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Volume 606: debated on Monday 29 February 2016

I beg to move,

That the draft European Union Referendum (Date of Referendum etc.) Regulations 2016, which were laid before this House on 22 February, be approved.

The statutory instrument before us does a simple, but critical job: it puts in place the necessary legislation to enable a referendum to be held on 23 June this year. It is the last piece of legislation that will be debated in this Chamber to make that vote possible. As such, it represents Parliament taking the final steps towards an historic moment when, for the first time in over 40 years, the British people will be given their say on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced a few days ago his intention to hold the referendum on 23 June, and the Government believe that that strikes an appropriate balance, giving plenty of time for a vigorous and comprehensive debate. Ultimately, however, the date is a matter for Parliament to decide, and as set out in the European Union Referendum Act 2015, it is a decision that must be approved both here and in the House of Lords.

I am fascinated by my right hon. Friend’s reference to vigorous and open debate, because it is quite clear from the preceding urgent question and from many other matters that have come to light recently that the one thing that everybody needs—information—is the one thing that people are going to find themselves deprived of. If the voters do not have balanced, impartial and accurate information, what are they supposed to do?

My advice to any elector would be to look at what the Government are saying and advising, but also at what the various campaign groups and other organisations in this country are saying. I will come later to the designation of campaign organisations. We need this statutory instrument to be approved, among other things, to make it possible for the Electoral Commission to go ahead and designate the campaign groups on each side of the argument, and give them access to the privileges that come with that status, precisely so that they can go out and present their case and make information and argument available to the people to whom my hon. Friend refers.

I am very happy to have an early referendum, but did the Government decide not to push back on the absolutely pathetic non-offer we were made because they did not think we were ever going to get anything worth having out of the EU?

On the contrary, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister secured a deal that has brought some significant reforms to the European Union. I would advise my right hon. Friend to look at the reaction in many European capitals, in the media across Europe, and in the European Parliament, which has very largely been one of considerable surprise at the degree to which the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom was able to secure reforms. In some cases, that commentary involved a fair measure of criticism of other Government leaders for conceding what was believed to be too much.

I will give way to the hon. Lady and then I must ask the House to allow me to make some progress.

I would be very happy to have a referendum as I have wanted one for years, but why did the Prime Minister ignore the views expressed in the letter from the leaders of the three Assemblies and Parliaments in the United Kingdom? Did that not show huge disrespect?

First, the letter was not ignored, and we certainly took account of the views of the devolved Administrations even though we decided in the end to disagree with their recommendation. I want to come to that point at a later stage in my remarks.

The date is just one element of the order, but clearly the most important, because the remaining elements largely flow from it. I will therefore explain the Government’s thinking on the date and then turn to the rest of the order. There must be enough time for a full, serious and considered debate that allows all the issues to have a full airing, and the campaigners must have enough time to put their case to the British people. On the other hand, although this may grieve some hon. Members, the campaign cannot continue indefinitely. The vote should be timely, while the issues are live and the details fresh—and we should also be wary of testing the public’s patience. Several prominent campaign groups are already active on both sides. Following the Prime Minister’s announcement on the outcome of the renegotiation, the debate on the referendum question will now begin in earnest and is already starting to gather real momentum.

The Government selected 23 June because we needed enough time for a proper airing of the issues, and we thought that any sooner would risk curtailing that debate, but to go any later would test the patience of the British people. School holidays in Scotland begin on 24 June, and from then people will be travelling and enjoying their summer. Later than 23 June would mean, in essence, waiting until after the summer holiday period had concluded in all parts of the United Kingdom and in Gibraltar. Frankly, I think that the British people would have found it very difficult to understand if we had asked them to wait seven or eight months after the conclusion of the renegotiation before they could have their say.

I have previously raised with my right hon. Friend the fact that a European Council meeting is also scheduled to take place on 23 June. What can we do to ensure that, if the leave campaign looks to be gaining momentum at a late stage, that will not be used to pretend that there are things on the meeting’s agenda to try to change people’s opinions, or that things will not be leaked in advance of that meeting to try to give people the impression that the Government have agreed a better deal than is actually the case?

I think my hon. Friend needs to study more carefully the words both of the document published at the end of the renegotiation and of a number of other European leaders. They could not have made it clearer, first, that they were not interested in a hypothetical further renegotiation in the event of a vote to leave, and secondly, that the very important safeguards that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister secured during the renegotiation would lapse automatically in the event of such a vote. That is written into the document itself.

In practical terms, holding the vote on 23 June means 18 weeks between announcing the deal and the vote, and a full 10 weeks’ regulated referendum campaign period, with six weeks for the designation of lead campaigners, thus meeting the Electoral Commission recommendations. We envisage that the designation process will be commenced on 4 March and that the Electoral Commission will have to designate the two umbrella campaign groups by 14 April at the latest. The Electoral Commission supports the Government’s approach to the timing of the referendum. Last week it published its assessment of readiness and said that it was content that the date

“does not pose a significant risk to a well-run referendum”.

It is true, as the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) has said, that there are still some concerns about the date, particularly among Members of the three devolved Administrations and right hon. and hon. Members in this place who represent those three parts of the United Kingdom. In particular, the right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond) expressed concern during Foreign Office questions about the possible interaction with the elections in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on 5 May, which is also the date for various local and mayoral elections in different parts of the United Kingdom.

I think that those fears are misplaced, not least because multiple elections are already being held on 5 May. I really do not understand why a referendum that will take place a full seven weeks after the date of the devolved parliamentary and Assembly elections should be regarded as disrespectful. By contrast, I would argue that we are treating voters with respect when we assume that they should be perfectly capable of distinguishing between two different campaigns that will be nearly two months apart.

The Minister has just confirmed that the official campaign will launch bang in the middle of the devolved Administrations’ campaigns. It is quite an achievement to get Sinn Féin, the Ulster Unionists, the Scottish National party, Plaid Cymru and the Labour party in Wales to agree on anything. Why is he not taking seriously the concerns expressed by all those parties?

For the reasons I have given, I think that to have left the referendum until autumn, which was the next window available had we ruled out 23 June, would have tested the patience of the British people for the duration of the campaign. The campaign has already got under way. What will start in the period described by the hon. Gentleman is the regulated campaign period, during which special rules on campaign expenditure apply.

Will the Minister take some reassurance from the fact that in the canvassing that I have been doing for Caroline Pidgeon, the Liberal Democrat London mayoral candidate, I have found that voters have no difficulty whatsoever in understanding that there will be elections for the London Mayor and the London Assembly, and that the European referendum will take place a few weeks later?

The right hon. Gentleman puts the case very well. Others have said that June is simply too soon, and I do not agree. Traditionally, in our history, a general election has been held with only six weeks’ notice. Only since the implementation of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011 under the coalition Government have we moved away from that practice. The referendum has had a much longer gestation period. The intention to hold a referendum before the end of 2017 was announced in the Prime Minister’s Bloomberg speech in January 2013, and it was reaffirmed at the general election last May, and again when the European Union Referendum Act received Royal Assent in December 2015. The intended date was announced four months in advance. The referendum has been a long time coming.

The Scottish independence referendum was held in September, and, if anything, the campaign benefited from the fact that people could campaign during the warm summer months with extended daylight hours. What advice does the Minister give to the devolved Administrations, who will no sooner have come out of a pre-election purdah period than they will have to go into a pre-referendum purdah period, just as they start implementing the manifestos they were elected on?

Of course, the purdah rules vary depending on the nature of the election concerned. The purdah rules for devolved elections limit what Government agencies can say and do in respect of devolved matters. We are talking about the question whether the United Kingdom should be in or out of the European Union, and that is, without any doubt whatsoever, a reserved competence in respect of all three devolution settlements.

The Minister is trying manfully but, dare I say it, completely unsuccessfully to explain what consideration the Government have given to the strong representations they have had from the elected Governments of 75% of the equal partners in this Union. I appreciate that he does not have time to do so now, but will he undertake to make sure that full details of the Government’s consideration of that letter are placed in the Library of the House as soon as possible after the debate?

We took account of that letter. We also took careful account of the specific request from the official foreign affairs spokesman of the Scottish National party, the right hon. Member for Gordon, during Foreign Office questions on 12 January for an assurance that the date of the referendum would be

“at least six weeks after the date of the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish elections”.—[Official Report, 12 January 2016; Vol. 604, c. 683.]

That request made by the right hon. Gentleman—I presume on behalf of his party, for which he was speaking at Foreign Office questions—has been met, and has been met in full.

The Electoral Commission has confirmed that it is content with the Government’s proposals and has said that, in its view, arrangements for a well-run referendum are now well advanced. The statutory instrument has been considered by both the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments and the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee. Both have considered the statutory instrument, and neither found any cause for concern.

I turn now to the other aspects of the regulations. They are very much in line with the framework set up by the European Union Referendum Act 2015, so I shall be brief. As well as setting the date, the regulations do three things. First, they set the start date for the designation process. That is the process by which the Electoral Commission appoints lead campaigners on one or both sides. We have followed the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 and allowed a full six weeks. That will give campaigners a four-week window to finalise and submit their applications, after which the Electoral Commission will have up to two weeks to decide which, if any, applicants to designate as the lead for each side. Let me be absolutely clear, to avoid misunderstanding. The regulations do not tell the Electoral Commission how to make its decision. That decision is entirely impartial, and the test the Electoral Commission must apply when making its decision is set out in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act, as modified by the European Union Referendum Act. All the regulations do is set the start of the process as 4 March, while the rest of the timetable, finishing on 14 April at the latest, was set by the 2000 Act.

Will the Minister give us some indication of whether the Electoral Commission’s designation process is open to challenge, and if so, of how that challenge would operate?

Any executive decision by any public authority might be at risk of judicial review, but criteria for the Electoral Commission are set out in PPERA and they will guide the commission in making its assessment. I am sure that the commission will want to explain its verdict when it is published. There would have to be a pretty overwhelming case for a judicial review application for it to succeed, but such an option is available.

The Electoral Commission’s initial guidance for campaigners on this issue was updated on 5 February, so potential applicants have had plenty of notice. The commission has also now published the application form online. I remind the House that the lead campaigners, once designated, will receive a number of benefits, including a higher spending limit of up to £7 million, a free delivery of mailings to every household or every elector and, assuming that campaigners are designated on both sides, access to a grant of up to £600,000 and access to a broadcast.

The second additional element in the regulations is the referendum period—namely, when full financial and campaigning controls apply and, in particular, when spending limits are imposed on campaigners. The referendum period, as set out in the regulations, is a full 10 weeks and will not overlap with the designation process. That was the approach recommended by the Electoral Commission. The referendum period will, under the regulations, start on 15 April.

The Minister may be coming on to this, but will he clarify very clearly and succinctly how this will affect Government spending? I do not mean the Government, but the Cabinet members who support staying in as opposed to those who do not. How will that work for them?

The limits on what the Government can do are set out in section 125 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. The hon. Lady will recall that that provision was the subject of significant debate when the European Union Referendum Bill was going through its stages in the House. The so-called purdah restrictions remain those set out in the 2000 Act. In addition, in requiring the Government to publish particular items of information, the European Union Referendum Act states that the Government must do so at least 10 weeks before the date of the referendum. Those are the restrictions that she asked me about.

Finally, the regulations set out the periods for reporting donations and loans received by registered campaigners, and set the deadline by which the reports must be submitted to the Electoral Commission. The purpose of those arrangements is to ensure that sources of campaign finance are visible and public before the poll, so ensuring that the campaign is transparent.

The decision before us is a simple one: when should the British people have their say? We believe that 23 June strikes the right balance: it gives time for a substantial campaign, without testing public patience. There is time for campaigners and political parties to make their cases, and for the British people to decide. I commend the regulations to the House.

We seem to have focused on process for so much of today that I hope this will be the last time we do so.

I want to check some of the details of the statutory instrument with the Minister. It sets the date of the referendum on whether the United Kingdom should remain a member of the European Union. It also prescribes the length of the referendum period, the start of the period for applications to become a designated organisation, and the periods for the reporting of donations or regulated transactions. If would be good if the Minister nodded.

The main purpose of the statutory instrument is to set 23 June 2016 as the date of the referendum, which will take place over the whole of the UK and in Gibraltar. It prescribes the referendum period, which will begin on 15 April 2016, and it prescribes 4 March 2016 as the start of the period in which applications can be made to become designated organisations in the referendum. I understand that that poses no problem for the organisations in the remain campaign, but those in the hopelessly splintered out campaign seem to be having a much greater problem. Now is the time for them to get their act together if they are to hit the deadline.

The statutory instrument also sets out periods for the reporting of donations or regulated transactions—for example, loans—by permitted participants who are not registered parties or are minor parties. It sets out the dates on or before which reports must be delivered to the Electoral Commission. Okay so far?

Labour has always said that as soon as the Government’s European negotiations are completed, they should get on with the referendum and end the uncertainty, which is bad for British jobs, growth, investment and working people.

The shadow Minister will be aware of the letter written by the First Minister of Wales in conjunction with the First Ministers of Scotland and Northern Ireland. Of course, the First Minister of Wales is a Labour party member. He said:

“We believe that holding a referendum as early as June will mean that a significant part of the referendum campaign will necessarily run in parallel with those elections and risks confusing issues at a moment when clarity is required.”

Will the shadow Minister support his position tonight in the Lobby when there is a vote on this issue? If the Labour party here abstains or votes with the Government, does it not show that we cannot take a word the First Minister says seriously?

I will come on to those issues.

Labour agreed with the Electoral Commission that the referendum date should be separate from that when other polls are taking place, and succeeded in pressuring the Government to amend the European Union Referendum Bill to stop the referendum being held on 5 May 2016 so that it did not clash with the other elections on that day. However, we do not agree with the SNP and others that it is in some way disrespectful to hold the referendum on 23 June.

Just a second.

We believe that the people of the UK are perfectly capable of making an important decision in early May and another important decision in late June, seven weeks later. It is patronising to suggest otherwise.

This country is safer, stronger and more prosperous in Europe and Labour is campaigning to stay in. Our membership of the EU brings jobs, growth and investment. It protects British workers and consumers, and helps to keep us safe.

Will the hon. Lady confirm what the shadow Foreign Secretary said the other day, which is that it is the position of the Labour party that if Scotland votes to stay in the European Union and the rest of the UK votes to leave, Labour is quite happy for Scotland to be dragged out of the EU against its will?

The position of the Labour party is that it is for the people of the UK to make a decision on this, because the people of Scotland had a referendum and chose to stay as part of the UK.

Does my hon. Friend agree that if we put the date of the referendum back beyond 23 June, it would slip beyond the summer and into the autumn, because many people in Scotland go on holiday earlier than those in the rest of the UK and we will be on our holidays in August? That would prolong the period of uncertainty and all the risks to business investment that go with it.

I agree entirely. Uncertainty is bad for British jobs and the British economy, and we believe that the longer this goes on, the more damage will be done to our economy and our jobs.

What does the hon. Lady think that EU state aid rules, energy prices, energy intervention and procurement rules have done to our steel jobs? What has the common fisheries policy done to our fishing jobs?

People will have to make a decision on those issues, but they are not related to this statutory instrument. We accept that this great country would be able to make its way in the world outside the EU, but leaving would cost us dearly in all kinds of ways including jobs, our competitiveness in business, and the safety of our citizens from terrorism, crime, climate change and war. At a time of Russian expansionism and international terrorism from groups such as ISIS-Daesh, we do not believe that it is right to risk our safety and security as a nation. We want the UK to lead, not leave, Europe. We are the second biggest economy in the EU, and many of our partners such as Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands and others want to work with us further to reform the EU, and they are looking to the UK to lead on that. Leaving the EU risks future peace in Europe, and Britain’s influence in the world.

In government, Labour passed the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 and we supported the passage of the European Union Referendum Act 2015. We support this statutory instrument, and we will leave it to others to moan about the date of the referendum. We are getting on and putting our energy into winning the referendum and keeping Britain leading in Europe.

The date is obviously a crucial moment in the development of this referendum, but I have reservations about 23 June. I have not yet decided, and I want to hear what the Scottish National party has to say about this issue, because that will be interesting and may have some impact on the way I vote. I am interested in the democratic side of this issue.

On 3 February, in my response to the Prime Minister’s statement on the UK-EU renegotiation, I said that this is all about voters’ trust, and I went on to give examples of why I thought that promises and principles had been broken. Above all else, I asked whether this will be a political stitch-up by the European Council because the agreement—such as it is—and any other subsequent legal arrangements must be both legally binding and irreversible.

Information was contained in the White Paper published a few days ago, and I have had quite an interesting weekend, given the remarks that were made about me—I need not elaborate on that, and I assure you, Mr Speaker, that it caused me no concern whatsoever. Whether this agreement will be irreversible is a question of trust, and today we had an extremely important urgent question on information. I put a question to the Minister, and tomorrow my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) will interview the Cabinet Secretary on this matter. The real question is about voter trust. On 23 June, will people have enough proper information, based on a fair arrangement between those on both sides of the debate? The Government first insisted on the purdah arrangements that they wanted to use for the whole of the civil service machinery. We drove them off on that, but then they brought in, through the House of Lords, a legal duty to provide such information —if I may say so, they pretended that that had come from other people in the House of Lords, but it was clearly at least half sponsored by the Government.

When we got to ping-pong, I waited until the last minute before it ended, and I got up and asked the Minister—he knows what is coming—whether he would give me a straight answer, yes or no, about whether the information that is due to be published would be both accurate and impartial. He said, “Of course.” He added that it would be perverse if the Government were to do otherwise.

Well, Mr Speaker, I have to say that I am intrigued. On 23 June, the people may not have impartial and accurate information. I believe the Government are probably, if not certainly, in breach of their duty under sections 6 and 7 of the European Referendum Act 2015. Furthermore, despite what the Minister had to say on this today, the words “the opinion of” in this context will not, I believe, be a sufficient safeguard from the potential concerns that they know must already be in some people’s minds that this is not fair and may well not be legal. This is a very, very important matter.

I am confused. When the Paymaster General answered the question I put to him, he said that the Cabinet Secretary is not neutral. That I accept, when the Cabinet Secretary is working for the Government. In this matter, however, the Cabinet Secretary may well be working for the people, because it is the people who are going to decide this matter. In my view, it is therefore proper that the Cabinet Secretary, or someone of his ilk, should draft or head up a paper that puts the facts for both sides of the argument, so that the people who are going to make the decision—this is the people’s decision—can make a decision that is based on objective facts.

The sentiments my hon. Friend expresses are very relevant to the question of voter trust. In the debate on 25 February, and when the Foreign Secretary gave evidence to the European Scrutiny Committee, which has considered these matters in great depth, I said that the Government are effectively—in fact, I will go further and say definitely—cheating the voters. This cannot be said to be legally binding and irreversible. In the debate on 25 February, I pointed out that the Council conclusions—I ask that hon. Members look at the Council conclusions—refer to the words “legally binding” and there is a common accord with respect to the international law agreement. What they cannot do is say that it would be irreversible. Furthermore, although Mr Tusk, the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have been saying “irreversible”, they cannot prove that that is the case. I will explain why in one second.

On 23 June, a most momentous and historic decision will be taken by all the people in the United Kingdom who can vote. They have a right to know whether the question they are going to be asked, on whether to remain or to leave, can be answered. It is the basis of my proposition that it is impossible for them to know whether it is going to be irreversible for a simple reason. Under the international agreement where the European Court may or may not take into account the question that has been posed by the White Paper, certainly there is no guarantee of a treaty change and certainly there is no guarantee that the mechanics of the international law decision will produce a definite result that the European Court can decide on. Nobody can say that the European Court will or will not accept any treaty change. As a matter of fact, with respect to the question of referendums, there is no guarantee that there will not be referendums.

There are currently at least four Governments of the 28 in the EU, in the great stitch-up in the political decision-making process I referred to, who barely have control over their government at all. There are massive problems in Portugal and Spain, and now in Ireland as well, and there are massive problems in Greece. There is absolutely no reason why anybody should guarantee either that there will be treaty change or that it will be irreversible.

I happened to take part in the referendums that produced “no” votes in other countries, including France and Denmark. To say as a matter of absolute certainty in this disgraceful White Paper that it is irreversible when it is impossible as a matter of fact, let alone of law, for anyone to say that they know what the European Court will do or indeed that there will not be a referendum and what the outcome of that would be, is simply unacceptable.

Is it not also the case that if we read the language of this political agreement after rather difficult negotiations and if we take the example of something crucial such as the protection of our interests against the wishes of the euro, that language says that we can be overridden in certain circumstances, so we will have gained absolutely nothing?

Absolutely nothing at all. I think that the British people, who are a great people, are waking up to this. As I said in last Thursday’s debate, Churchill said that we should tell the truth to the British people and they will follow, but they are not being told the truth—that is the real truth, and nothing but the truth.

A comprehensive poll was published in the Evening Standard on Friday on the question of whether the voters trust the outcome of this negotiation. The result is simple to describe: 53% said that they did not trust it at all; only 22% said that they did; as for the balance, the pollsters said that half of those who were undecided tended not to trust it. I know that a poll is a poll, but I also say that on the question of trust, the outcome is either to be trusted or not to be trusted. This whole negotiated package, whether it be looked at from a political or a legal point of view, is not to be trusted.

I say that to the House of Commons because this is where the real issues have to be resolved, but we have quite rightly handed this over to the voters—and they do not trust it. I do not think that anything they will have heard today from the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General, or anything they will hear tomorrow from the Cabinet Secretary, or indeed any of the matters discussed in relation to the component parts of this package, either in aggregate or individually, will provide any reason for anybody to trust this deal.

The question before us today about the date of 23 June must be weighed against the background of whether that date is appropriate. I want to listen to what SNP Members say, as I have a great interest in that. They are elected to stand up for their own views and for their own part of the United Kingdom. I may disagree with what they say, but I saw what happened with the Scottish referendum, particularly regarding the date and the length of time allowed for debate. We will hear from SNP Members how they were stitched up by the BBC and all the rest of it. What I am saying is that this entire question of the date is dependent on the extent to which proper information is given to the voter. As I said in the urgent question earlier, the crucial issue is what reliance the voters can have on the fact that the information they are being given is transparent and honest, and additionally impartial and accurate, which is what the Minister for Europe told me on the Floor of the House it would be.

I rise with some trepidation in recognition that my hon. Friend is an expert in this field. I do not think he will agree with me, but this is my take. For most people, this will be a vote on the principle of whether to remain or to leave rather than on the minutiae of the detail of the renegotiation. That was always going to be case, in my view, irrespective of when the referendum is held. Given that he has argued so cogently for so long that a referendum should be held on this issue, I am inclined to agree with our Front-Bench team that it should be held as quickly as possible and that a date after the Scottish and Welsh elections seems to be the right time. Otherwise, it falls to the autumn.

What I would say in reply is very simple. If my hon. Friend were good enough to read the speech and the remarks made by my good right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary on the question of the whole package, he would realise that our right hon. Friend says that we do not want to look at anything other than the whole package. That is what he says; my hon. Friend should read it for himself. It is very strange that we are going to such lengths, with the Prime Minister roaming around the country making all these speeches, with the putting out of all this information, with all this business about the civil service and the guidance, and with all the rest of matters that I have referred to. Why is so much emphasis being placed on this? Why are the airwaves being dominated on such a scale and why is so much paper being used?

This reminds me of what I said to the late Baroness Thatcher when I was invited to lunch in Downing Street. When I went into the room, most of the Cabinet were sitting around the table. She said, “Bill, you sit next to me.” Then she turned to Geoffrey Howe and said, “I’ve brought Bill in to talk about Europe.” Then she turned to me and said, “What do you feel about Europe, Bill?” I said, while looking at Geoffrey Howe, “Prime Minister, I think your task is more difficult than Churchill’s.” She said, “You will have to explain this, won’t you?” I said, “Prime Minister, Churchill’s task was more difficult than yours for this reason. You are in greater difficulty than he because he was faced with bombs and aircraft, but you are faced with pieces of paper.” It is those pieces of paper that I am worried about, and I think the voters should be as well.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash), and I will address some of the points he raised.

Let me first make it clear—it seems appropriate to do so in this place—that the Scottish National party position has not changed. Our position remains consistent in that we are still against the 23 June referendum date. I say to the hon. Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass) that our position has remained unchanged despite what the Conservatives have said on this issue.

My first point is about the important issue of respect. The hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) mentioned the Labour First Minister of Wales, who wrote a letter along with the First Ministers of Scotland and Northern Ireland. The right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) and his colleagues also raised the issue of the date. The point was that this campaign period will overlap with the May election campaign, and this was raised not only by the three First Ministers, but by Jenny Watson, the chair of the Electoral Commission, who said:

“Referendum campaign periods overlap with May election campaign periods if the referendum period is held on any date in June”.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond) also made this point very clear. If the Minister would like to speak to whoever takes the Prime Minister’s mail, he will find out about a letter of correction from my right hon. Friend who was misrepresented by the Minister for Europe and by a number of the Minister’s colleagues. Many of them signed my early-day motion 1042. It was signed by Members of all parties, including Conservative Members, given the respect agenda on this issue. There is a respect agenda—there is the idea that democracy does not begin and end in this place. We have incredibly important elections coming up in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and English local authorities, which is a point that we have made consistently. It is one of the reasons why we will vote against the motion today.

Before I discuss some of the other issues associated with the date, let me deal with some of the practical questions. Will the Minister tell us what significant changes have been made in the statutory instrument as a result of his consultations with the devolved Administrations, and will he make his correspondence available in the House of Commons Library? That is a very simple question, which was asked earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant). Perhaps the Minister will make a note of it.

We see problems throughout this instrument. It states that the referendum period begins on 15 April 2016, three weeks before the devolved elections. It also states that the first reporting period ends on 21 April 2016, and the report is supposed to be sent to the Electoral Commission on 28 April, one week before those crucial devolved elections. When the Minister answers our question about what practical changes have been made in the SI as a result of his correspondence, will he also tell us what impact the purdah rules will have on any programme for government that might need to be agreed? Under the Scotland Act, it could be up to 28 days before the appointment of a new First Minister is agreed to, and I think that broadly similar arrangements apply to First Ministers in Wales and Northern Ireland. The referendum campaign eats into that period quite significantly.

I refer the Minister to paragraph 7.11 of the explanatory memorandum, which states:

“It is for the Devolved Administrations to consider any restrictions on their own referendum-related activity”.

Given that the Minister wrote that, can he tell us what correspondence he has had with the devolved Administrations about it, about the formation of new Governments, and about what impact this could have on the publication of a programme for government? As was pointed out by my hon. Friends the Members for Glenrothes and for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), there are European Union issues that will have a significant impact on that programme, including agriculture and fisheries. Let us not forget that it was the United Kingdom Government who described our fishing industry as expendable, not the European Union. What will happen to those and other issues that are affected by European Union legislation?

As a veteran of the Scotland Acts, all the way back to when Mr Dewar was Secretary of State at—I believe—the beginning of 1979, may I ask whether the hon. Gentleman recalls the reserve powers? Would they not be an issue?

As usual, the hon. Gentleman has made a very good point. European Union legislation has a significant impact on significant powers that sit with the Scottish Parliament, and the same applies to Northern Ireland and Wales. I have mentioned some already, but energy is another example. On renewables, for instance, the Scottish Government are much more in line with our European partners than with the United Kingdom Government.

Let me now address issues that the hon. Member for Stone raised in what was—again, as usual—a very informed speech. I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon has come into the Chamber, because this is a good time to remind the House that he called the independence referendum 545 days before the day on which it took place. I shall give the Minister some leeway by saying that SNP Members are not seeking quite that number of days. However, we need to have the courage of our convictions, and have a proper debate.

The hon. Gentleman and I will not agree on this particular referendum. Indeed, I am not sure that we will agree on many referendums that may be held during my time in the House. One thing on which we will agree, however, is that a proper debate takes a great deal longer than the seven weeks that we have been given, and we want a proper debate that goes to the heart of this issue. As someone who wants Scotland, and the rest of the United Kingdom, to remain part of the European Union, I believe that our case stands up to scrutiny, and that the Conservatives should have the courage of their convictions and subject it to appropriate scrutiny.

Whether or not we agree on the immigration issue, does the hon. Gentleman agree with what I said on 3 February? As everyone knows from the recent figures, the question of immigration—which is actually about numbers and the effect on social services, including those in Scotland—has now been whittled down to a narrow argument about in-work benefits, on which the Government want to go on harping so that they can distract attention from the really big question, which is “Who governs this country, and are we going to be in the second tier of a two-tier German Europe?”

The hon. Gentleman was clearly listening to Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland, when she raised that very point about in-work migrant benefits this morning. I believe that people who are going to live and work in a country, and contribute, have every right to the same benefits, just as 2 million United Kingdom citizens, including 1 million in Spain, benefit from being part of the European Union.

Nicola Sturgeon made what I thought was a very valid point. When we were “whittling down” the debate, as the hon. Gentleman put it, to a discussion of the rather minor issue of in-work migrant benefits at the European Council, time was taken from a discussion of the refugee crisis, in regard to which, incidentally, Ireland was giving way on its opt-out. The hon. Gentleman will not agree with me about this, but I think that that had a great deal more to do with the Minister trying—unsuccessfully, as I can see—to keep his Back Benchers happy than with anything to do with the broader debate on our membership of the European Union.

I am listening carefully to what the hon. Gentleman is saying. I am intrigued to know when the SNP and the other parties would like the referendum to be held. I assume that it will not be in 543 days.

As a number of us have said, mid-September is often a good time for a referendum. It gives us the summer days to campaign and engage, and the longer nights to chap on people’s doors. It is to be hoped that people will also form their own groups in an organic way. Mid-September is probably a good time, but we would certainly not opt for 23 June.

Let us give this a little bit of time. I urge all Members to listen to the social democratic case—as someone described it earlier—that was put by the First Minister this morning not so far from here, at St John’s Smith Square. Let us look at what membership of the European Union does. The United Kingdom could stand on its own two feet and be successful as an independent member state outside the European Union. We absolutely reject the “Project Fear” scare tactics: they do nothing for the case for staying in, and nothing for the case for going out. I hope that we will all bear in mind the 20-point lead that the no campaign squandered in Scotland, not just because of the positive case that we put, but also, to an extent, because of the fear tactics that those campaigners used. I hope that the Conservatives will learn the lessons of that referendum.

I am sorry; I am not a Minister yet.

I know that the hon. Gentleman and I are on different sides, but I agree with him that this should be a positive campaign. May I return him to the issue of what I consider to be the hugely important letter that was signed by the First Ministers of the three home countries, all of whom had different views on the European Union? Does it not shame the Government that they showed so little respect—for respect is the word—by simply throwing that letter away and implying that it meant absolutely nothing?

The hon. Lady and I will find ourselves on different sides, by way of a respectful debate. She has made a very valid point. The issue was raised by three First Ministers, including the Labour First Minister of Wales, and was agreed on by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, who, as we all know, do not necessarily agree on everything, but managed to come together on this particular issue.

The hon. Gentleman is making a very intelligent speech. He mentioned “Project Fear”. Did he happen to catch “Newsnight” on Friday, when there was an analysis of “Project Fear”? John McTernan, a Labour strategist in Scotland, said that it was all about ramping up the risk. That is exactly the sort of campaign that we do not want to risk. I am afraid that a campaign based on that premise will fail.

I hope that, given his track record, Mr McTernan will not be on our side during the European referendum campaign, because otherwise we could be in serious difficulties.

The hon. Gentleman has made a good point about “Project Fear”. Let us hear a positive case about the economic and social benefits, and about the benefits of an arrangement whereby independent member states agree on a common set of rules. I hope that the Minister will give us a few more pointers. I have already set him a few questions. Here is another: will there be a special recess, or, if the Minister thinks that he will lose—we would not advocate this—will the Government abandon Prime Minister’s Question Time at the last minute in order to rush off and campaign?

In relation to “Project Fear”, which is very real, does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government should listen to Mervyn King, the former Governor of the Bank of England, who said that it was the euro and Europe that were causing massive unemployment and making Europe so dysfunctional? In fact, the dangers to the UK and to Scotland are also dangers to Europe as a whole. We have only to look at the way in which the Germans treated the Greeks, not to mention opening the doors to immigration, causing dislocation and more barbed wire in Europe today then there was even during the cold war.

When we talk about “Project Fear”, we have to acknowledge that it is taking place on both sides of the debate. There has been a positive debate on the environmental benefits of membership; when Germany was experiencing acid rain as a result of UK industry, for example, we had to formulate a common set of rules. Let us also think about the benefits to the economy when people go on holiday. Also, the benefits to Scotland’s small and medium-sized enterprises of exporting to Europe are worth £2,000 to every man, woman and child in Scotland.

I say to the hon. Member for Stone that I want to have a positive debate, including with him, and I am sure that we will do so over the next little while. Let us not mistake the faults of the European Union for the faults of the member states. This is a mistake that we know only too well in Scotland. Let us have a positive debate, but let us have an honest debate as well.

I welcome a fairly early date for the referendum. I do not know about you, Mr Speaker, but there is only so much that I can take of all the stories of the pestilence, famine and plague that are going to be visited upon us by the very European Union countries that the Government say we love and work well with. The Government have this strange vision that those countries would suddenly change and become extremely unpleasant were we to want a relationship based on friendship and trade rather than on the current treaties. I personally think that 16 weeks would be quite enough to do the job that I would love the Government to do, which is to win it for the leave campaign by using this highly inappropriate tone and by constantly slanging off our European partners by telling us just how unpleasant they would be. I would have thought that a Government wishing to encourage us to stay in the European Union would want to be rather more obliging about our European partners and to paint a picture of how things might be better were we to stay in, rather than concentrating only on ascribing false futures to the leave campaign.

I am interjecting in this debate because I am worried that 16 weeks might not be long enough for the Government to carry out all the tasks necessary to fulfil the requirements of the legislation. In particular, I have been moved to that view by listening to my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash), who is often absolutely right about these points and their salience. The Government have an important duty to provide impartial information to the public as part of the task of preparing them for the referendum. Having seen their work so far, I am afraid to say that it fails by all standards. It is not impartial, it is not well researched and it is often exceedingly misleading. I am using parliamentary language, Mr Speaker; I might use richer language were I not inside the House. It seems to me that the Government are going to need a lot more time to work with their ever-willing officials to come up with balanced, mature and sensible information about what the future might look like under either scenario.

One thing that the Government have clearly had no time to prepare so far—this is a particularly worrying lacuna—is information on what the future might look like if we stay in. We have had no response from the Government on how they would respond to “The Five Presidents’ Report: Completing Europe’s Economic and Monetary Union” or on how they would handle demands for capital markets union, banking union, full economic and monetary union and political union. Would such a situation immediately trigger a requirement for us to veto the next treaty, would we seek a comprehensive opt-out from it, or would the Government want to work with their partners and agree to some modest treaty changes that would affect the United Kingdom, in the spirit of “The Five Presidents’ Report”? Any such changes would be triggered after about 2017, so probably within this Parliament. Could we then look forward to a second referendum if we stayed in the European Union? Under the European Union Referendum Act 2015, there would need to be a referendum on any treaty changes made as a consequence of “The Five Presidents’ Report” and the clear desire of our partners to go along the route to political union.

Has my right hon. Friend had the opportunity to see not only the White Paper that was produced a few days ago but the latest jewel in the crown from the Government, which is entitled “The process for withdrawing from the European Union”? It contains page after page of tendentious remarks, assertions and assumptions that cannot be substantiated. I can see the Minister for Europe wriggling around a bit on the Front Bench, because the bottom line is that he will not be able to answer these questions, but they will be tested before 23 June.

That is why, in my amiable way, I was suggesting that the Government might like to rethink their position on the timing of the referendum. Having seen that piece of work, I agree with my hon. Friend. I was frankly ashamed that such a document could come from the United Kingdom Government. It bore no relation to what the leave campaigns are saying about how we would like the Government to handle the British people’s decision if they decided to leave. It did not give any credence to the idea that we would be negotiating with friends and allies who would have as much interest in a successful British exit as we would, should that be the will of the British people.

Ministers never seem to understand that the rest of Europe has far more exports to us at risk than we have to the rest of the European Union, because we are in massive deficit with those countries. I have had personal assurances from representatives of the German Government, for example, that they have no wish to see tariffs or barriers being placed in the way of their extremely profitable and successful trade with the United Kingdom. To issue a document implying that all sorts of obstacles would be put in the way of such trade over a 10-year period simply beggars belief.

May I give my right hon. Friend an example? These documents contain scarcely any serious objective analysis from bodies such as the Office for National Statistics or the House of Commons Library, and their arguments are tendentious. I am sure he will remember, because this is at the forefront of his mind, that in current account transactions relating to imports, exports, goods and services, we run a deficit with the other 27 member states of about £58 billion a year, and that Germany runs a surplus in those same goods, services, imports and exports. If that is a single market, I’m a Dutchman.

I am sure that my hon. Friend is many fine things, but a Dutchman is clearly not one of them. He has, however, revealed an important fact, and it is the kind of fact that we would expect to see in a balanced document setting out the position on trade. I hope that the Minister will leave enough time in his urgent timetable to ensure that those sorts of important facts—

With references and proper statistical bases. Those important facts should be put before the British people. Indeed, the Minister would be wise to do that from his own point of view—perhaps I should not help him as much as I am apparently trying to do. The Government have been rumbled on this. The press and a lot of the public are saying that they want factual, mature and sensible information setting out the risks of staying in, the risks of leaving and what it would look like in either case, but that is not what we are getting.

We have had another example in the past few days. We have been witnessing a long-term decline of the pound against the dollar for many months, because we are living through a period of dollar strength. In the past few days, when Brexit was in the news, we were told that the pound was going down because of fears about Brexit, whereas that was clearly not the case on other days when the pound had been going down. However, on those same days, the Government bond market had been going up. The prices of bonds had been rising and our creditworthiness was assessed as being better, but I did not hear the Government saying that the idea of Brexit was raising Britain’s credit standing. We could make that case just as easily as we could make the case that the fear of Brexit was leading to a fall in the pound.

That is the kind of tendentious information that I hope the Minister will reconsider if he wishes to keep up the normally high standards of Government documentation and use impartial civil service advice in the right tradition, which we in the House of Commons would like to see. I can see that a few colleagues are not entirely persuaded that those high standards are always met, but I shall give the Government the benefit of the doubt. I have certainly seen many Government documents that achieve higher standards than the ones on this matter.

I again urge the Minister to make sure that he leaves enough time in the action-packed timetable to produce high-quality, balanced information that includes the risks of staying in and the wild ride to political union that others have in mind, as well as what he sees as the risks of leaving. For instance, the Government should point out that if we stop paying the £10 billion of net contributions—money we do not get back—that will immediately improve the balance of payments by one fifth next year. Would that not be a marvellous advantage? I do not see it being pointed out in any of the current material in order to show some kind of balance.

My right hon. Friend is making a hugely powerful argument. The answer is quite simple: the Government do not want the facts in there—they do not want the British public to know. The British public will come to that conclusion, and it is not a good conclusion if we are to have a balanced debate on the referendum.

I fear that is right, but I also fear I am beginning to give the Government too much help. Obviously, I would like them to lose on this occasion, because I think we will be much better off if that happens. I will therefore vote with the Government, because 16 weeks is quite enough of “Project Fear” and of people misrepresenting a whole lot of things that are going on by saying, “These are the results of the fears of Brexit.” That will do the job I would like the Government to do and help the case I am trying to make, but the Government have a long way to go in the interests of good government and in meeting the legal requirements that they have placed on themselves to provide impartial information. I just trust that in the next few weeks they can lift their game.

The Liberal Democrats will support this statutory instrument, which, as the Minister says, puts in place legislation for the referendum on 23 June. He will know that the coalition legislated so that any treaty change would trigger a referendum, but, as we know, his party won the election on the basis of a manifesto commitment to offer a referendum independent of any treaty change, and so we are where we are now.

Is the right hon. Gentleman thinking that the European Union Act 2011, which many of us opposed for all sorts of reasons, should be severely amended and/or repealed with regard to treaty change?

We have a referendum ahead of us, and I suggest we get on with that before looking at whether to make any changes to that Act.

The Liberal Democrats support the referendum on 23 June. I have been in this House for some time now—longer than some Members but not as long as others—and it seems to me that, in this House and beyond, we have had a very full debate in recent general elections about the EU and whether we should or should not be members of it. As I said in an earlier intervention on the Minister, there is certainly no confusion in the minds of the electors in my constituency between the mayoral and Assembly elections taking place in May, and the EU referendum that will take place, presumably on 23 June. Clearly, it is more difficult for the political parties and the campaigners if one election follows on so relatively quickly after another.

I take the point the right hon. Gentleman is making, but is he aware that Kirsty Williams, the leader of the Liberal Democrats in Wales, has written a letter to the UK Government saying that the vote should be moved from 23 June?

I am aware of that, and I suppose one consequence of devolution is that people in different places adopt different positions. Like many others, I am suspicious of the motives behind the Scottish National party’s position: is it about the need to delay the referendum for the reasons it sets out, or is it about increasing the chances that the UK might vote to come out of the EU, in order to facilitate the SNP’s campaign to hold a second referendum? In relation to splits within parties, there appears to be one within the SNP, as the First Minister of Scotland is clear that this should be a positive campaign, but what we have heard here today from SNP Members has been all about the procedure and not at all about the positive nature of what the EU campaign should be.

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that, like the Labour party, the Liberal Democrats’ position is that if Scotland votes to stay in the EU and the rest of the UK votes to leave, they are happy to see Scotland forced to leave the EU against its will?

The Liberal Democrat position is that those who want to stay in the EU should be united behind the campaign and should start campaigning positively. That includes not only the SNP but the leader of the Labour party, who perhaps needs to spend some time with the leader of the Labour campaign and draw on some of his enthusiasm so that he can put his back into ensuring that we win on 23 June.

On suspicious intentions, may I remind the right hon. Gentleman that he campaigned with the Conservative party and the Labour party in Scotland, telling the people of Scotland that if they voted no in the Scottish referendum, they would be guaranteed to remain in the EU? What is his position on that point today?

I am confident that if we have a united front from the SNP campaigning positively on the matter, from the Labour party and from the Prime Minister—I am pleased to say that he has, after I requested it, come out forcefully behind the campaign in support of staying in—we will collectively win the campaign. I look forward to doing that.

As I said, we need to get on with the campaign, which is actually about the peace, prosperity, opportunity and security that we derive from being a member of the EU; it is not about “Project Fear” at all. The Conservative party, or those on the Benches immediately in front of me, may refer frequently to “Project Fear”, but I must say that quite a degree of whitewash or “Project Status Quo” is coming from those on the Government Benches.

I am so glad that the right hon. Gentleman has referred to “Project Status Quo”, because I am sure he will accept that almost nothing has changed, for example, on ever closer union, or in any word of any treaty or law in relation to the EU. Would he therefore be good enough simply to say that he agrees with us that proper, impartial information should be published, and that the current documents simply do not cut the mustard?

What I will agree with the hon. Gentleman on is the fact that there is a “Project Status Quo”, but I think he has misunderstood the point I was making, which was that there are people on his side of the argument who would like us to come out of the EU and who claim repeatedly that the basis on which we would be able to trade with the EU would be unchanged. They say, “There is no change. It will be exactly the same. We will get exactly the same terms whether we are in or out.” That is why I referred to “Project Status Quo”.

I have made the point many times, as have other hon. Members, that we have a gigantic trade deficit with the rest of the EU, and with Germany in particular. Germany is therefore not going to play games with us on trade, because it will only shoot itself in the foot by doing so.

I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman can read forward two, three, four, five, six or seven years to what the arrangement between the UK and the EU would be if the UK were to leave. I cannot do that, but clearly he is clairvoyant.

One serious question I wish to put to the Minister is whether he is confident that the Electoral Commission and the police will have the resources and the tools they need to ensure that the rules on expenditure will be observed in the campaign. He will be aware of a recent exchange in which the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker)—I warned him I was going to raise this point in the debate—said in an email:

“It is open to the Vote Leave family to create separate legal entities each of which could spend £700k: Vote Leave will be able to spend as much money as is necessary to win the referendum.”

I hope that the Minister will provide some clarification on that. My memory of being a Minister and being involved with the rules of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 is that it is very clear that if organisations are working in concert—the Vote Leave family suggests that that is exactly what would happen—the total limit would be £700,000, and that to seek to go beyond that by some artificial creation of a number of identities would be a breach of the law. However the campaign is conducted, we need to know that all sides will treat it in a way that observes the law.

May I start by referring Members, particularly the last speaker, to the comments made by the First Minister this morning? She made it perfectly clear that it is not her preferred outcome that Scotland should leave the Union simply to prevent ourselves from being dragged out of the European Union. She said that she wants the United Kingdom to deliver a resounding yes vote to the European Union. I cannot see that happening if the UK-based yes campaign continues to behave in this way.

This afternoon, we have seen the reality behind the Government’s respect rhetoric. Despite the promises that we have been given time and again, and as recently as a few weeks ago in this Chamber, the views of the elected Governments of three of the four equal partners in this Union are being ignored and trampled underfoot by the fourth partner. That comes as no surprise to us in Scotland, because the Government made it perfectly clear that, regardless of what the sovereign people of Scotland say about our membership of the European Union, others can overturn that simply by sheer weight of numbers.

One very interesting confession today is that the Labour party shares the Conservative party’s contempt for the sovereign will of the Scottish people. If the Labour branch office leader in Scotland had not conceded defeat in the Holyrood elections last week, I strongly suspect that she would have done so very quickly had she heard the comments of the hon. Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass) just a few moments ago.

The elected national leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have all said that the democratic processes in their three countries are likely to be flawed if this statutory instrument is agreed tonight. In Northern Ireland, we even saw the Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister add his name to a letter from the Democratic Unionist party First Minister. Those are two politicians who, for a number of reasons, do not agree on very many things. How much wider a coalition of opposition to this proposal do the Government need to see before they accept that, in this case, sheer weight of numbers is not enough to crack an argument? They must listen, which is what they promised the devolved Governments that they would do.

I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, especially as he is a member of the European Scrutiny Committee, of which I have the honour to be chair. Does he agree that a democratic question lies at the heart of this matter? If there is information on which the voter is expected to make his decision, as was the case with the Scottish situation a few years ago, the bottom line is that, without genuine and properly sourced information and proper time, the British people will effectively be cheated?

I do not think that a referendum date of 23 June gives adequate time for the complex issues to be considered. This is the time to be discussing not those issues, but the procedural motion before us so that we can decide on the date. I am up for a positive and, if necessary, heated discussion as to why it is in the interests of all of our nations to remain part of the European Union.

In the interests of time, I will not repeat all the arguments that have been marshalled on the Opposition Benches and, sometimes, on the Government Benches against the proposal deliberately to overlap the referendum campaign with elections in which more than 20 million of our citizens will take part on the first Thursday in May. Let us look quickly at some of the consequences. As has been mentioned, 10 weeks before the referendum—in the middle of April—the Government’s response to the EU negotiations has to be published, including a statement, which we now know will say that the Government believe that people should vote to stay in the European Union. The Scottish Government will be in purdah for a full three weeks after that. Are the UK Government seriously suggesting that it is acceptable for the Prime Minister to issue an official document saying that the United Kingdom should stay in the European Union, while not allowing the Scottish Government to say that they agree because they are in purdah? Saying that they agree will inevitably be seen as seeking to influence the votes in the Scottish parliamentary elections away from the parties that will stand on an anti-European Union ticket—make no mistake about it.

There used to be an agreement that the UK and Scottish Governments would fully respect one another’s purdah arrangements. If this statutory instrument is agreed today, that agreement is gone, and it may well be gone forever. Any attempt to pretend that this Government respect the democratic legitimacy of the Scottish Government will go out the window with it.

People will receive the UK Government’s document on the referendum at the same time, and possibly on exactly the same day, as they receive the polling cards or the postal vote applications for a completely different election. The problem is not just that the elections are held close together—in some ways, administratively, it is simpler if two polls are held on the same day, but it becomes more difficult if the nature of the question is different for those polls. In this case, every single part of the election administration process, which is immensely complicated and which our returning officers and our counting officers cannot afford to get wrong, will be happening twice, a few weeks apart. We will have the ridiculous situation of people being encouraged to register to vote in one election before they have to turn up at the polling station to vote in the other.

The newly elected national Governments will find themselves back in purdah fewer than three weeks after the parliamentary elections. As has been pointed out, it is quite possible that, if there is a very keenly contested election in any of the three nations, the First Minister of one or of all three nations might not be elected until the Government are back in purdah. We then have a newly formed Government who are restricted in their ability to launch their legislative programme in case some of it is affected by the result of the referendum. That is not sheer speculation, but fact. For example, how can a new Scottish Government announce a five-year spending plan if they do not know whether European Union procurement rules will continue for over half of that five-year period? How can a Government put forward a legislative programme on such crucial areas as fisheries, agriculture, public procurement, investment and tourism if they do not know, and are not allowed to speculate on, whether they will still be a part of the European Union a couple of years later. If this is what the Government describe as being respectful, I shudder to think what contempt for the Scottish Government would look like. The Minister claimed that the EU referendum purdah is different from a parliamentary election purdah. Technically, it is, but so many subject matters will be covered by both that in fact, in practice, the elected Governments will be in purdah as regards a significant range of their devolved powers.

The Government are trying to suggest that a referendum in September will not work, but if a major test of the success of any electoral process is public engagement and public participation, I have to remind the House that a September vote produced the most successful test of electoral opinion that any of these nations have ever seen, whether we measure it by the number of people who took part, the number of people who registered or the number of people who voted. I would much rather see 98% of people registering to vote and 85% of people voting than the low numbers we might get in a snap election.

I am ready for the debate to begin. I honestly believe that a date of 23 June makes it more likely that the United Kingdom will vote to stay in. Despite that, I do not want to see the UK voting on a flawed referendum and in a flawed process. I would much rather see a referendum in which everybody participates and for that reason, it cannot be held as soon as 23 June.

Question put.


That the draft European Union Referendum (Date of Referendum etc.) Regulations 2016, which were laid before this House on 22 February, be approved.