submarine somewhere, sailing around and looking for things.
That was a wise intervention.
I come at the issue having always supported a referendum. Dare I say it with the Government Whip on the Front Bench, but I was one of the rebels who voted for a referendum back in the day. I was four when the people of this country last had an opportunity to have a say on our relationship with Europe. That relationship has clearly changed over the past 40-odd years, and many of my constituents want the opportunity to discuss the matter and have their say again. That is backed up by evidence; in 2008, an organisation called Open Europe organised an all-postal ballot in my constituency, asking people whether they wanted a referendum and whether they supported the Lisbon treaty. Even though it was a voluntary postal ballot, more than 13,000 people took part in it, and more than 11,400—some 88% of those who took part—voted to say that they wanted to have the opportunity for a referendum on Europe. There is a clear appetite for such a referendum.
Many people have expressed to me their frustration about the fact that the referendum could be as late as 2017. They want to get on with it, regardless of which side of the argument they are on. I suspect that if there was a further delay because of the issues that have been raised in the motion, many of my constituents would view that with some scepticism.
When the European Union Referendum Bill was going through the House, I had sympathy with the views about the referendum being held on the same day as the 6 May elections. I am glad that the Government responded to the pressure that was applied, because those two things needed to be very separate, but to suggest that a longer period of separation is needed is, frankly, patronising. As others have said, it is not as though the Europe debate has not been going on for years and years. All who are for or against our partnership in Europe have made their points eloquently over the past four decades. In addition, the Government have also committed to allowing at least a six-week period between the elections and the referendum. I believe that that is more than adequate. Frankly, if those campaigns cannot get their message across in six weeks, perhaps they, and not my constituents, need to ask themselves some serious questions. My constituents are more than able to understand the issues that are being debated.
The truth is that there is history here. The previous European referendum was held only one month after the completion of the legislation. With the alternative vote referendum, there was plenty of time to discuss the issues. I know from being on the doorstep that many people understood what was being asked of them. When it comes to separating the issues, I refer back to my point about being patronising. Yes, the elections in May are incredibly important. In Wales, people will be elected to the Assembly, and in Scotland to the Parliament. There will be mayoral elections and the Northern Ireland elections. In my constituency, people will have to vote for their local councillors and for their police and crime commissioners.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I do not have enough time; I am sorry.
I know my constituents, and I know that they are more than capable of separating those issues and campaigns, particularly because they will be at least six weeks apart. Last May, they were able to distinguish between electing a Member of Parliament, their local councillor and their parish councillor, all on the same day. My constituents knew that each candidate would hold a different office, and they fully understood that difference.
In addition, those who call for a delay because people will be confused assume that they are thinking only about the next election and the next referendum. I envy such people; my constituents have got lives to get on with and other things to think about. They are not obsessed with the referendum, as we may be. Six weeks-plus is plenty of time. Our constituents will be able to make a decision on what they want their future relationship with Europe to be. If the period was to be prolonged, I fear that that would switch many people off.
I come here as someone who was born in Wales, whose father is a Scotsman and whose mother is English. I respect every part of this nation, and I know that every part of this nation, just like my constituents, understands the difference. The 88% of people in my constituency who voted in favour of a referendum should be given the opportunity to have one. Who am I—who is anybody in this Chamber—to deny them that opportunity? I credit them with the ability to separate two very different voting responsibilities.
I thank the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) and his colleagues in the Democratic Unionist party for giving us the opportunity to debate the subject. This is our opportunity and the Government’s opportunity, as the right hon. Gentleman said, to put the respect agenda into practice. My right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond) and colleagues in the DUP have mentioned the letter of 3 February from the First Minister of Scotland, the First Minister and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland and the Labour First Minister of Wales, all of whom hold very different views about the European Union referendum, just as they hold many different views on a whole range of issues. I also tabled an early-day motion on the referendum, which received backing from Members from every party in this House.
Democratic representation does not begin and end in this place. Decisions that affect the day-to-day lives of our citizens are not purely taken here. At the beginning of May, issues such as health, education and transport will be debated and decided on by something north of 20 million voters across the United Kingdom. This has nothing to do with minor sporting events such as the European football championship, or major sporting events such as Andy Murray defending his title at the Queen’s Club. More than anything else—even the respect agenda, important though that is—this is about the Government and those of us who want to remain in the European Union having the courage of our convictions and putting the matter to a thorough democratic test.
A thorough democratic test does not mean simply rushing the referendum in six weeks; it means having a balanced and fair opportunity to debate this important issue. That is why throughout proceedings on the European Union Referendum Bill, we said that we wanted to see a fair playing field. That is why we worked with colleagues across the House to ensure that that happened, and we will be more than happy to work with colleagues across the House on the date of the referendum.
My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) pointed out, as I did during the debate last week, that the campaign on the independence referendum called by my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon ran for 545 days.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on achieving cross-party support for early-day motion 1042 on the date of the referendum. Does he agree with the point I made earlier about the impact of the autumn date of the Scottish referendum, which allowed an invigorating campaign to take place during the long summer days with good weather and lots of daylight? There is a lot to be said for an autumn date.
My hon. Friend makes a valid point, which I hope that the Government will take into account. In Scotland, both those who campaigned for yes and those who campaigned for no should be credited for having one of the greatest democratic debates that any part of the United Kingdom has ever seen. A great deal of that was owing to the fact that we had a long run-in, and we had the summer to debate it.
We in the Scottish National party have some experience of the matter, and I hope that other hon. Members will listen to us. I hope that they will listen to my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon, who led much of the debate over that long period. He rightly gave credit to those on both sides of the debate for the way in which they conducted themselves. He also spoke about the 10-week period, which my hon. Friend the Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) raised. The Government have not dealt with that adequately, and I hope that the Minister will tackle it when he sums up.
I want to see a positive campaign, and I am disappointed by what we have heard from Government Members who want to stay in. I am disappointed by some of the words that we have heard from Labour Members, and we will be debating the matter with them. We want to put forward the positive impact that Europe can have. Think about charges for roaming, workers’ rights and the security challenges that we face together as a European Union.
We must always be mindful of where the role of member states begins and that of the European Union ends, because we have not always been honest about that. It was not the European Union that described Scotland’s fishermen as “expendable”. It was not the European Union that introduced policies that were damaging to Scotland’s renewables industry. It was not the European Union that gave Scotland’s farmers the lowest single farm payment in the whole European Union. These were faults of the member state and the way in which it chose to exercise its membership of the European Union. We will bring all those issues to the fore during this debate.
Let us think about the areas on which we have had European co-operation that is much closer to Scotland’s opinion than this Government’s ever could be. Let us look at the refugee crisis—the worst since the second world war—on which the UK Government are not stepping up to the mark, as the Irish Government, who have disregarded their opt-out, have. Let us look at climate change policy, where Scotland led the world and on which the European Union is now leading the charge. Let us look at renewables, which I have already mentioned. Let us look at security issues and tackling, as a European Union bloc, the issues of Ukraine, Syria and all the other huge challenges we face; no member state can face such challenges alone.
My appeal to the House is that we do not want any scaremongering or a re-run of “Project Fear”, because that is the way in which the yes side will lose this referendum. We want a positive debate, but we also want a debate that runs beyond the summer and possibly into September. That is why I will back the DUP motion.
I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to speak in this debate, and to the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) for securing it and bringing forward this subject. It is a very important subject—hon. Members from all parts of the House are passionate in their views on Europe—and the timing issue is clearly of concern to him and his colleagues.
I tend to find that my views agree with those of DUP Members most of the time. We clearly agree on one very important thing, which is that this is the time—this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity—to give the public a referendum so that they can have their say. However, I disagree with them today and I will not support them on the timing issue. I think that there will be enough time. The Prime Minister has clearly set out in legislation that there will be time for people to think and there will be enough information for them to make up their minds.
Let me explain why I will not support the motion. As colleagues have already mentioned, the aim of the Conservative party to hold a referendum on this subject has not exactly been the best-kept secret on the planet. Indeed, during the last election, many Conservative Members, and probably many Members on the Opposition Benches, talked about the referendum in their election literature. It was in our manifesto, and it was certainly in my election materials. I was very proud to talk about it, because I think it is time for this subject to be put to the British public so that they can express their views.
In fact, I distinctly remember that we were able to debate the issue extensively during the last Parliament, even though we were part of a coalition Government at the time. Government Members, particularly me and my Conservative party colleagues, found a mechanism to have such a debate on private Members’ Bills, particularly those introduced by our hon. Friends the Members for Stockton South (James Wharton) and for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill). They put forward those Bills continually to seek a debate on this subject, even though we were constrained within the coalition. As parliamentary private secretary to the Minister for Europe during 2014 and 2015, I know that the issue was much debated as a matter of clear concern that agitated many of our colleagues. They wanted to talk about Europe, and they did, and they wanted the referendum. During all the parliamentary discussions, it was also clear that a wider debate was taking place. News reports and TV programmes went on about it, and I did detect one or two tweets on the subject as well. This was not a surprise—it has been well trailed—and it is therefore important to address head-on the concerns expressed in the motion, because we need such a debate more quickly than not.
I listened carefully to the right hon. Member for Belfast North. I believe that his concerns, and indeed those of other Members on the Opposition Benches, are sincere, but that they are overstated. That brings me back to an experience I had in a Leeds shopping centre, not far from Pudsey, several years ago. I was in a rush—I needed to get to a meeting, and I had to move very quickly—and I had to make a quick decision about which escalator to go up to get to the meeting. I ran up it as fast as I could, and it became pretty obvious that I had chosen the wrong escalator: I was running up the down escalator. An older lady, who was mesmerised by the spectacle, looked me in the eye and said, “That’s what comes from rushing.” I have never forgotten that. Rushing is having to deal with decisions within split seconds. I can assure the House that this is not about rushing, but about having a conversation and a debate over weeks and, indeed, months.
I am still grappling with which side of the argument the escalator analogy supports, but if six weeks were enough, why does the legislation specify a 10-week period for the European referendum campaign? Does that not conflict with the argument the hon. Gentleman is making?
No. We know that if the Prime Minister is successful in securing the negotiation and is minded to put it forward in the referendum, there will be challenges in terms of the multiple debates that will be going on. Like the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley), who talked about there being multiple choice questions, I do not think that is a problem. This is about putting two separate questions: who will the electorate vote for in local elections, or indeed the Assembly elections or the parliamentary elections in Scotland; and how will they vote in the referendum. Those two things are separate and clearly set out, and I do not think there will be a conflict. In the minute I have left, I will explain why.
If the Prime Minister chooses the timescales I have set out, there will be seven weeks between the May elections and the referendum. Indeed, there will be more than 17 weeks between the decision being made to progress with the referendum and the referendum being held, so there will be 17 weeks in which to have such a discussion. If we compare that with what happened in previous referendums, we can see that in 1975 there was just one month between the completion of the legislation and the referendum, and that in the alternative vote referendum, which some hon. Members have talked about, there were three months—it felt like an eternity—but the Prime Minister has promised more time. There is therefore enough time and I believe that the electorate will be able to separate their thoughts about whatever the issues are in Northern Ireland or Scotland from their thoughts about the referendum. For those reasons, I support those on both sides of the debate—whether they are ins or outs on this subject—who say we need to take the earliest opportunity to have the referendum.
I, too, congratulate my DUP colleagues and the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) on raising this matter. I agree with their premise about not having the referendum too soon, although not necessarily for the same reasons. June seems far too early and the autumn, or later, seems more sensible because we must give the public time to understand all the pros and cons.
The Ulster Unionists—for those who do not know, I make it clear that we are very different from the Democratic Unionists—have consistently said that we want Britain and Northern Ireland’s membership of the EU reformed and renegotiated before we make a decision. We therefore need the facts and the details to be able to decide. It is good that the referendum will happen, but we need it to be held later.
What I ask is that when you all make your decisions—not that many Government and Opposition Members are in the Chamber—you think of the whole Union, not just your small part of the United Kingdom. This has to be something that works for all of us. If I can leave you with a clear message, it is: can you think about how it benefits—
Order. May I just remind the hon. Gentleman that he is speaking through the Chair?
I apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker.
It is very important that we keep the Union in mind when we take our decisions in the future. In a poll last week, 42% said they are for leaving and 38% said they are for staying. It saddens me that they have already made up their minds, but we have not even got the facts. I want to use an analogy that is slightly different from the escalator one. I am a sci-fi fan: I am a “Doctor Who” fan and perhaps even a Trekkie. In wanting to make a decision, it is rather as though all those who want to leave are charging into the Tardis—hon. Members will remember that it did not know whether it was going backwards or forwards, where it would land or anything else—so we are going into the unknown. I want the electorate to understand what they are voting for. That is why I am asking for a delay. I hope that Members will keep the Tardis in mind. If I may mix my metaphors or even sci-fi series, this is about boldly going where no man has gone before.
That’s a vote for leave.
As the House has heard, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee heard evidence from three economists last week. It basically came down to certainty against uncertainty. We need to know more. We need to be more certain. We must know where we are going. For those of us who have elections in May, this matter will be part of the debate. That is how the whole thing is being pitched. Already, I am being asked more questions about the European Union than about how good the Assembly will be in the future.
I want us to have the facts in front of us. I do not necessarily think that we should stay in, although that is where I am leaning at the moment. I want to know the risk factors. I want to know how good things could be for us if we leave. I look at the many other things going on in the world, such as how the Chinese economy has changed. I look back at Lehman Brothers and Enron, and at the great USA hope. Look what that did to our economies. I want to know where we will tie ourselves to in the future if we leave. We must have the facts. Do the leadership debates in the United States give us confidence about where we will go with our trade in the future? We need to know.
As others have said, agriculture is phenomenally important in Northern Ireland. It means £250 million to us. If we are to make this decision, we need to know what the guarantees are for the future, how we will work in the future and how we can keep Northern Ireland’s agricultural economy as one of the best in Europe.
That is why I agree with the motion. Let us make sure that we have the facts. Let us make sure that the electorate have the facts. That will take time and time is what we are asking for. Let us not have the referendum at the end of June. That will help those of us who want to go and watch Northern Ireland play. I have tickets if they get into the last 16. So come on Northern Ireland, and come on everybody else—let’s get the facts out.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan), with his extreme optimism that Northern Ireland will reach the final 16. I, too, shall be cheering on Northern Ireland. I wish them all the best.
It is always a pleasure to participate in a DUP debate, because I know that the wording of the motion will challenge me quite a lot. I am often minded to support DUP motions because they are often very sensible, and this one is no exception. This is a very important debate. At the same time, we must recognise that this is a debate about a date that has not been set. No one has announced this date. Those of us in the Chamber are engaging in pure speculation about possible dates and possible outcomes, and about the implications of any of those dates.
I welcome the optimism among colleagues on the Opposition Benches that the Prime Minister will secure what he wants from the European Council in February, that that will be enough for him to fire the starting gun and that we will all be able to crack on with the referendum.
The motion says that Government are “set to rush” the referendum. My constituents would disagree with that. It has been 40 years in the making. I was three when the decision was made to join the Common Market. To suggest that we are rushing towards a referendum would frankly be viewed as laughable in Sherwood. My constituents are bouncing off the walls with delight that the referendum will finally be put in front of them, whichever way they are minded to vote, so that we can once again put to bed our relationship with the European Union for a generation.
The fundamental point that is being made by Members from Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland is that of the four parts of the United Kingdom, three are clearly asking for it not to be a June date. What is the hon. Gentleman’s response to that?
I think we should consider the views of colleagues, but it is worth recognising that there are elections in England in May as well, including in London. It is not just colleagues from the devolved Administrations who need to be given that consideration. I have confidence in the ability of my constituents and the right hon. Gentleman’s constituents to separate the issues and decide whether they are voting in a Scottish election or an EU referendum. That is a bit of a red herring.
If the hon. Gentleman will not accept the points that are being raised by Members from Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, will he accept the opinions of the Members from England who have signed my early-day motion to call for the referendum not to be in June because of the English local authority elections?
To be absolutely clear, I give no more weight to an English opinion than to a Scottish opinion. They are both completely valid. I recognise the point that the hon. Gentleman is making. What I am saying to SNP colleagues is that our constituents have the ability to separate the issues and to understand the enormity of the decisions they are making—who will govern Scotland, who will govern Wales, who will be the next Mayor of London and whether our relationship with the European Union should change or remain the same, or whether we should come out completely.
The hon. Gentleman knows that many people in his constituency, as in mine, would rather the referendum was separate from the local elections. He knows that as well as I do.
I have good news for the hon. Gentleman: the referendum will be separate from the local elections. They will be at least six weeks apart. At the risk of bursting his bubble, I say to him that while many people in this place are very focused on political issues, many of my constituents are busy going about their normal business. They are thinking about paying their mortgage, where to go on holiday and whether their kids will get into the school of their choice. Europe is not as high on their political agenda as it is for some in this place.
At some point, we will be told the date of the referendum. We can then have six weeks of campaigning to establish which way we want to vote. By the end of those six weeks, I guarantee that our constituents will be fed up to the back teeth with the debate.
We keep hearing that people get fed up after a three or four month campaign, and some people are clearly fed up after a three hour debate. Why do Conservative MPs never refer to the last referendum we had, which was in 2014? After a campaign of over 500 days, people were so fed up that almost every polling station in the country reported queues at the door before 7 o’clock, the biggest number of people registered to vote and the biggest number of people voted in Scotland’s history. That is how fed up people were.
That is a really important point and there is an important distinction here. Clearly, the starting gun has already been fired. The Prime Minister had committed himself to a referendum on our relationship with Europe so the second there was a Conservative majority in May 2015, we knew that there was going to be a referendum. So the starting gun has been fired.
However, there is a difference between the long campaign, when we all know that the debate will happen and we start to engage in it, and the short, intensive campaign, when the leaflets come through the door and people knock on the door, asking, “Which way are you going?”. I absolutely adore knocking on doors. It is great fun and I hope that my constituents like me appearing on their doorstep. However, there does come a point when it becomes a bit tiresome—when the fourth person knocks on their door to ask the same question, just as they are sitting down to watch “Coronation Street” or to eat their tea. I start to get a bit of negative feedback from my constituents at that point.
I think we have got the balance about right. The starting gun has been fired. We are aware that the referendum is coming at some point in the future. As soon as the Prime Minister has secured the deal he wants to secure, we can make up our minds and our constituents can make up their minds which way to go. We can have an intense debate and campaign at that point. It is right not to rule out any more dates. Let us see what the Prime Minister comes forward with.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) on securing this debate. The Minister referred to Alan Greenspan, and said that he was not going to give any clues, and that certainly was the case with his remarks. I quote back to him Henry Kissinger who, when facing a very excited press conference, scanned the excited news hounds and said, “Do any of you boys have questions for the answers I’ve already prepared for you?” That is rather how it felt this afternoon.
Plaid Cymru is in favour of staying in the Union—we believe there is a strong positive case to be made for that, and that another EU is possible. Among other things, developing the Union has strengthened protection measures for the environment, farming and rural life, increased social protection for the workforce, improved the protection, wellbeing and prosperity of minorities—including linguistic minorities—and strengthened progressive cohesion and regional policies. We will campaign on those issues. I certainly regret the rather tetchy tone of the campaign so far, but that is quite separate from our concern about the date of the referendum—a concern that is shared by people on both sides of the argument.
The First Ministers of the three devolved Governments have written a joint letter to the Prime Minister to insist on a later date for the referendum, and, as others have said, that is important for the respect agenda. There is a risk that the May elections could become proxy votes for the referendum, and I agree with the Electoral Commission’s concern about the proximity of the proposed referendum date to the elections, which could lead not to confusion but to voter fatigue.
The DUP will campaign for a power-sharing set up in Northern Ireland, and—from my reading at least—it is unlikely that an early EU referendum could influence the consequence of the Northern Ireland Assembly elections in the same way and to the same degree as might be the case in Wales, Scotland or London. The result in Northern Ireland will be a power-sharing Executive, but the result in Wales, I am glad to say, is much more open—indeed, it is possibly wide open. That is why I was particularly disappointed with the response of the hon. Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass), because there is a question for us in Wales about the position of the Labour party—I note the vast green acres of empty Labour Benches.
And on the other side.
And on the Conservative Benches.
Carwyn Jones, our First Minister, has written to the Prime Minister and made his views abundantly clear. However, the Labour party at Westminster does not oppose a June referendum—in fact, it seems very much in favour of that as it wants a quick referendum. Either the Labour party headquarters does not listen to Carwyn Jones, or possibly it is part of a less laudable plan to frame the National Assembly election as a fight between Labour and UKIP. There is no doubt that there will be a strong UKIP campaign in Wales, and it might even achieve some membership of the National Assembly. It is in the Labour party’s interest to frame the debate in that way, thus avoiding scrutiny of its dismal record in government for the past 17 years.
It is difficult to see how the Government or the Labour party can pursue a respect agenda to the devolved nations if none of their Members is in the Chamber to hear the arguments being articulated from those countries.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Some Welsh Members were here earlier in the debate, but it is regrettable in the extreme that they are not here now to contribute. I assume, however, that they will be trooping through the Lobby if the Labour party decides to take part in a vote.
The media campaign has already started, and it feels almost as if every news broadcast and every newspaper is running stories on the latest developments in the referendum campaign. The hon. Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart), who is no longer in his place, said that it was quite easy for people to make up their minds, and mentioned the press in their respective countries. However, 85% of people in Wales get their newspapers not from Cardiff or Llandudno Junction, but from London, and the so-called national debates in England and Wales, or the UK, often influence their voting behaviour. Few media outlets will pay proper attention to the Welsh general election, and anything that detracts from that is to be regretted.
Few media outlets will cover crucial issues such as the state of the Welsh NHS, the proposed 32% cuts to Welsh universities by the Welsh Labour Government, or election pledges from other parties. The Welsh NHS is no less important to the people of Wales than the English NHS is to the people of England. Given the constitutional significance of the result of the referendum, particularly if people in Wales and Scotland vote in contrast to the people of England, the Government would be well advised to pause before setting an early referendum date.
I rise to speak in favour of the motion: the Prime Minister should reconsider his rather obvious plan for an early referendum. That is not just because it undermines his self-set “respect, one-nation, agenda”; this is about Parliaments and National Assemblies in the UK whose views on this issue must be taken into account.
We have heard today about boring campaigns and bored people—it seems as if the people of this country do not have an awful lot to look forward to with whatever will make up the positive campaign to stay in the European Union, and it will clearly fall to the SNP to be the leading light in that campaign. It raises the question why we are having a referendum in the first place, if it will be so boring for the people of this country.
The First Ministers of Wales and Scotland, and the First Minister and her Deputy in Northern Ireland, represent what could euphemistically be described as a diverse range of political views, but they all wholeheartedly agree that to hold the Prime Minister’s referendum in June would be wrong. This is not simply a political issue, because those whom we trust to ensure our elections are run fairly and honestly also have concerns about a June referendum.
At the end of last year, the chair of the Electoral Commission stated in evidence to a Committee of this House that a referendum date close to the May elections would reduce the window of opportunity for registering new voters, and for raising awareness of the impending referendum—that issue is so important for this vital decision. There are also concerns about how broadcasters will interpret their rules on impartiality when reporting on political issues, during a period when both campaigns are under way in earnest. Those key issues must be resolved to ensure a fair referendum campaign, and the simplest way to deal with that is to move the date.
When the Prime Minister made his first visit to Scotland in May 2010, he stated clearly and simply:
“I want a real agenda of respect between our parliaments…This agenda is about parliaments working together, of governing with respect, both because I believe Scotland deserves that respect and because I want to try and win Scotland’s respect as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.”
Well, cometh the hour, cometh the man—I shan’t be holding my breath.
The date is also wrong because those of us in favour of remaining in the EU want to take every opportunity to make a positive case for it. The UK Government cannot make a unified case for membership, given how deeply divided the Conservative party and Cabinet are on this crucial issue, so we must have an informed debate and time to hold it. It would be wrong for the Prime Minister to spare no effort or time in speaking individually to the Heads of State of each EU nation, without giving due cognisance to the views of the respective Governments across these islands.
The Prime Minister’s negotiations appear to be serving no purpose other than to appease his own Eurosceptic Back Benchers, most of whom have removed themselves from the Chamber today. Instead of carping around the fringes of Europe, we should be seeking to maximise the benefits that our partnership with other European countries offers. For example, let us see action to ensure transparency in our negotiations with the USA on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, so we can have an agreement that is seen to deliver the reassurances promised by Ministers. Let us have concrete action now to reform the common agricultural policy and the common fisheries policy, so that our agriculture and food industries can benefit directly from strong leadership in this area—leadership which, sadly, and for long periods of time, has been lacking from this Government. Business need to see measures on how to remove the barriers to trade in all member states, in particular on the freedom to provide services, which would be a huge boost to several of Scotland’s key economic sectors at this time. Taking time to deliver tangible progress on those vital areas would show how the EU can work for Scotland and the UK.
Let us change the narrative. When people from this country go and spend their retirement in Spain they are “expats” and when people come here they are “economic migrants”. That needs to change. This is a 21st century of equal nations, as opposed to the UK’s own 18th-century constitutional arrangements. The European Union has been central in protecting peace in Europe since 1945, and has enshrined our citizens’ rights in international law to protect workers, consumers and trade unionists from reactionary right-wing Governments.
Does my hon. Friend agree that those protections extend to the 30,000 UK citizens claiming benefits overseas in the European Union? We have yet to hear how the negotiations will affect them.
Absolutely. I raised the point about the importance of trade union representation and dealing with reactionary right-wing Governments, because time after time since our election in May, we have seen legislation pushed through this Parliament. We now need to rely on the EU to protect the rights of workers in this country.
Built on this firm foundation, social, economic and political union is to the benefit of all across Europe. We must work with our EU partners to achieve that. As my hon. Friend the Member for North East Fife (Stephen Gethins) said, from dealing with the refugee crisis on our doorstep to protecting our economies in the face of international challenges, we cannot address these serious issues by pulling up the drawbridge and turning our backs on the international community. If we are threatened by the changing world in which we live, we must face it head on and not retreat into a backward era of international isolationism, which is where this Government will take us.
In conclusion, given the significant and serious prospect of a vote to leave, we must take the necessary time to take the population with us and not force voters to the polls without the opportunity to come to an informed and considered view. A headlong rush would be contrary to our country’s interests on every level. If we act in haste, I fear we will repent at leisure.
I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Ms Ahmed-Sheikh). I rise to speak in support of the motion and I would like to take the opportunity to commend the right hon. and hon. Members responsible for it. We may not agree at all times, and perhaps not even on the very issue on which the referendum will be held, but I none the less hope that the debate so far has motivated a desire for a fair and open debate on the EU referendum.
As other hon. Members have said, we should be worried about electoral fatigue setting in among the voting public this year. I know, however, that people will still want to register their votes. What I am more concerned about is the issue of purdah, which was raised by the right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond). We will have two periods of purdah running from the end of March to 23 June—if that is the date. Many of us have been led to believe that that is the date in the Prime Minister’s head, subject, of course, to his getting agreement in Brussels on 18 February. Notwithstanding that, to me and to my party colleagues it is undemocratic to have such a period of purdah, because it prevents Ministers, MPs and members of devolved Administrations from properly representing their constituents.
The hon. Lady will have heard earlier one of the “speeches for England,” to quote the Daily Mail, in which it was suggested that an Administration being elected and then going into an immediate period of purdah was somehow a good thing. Can the hon. Lady explain that extraordinary argument any better than the hon. Member who made it?
The right hon. Gentleman makes a very helpful intervention. I did not think that that comment, made from the Government Benches, was all that helpful. I believe that such periods of purdah will simply stultify a democratic institution in undertaking its new work in preparing a programme for government, detailed work for ministries, and a strategy and plan—whether in finances, resources or in any other discipline—for the next four to five years of that Administration. It would minimise the amount of time available to an Administration for preparation.
It is not hard to imagine, if I may be parochial and talk about Northern Ireland, that we will have two campaigns running at the same time. Important issues such as health and education, policy making and setting a programme for government could be erased from the front pages of our local newspapers and from hustings as the press devotes time—perhaps quite rightly—to the big issue of the EU referendum and all the political drama that that will entail. The two elections should be separate. They should be conducted separately to allow a full and active campaign and debate to take place. There are major issues in the EU referendum. I come to this as somebody who wants to remain within the EU, because I have seen clear benefits of Northern Ireland being a member. I believe my colleagues in the Democratic Unionist party take a different view. Notwithstanding that, there needs to be time for a measured and considered debate on this issue, irrespective of which side people are on.
Many issues have been raised today, but we do not want to get into the whole area of partisanship. As one who represents a constituency in Northern Ireland, I believe that our membership of the EU should not be moulded by identity issues. That is the nature, I suppose, of Northern Ireland, but the debate about membership of the EU is very serious, complex and deserves to be given adequate space and time. Between now and 23 June does not provide that adequate time and it is vital that the Government appreciate the danger of that. No matter what anyone claims, Northern Ireland’s place in the EU is not an identity issue. It is not a nationalist or a Unionist issue and it should never be treated as such. The funding that came, and continues to come, from the EU, whether for agriculture or through the fisheries fund announced yesterday in Poole in Dorset for the next five years, is for all communities. All communities can derive benefit from that. The cross-border trade enabled by the EU is worth billions each year. It does not just bring jobs and growth to one community, but to all of Northern Ireland.
We need to address another particular issue as part of that: the south of Ireland remaining in the EU. The issue that needs to be considered is the one I put to the Prime Minister last week. How is the free movement of people within the island of Ireland going to be facilitated if the UK chooses Brexit? That issues needs to be discussed, so the referendum should not be held on 23 June.
It is a pleasure to speak in the debate. It is good for the Democratic Unionist party to propose a debate on an issue that concerns our constituents, whether in the Northern Ireland Assembly, where we are the party of leadership, or in the House, where we are the party of leadership when it comes to these issues.
It is concerning and, indeed, saddening, that the Prime Minister is happy for people in the devolved regions of the greater United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to be second-class citizens in this once-in-a-lifetime decision on the future of our country. Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish citizens of this great unitary state are set to be punished for having devolved Assemblies and making local decisions at a local level. That is how we feel, and that is how many of my constituents feel as well.
We will have just over half the time to campaign, consider and make this huge decision in the devolved regions. The proposed referendum date is a huge insult to voters in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, and if we cannot secure a reasonable accommodation—nothing stands in the way of doing so—that will rub salt into the wounds. My colleagues in the House and our Scottish countrymen will have just over half the time to campaign and make that major decision on the future of the United Kingdom than they had when they voted to maintain the Union. In the Scottish referendum they were given some 540 days. I am not saying that we should have 540 days for this referendum, but hon. Members can see the difference between those two referendums.
With the general election last year, local government elections the year before last, and now an Assembly election and the biggest referendum in a generation, the proposed referendum date risks not only a democratic deficit in campaigning but voter fatigue. Many Members have mentioned that, and we cannot ignore it. We are constantly pressing for better voter engagement and participation, and we are constantly working to improve voter turnout and engagement in the Province. If the Government continue to take the same approach to the EU referendum date, that will only hinder the positive work that has been done.
I think that we have had 14 elections in 14 years in Northern Ireland, so we are electioneered almost to the max. The British people, including the Scots, the Welsh and the Northern Irish, gave the Prime Minister time to renegotiate, and now he will give millions of British citizens just six weeks to consider something he took months to obtain and which, in reality, amounts to nothing at all. One of his MPs, who is not in the Chamber—the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg)—described it as “thin gruel”. It certainly is: there is nothing that has been negotiated so far that gives us any hope, but it stops us having the referendum at a time when all the citizens of Great Britain and Northern Ireland have democratic equality.
I have been contacted by many of my constituents, who are in a state of dismay, and I want to speak in the remaining couple of minutes about the fishermen and farmers across my constituency and Northern Ireland who will be disadvantaged. Fishermen and fisherwomen in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and parts of England, to a man and woman, will vote to leave the Union, because they are burdened with red tape, bureaucracy and restrictions on fishing. The hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Ms Ahmed-Sheikh) referred to the common fisheries policy, which should change, as we need regionalisation. We need responsibility back in our own hands. That is a huge issue for fishermen and fisherwomen, and it requires consideration, as it directly affects their livelihood. Normal, hard-working, everyday folk are the backbone of our nation, and they should be given the same democratic rights as farmers and fishermen in England. With Assembly elections around the corner, my hard-working constituents in that sector have enough on their plate.
Farmers are up to their eyes in paperwork, regulation, rules and laws. Quite simply, the fishermen and farmers want to know what is going on. We put £19 billion into the European Union, and I understand that the common agricultural policy costs £15 billion. That is the debate that we need to take to the farmers, so we can let them know what we are going to do for them and make sure that they understand.
The Prime Minister has signalled that he intends to visit Northern Ireland as part of his attempt to convince Eurosceptics that his “thin gruel” is palatable. It will never be palatable as it does not suit the energy or taste of anyone in Northern Ireland. The proposal completely disregards the democratic rights of citizens in our corner of the United Kingdom. There is no good reason or excuse for not having a referendum on a different date—even four weeks later, or whenever. We have not heard anything to convince us as citizens in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland that we will not be at a disadvantage in the referendum.
In conclusion, the Prime Minister and the Minister need to take these comments on board and listen to their fellow countrymen and women in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, give them the respect that they deserve, and make sure that the people there have the same ability to participate in the referendum as their counterparts in England.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) for the way he started the debate. He set out the DUP’s case while also speaking for other parties across the devolved Administrations.
As many have said, we all come to this debate with different views. I welcome the fact that the Government have afforded the UK people a referendum, although I differ from some in my reasons for wanting it. Some want to cement even more firmly the relationship between the UK and the EU, while others, such as myself, want to break down the walls of the prison in which we have been held for the last 40-odd years. In that time, we have been robbed of our money, our fishing grounds have been violated, our farmers have been destroyed and the EU Court of Justice has run over the rights of victims while upholding those of terrorists. We want a referendum for many reasons. At least we now have one.
The Minister said that the referendum would be an exercise in democracy. If so, as many have said, its terms must reflect the views of all those taking part. Despite coming from different angles, parties across the three devolved Administrations have united in saying that 23 June is not the appropriate date, for all the reasons given. The word “respect” has been used time and again. We need respect not just for the Administrations but for the millions of UK citizens they represent, who will want to engage in this exercise in democracy on a fair basis.
There is already a view that the debate has been contaminated and that this exercise is not being conducted in the most democratic way. The Prime Minister and other Ministers who support our membership are free to wander the country, go on the airwaves and express their views, while Cabinet Ministers who hold a contrary view are bound and gagged. That does not indicate a level playing field. Hardly have the scare stories passed the Prime Minister’s lips before they are dismissed by the very people he claims will do terrible things to the UK. We were told yesterday that we would have immigrant camps on our own shores. No sooner had he said that than the French Government dismissed it.
My hon. Friend is making a great contribution. Does he agree that the Government’s chief fear is that, were we to have another summer of the migrant crisis before the referendum, they could lose the vote?
Several Members have said that already. The Government have tried to perpetuate these scare stories, but they do not have enough to last them until September. The danger is that there are not scare stories, but scary facts and events in the pipeline that could influence the referendum. Again that might be one reason for the decision to have an earlier referendum. The Minister rightly said that no date had been set and that he was not in the job of giving clues. It was the first time I had heard anybody in the House admit to making a clueless speech. Those were his own words. He said he would not be giving any clues about when the referendum would be held.
In my defence, I think the word has a double meaning, and I meant the other one.
It does. I accept that. I was simply stating that the Minister had indicated he was going to make a clueless speech. The one thing I would say to him is that he has already ruled out certain dates, so ruling out one more day in the 670 days that remain before the last date on which the referendum could be held is not an unreasonable request, especially when there has been such unanimity among the devolved Administrations to do so. I hope that the Minister carries back the message that has come from the Chamber today.
Let me go through some of the arguments used by those who oppose the motion. The first is that using the term “rushed” is a bit over the top. I noted that the hon. Members for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew), for Macclesfield (David Rutley), for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) and for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) all queried the point about the referendum being rushed. Of course the debate about our membership of the EU has been going on for some time now, but the referendum is going to be on the Prime Minister’s promised reform, and we do not yet know the terms of what he has got. Those issues will have to be addressed along with all the wider issues affecting our membership of the EU.
It is not a question of our simply having talked about the issue for a long time. The same thing could be said about what happens between one election and another. All the issues pertaining to an election are discussed over a five-year period, but the election campaign is the time when people focus most on those issues. When we talk about the referendum being rushed, we are simply asking why we should compress the debate into a short period, especially when it has implications for the devolved Administrations.
I have not heard any Member answer the point put time and again by the right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond): how this will affect Administrations that are having elections. Governments will need to be formed after the elections, but instead of getting into the full role of forming a new Government, a new Administration and a new programme for government, we will be into another period of purdah for at least six weeks—after having one of at least four weeks beforehand. That is disruptive of government, and this important point has not been addressed by any Members participating in the debate.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is a need, an urgency and an obligation on the Government to provide a Minister to answer that particular issue about the disruption to democracy resulting from two periods of purdah?
Yes, and we have heard allegations that straw men are being put up to indicate, for example, that the electorate would be confused. However, my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North never claimed that. He simply made the point that conflating the election campaign with the referendum campaign was inappropriate where different nations and different issues apply. Indeed, parties will be competing with each other in the Assembly or devolved Parliament elections, but they might want to co-operate during the referendum campaign, so further confusion is introduced there, too.
Does the hon. Gentleman appreciate that a further aspect not touched on is the fact that there will be different electorates? Thousands of people entitled to vote in the Scottish Parliament elections will be barred from voting in the EU referendum. Does he agree that, in those circumstances, having both campaigns running in parallel would be completely unacceptable?
That is another important point that has not been raised before. It is one of a number of essential points that need to be considered.
Another argument I have heard is that people will get bored. When people are thinking about their long-term future and they vote, should their vote actually mean something or should they vote for people who come to this institution but then find that their views are overridden by bureaucrats in Brussels or by judges in the European Court? That, to me, is a fundamental issue. Given the impact that the European Union has had on the lives of so many people throughout the United Kingdom, I cannot imagine that they will be bored by the debate. I have addressed a few campaign meetings. I spoke at a Grassroots Out meeting not long ago, and the one thing I noticed about that audience was that they were not bored by politics in general, or by the politics of discussing the European Union. They were raring to go: they wanted to get into the campaign. I believe that this “boredom factor” is another straw man.
Anyone who took part in the Scottish referendum knows that this referendum will not be boring. I was involved in the 1975 referendum, and that was not boring. In fact, this referendum will generate a great deal of heat. I think that the real reason the Government are rushing it is the problem that they have with their right wing, which will try to sabotage it.
I think the hon. Gentleman is right. The campaign will not be boring, and nor will the issues, because they are so fundamental to people’s lives.
Another argument that has been advanced, notably by the hon. Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass), is that the longer the campaign goes on, the more destabilising it will be for the United Kingdom and its economy. That was the Labour party’s argument for not having a referendum in the first place. It did not apply then, and it does not apply now. It was significant that the hon. Lady could not even give any examples of investors fleeing the United Kingdom or withholding investment from the United Kingdom, or of jobs moving out of the United Kingdom, simply because of the prospect of a referendum on our membership of Europe.
This is an important issue, and one that should be given full consideration. It should not be squeezed as it has been. I have not even touched on the issue of designation, but the Minister indicated that even that might be squeezed, which would cause further suspicion in people’s minds. We need to have a positive debate. The right hon. Member for Gordon spoke of the benefits of membership, and of his wish to extol them to the people. I want an opportunity to extol to the people of Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom the great life that we can have outside the EU: the great life that we can have when the chains are off our arms and off our economy, when we can decide how we can spend our own money, decide who we let into our country and who we keep out, decide what laws we want and how they are applied, and decide how we trade with other parts of the world.
That is the positive debate that I want to have, and I want it to continue throughout June, July, August and September. It will not be boring, and it will give the people of the United Kingdom, including the people of Northern Ireland, an opportunity to make their decision on the basis of the facts, not on the basis of the scare stories, and not on the basis of a compressed campaign that the Government hope can take place quickly so that only their side of the argument is heard.
Let me begin by saying that following the frequent speeches and wise words of the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) is never boring.
We should not forget that we are having this debate partly because the Government have delivered a referendum on our membership of Europe. While for many of us that may be cause for celebration, whatever our views on Europe, we should perhaps reflect on the fact that one or two people may have helped to cause our victory at the last election, which enabled us to deliver the referendum, and which may have resulted not just from our great manifesto, but from the wise words of the Scottish National party, which, at the time, said “Vote SNP to keep the Tories out of Downing Street.”
Much of the debate has been interesting, and I congratulate the Democratic Unionist party and the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) on initiating it. It is important for us to hear people’s views on whether there should be a long or a short campaign, and whether it should be close to or far away from other elections in the United Kingdom. It is absolutely true that there is no date for the referendum, although some Members spoke as if they knew the date on which the Prime Minister had decided, and the basis on which we would consequently proceed.
Will the Minister give way?
I must get on, because I have only a few minutes in which to speak. I shall be dealing with what the right hon. Gentleman said earlier in any event.
It is important that we remember what this is really about. It is about trusting the people; it is about trusting the voters. No one in the Chamber has challenged the fact that members of the public will be able to distinguish between two elections. There is also the central allegation, coming predominantly from the Scottish National party, that we are not listening to the devolved institutions and that we do not trust or respect them. Let us remember that we have ruled out the dates of the Scottish Parliament and Northern Ireland and Welsh Assembly elections this year and in 2017. Not only that, we have respected the right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond)—
I am not going to give way to the right hon. Gentleman. He said on 12 January 2016 that it would not be right to hold the referendum unless it was at least six weeks after the date of the Scottish elections. He said that in Foreign Office questions, and we have absolutely listened to that point about the six-week period—[Interruption.] Of course it is not a big issue. Speaking from the Labour Front-Bench, the hon. Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass) said that it was correct—
Order. The Minister has said that he will not give way.
It is absolutely right, as the hon. Member for North West Durham said—
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The Minister is summing up from the Front Bench and he has made a direct reference to another Member. Is it not a matter of courtesy and respect in those circumstances to give way to that Member? Is not this typical of the lack of respect, not just to Members—
Order. That is not a point of order. It is a point of debate.
I could say that if the right hon. Member for Gordon had not made such a long speech, we might all have had more time to contribute to the debate and I might have had time to give way.
My hon. Friend the Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) made some true points about the views of the public—
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker.
This had better be a point of order.
It is. It is a matter of record that I conformed exactly to the Speaker’s advice during my speech. Would the Minister like to withdraw his no doubt inadvertent misleading of the House?
That is also not a point of order. This has been a good debate and people have had plenty of time to make their speeches, but the Minister has only one minute left. He has said that he will sit down at that point in order not to talk out the debate.
I think the right hon. Gentleman’s not wanting to listen demonstrates why he lost the referendum in Scotland.
The debate will now have to be curtailed, but the reality is that Members on both sides of the House want to trust the people. This Government have heard what has been said. No date has been picked, and no doubt all the contributions will weigh on the mind of the Prime Minister when he makes the decision on the date of the referendum. It is important that everyone engages in the debate on Europe in a positive way, whatever their view on it. I agree with some of the Members who spoke. It is important that people understand that the electorate are perfectly capable of distinguishing between elections for the Scottish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly and the EU referendum.
Finally, on the point about purdah, the law states clearly that the devolved institutions may continue to discuss their domestic agenda without purdah. They can launch their manifestos and make announcements about hospitals and schools, and that will not be affected. Only on the issue of European membership will purdah come into effect, so they can carry on and have the debate. They can implement their legislative programmes and at the same time have a healthy debate about Britain’s future in Europe.
9 February 2016
The House divided:
Question accordingly negatived.View Details
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Can you confirm for the House whether the Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland, for Scotland and for Wales voted in the Division and, if so, in which Lobby?
I am afraid I cannot do so at this short notice but, as the hon. Gentleman knows, it will be a matter of public record shortly when Hansard publishes the results of the Division.