Monday 9 May 2016
[Mr Nigel Evans in the Chair]
EU Referendum Leaflet
I thank my right hon. Friend for bringing to my attention the extra 20 people who have been galvanised by the thought of this afternoon’s debate. I want to read into Hansard the whole prayer of the petition, headed “STOP CAMERON spending British taxpayers’ money on Pro-EU Referendum leaflets”:
“Prime Minister David Cameron plans to spend British taxpayers’ money on a pro-EU document to be sent to every household in the United Kingdom in the run up to the EU referendum. We believe voters deserve a fair referendum—without taxpayer-funded biased interceptions by the Government.
We, the petitioners, demand the Government STOPS spending our money on biased campaigning to keep Britain inside the European Union.
The Great British Public have waited since 1975 for a vote on our relationship with Brussels. No taxpayers’ money should be spent on campaign literature to keep Britain inside the EU.”
I absolutely agree with the right hon. Lady. As Members will see as I develop my argument, it is important that we have a fair and level playing field for the important decision that we have to make on 23 June.
When an e-petition reaches 10,000 signatures, the Government must issue a response, and they have done so. I will read a brief extract, though I am sure that the Minister will expand on it when he responds. It states:
“This is a big decision for the country. The Government is determined that the public should be clear on what reforms have been agreed, and what EU membership means for the UK.
The Referendum Act requires the Government to publish reports that set out the outcome of the negotiation of our EU membership and the Government’s opinion on that outcome and provide information on rights and obligations in EU law and on examples of countries that do not have EU membership but do have other arrangements with the EU.”
The leaflet went to households across England between 11 and 13 April, but it is going to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland this week, to avoid the pre-election purdah rules in relation to last week’s elections.
What can I say to that? I thank my hon. Friend.
The total cost of the leaflet and the website and marketing that go with it is £9.3 million of taxpayers’ money. On top of that, the Treasury is publishing documents and the Government continue to have propaganda at the top of every gov.uk web page. At least that is not being posted to every house in hard copy at the expense of the resident receiving it.
What worries me most about that answer is that the Treasury is projecting figures to 2030, but it cannot answer questions about Budgets now. That is of concern to me. Some colleagues have encouraged voters to return their leaflets to No. 10, but since that would mean even more cost to the taxpayer if they did it by freepost, I have not followed that line myself.
As might have been predicted, the publication of the leaflet has not been universally welcomed. Jonathan Isaby, chief executive of the TaxPayers Alliance, said:
“This is a disgraceful abuse of taxpayers’ money. When cash is scarce and budgets are tight, politicians should not be wasting nearly £10 million of our cash on political propaganda.
The country is having an important debate about its relationship with the EU and it is essential that it is held on a level playing field.”
My hon. Friend is making an excellent introduction to the debate. Four hundred and seventy-six of my constituents were so outraged that they signed the petition. Is not the main point that the publication of the leaflet goes against the very British sense of fair play? We want a level playing field in the referendum, but the Government are trying to stack the odds in their favour.
Absolutely. As many such organisations find, its members are split either way, so it is right for it to take a neutral view on the main question. That does not mean that it cannot be concerned about the £9.3 million which, as Jonathan Isaby says, is
“not ‘government money’, it is all taxpayers’ money”.
He concludes by saying that
“it is deplorable that ministers see fit to use it to try and instruct us how to vote.”
Of course, my hon. Friend knows that that is happening in pursuance of a legal duty introduced into the House of Lords, which became part of our legislation through ping-pong. Is he also aware that I tabled an amendment calling for accuracy and impartiality in that information, which the Minister for Europe, who is here today, told me there certainly would be? Do we not expect a proper answer from him this afternoon?
I am sure that the Minister has heard that, and I hope that he will respond in full to the debate.
Katie Ghose of the Electoral Reform Society expressed similar concerns, and after the referendum on Scottish independence the Electoral Commission warned the Government over taxpayer-funded propaganda, saying that it could give an
“unfair advantage to one side of the argument”.
Is this not a terribly easy case? No previous Labour or Conservative Government have ever thought they should spend taxpayers’ money on promoting Government policies ahead of a general election in the hope of getting a better result. Is that not exactly what the leaflet is doing, and is it not therefore a scandal?
Absolutely. The Government are taking many difficult decisions across the five years of this Parliament, but we do not need to write in full to every household to explain why we are doing it. That is why the media and websites are there, and that is what Parliament is there for—we can report on that through our speeches and debates. I am not sure that the Government’s case for remaining is being helped, because it is likely that the contents of the leaflet will be long forgotten by the start of the purdah period on 27 May, but the £9.3 million price tag will still resonate with voters.
Since my hon. Friend mentions the content of the leaflet, does he find it strange that there is no mention in it of the existential risk of war and genocide? Does he think that is because a) the Government had not recognised that the risk existed, b) they recognised it but were unwilling to contemplate it, or c) it is a complete fabrication?
I will come back to that, but that multiple choice question is interesting, because it reminds me of the website www.eureferendum.gov.uk, which goes with the leaflet. We are told that it will be up all the way through to 23 June. It majors on pro-Remain propaganda and contains a pdf of the leaflet. It also has an EU quiz, which I had a go at. I fared pretty well on how well I knew the EU. I got a pat on the back:
“You’re clearly well informed about the EU.”
Unfortunately, it is exactly for that reason that I will be voting to leave on 23 June. What worries me is that less informed people will buy the line that disaster will unfold if we leave. Surely that cannot be the case. A responsible Government would not go through the whole process of having a referendum when one of the two results would lead to the UK going to hell in a handcart, would they?
During the passage of the Lisbon treaty, the then shadow Foreign Secretary, William Hague, referred to the red card of national Parliaments only ever being invoked if something like the slaughter of the first born was proposed. As the red card was part of the Prime Minister’s deal, does the hon. Gentleman agree that that could be the next threat—one that is not mentioned in the leaflet?
The right hon. Lady is absolutely right. It is interesting that the orange card in the Lisbon treaty has been replaced by the red card in the reforms secured by the Prime Minister, which sets a higher bar for reversing or rejecting legislation proposed by the EU.
As we have heard, back in February the Prime Minister ruled nothing out if he did not manage to succeed in securing reforms. Those reforms, meagre as they were, were based mainly on pull factors for migration and avoiding deeper integration. He and the remain campaign have gone as far as saying that we might be risking a war if we vote to leave. Is that really what this debate has been reduced to—cheap holidays or war?
I am pleased to see that the Chairman of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt), has taken a more measured view. He worked through the possible effects on our foreign policy of two positive options, in a report agreed unanimously by his Committee, before coming to his decision in favour of Brexit only today.
My hon. Friend is right that the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee has done extraordinarily well. Has he seen the article in The Daily Telegraph today by the distinguished Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), who comes out very strongly indeed and says that what the Prime Minister is talking about with regard to war is complete and utter nonsense? Surely the Chairman of the Defence Committee must know better than the Prime Minister.
I will leave my hon. Friend to be the judge of that. There is nothing in the leaflet about the actual option available to voters, which is between a UK able to take its own democratic decisions and an EU emboldened by our thumbs up to further integration.
I used my leaflet to light my fire on a cold Yorkshire night; it was a thoroughly useful use of taxpayers’ money. Is not a more important point that, if we vote to remain in by a very small margin—say, less than in the Scottish referendum—a large part of the electorate, including many in my constituency, will feel that the result has been fiddled precisely because of this wasted document that we have all been provided with?
I really hope that we do not get to that. All Conservative Members in the 2015 intake, no matter what side of the debate we stand on, have signed a letter to say that, come 24 June, we will come together and abide by the result, because we have a Government to support, a country to help to run and difficult decisions to continue to make. It is important that we come together. We do not want anything to push people towards a sense of unfair treatment on one side or another. My hon. Friend makes a good point.
The Five Presidents’ report shows the direction of travel, should we vote to remain. It sets out plans for fiscal and political union, further pooling of decision making on national budgets and harmonisation of insolvency law, company law, property rights and social security systems. It makes it clear that those plans are to be pursued as single market measures applying to all 28 states. The Governor of the Bank of England admits there are risks of remaining in the European Union, in particular in relation to the development of the euro area. We have been roped into bail-out packages before, despite assurances that that would no longer happen. The latest guarantee, I am afraid, is no better. The Financial Times reports that it has seen the German draft White Paper pushing for progress towards a European army. That was due to emerge in June but is now being held back until July. Make no mistake: should we vote to remain, the European club will not be the same as the one we are already in for long.
The EU budget relentlessly increases. Only last month, Jean-Claude Juncker told my hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood (Kelly Tolhurst) that he did not have to answer to her when she asked him what he was doing to bear down on the EU budget at a time when member states were having to bear down on budgets. That is not the answer of a man who cares much about greater accountability; that is the view of a man who wants to be left alone to get on with the project without interference from irritating ingrates.
Voting to stay in is not the same as voting to stay put. Despite the leaflet having positive headlines on each page, the body of the text suggests, in a number of ways, that the only way is Europe and that we are stuffed if we leave. Some are implied. For example, it suggests that many jobs might be lost, via the dubious claim that 3 million jobs are linked to the EU—a link described by the academic on whose study that figure was based as “pure Goebbels”. That link, by the way, first came about in around 2000 as a reason for joining the eurozone.
Some claims are more direct but simplistic and with little merit, such as the EU abolishing roaming charges. I can either wait until next year to use my EE phone in the EU at the same rate as I pay in the UK, or I can use my other phone, which is on the Three network, to travel today to EU countries, as well as Hong Kong, Indonesia, Israel, Macau, New Zealand, Norway, Sri Lanka, Switzerland and the USA, with absolutely no roaming charges. I do not have to wait for the EU to catch up with me.
That is another way in which the free market is far more agile than an unwieldy 1950s political project that is representing a smaller proportion of global trade over time as the rest of the world overtakes, despite the number of EU states tripling since we first joined. The economy of every continent has grown over the past decade except that of Antarctica and that of Europe. It is baffling that we should shackle ourselves to a political project with a limited vision to continue being a regional power, rather than looking further and using our attributes to be a global trading nation. Why are we paying to be a member of the world’s only stagnant customs union?
The leaflet claims that, as the UK is not part of the EU’s border-free zone, we control our own borders. We can certainly check passports at our border, and we can refuse entry to those without any valid identity documents. However, that is not the same as saying that we can refuse entry to anyone from other EU countries if they have valid documents, and it is certainly not the same as saying that we can control immigration.
Following a recent answer to a question I asked on how many people are turned away from this country, it seems that 20 times more applicants from non-EU countries are turned away than those from EU countries. That shows that, unless people are particularly criminal outside the EU, we have only cursory checks and a cursory ability to stop people from EU countries coming in.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. My father was born in Burma. I have seen the good side of immigration, but mass uncontrolled immigration has a major effect on our infrastructure and public services—the NHS, housing and school places. We cannot tackle that effectively with one arm tied behind our back. Even the Treasury report uses the assumption that the Government will fail in their policy commitment to reduce immigration to the tens of thousands, not just this year, but every year until 2030.
That is not the platform on which I stood last year, when immigration was such a huge issue on the doorstep in Sutton and Cheam, as it was around many parts of the country. The equivalent of the population of a city the size of Newcastle comes to the UK from the EU each year. Apart from the obvious lack of ability to control those numbers, those people join the queue in front of migrants from outside the EU who may have more suitable qualifications and skills that we need or desire in this country.
The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) mentioned the leaflets produced for the original 1975 referendum. Page 11 of one of those leaflets claimed:
“No important new policy can be decided in Brussels or anywhere else without the consent of a British Minister answerable to a British Government and British Parliament.”
Well, something has changed over the last few years, has it not? The reality 41 years later is that 65% of our laws, regulations and directives come from Brussels. The emergency brake on migration benefits is not applied by the UK; it is applied by Brussels. The red card system that is held up as a meaningful renegotiation success actually raises the bar for vetoing EU legislation, compared with the current orange card under the Lisbon treaty. Contributions to eurozone bail-outs are still a threat, despite assurances to the contrary, as we have seen before. We are contributing financially towards Turkey’s pre-accession assistance, despite assurances that it will not be a member any time soon.
Enough is enough. We have the fifth largest economy. We have the fourth largest army. We speak the language of business. We have the ideal geographic location for world trade, and we have a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Yes, there are risks on either side, but I am confident that we are big enough, bold enough and entrepreneurial enough as a nation to manage that risk and to thrive if we vote to leave.
That vote to leave is a vote to take control, to bring decision making back to accountable people here in the UK and to decide how we spend up to £350 million per week here in the UK on the NHS, schools, housing and other vital services. It is that positive vision that I will be sharing with people. I perfectly understand the anger and frustration of the petitioners, who see their money—taxpayers’ money, not Government money—spent on propaganda. Even some remainers are quietly dismayed and uncomfortable at that move. I hope that the circling establishment, led by the Government, will cut the hyperbole and exaggerated claims.
My hon. Friend mentioned the 1975 referendum, but there is a cautionary tale about that. In 1974, 36% of the population told pollsters that they were opposed to our membership of the then Common Market. The Government and the equivalent of the remain campaign outvoted the leavers by 10 to one with lies, innuendos and supposition. We should be aware, and the Government should be aware, that they can outvote us 10 to one, but there will be a tremendous sense of grievance about it.
As my hon. Friend outlines, that grievance has lasted for 41 years. That is something we want to avoid at all costs. We must ensure that the decision that the British people take is taken freely and fairly, with as much information—unbiased, impartial information—as possible, and after listening to the two campaign groups. It is important that the Government do not continue to stack the decks on a vital constitutional question that will have long-term consequences far beyond the careers of any of us in this Chamber. That is why the question is rightly being put to the British people in a referendum. Let us make our cases fairly and freely and trust the people of Britain to make the right decision.
On a point of order, Mr Evans. Would it not be normal in a debate such as this, having heard from a speaker in favour of the motion, to hear from a speaker opposed to it? Would that not be better? As I understand it, the hon. Lady is on our side. Is there not someone who would advance the opposite case?
You have been here long enough, Mr Gray, to know that we go from one side to the other. Kate Hoey caught my eye and therefore Kate Hoey has been selected to speak next. As we go back and forth, if other hon. Members on the Opposition side catch my eye, irrespective of whether they are for or against the motion, I will clearly be in a position to call them.
Thank you, Mr Evans. I will not take up my share of the time for the vast array of Labour MPs sitting here! I know that many hon. Members want to speak, so I will just say a few words. I am sorry that so few of my colleagues are here and that our Front-Bench spokesperson will presumably put the case that this leaflet is a wonderful way of spending public money. I am clear that the people who signed the petition feel very strongly that it is a waste of public money and, indeed, that many of them, as I think has been said, were remainers. Many people just felt that this was not fair.
We went through the process and got legislation about referendums, and one aspect of that is that there is a campaign on each side. Each campaign is formally accepted, designated and can spend certain amounts of money and do certain things. They are the people who should be putting the arguments back and forth, apart from all the discussions that are going on anyway in our pubs and supermarkets. I think it is quite shameful that the Prime Minister has seen fit to go against what he would always personally argue about being fair and the British system of doing things—how we do things in this country.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady, who is a fellow member of the Committee. Will she recall that, last summer, we fought valiantly to stop the Government taking powers to limit the application of section 125 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, which would have allowed the Government to carry on campaigning in this manner in the last 28 days of the campaign? Is it not now clear that they were presenting excuses to us as to why they needed those flexibilities? It was simply so that they could carry on exploiting the system, as they are planning to exploit the system and possibly even breach section 125 by keeping up their websites for the entire campaign instead of taking them down for the last 28 days.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. He and other members of the Committee feel so strongly about this matter that they are prepared to take very strong action if we do not get agreement from the Government to take the websites down. What is even more amazing to the public is this. When they talk about “the Government”, it is the Cabinet, and the Cabinet is actually split on this matter. If the Government were really being fair, two thirds of the leaflet would have been from one side and one third would have been from the Brexit side.
I do not normally look at the detail of Conservative party policy, but I am very pleased to hear and to repeat that. I felt very angry when the leaflet came out. I looked through it and saw all the so-called facts that we can go through and spend a lot of time pulling to pieces, but when it comes down to it, I have great confidence in the common sense of the British public. I think they will already have seen through the leaflet and seen it for what it is—full propaganda. Then, of course, we wake up literally every day to another shock-horror dreadful scare story. The stories become more ridiculous every day, today’s one being just about the most ridiculous possible—that we are threatened with war. In fact, it is absolutely shameful, because there are some people in this country who believe Prime Ministers and who will be slightly worried about that. It is absolutely shameful that the level of debate from the leadership of this country is so trivial and ridiculous that they come up with scare stories such as that.
The hon. Lady should not believe that we have heard the worst—we have not yet got to plague and pestilence or the imminent asteroid impact that will happen if we vote to leave the European Union. Is this not more than a question of money or even fairness or the rubbish content of the leaflet itself? Is not the real importance here the fact that it may, if there is a very tight result, call into question the legitimacy of the result itself? Does the hon. Lady agree that those who believe that they should win the referendum at any price might want to consider what “any price” might look like?
That is a very important point. The one thing that we all said when we were debating the details of the referendum Bill was that the referendum had to be seen as free and fair. At the moment, I do not have confidence in its being free and fair, and I do not even have confidence that if, nearer the time, it looks like those who wish to leave are winning, something will not happen to make it even less free and fair. I genuinely have that concern, and it is a shocking thing even to be thinking as a democratically elected Member of this great House of Commons.
I refer hon. Members to my declaration of interest as a director of Grassroots Out Ltd. One thing that seems to be causing great confusion in the country is the statement on the back of the leaflet about needing to register to vote in order to participate in the referendum. Does the hon. Lady agree that Ministers need to do more to set the record straight? The fact is that if people are on the electoral register, they are registered to vote; it is wrong and misleading to suggest otherwise.
That is a very important point. I hope the Minister will clarify how the Government will do more to reassure people that they do not have to re-register if they are already on the register, because many people are worried about that.
While we are talking about all the different scare stories, I have been thinking about the way every time the Prime Minister speaks or some of the remainers speak, they challenge us on which international figures support our leaving the European Union. I just have this vision that the Prime Minister will do something so that one morning we will wake up and hear on the “Today” programme that President Putin has asked us to stay in the European Union. That is the level to which I think we have got.
Order. Before we hear from Dr Lewis, let me just say that I am sure that each and every one of you has an interesting ringtone on your mobile phone, but I do not want to hear them during the debate, so please check that your phones are in silent mode.
For a moment, I thought that that “Ride of the Valkyries” ringtone meant that the remainers were coming late to try to save the day. Has the hon. Lady not noticed a certain inconsistency in the Government’s position? They try to frighten us with the fact that President Putin, evidently, would like us to leave, whereas it is regarded as praiseworthy that the President of communist China wants us to remain. It seems to me that there is an element of cake and eating it at the same time.
It is worth remembering that it is not the first time that the United States of America has misconstrued its own interests. President Roosevelt did not want Churchill to fight Hitler. He wanted us to make peace with Mussolini. Ronald Reagan pleaded with Margaret Thatcher not to take the Falkland Islands by military force but to do some kind of shared sovereignty deal with a south American dictator. Our allies may be our allies, but they are not always right.
Indeed, President Obama was quite wrong. When I was in Washington last weekend, we met a lot of senior Democrats and Republicans who said to us quite publicly, behind the scenes, that the UK leaving the EU would really not make any difference whatever to the United States. That is what the ordinary political person in America thinks. However, the vast majority of the American public do not even know what the EU is, so what President Obama said is not too worrying.
It annoyed me so much that one of the facts in the leaflet is:
“The UK has secured a special status in the EU.”
I have read a lot about that and have been through various documents, and I would love to see where that wording is actually included in the renegotiation document by the Heads of Government.
The renegotiation is not legally binding. The hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) has done a lot of work on that in the European Scrutiny Committee. We cannot be confident that the aim of ever closer union will, in any way, do anything other than to take the renegotiation into account. It is so ridiculous that that has been put in, and I want the Minister to respond to that point.
I always bow to the hon. Gentleman’s wisdom. I will not go through all the facts in the leaflet because I am sure that everybody would like to mention particular points.
When someone writes the history of this Administration and, particularly, of this Prime Minister, the way the Prime Minister has behaved on this matter will go down as very sad. It is eating into the kind of country the UK is. He should be ashamed of what he is doing. I just hope that, in some way, the response here and from the public will make him realise that he is clearly showing the country that he is deeply frightened about what will happen on 23 June. If that is the reason that all the scare stories are coming out, I am pleased. On 23 June, I want the Great British public to speak out, get out to vote and take us out of the anti-democratic EU.
My fellow European Scrutiny Committee member, the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), so rightly referred to scaremongering. I simply say that there is nothing to fear but fear itself. Those words will haunt the Prime Minister in due course.
The leaflet arises from sections 6 and 7 of the European Referendum Act 2015. The words were only introduced, with a degree of connivance, I would suggest, in the House of the Lords, and came back to the House of Commons on ping-pong. We did not actually have an opportunity properly to look at the wording, which imposes a legal duty on the Government to provide information.
I tabled an amendment on the question of accuracy and impartiality. As the matter was drawing to a vote, I was besieged by various buzzing bees, who suggested that I should withdraw the amendment. I said, “No, I will not, unless I know that the Minister will answer the question I am putting to him.” The question was like this: “Yes or no—will he accept that the information must be accurate and impartial?” The Minister replied, “Certainly,” and said it would be “perverse” to do otherwise. He remembers that and knows perfectly well that I am saying exactly what happened.
When such a senior and highly respected Minister in the House of Commons replies on the Floor of the House specifically to the question of withdrawing an amendment, it is regarded by all of us on both sides of the House as being binding on the Government. I simply cannot accept that that has in any way been fulfilled. I am sorry to have to say that I regard it as disgraceful that this leaflet has been produced in those circumstances. It is not accurate and it is not impartial. In fact, a whole slew of White Papers have been produced in pursuance of those two sections of the Act.
To add insult to injury, when a White Paper is presented to Parliament—unlike the leaflet, which goes to all the households—by the Foreign Secretary and the Minister for Europe, the ministerial code kicks in. In Prime Minister’s questions, I asked the Prime Minister whether he accepted the White Papers were in breach of the accuracy and impartiality prescribed in the framework of the ministerial code, for which he has direct responsibility. It is up to him to make certain that those are reviewed as the situation could even lead to resignation by senior Ministers and Cabinet Ministers. This is a very grave and serious matter. It is not just a question of whether we like it or not.
I entirely agree with and commend the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), who laid out many of the issues and the reasons for the petition. We ought to be 100% behind the petition for all the reasons that so many hon. Members are here today. A serious issue lies beneath the petition, which is that what has happened is a serious breach of the ministerial code. Nobody can argue that those White Papers fulfil the criteria.
With regard to the issue of war, the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox) were extremely apposite. The reality is that none of that is in the documents, and nor is the catastrophic effect that the Chancellor of the Exchequer yesterday alleged would happen with regard to leaving the single market in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Jonathan Lord). The plain fact is that the omissions—to get this right regarding impartiality and to be anything other than economical with the truth—are of the gravest concern to the people of this country. They are being asked to go to the polling booths on 23 June on the basis of arguments to which they have a right, particularly as they are paying for it and for the running of the machinery of government, which is being thrown behind the referendum, despite the fact that we won the argument on purdah. As my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) said, it is atrocious that the machinery of government is being used to put such material on the Government website. That would be regarded as unacceptable in any democratic country.
I take the view of the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) on what happened in 1975, and I was around in 1975—in fact, I have been around since 10 May 1940, so it is my 76th birthday tomorrow. As it happens, I was born on the day that Hitler decided to invade France and Holland, and Churchill became Prime Minister that evening, so I take particularly badly to the Prime Minister’s references to what Churchill would think about all this. We were drawn into that war by unprovoked aggression and, with respect to the questions of defence and other matters contained in these documents, I do not believe for one minute that the people who fought and died in the war, as my father did, would ever have believed that we would be where we are now as a result of the sacrifice they made.
My hon. Friend has just anticipated my intervention. I recently raised that point at Prime Minister’s questions, because I know my hon. Friend does not normally touch on it. His father paid the ultimate sacrifice at the battle of Normandy, having won the Military Cross. He lies in France, having secured the freedom of the people of not only Britain but France to rule themselves. We now have a little video, timed to coincide with the Prime Minister’s speech, showing four veterans of world war two saying that they were fighting for a united Europe, but I very much doubt that that is the view of the vast majority of people who fought and died in that campaign.
I endorse my right hon. Friend’s intervention. It also made me particularly angry to hear Mr Juncker say that Eurosceptics should go and visit war cemeteries—people will understand the impact of that comment on someone like me—and I deeply resented President Obama’s reference to the same matter with respect to both United Kingdom and American troops. My father fought with American troops, and I am absolutely certain that the kind of undemocratic, dysfunctional, authoritarian, centralised system represented by the European Union, which does not work, is the antithesis of what they fought for. I want to get that firmly on the record.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that it is a measure of the remain campaign’s desperation that it has to invoke the memory of those who died fighting dictatorships in order to try to present its case as patriotic when, in fact, we know from all the language that the campaign uses that it wants to do the country down?
The hon. Gentleman is right. I would go further, with reference to the historical analogies that permeate these documents and what the Prime Minister said today, and say that the very idea that Brexit would create war completely turns on its head the reality that, for at least four centuries, this country was drawn into all the wars in which it has been engaged by the desire of those in Europe to create European empires. That started, for example, with Philip of Spain and the armada, and later there were the Dutch wars, the Napoleonic wars and the first and second world wars. Those are realities. We were drawn into those wars. If we leave the European Union, we will be able to stand alone and, as we did in 1940, remind people that we are not going to be part and parcel of this dysfunctional system, which has so much instability and insecurity built into it that it is bound to lead to deep disturbance. Our attempt to make sense of all that has led us to argue so strongly for so many years that this European Union is dysfunctional, which is why, ultimately, we have to leave it.
The hon. Member for Vauxhall referred to the European Scrutiny Committee’s reports. She is an excellent member of the Committee, which I have the honour to chair. In the Liaison Committee’s examination of the Prime Minister last Wednesday, I was asked to go first after the Chairman, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr Tyrie). I explained to the Prime Minister and to the Committee why I believe that the voters are being cheated on 23 June and, ultimately, a false prospectus is being offered to them. The reason is simple: the outcome of the question of whether there will be a full-on treaty change, which we were promised, cannot be guaranteed, if at all, until after the vote. When the voter goes to the voting booth and votes, they simply will not know whether, for example, there will be a treaty change, whether the European Court will intervene, whether there will be a change of Government or whether there will be a referendum in any other country on the basis of the changes that are made. The outcome of any one of those questions cannot be guaranteed under any circumstances, so I allege that requiring people to vote in such circumstances is cheating the voters.
I was most impressed to see the numbers on the petition, and it may be of interest to Members to know that the clip of my allegation that the Government and the Prime Minister are cheating the voters has now reached 175,000 viewings on Facebook, which is quite a lot. I strongly believe that that message is getting home to all the people who need to hear it.
The question of the single market seems to be so central to the economic case, the political case, the democratic case and the accountability case for why we should leave because it is in contradiction to what the people fought and died for in the last war. That is extremely important, but the Government also make an economic case in the leaflet, which talks about our having a massive single market:
“EU countries buy 44% of everything we sell abroad, from cars to insurance.”
What the leaflet does not say is outlined in a note I received from the House of Commons Library, and it is as simple as this. When we are trading with 27 other member states, the question of whether we have a deficit in goods and services, and in imports and exports, is the equivalent of asking whether we are making a loss in relation to those 27 member states. This is the answer from the House of Commons Library:
“UK trade deficit with EU countries: £67.8 billion”.
That is annual, and it is going up. That is a vast amount of money in our dealings with the single market, and it demonstrates that the single market does not work for us across the board. On the other hand—this is important—Germany has a £81.8 billion trade surplus with the 27 other member states. We make a loss of £67.8 billion, and they have a surplus of £81.8 billion. I do not have time to go into all the reasons, but it is a salutary lesson about the real value of the single market to us.
The UK’s trade surplus with the rest of the world, in relation to the same goods and services on which we make such a monumental loss with the other 27 member states, was £31.1 billion last year, and it is growing. We have a bright future. The Chancellor of the Exchequer’s accusation that leaving the single market would be catastrophic, the idea that we would end up at war if we do not carry out the diktat that the Government are issuing to the British people, and all the accumulated international bodies that are being brought in to support this flimsy argument that we should stay in, are all to be taken into account when people come to vote on 23 June.
I reject the manner in which the Government have gone about this. My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam has done us a service in bringing this issue to the House, as have the petitioners. Jayne Adye deserves 100% credit for doing so. There is only one answer to this shambolic European Union, and that is to vote to leave it.
Oh, the joys of email inboxes. I received an email about the leaflet; it had an attachment that I printed off. It looked much like the Government’s leaflet, except that it was by “A British citizen”, who had written her own leaflet based on the Government’s, called “Why I believe that voting to leave the European Union is the best decision for the UK”. I thought her leaflet made a darn sight more sense than the Government’s. Given the current debate about national security, I thought I would share what she wrote. The only reason why I do not name her is that I did not check whether it was all right to do so. She was happy for me to use the leaflet. Under “Keeping us safe”, she wrote:
“Our UK police and intelligence agencies do a fantastic job. There is no EU intelligence sharing arrangement, and there is unlikely to be one soon. Security and intelligence services are intrinsically secret organisations which share their information only with those they trust to keep their secrets. There are direct agreements between certain member states. These are not dependent on membership of the EU.”
Based on my impressions from reading the Sunday newspapers, she shows a greater understanding of how our intelligence services work than some of our former heads of MI5 and MI6, who put the facts in a way that suits their case.
The Prime Minister discussed in his speech today the importance of sharing our intelligence with our European partners, but I am sure the right hon. Lady knows about the importance of our relationship with the United States, which spends $52 billion a year on signals intelligence and gives us everything it has whenever we ask for it. It would not do that if it thought we would give it to the French and the Germans; it would cut us off instantly. That was its experience in the Kosovo campaign, when there were intelligence leaks to the French. It would simply not countenance supporting that intelligence relationship if we shared all our intelligence with our European allies, as the Prime Minister seemed to suggest we do in his ludicrous speech.
I could not agree more. The House is currently considering the Investigatory Powers Bill, and our intelligence services operate under strict democratic oversight processes that determine how they use data. Agreeing to European Union-wide intelligence sharing, or handing over data to systems when we are not even certain about the democratic scrutiny of those systems, is just not going to happen.
It is dangerous to distort historic events, given that the referendum has historic significance and that a whole generation of young people who have probably never experienced anything else will be voting. As it happens, tomorrow will be the 75th anniversary of the day when this House was severely damaged during bombing raids. Churchill made it clear that whatever happened, Parliament would have to go on. I see that I am getting a puzzled look; it was the night of 10 to 11 May. It was clear that the most important thing, even at the height of real attacks, was that democratic processes go on, because they were at the heart of this country.
There have been statements such as, “We have secured 70 years of uninterrupted peace in Europe.” Try saying that to the hundreds of thousands of Bosnians and Serbs who had to give their lives before the United Kingdom and the United States took action, without a UN mandate. When the European Union did get involved politically, it made a complete and utter hash of it. We must not lie to the young. I expect the old at least to be able to make up their own minds and have historical perspective.
I object to the final page of the leaflet. The Minister is looking at it; he needs to note this. People came up to me in my advice surgery saying, “Do I have to register to vote for the referendum?” I did not know what they were talking about until I looked at the back page, which says:
“If you’re aged 18 or over by 23 June and are entitled to vote, this is your chance to decide.”
So far, so good.
“Registration ends on 7 June. Find out how to register at aboutmyvote.co.uk and register online at gov.uk/register-to-vote.”
People are reading that to mean that they will have to register specifically for this vote. That is misleading.
It is also highly dubious to align the issuing of postal votes closely with the date on which purdah will kick in. The Electoral Commission is issuing postal votes very early on. In my understanding, the whole purpose of purdah is so that Government machinery will not unduly influence voters’ decisions. Electors are used to political parties taking sides, but they are not used to the Government, in their guise as the Government, taking deeply party political decisions. I want the Minister to show me that he has taken due account of that, so that purdah and the issuing of postal votes will not overlap and there will not be some Treasury report a day before the postal votes land on doormats telling us that we are all going to starve and start sending children up chimneys again. Will he have a word with the electoral registration officers about the misleading statement that has been made?
Similarly, we must put the costs of the leaflet into context. It has cost £9.3 million. The Electoral Commission was set up as an independent body to facilitate fair conduct of such a referendum. As part of that fair conduct, two organisations have been designated to make the case for and against. Those participating have strict financial limits. The Minister will have to explain to me why it is fair and proper to allow the in and out campaigns to raise £7 million each from individual sources, not Government money. There is a real misconception about that. People think that the campaigns have been given that money by the Government. They have not. They have been given permission to raise it. Yet the Government, in one mailshot, have spent more taxpayers’ money than they are spending on the whole process of facilitating the election. That kind of imbalance is simply wrong.
I have done some brief calculations on the back of an envelope. We have 650 MPs—let us say that each of us was entitled to £13,500. There are a couple of worthwhile projects in my constituency that I would have supported, including a new transport plan for St Teath. Does the right hon. Lady have any projects in her constituency on which she would have liked to spend that £13,500?
The sad thing is that not only has that money not been spent more helpfully and usefully, it has been spent to undermine democratic processes. What worries me more than anything else is that this vote is meant to reinvigorate democracy and encourage participation, but it is causing increased mistrust and cynicism, which is not helpful.
One thing that I know as a former local councillor is how much work local authorities and public bodies must do to prove value for money. Does the right hon. Lady think that the Minister will be able to set out for us what value-for-money steps were taken in the procurement?
I am sure that he could, but the problem is that it is a bit like spilt milk—once the damage is done, if we were to say that we wanted another leaflet putting the facts straight, that would simply compound the problem.
The only points that I want the Minister to respond to in his summing-up are how intends to redress the statement about voter registration and how he will deal with the situation with postal votes and purdah.
The Government document is a disgrace. It is morally wrong, it is financially wrong and I think that it will backfire on them politically, which is the only good news in this otherwise rather sad debate. We should not need to do this. Any British democratic Government should understand that we want to have fair elections and referendums, and that we have a long tradition of not taking taxpayers’ money to spend in promotion of party political purposes or other political purposes during an election or referendum. In my experience, no Government have ever taken taxpayers’ money close to an election to propagandise for party policies. Nor should this Government be taking money from the many taxpayers who wish to leave the European Union in order to spend it on propaganda to try to thwart their wishes.
I was proud to stand in the general election on a platform of offering people a free choice and a free vote, after all these years when we have had no right to such a thing, and it is a great pity that it is being sullied by taking money from taxpayers and spending it in the distorting way that others have already mentioned.
I know that many other colleagues wish to speak, so I will concentrate on just two matters. This leaflet is extremely misleading and part of a very misleading campaign that is based on fear and misinformation about our relationship with the EU and what the EU is doing to us. The two claims in the leaflet that I wish to highlight go together in some ways. The leaflet says that we now have “a special status” and that often we can get our own way as a result of that special status. So I thought I would look at three crucial areas and ask, “Do we have a special status and are we getting our way?” Those areas are our right to choose our own taxes; our right to control our own borders; and our right to decide what benefits to give to which people who live in our community. All previous Governments who have negotiated treaties have always solemnly promised Parliament that we still had complete control over what taxes we raised, complete control over what benefits we chose to spend our money on and complete control over our borders. I am afraid, however, that none of those things is true.
Let us take part of the negotiation—this special status. We were told that, as a result of the negotiation, changes would be made to the VAT system. It is clearly the settled will of this Parliament that the tampon tax should be abolished, and it is clearly illegal under European law to do so. It is also clear that last summer our European Union Commission took our Government to court and successfully prosecuted them for daring to set the VAT rate on green products—insulation, all sorts of boiler controls and other things that promote the green agenda—at 5% instead of at the full VAT rate, and of course the Commission successfully won that court case. So our Government are now under a legal requirement of the European Court of Justice to put our VAT up to 20%, although of course they have not done so before the referendum because it would be embarrassing and tedious for them to do so.
We were then told that this new special status means that that is going to change, so that we will not have to put up our VAT on green products and we will be able to get rid of the VAT on tampons. So I looked at the document that the EU has now issued following the negotiation to see whether that is indeed the case.
The first thing to note is that the consultation that the EU is holding on VAT reform is mainly about centralising and taking more powers to Brussels over VAT, not giving more powers to member states. The second thing to note is that the document makes absolutely no reference whatever to the EU-UK agreement, or to the special status that we asked for and we were told we had got on VAT. The third thing is that, in the talismanic last couple of paragraphs about whether it might be possible to offer more freedom to member states to choose their own rates of VAT, no mention is made of the rates that we wish to remove or keep low and no guarantee is offered that there will be any legislation forthcoming. Again, the document says that it is terribly important not to have tax competition within the single market and very important to have a central policy that has political support.
One has to read that document to understand that there is absolutely no agreement on special status and no agreement at all that the UK can choose its own VAT rates. That is a broken promise. Also, we are told by the Treasury that we will lose a series of court cases on corporation tax again in this Parliament. We lost many such cases in the last Parliament and it cost £7 billion of revenue, which the British Parliament wished to raise on corporations but had to give back, and the Treasury forecast is that we will lose another £7 billion in this Parliament in losing court cases in the ECJ. The Treasury has never suggested that this new special status will prevent that. Therefore, it is quite obvious that we cannot raise taxes from companies where we want to and we cannot cut taxes on consumers where we want to, and that we have no “special status”.
If one then asks, “Is there a special status on borders?” the answer is, “No, of course, there isn’t.” We are governed by the freedom-of-movement provisions and that means we have to allow in anyone who can get a job or who is seeking work under the provisions of the freedom-of-movement clauses. The Government, who made a solemn promise to the electors to reduce the number of migrants coming into the country—so that we can catch up with the need for more school places, more GP surgeries, more hospital capacity, more roads and more houses for people—are unable to fulfil that pledge in any way, and the Treasury has now admitted that that pledge is for the birds over the five years of this Parliament and all the way out to 2030. Goodness knows why the Treasury thought it could forecast to 2030, because it cannot even forecast for this year, let alone to 2030.
My right hon. Friend has just made a fantastic point about the lack of transparency. Does he share my concern? An independent report states that 3.5 million people are expected to come in by that time—it will probably be considerably more than that—but there is no indication to the British people where they are going to go, and it is calculated that a quarter of a million acres of extra developed land will be required to provide the housing for those people coming in.
My hon. Friend is right—there is absolutely no proper provision for the very large number of people that the Treasury now admits are likely to come in. That is one of the few Treasury forecasts that I might believe. It is quite obvious that it could not forecast its own public spending, its own interest rates or anything in the recent Office for Budget Responsibility and Treasury documents. It had to make another revision again in the March Budget—it revised the forecast made in November—because it had found it difficult to grasp how the world might change between November and March. So there is this inability to forecast the economic numbers, but for once I think the Treasury may be honest in forecasting a substantial increase in migration. I suspect that the Treasury’s estimate is an underestimate because it has been constantly underestimating these figures in recent years, and it proves that we have no control over our borders and no “special status” whatsoever.
The third area is benefits. The Prime Minister made a great deal about benefits in the renegotiation; it was one of the few areas where he really pushed quite hard to get reform in the way that Britain wanted. I think both major parties campaigning in the last election wanted, for example, to no longer have to pay child benefit to children who are not resident in our country, but apparently that is something that we cannot negotiate. There is no “special status” to allow us to decide that child benefit should go to children living in our country rather than to children living elsewhere. There is some kind of fudge whereby we could pay the benefit at the level that applies in that country, which means in some cases that we will have to pay a higher level of benefit, although in other cases it means we will pay a lower level of benefit. So there is absolutely no control there.
Again, both major parties wanted amendments so that people coming here to work under the freedom-of-movement provisions would not automatically get the full range of benefits until they had been here for a bit and made some kind of contribution. We were not able to get a guarantee on that, either. There is some sort of four-year clause as a temporary expedient, but the benefits have to be phased in over the four years and the negotiating aim was not met.
On the big three things, therefore, which all independent democratic countries control through their Parliaments and Governments, Britain is unable to exert control: we cannot decide what taxes to impose; we cannot decide what benefits to spend our money on; and we cannot control our own borders. So I have to submit that the Government are completely misrepresenting the position when they say that they have negotiated a “special status”. They are completely wrong when they say that shows we can get our own way. They could not even get their own way on a very limited number of negotiating objectives at a point when they were threatening withdrawal and a referendum, so how will they ever get their way at all once the referendum is out of the way if, by any chance, the British people have not seen through this and voted to stay?
Does the right hon. Gentleman find it strange that, although the Government claim to have special status on some issues—and he has proved they have not gained such status—they refer time and again to things that we have opted out of? They make a case for joining Europe, but they boast that through our special status, “We opt out of this, we opt out of the euro, we opt out of border controls—we opt out of a whole range of things.” The Government are actually making a case for staying clear of the European project.
I agree. I always liken it to someone joining a football club and then announcing truculently that they have no wish to play football or watch football, getting cross when they go to club functions and people talk about football, and wanting to reduce the club subscription because, as they do not join in the football, they think they are overpaying. That is what the Government are doing to Europe. They do not want to join the single currency or Schengen, or the quota system for refugees. They do not like political union being talked about, although that is the EU’s main purpose, and they think that the club subscription is too large. They are right about one thing: the club subscription is far too large for us because we do not believe in practically any of the club’s purposes. Most of us would draw the conclusion, however, that the simplest thing to do would be to leave the club and spend the subscription on things we do like.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) for an outstanding opening presentation and for taking so many friendly and supportive interventions. I also echo the thanks to the petition organisers, who have done a brilliant job. As of now we are at 219,560 signatories.
I have just one regret about the debate. It ought to have been held in the main Chamber of the House of Commons, because then we would have been able to have a vote at the end of it and put to the test the sincerity or otherwise of those who say that the Government have behaved decently, fairly and honourably, rather than deeply unscrupulously, over the production of this expensive leaflet. It was produced at the expense of taxpayers, most of whom—hopefully we will find this out on independence day, 23 June—do not believe the Government’s argument.
I must make an observation on something quite striking here. I may be wrong, and I may have misinterpreted the voting intentions of some of the colleagues from various parties who are here today, but it seems that there is not a single right hon. or hon. Member here, other than the Front-Bench spokesmen for the Government, the official Opposition and the Scottish National party, who is likely to try to defend the production of the leaflet. If that is the case, it may well be that had a vote been possible, at least among Members in this Chamber, any motion deploring the Government’s production of such a leaflet at such expense for the benefit of one side in a contested referendum debate would have been overwhelmingly carried.
There is something else I find deeply worrying about the whole process. It seems that the Government arrived at their conclusions first and are now scrabbling around ever more desperately for one new argument after another to buttress them. As right hon. and hon. Members have already asked, why were these terribly important arguments about war and peace not included in the leaflet that was sent out? Why, indeed, was the Prime Minister willing to threaten—during what appear, I am sorry to say, to have been sham negotiations in Europe—that if he did not get his way on whatever minor changes he was trying to get he would be prepared to leave the European Union? If war, pestilence, flood, boils, frogs and the rest of the 10 plagues of Egypt will descend on us—
Indeed, and I will come to the question about war and peace a little further along, if I may.
It is a strange argument to suggest that out of something between 150 and 200 countries recognised at the United Nations, we, with the fifth strongest economy, are somehow deemed incapable of surviving outside the European Union. The vast majority of countries in the world do not, at least so far, belong to the 28-strong European Union network of nations. Who knows where the ambition will end? Perhaps one day half the countries in the world, or all of them, will belong to the European Union. One thing is clear, however. If countries are forced to integrate without the consent of the peoples concerned, the resultant political construct cannot possibly be run democratically.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that although we keep being told that we have to stay in the European Union because the other countries want and even need us for stability, democracy and accountability, the one thing that can be guaranteed to come out of the process of political integration is that we will be dumped into the second tier of a two-tier Europe, which I believe will largely be run by Germany? The consequence will be that we will not have influence because of the majority voting system and the lack of democracy.
As in so many things, my hon. Friend is absolutely correct. Let us be in no doubt about this: if, heaven forbid, we vote to remain in the European Union on 23 June, other countries will know once and for all that our ability to assert any independence or influence within that organisation is done for.
To pick up a refrain from the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), the entire construct of the document that we are discussing, and indeed of the Prime Minister’s speech today, is that somehow we are withdrawing from Europe. We want to leave the European Union, which is a failing institution, but we want to remain an active member of NATO and remain engaged with our European allies and partners on all the matters that the European Union deals with. We just do not want to be told what to do as a member of the European Union.
Absolutely, and in which of the two alternative models can we more influence other European countries? We have one model in which we can express our view and, with a democratic decision of our own Parliament, pursue a policy to try to enact that view. Alternatively, we can take the view that we will have more influence by submerging our voting power in a collective pool of voters, with a construct made up of legislatures and commissioners appointed by the 27 other member countries as well as by Britain. We can be outvoted time and again by an overwhelming majority of other countries’ Parliaments or commissioners and have our views totally disregarded.
It is understandable that people on the other side of the Atlantic who on two occasions, against their initial inclinations, have been forced into a conflict originating on the continent of Europe as a result of German militarism would prefer that Britain remain part of an organisation that they know can spell trouble for the United States of America in the future, just as it has in the past. However, they are making a fatal miscalculation if they think that we will be better able to keep the Governments of the remaining parts of Europe on some sort of track of common sense and reliable policy making by being outvoted by them at every turn. We need a system in which we can make our criticisms, and if those criticisms are not accepted we can go on making them and formulate policies to try to mitigate the effects of foolish policies that others might adopt.
I must say that the developments we have seen in the past couple of days are frankly very worrying. First there was the use of intelligence chiefs to say publicly that we would somehow be less safe in our intelligence sharing if we left the EU. At least one of the two intelligence chiefs concerned told me privately that we would be no worse off. We have seen that before—we saw the same operation when Downing Street tried to get a large number of retired military figures to sign up to a letter. Several of them did, but quite a lot of them refused. One of those whose signature was attached had not agreed, and Downing Street had to apologise to him. Another who had reluctantly agreed said that it was nevertheless unpleasant that he felt pressured to sign and that it was not the sort of letter he would have written himself.
Let not the Government turn around with innocence in their eye and say, “Good heavens, the very idea that we would try to manipulate senior figures or public opinion is outrageous.” The reality is that they have been caught doing it before. For that reason, they probably did not do it directly with the two intelligence chiefs, but we all know the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s official line on Britain remaining in Europe. No. 10 would not have to do a great deal to persuade a former senior diplomat—later the head of an intelligence agency—to put forward a line amenable to the Government’s standpoint.
Does the right hon. Gentleman think that many of the people who are being asked to do things on behalf of the Prime Minister—or indeed the Prime Minister himself—are looking towards a future job with the European Union, perhaps when they retire from whatever they are doing at the moment?
I would not like to attribute any particular motivation. It may often go no further than the fact that for someone with a long and honourable record of public service, who is used to serving democratically elected Governments, it is very difficult to refuse a request from high up in the political establishment—possibly from the Prime Minister or the Prime Minister’s representative—that they should speak out in support of Government policy. Let us put it this way: to refuse might be deemed ungrateful and against the ethos of civil servants’ obedience to Government rule. One does not have to look for base motives; one can simply say that it would take a special sort of independence of mind for someone to tell the Prime Minister or his representative that they were not going to help out in his hour of need.
It certainly seems to be an hour of need, because the reality is that the campaign seems to be getting more and more desperate and unscrupulous. Everything the remain campaigners do seems to be unavailing in shifting public opinion. The further they dig themselves into holes through dodgy tactics, the harder it becomes to defend them. I revert to what I said at the beginning: it appears that no Back Bencher is willing to attend the debate and speak up in favour of the Government’s tactics in producing this one-sided leaflet. These things do not happen by accident.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it goes further than that? Many Back Benchers—I include myself among them—feel desperately let down by the Government. We genuinely had an open mind. In my case, I am generally Eurosceptic, but we genuinely wanted to see what the Prime Minister came back with from the negotiations before we made up our mind. Now we discover that the Government had no intention of ever recommending that we should leave, and were completely set on the remain campaign from the very beginning.
Yes, it is absolutely clear that the Government are and always have been set on remaining come what may. The manoeuvres do not happen by accident. It is no accident that there appears to be a total boycott of the debate by Members from the remain side of the argument, other than the Front Benchers who have to be here. It was no coincidence that we had the intervention from the retired heads of MI5 and MI6 just 24 hours before the Prime Minister made his speech today. Such things are orchestrated. I can only assume that the more questionable the Government’s tactics come to be, the less able they will be to find people to stand up and defend them.
I had better bring my remarks to a close, because many other Members wish to speak. I do not know whether the debate will go right to 7.30 pm, but although I will stay as long as I can, I apologise for the fact that I will not be here for the winding-up speeches if the debate goes to its full length.
The Government’s only defence of the leaflet, which they have produced at such great cost to the public purse, is, “We can only look at the facts honestly, and the facts as we see them all come down on one side of the argument.” If that were honestly the case, there would be no need for a referendum in the first place. There would not be huge disagreement among a large part of the population with the idea that Britain should remain in an organisation hellbent on doing away with the system of parliamentary democracies that has kept the peace and replacing it with an undemocratic supranational Government. That could bring about the tensions and conflicts that always happen when we do not have democratic Governments dealing with other democratic Governments. Who can name an example of a modern democratic Government of one country going to war with a modern democratic Government of another? No one, because it does not happen. The idea that breaking up our system of peace-loving democracies and shoehorning people into a supranational state will somehow keep the peace rather than undermine it clearly shows that the Government have entered into something of an “Alice Through the Looking Glass” existence.
I once again thank everyone who has contributed to the debate so far. I am sure that when the time comes, the country will seize its one and only opportunity. If the Government win, they will expect us to accept defeat with good grace, just as we would expect them to accept defeat with good grace if we win. In reality, by adopting one-sided tactics such as producing this propaganda leaflet at public expense, they are delegitimising the result, and no one will benefit from that.
[Graham Stringer in the Chair]
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) on taking up the e-petition. No doubt it probably now has nearly 220,000 signatures. My constituents often say, “E-petitions make no difference. No one is really listening. What is the point of signing them?” but this debate shows clearly that that is not the case.
When the leaflet dropped through the door, I got three copies. I am not entirely sure why.
Two hundred and one of my constituents signed the petition, as did 214 constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson). The leaflet has not been sent to the people of Northern Ireland yet, and yet the anger grows. Since the arguments for the Government’s proposition in the leaflet have been shot through so convincingly, does the hon. Lady believe that the Minister should at least take the honourable step of saying, “Enough is enough; we recognise we made a mistake and we will not send it to the devolved regions”?
I hope the Minister takes note of that and perhaps saves the taxpayer a little bit of the money that the Government have so unscrupulously chosen to spend.
I want to look at one section of the leaflet—the wider issues have already been raised by other hon. Members and will no doubt be covered in more detail. The heading on page 7 is, “What happens if we leave?” That is clearly an open question—it sounds like an A-level question. One would expect the answer to cover both sides of the argument, presenting the for and the against, and giving a bit of detail and a concluding position, but it is clearly from one side of the argument. Apparently, voting to leave would create uncertainty and “potential economic disruption”. “Potential” leaves a little uncertainty. I think we have had definite economic disruption forever. Economies go up and they go down. Anyone who suggests that staying in a particular bubble will maintain some kind of economic stability has not been looking out of the window much.
My hon. Friend is right. It is always a little confusing when leaders of opposing camps in any election start to talk about the other side’s views. I hope that uncertainty and economic disruption will not be caused by Brexit. It is safe to say that we see much ahead of us that could cause that anyway.
The question of what happens if we leave is presented in the leaflet. What is not offered for those who have had the pleasure of having it through their door, or who have that pleasure still to come, is the question of what would voting to stay look like, since we know what would happen if we leave. It would ensure that we remain wedded with almost no influence, as several colleagues have already said. We are outwith the battered and struggling eurozone framework, but we are wedded to it. We are seeing Greek residents yet again put under unbearable financial strain so that EU bankers can circulate IMF money through Greece to ensure that the bankers do not come off too badly because of the euro chaos going on there. That is something we will definitely stay attached to in our uncontrolled sector outwith the eurozone, but that will cost us money. We will have to continue, as required, to bail out future eurozone crashes.
Jim Mellon, a successful entrepreneur who works across a large number of EU states, has made it clear—his forecasts, unlike the Treasury’s, have often been accurate—that the likely next crash of the euro, possibly a complete crash, will be within the next three years. It seems to me that voting to stay in will almost certainly ensure that we are wedded to a big bill over which we have little control, watching nations around us suffer even greater debt. The reality is that France’s and Italy’s debt balance sheet is pretty unsustainable. The chances are that the bill will be a lot bigger than just Greece’s costs. It is clear what will happen if we choose to stay.
The Government leaflet briefly suggests that we might strike a good deal in terms of trade with the EU if we were to leave, but it goes on to dismiss that as a pie-in-the-sky idea that is incredibly unlikely, because, somehow, there is no reason why a trade deal would be struck. The leaflet indicates that 8% of EU exports come to the UK and that 44% of UK exports go to the EU. That sounds terrible: 8% in, 44% out. That is a big imbalance, but let us look at that in real terms—my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) mentioned this earlier—and in the terms that businesses and those who make the exports and provide the services that we sell abroad would actually understand: the terms of money.
I am an accountant; percentages can be a useful way to present an issue, but also a useful way to create a level of dissimulation. There is a £67 billion deficit of goods and services this year.
Does the hon. Lady accept that the argument about a trade deal is really a non-argument? The United States has no trade deal with the EU and yet sells billions of euros’ worth of goods every year to the EU. Trade occurs because people want to buy the goods and because the prices are competitive.
Indeed. The hon. Gentleman anticipates my words.
On the numbers, there is real cash—real money—involved in selling and buying goods. I am not willing to brook the scaremongering message that businesses that sell us their products—all £67 billion of them—will want to stop doing so. It is said that the EU creates jobs and makes us money. None of that is true. The reality is that hard-working businessmen put their houses on the line to set up a business and employ people. They make a great product that other people want to buy. That is how jobs are created and how business and growth happen. It has nothing to do with the EU. It is about people buying and selling goods. It is as old as the hills and will continue.
British car drivers will still want to buy BMWs and Mercedes, and I have no doubt that the Germans will still want to sell them to us. We will be in what is described as a free trade area, which goes from Iceland through to Turkey. The risk of dramatic and terrifying tariffs is not a real risk. That is not what can happen under WTO rules within a free trade area.
The leaflet is frustrating. Not only is it biased, but it is unable to explain the reality of what trade means and how it might work, for better or worse, if we were to vote to leave on 23 June. At best, it is simply scurrilous. One of the real problems with the message about exports being key is that only about 5% or 6% of our businesses, which are a very important part of our UK trade, actually export to the EU. In my constituency in north Northumberland, I have a large number of small businesses, very few of whom export at all. They mostly sell their goods to other UK citizens. Of those who do export, they export to all corners of the globe, not only to the EU. In fact, thanks to the Emirates airline that set up a Newcastle to Dubai route four years ago, many now trade in the middle east in a whole new world. We have opened up dramatic new markets thanks to one aeroplane that goes once a day. It has been a fascinating thing to see. The EU is not the be-all and end-all of trade.
I thank my hon. Friend for that point. I agree entirely. The EU seems to have a propensity to believe that its status and existence is vital to everything else, but I am very pleased that business people around the world continue to override that and do what businesses do: create great new products and provide services that the whole world can reach and make use of.
My postbag has been heavily weighted by the views of businesses—before the leaflet arrived, but even more so after it arrived—overwhelmingly saying that being part of the EU has been hugely onerous, often adding enormous and unnecessary regulations that are not relevant or necessary because they do not trade in the EU. They add to costs, reduce productivity and often create frustrations in the day-to-day life of the businesses. Farmers, mackerel smokers, drone engineers and pastry producers are under more and more pressure from the EU, which has brought them unbelievable packaging regulations—and the weight of extra costs—that they would not need if we were not in the EU. They could trade with UK businesses and overseas global traders under a set of regulations that were sensible and financially viable, which would help their productivity to grow. If they continued to trade within the EU, no doubt they would be perfectly comfortable to meet whatever packaging and other requirements were needed for those markets.
In conclusion, the thing I found most frustrating about the leaflet—other than the fact that it was deeply depressing, presented only one side of the argument and managed to skew information in a way that anyone sitting an A-level would be chastised for because they were not presenting the facts as they should—was that £9.3 million is a lot of money in anyone’s book. I currently do a great deal of work with military charities. Combat Stress has been struggling to persuade the Chancellor to maintain funding for the incredibly important veterans services it provides. It received £6.3 million from the Government in 2014, but that was brought down to £4.6 million last year, and the charity is fighting to maintain that level for this year. I consider it wholly unacceptable, as do many of my constituents, that the Government have chosen to spend £9.3 million on this leaflet rather than finding one of the many ways to spend it to support those who put themselves in harm’s way to protect our nation. To suggest that war and genocide are the likely outcomes of voting to leave is insulting to our soldiers, sailors and airmen, and to every member of the British population who had to read such rubbish. I am sad for those yet to receive the leaflet who will do shortly.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) on such a brilliant introduction to the debate, and thank the many Members who have already spoken so well and so clearly. I shall not speak for long.
I have a copy of the leaflet—I sent mine back to the Prime Minister personally. As I said in an intervention earlier, I am delighted that I have the opportunity to speak about it before war breaks out and I am summoned. I am an ex-serviceman, my uniform is still hanging in the cupboard and I am ready to serve again, but I hope that we do not have to use armed force against our European allies. If they are allies and the EU state is so wonderful, as the Prime Minister and others believe, it is simply beyond me as to why one country’s leaving should cause war and genocide. The argument just does not stack up. As the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) and others have said, it is shameful that the Government are using such language.
When we hear from the Minister later, I am sure we will hear what we have heard from him before: a lot of—well, I cannot think of the appropriate word because he and I so fundamentally disagree. I wish this could be a light-hearted debate, I really do. I wish a sense of humour could be injected—although occasionally it is because the arguments for staying in are so farcical—but this is all about our country and its future. It is not about individual politicians or political legacies; it is about the future of our country and the freedom of the people who live in it. It is as simple as that. It is about our right to our own destiny and to guide our country in the direction we wish her to go.
On the back of the leaflet it says, “Protecting jobs”, and next to it is a tick. Tell that to half the members of the EU. They have huge rates of unemployment and are crippled by the euro and bankrupt. Italy was run by bureaucrats for a short period. Could that happen to us? The same people advised us to sell off the pound and join the euro. What an absolute disaster that would have been! One of the main reasons why our economy is potentially strong now is because we retained the pound. The leaflet also says, “A stronger economy”, with a tick. Again, tell that to the millions of people who are struggling to find work. It says, “Providing security”—security! Look at the evidence: civil unrest, terrorism, uncontrolled immigration and the rise of the left and the right. That is just what everyone feared all those years ago and, as has been mentioned, why so many millions died to keep us free. The EU is creating that same fear again because none of this makes sense.
I am staggered. I find it very difficult to comprehend how my party is in league with left-leaning parties, except for a few honourable exceptions. That is not to defame anyone for being on the left, right or centre, but it seems to me that the socialist-leaning parties want the EU to survive because it is a bureaucracy. Bureaucrats run it and are paid God knows how much money, with pensions, huge offices and secretaries—the cost is astronomical—and they are unaccountable.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned EU pensions, which is something that really bugs me. There are all those Members in the House of Lords who have worked for the European Union as commissioners and so on and now have big pensions—really, they are signed up to never bringing the European Union into disrepute. Does he agree not only that should they have to declare an interest, which they do not, but that they should not be allowed to take part or vote in anything to do with the European Union? They are deeply committed to it because of their huge pensions and if they say anything wrong they might get that taken away.
I agree with the hon. Lady. It certainly seems from those who have contributed to the debate so far that people are easily manipulated, or bought, or whatever. If the allegation is one of corruption, perhaps that is a bit strong, but certainly for ex-servicemen to speak out as they did is most unusual. Generals and highly respected people who have served this country should not be politicised. They should never have been asked to write that letter on behalf of the Government. It was an absolute disgrace. I have since spoken to one of the signatories, who shall remain nameless, and I have to say that I do not think he is particularly proud of signing that letter.
Let me return to the document. Interestingly, it has seven pictures. It does not have very many pages, but it has seven pictures: a calendar; a gentleman working on a bit of engineering; a basket of food; a ship; a “UK Border” sign; a family in the kitchen, washing up the breakfast, lunch or dinner; and a family walking down the street with a baby. You could not make this up. If the argument to stay in is so strong, why are these pages not full of facts trying to persuade people to stay in? The fact is that the Government do not have sufficient facts to fill this tiny, shabby leaflet.
Is my hon. Friend as surprised as I am that there is no real image of what staying in looks like? There is absolutely no mention of the accession of Turkey. There is no mention that 70-odd million Turks will soon be able to be part of the European Union or that it is our official position to welcome and support that. We have not resiled from that and it should be in the leaflet.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend about the potential mayhem that could be caused by uncontrolled immigration continuing. We have seen the evidence now: people are dying trying to cross seas to get to us. I do not blame them; if I were living in terrible conditions and I looked at my telephone and saw Dorset, I would say, “Darling, children, we’re off!” but we cannot allow uncontrolled immigration to continue. Turkey is a classic case.
Nor does the leaflet refer to the defence of our country. In a letter to The Daily Telegraph, I warned that staying in the European Union would inevitably lead a Government—I suspect a socialist Government more than this one—to look at the European army, navy and air force and say, “We’ve got all these ships, planes and men and women in uniform. Why do we need 80,000 British soldiers, 12, 13 or 14 squadrons, or whatever we have, and 19 warships? We don’t need to spend billions of pounds on our defence, because we are being defended by the Europeans.” The temptation to cut our armed forces to pay for other socialist agendas will be enormous.
Let me talk about the Falklands briefly. I was serving at the time. Friends of mine in the Welsh Guards and the Scots Guards were sent down there, and some lost their lives. Where was Europe during that war? It was nowhere in sight. We stood alone again until the Americans came to our aid and provided us with equipment to pursue the war more effectively.
This is about our democracy, our decision making and—dare I say?—our royal family, whom no one has mentioned yet. Is a 28-nation bureaucracy run from the centre going to want to see little England waving its Union Jack? Is it going to want to see our royal family reminding our great country of the country we used to be? The Head of State is the Queen. They ain’t going to like that for much longer, I warn you now.
We have heard about the special status. We have also heard that the deal, if it can be called that, struck by the Prime Minister has been lodged with the United Nations. We were promised a treaty change but we do not have one. As I understand it, MEPs and the European courts can overrule the reforms that we have achieved, pathetic though they are. I fear that if we vote in and fall for this con trick, they will.
Over the page, the leaflet talks about a stronger economy and how the EU is creating all these marvellous jobs, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan) has said, it is not the EU that does that, but the brave entrepreneurs who go out there and put their houses at risk to build and generate jobs. They then trade with other nations, as has been done since the world began. That will not change, because the Germans, the French and everybody else will want to trade with us, as we will with them, whether we are in or out.
We need strong economic partners to trade with. What if they are all basket cases? What if we simply cannot trade with Italy, Greece or Portugal because they are bust because they are trapped in the euro? The nature of those countries—they enjoy the sun and the wine—means that they do not make cars quite as effectively as the Germans. They make beautiful wine and enjoy life. They are different. The euro does not respect that. In the past, we would go and have amazingly cheap holidays and restore their economies. That can no longer happen, and it is to their detriment.
The leaflet talks about healthcare. We know that the pressures on the NHS are enormous. The many millions who come here are free to use it. My hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed mentioned the trade deals. What happens if we leave? It says that:
“The Government judges it could result in 10 years or more of uncertainty as the UK unpicks our relationship with the EU and renegotiates new arrangements with the EU and over 50 other countries around the world.”
So what? We can do it, and we will be in the driving seat. We are told that Canada has taken nine years to negotiate with the EU. I challenge anyone in this room to negotiate anything with 28 people from different backgrounds and come to a solution. It takes a long time.
Regrettably, I think this document is a sham, a disgrace and a complete waste of taxpayers’ money. I am ashamed—the hon. Member for Vauxhall used that word, and I will too. I thought better of the in campaign. We are going to see more fear sprayed around the country in the ensuing days.
I will end on this note. I was enjoying a ride with a taxi driver the other day. When he learned what I did—to my relief, he did not press the ejector button at that point—he said, “Look, guv; in or out?” I said, “What do you think?” He said, “Just the very whiff of having our country back makes me feel proud.”
As has already been pointed out, the people of Northern Ireland have not yet been subjected to having to read the dodgy dossier that has been published by the Government. No one should be surprised that it is not an objective assessment of the case for staying in or leaving because, as a number of hon. Members said, the Government made up their mind at the outset that, regardless of what happened in the negotiations, they would put forward the case for remain. No doubt, when the leaflet eventually makes its way through the Royal Mail’s postbags to my constituents’ houses, they will treat it with contempt because they will know it is not an attempt to set out the facts and figures.
We have just finished the Assembly election campaign in Northern Ireland, and the question I was most commonly asked on the doorstep over the past three and a half weeks, even though it is nothing to do with the Assembly election, was, “Are you in or are you out?” From the conversations I have had with thousands of my constituents, I have absolutely no doubt which way they will be voting on 23 June.
The Government are desperate. We saw the degree of their desperation when the Prime Minister visited Northern Ireland at the beginning of this campaign. He brought together farmers and told them that their crops will die in the fields, that their bank balances will be slashed, that European money will end and that we will no longer be able to feed ourselves because of the disaster that will befall Northern Ireland if we drop out of the EU and no longer have the support of the CAP. He ignored the fact that, as most farmers know—a large part of my constituency is rural—EU support for agriculture in the United Kingdom has been falling because support is increasingly being directed towards eastern Europe, and that many small farmers are crippled by bureaucracy and the CAP’s requirements.
Of course, the Prime Minister pulled out the ultimate card: he said that somehow or other the peace process might be in jeopardy. I lived in Northern Ireland right through the troubles, and I never, ever heard any IRA spokesman say that he was determined to bomb the life out of people in Northern Ireland to stay in the EU. It was never an issue with republicans. Indeed, it is significant that, until it got embroiled in the politics of the Irish Republic, Sinn Féin used to be a very anti-EU party. Suddenly, because it wanted to curry favour with voters in the Republic, it decided that it was pro-EU. Saying that the peace process will somehow be in jeopardy is another scare tactic.
In Northern Ireland, whenever we get into trouble with the peace process, we can be sure that political leaders whose names the President of the United States has never heard before will get a telephone call from the White House. “Jimmy, how are you?”—I cannot do an American accent, so I will not even try—or, “Peter, how are you?” and the soft-soaping starts. It has been no different in this referendum campaign. The US cavalry has ridden to the rescue of General Cameron, who is making his last stand. I believe that he knows it is his last stand. He cannot convince the people of the United Kingdom to go into the reservation of the EU, so he has to bring in the American President to frighten them, but I think the American President’s ham-fisted attempt has not weakened but strengthened the leave campaign.
Many Members have already talked about the false arguments in this document, and I want to pick up on one or two of them: first, that the cost of living is going to go up. How do they justify that—on the basis, primarily, that the value of the pound will fall. However, our exchange rate goes up and down. We have a freely floating exchange rate mechanism, because we are not part of the euro. Our exchange rate goes up and down all the time. We live with the consequences of that: sometimes it helps our exporters and sometimes it is to the detriment of our exporters; sometimes it brings down the cost of living because imports become cheaper, and sometimes it puts the cost up—but that is what happens without a fixed exchange rate. Our membership of the EU will make no difference to that—but that is the main way in which the cost of living could increase, according to the Government leaflet.
We have had that reinforced by the Chancellor’s predictions and the Treasury’s model up to 2030. I taught economics at one stage and the one thing I know about economic models is that we do not rely on economic models to tell us what is going to happen in 2030 when we are living in 2016. A Treasury model also told us that the deficit would be wiped out by now. The Treasury revises its estimates almost on a yearly basis, because economic models are subject to a whole range of assumptions. If we are looking 14 years in advance, how can we possibly know what parameters to put into an economic model? We are certainly not going to be able to tell people, “You are going to be £4,302.22 worse off,” which is what the Government want people to believe.
That is the first scare tactic. The second is the idea that people will not be able to go on their holidays any longer, they will have to get a visa to go to the sun and flights will cost more. For those who are concerned about carbon footprints, that would be a compelling argument, but it does not really play much with me. Again, that is based on what? The price of flights has come down not because of the EU, but because of people such as O’Leary, companies such as Ryanair and easyJet, and competition between airlines. That has nothing to do with the EU, yet it is rested at the EU’s door.
Next is the argument that millions of jobs will be lost because it is more difficult to get access to European markets. However, in my constituency, there are companies that do research for the pharmaceutical industry; one firm has 140 workers who research new drugs and, as a result, drugs worth £750 million are produced across Europe from the patents for which they are responsible. Do people buy that information because we are part of the EU? No, they buy it because the research is good quality, and the drug has been tested and is capable of being marketed.
In my constituency, too, Schrader Electronics provides valves that tell drivers whether their tyres have gone down, without them having to look at them. The valves are sold to car manufacturers all over the European Union, as part of the supply chain. On 24 June, are those manufacturers likely to say that they will no longer buy the valves? Of course not, because the technology is good and the price is good. The company is part of the supply chain and will remain part of the supply chain.
For anyone who flies on an airplane, every third seat is made in Northern Ireland—anyone sitting on seats A or D is probably sitting on one. Why? Is it because we are part of the EU? No, it is because we have a manufacturer that produces a competitive product.
I could go on. People buy our goods for those reasons. All around the world, we sell goods to countries that we do not have trade deals with. So what about the idea that, if we left the EU, suddenly we would not get a trade deal with it? First, the supply chain would demand that the goods are bought anyway and, secondly, if the product is not competitive, people will stop buying, but if it is competitive, they will keep on buying. The argument is that it will take us years to negotiate a new trade deal. It will not, for the simple reason that, if firms want our products, they will continue to buy them.
On the last argument to be made, I have to say that the Prime Minister has been despicable today, invoking the war dead. It shows desperation to say that people died for the European Union, or for a united Europe. They died for a Europe free of dictatorship; they died for a democratic Europe. The whole essence of the EU is that it is not a democratic institution—some people do not even try to defend it as that any longer—and it is not an institution in which the will of the people is reflected in the decisions made; the will reflected is that of people who believe they know better than the elected politicians. The bureaucrats believe that they can develop an efficient system of government, free from those pesky politicians with their mad ideas and everything else. For the Prime Minister to invoke the war dead was an absolute disgrace.
We have seen the security argument, unfortunately, blown apart in Paris and Brussels. Terrorists, because of the Schengen arrangements and open borders, can wander around Europe like jihadic nomads, crossing borders, planning and plotting, and then killing. That is why we need to have control over our own borders. That is why we need to be out of an institution that leaves us open to that kind of terrorist activity.
I made an intervention about this earlier, but it is significant that the Government’s own document eulogises the fact that our special relationship with Europe enables us to opt out of and to distance ourselves from most of the major policies of the European Union. If there is a compelling argument, it is in the Government’s own document. We do not want to be part of the euro, because we have seen what it has done, the devastation that it has wrought across economies in European countries, the youth unemployment, and the way in which democratic institutions have been undermined in Italy and Greece as a result of the requirements to stay in the euro. Looking at the arguments in the document, we can also opt out of Schengen, another essential part of the EU.
By the way, the Government say that no country has been able to negotiate a trade agreement with the EU without allowing free access to labour. That is not true. Many countries outside the European Union trade freely with it, and they do not have to accept anyone and everyone who wants to move from EU countries to their country, but the document makes that claim—although the Government say that part of our special relationship is that we can opt out of that as well, and we can opt out of any other interference. If it is so good to be able to opt out of those policies, is it not even better to opt out of the EU altogether?
I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship in this important debate, Mr Stringer. I pay a special tribute to all Members who have taken part so far. I was particularly moved by the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax), which was powerful and sobering.
I am yet to find a constituent in Telford who thinks that the leaflet provides value for taxpayers’ money, yet the Prime Minister tells us that it is money well spent. The decision to spend £9 million-plus on a glossy leaflet, sent out 11 weeks before the referendum, sends unintended messages to voters about the EU. It tells us that the Government are willing to spend taxpayers’ money with no regard for the opinions of the people. It tells us that they are willing to waste taxpayers’ money, and it is fundamentally anti-democratic. No Government should spend public money to tell the people they govern how to vote and what to think.
We know that public opinion is divided on whether to leave or remain. It is about 50:50 at the moment, and that is why we are having a referendum. As I remind my local council from time to time, taxpayers’ money should not be used on publicity blitzes or vanity projects, and never to promote political ambitions.
Even those who think that a remain vote would be good for us and in our best interests have doubts about spending £9 million-plus on a leaflet. The BBC’s headline on 7 April was “Will anyone read £9m government leaflet?” Some may do, under duress, but I have to admit that I did not, despite receiving it three times. I read it only when I came to prepare for the debate. Anyone who has ever taken part in a political campaign knows that one glossy leaflet, sent 11 weeks before election day, will be passed over, sent off for recycling and completely forgotten about when the time comes to put an X in the box.
The public deserve and clearly want unbiased, neutral, factual information about the referendum. This is a big issue for our country. Why would we not want to hear both sides of the argument so that we can make up our minds for ourselves? The Minister—I greatly respect him for sitting here this afternoon and listening to what we have to say—may say that the leaflet was produced because there was a thirst for information. The Government should recognise that the reason why there is a thirst for information is that they have not provided it. They have a duty and responsibility to give the public the facts, not just the account they want us to hear.
The leaflet was clearly designed to masquerade as a Government information leaflet, yet from a cursory glance at its contents we can see that it is nothing of the sort. We have been told that the Government are not neutral about our decision on whether to remain or leave. That is true, but the leaflet needed to make that point and not pretend to be factual public information from a neutral and unbiased perspective. For example, there is no recognition in the leaflet that the mutual self-interest of other members of the EU would ensure that a leave decision would be achieved with minimal disruption to existing trading arrangements. There is no comment on the challenges facing the EU, which are set out in the Five Presidents report. I am sure the Minister knows who those five important people are, but I did not until one constituent of mine described them to me as the five best reasons to leave the EU. I would like to name those five reasons: the President of the Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker; the President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz; the President of the Eurogroup, Jeroen Dijsselbloem; the President of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi; and the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk. Yes, those are five reasons—very expensive reasons—to leave the EU.
We, the British people, do not like being told what to do by self-important bureaucrats. We do not like being told what is in our best interests or what is good for us. This debate is about liberty, economic freedom and democracy, and if the £9 million leaflet did anything, it served to remind the British people why we cherish those ideals and what the EU is really about. Perhaps the leaflet did have some value after all, and perhaps not all of that £9 million was wasted.
I do not want to give the Minister all the arguments about why we should remain in the EU or leave. Many of them are well known, and I am not sure that the debate is entirely about those arguments. I want to talk about fairness—that is what the debate is about. We all have strong views, and we could all give long speeches explaining why, in our view, the leaflet is wrong on a particular fact and is based on supposition. We could ask how, when the Treasury has difficulty in getting its own borrowing figures correct even for the next year, it can possibly foretell what will happen in five or 10 years or how exchange rates will move. We could go through the entire leaflet and tear it apart—no Back Bencher from the remain camp has bothered to come to the debate, which is faintly sinister from the point of view of fairness—but I am not sure that anything would be achieved by doing that. I want to concentrate on the argument about fairness.
The Minister will quite rightly say that the Government have a particular point of view and are constitutionally entitled to put that point of view. No one denies that, and no one denies that the Foreign Secretary, the Prime Minister and the Minister for Europe can give whatever speeches they like, whether or not they agree with them. We all accept that. The Minister will no doubt also say that Governments have argued particular cases during past referendums, and all the rest of it.
We cannot deny that the Government have a settled view, although of course we should point out that we are in an unusual situation where several members of the Government have a completely different view, which should temper some of the rhetoric. The Government have a point of view, but our question is, what is the whole point of this referendum? Is the point not to draw a line under the debate so that both sides feel that they have had a fair crack of the whip, that both campaigns have broadly spent the same amount of money and had the same amount of airtime, that the arguments have been made and that the public have decided one way or the other? I say to the Government that even if they win, nothing will have been achieved if at the end of the campaign people feel a fundamental sense of unfairness and if one side—the remain side, with all its resources and backed by the Government, thousands of civil servants and so on—has had an undue advantage.
There is history in this debate, as I mentioned in my earlier intervention. I will quote John Mills, the Labour donor and deputy chair of Vote Leave, who was a national agent for the no campaign in the 1975 referendum. He wrote recently:
“We were deluged by propaganda heavily weighted in favour of the stay-in campaign. The total expenditure spending on advertising, leaflets, posters and all the other elements of the campaigns conducted on each side was roughly 10:1 in favour of staying in. This had a massive effect on public opinion and can’t have failed to have had a significant impact on the result…In the autumn of 1974, only 36 per cent of the population thought membership of the Common Market was ‘a good thing’. But by 1975, this figure had shot up to 50 per cent. It is very hard to believe that this huge increase in support for staying in was not largely down to the massive and disproportionate propaganda campaign waged by the pro-Common Market campaign.”
There is history in this debate.
Presumably, the remain campaign has come to the conclusion that it has to bombard the people and outspend the leave campaign. That is unfair. The remain campaign and the leave campaign are each allowed to raise £7 million. I actually talked to the Vote Leave campaign today about having a rally. I asked, “Can you organise a rally in Lincolnshire?” and the campaigners said, “Well, we’d rather you did it, because of course it comes out of our spending, which is very carefully controlled.” That is all fair enough. The leave campaign is limited to £7 million. The remain campaign will spend £7 million, and in addition the Government have produced a leaflet at the taxpayers’ expense for £9 million. That comes to £7 million plus £9 million on the remain side, compared with just £7 million on the leave side, which is fundamentally unfair. Surely the whole point about the British mentality and way of doing politics is that both sides get a fair crack of the whip. Is that not why we have such hugely careful spending controls in all our general election campaigns in our constituencies—because we feel that there is a right to put an argument, but taxpayers’ money should not be used to overwhelm the other side?
Perhaps I may make one comment about fairness. People are asking for a genuine debate. They want genuine information. Many people are still undecided. If it were possible for the Government to help facilitate a genuine debate in which the arguments, facts and economics would be put, people would understand that, but they find it increasingly irritating that there seems to be a Government tendency to increase the war tempo of the rhetoric—there has been the latest claim today, of course. If the result of leaving would be so utterly disastrous for peace, the economy and all the rest of it, why are we having the referendum in the first place? Why did the Prime Minister risk it? Why did he say during his negotiations that he was prepared to consider recommending that we should leave if he did not get his demands, which we know were about only minor changes on migration? Now he says that leaving would have a devastating result on the economy, the prospects for war or peace in Europe, and many other things. Why did he risk all that? Why did the Foreign Secretary say during the negotiations that he was prepared to consider leaving, whereas apparently he now says that leaving would be a disaster?
I say to the Government, by all means put the arguments—no one is criticising them for doing that; they are the duly elected Government and have a right to do it—but just try to be fair, and do not try to overwhelm the opposition with taxpayers’ money. That is what other Governments have done, in places such as eastern Europe. That is what the Council of Europe is all about, and it is why we had the debate on purdah. I know the Minister will say that he made it perfectly clear that purdah would apply only for the last 28 days. We understand all those arguments, but was not the reason for that debate our wish to make it clear that the Government should not misuse their massive power and resources to overwhelm the opposition? If the Government win on that basis it will be a dirty victory, and will not close down the debate. I also believe that it is counterproductive for the Government in their campaign, because people react to it. They are not fools, and they know when they are being taken for fools and fed propaganda. It will not work, and will create a nasty taste. I regret the fact that the leaflet was published in such a way and paid for by the taxpayer. I hope that the Government will learn from the reaction to their leaflet and not make a similar mistake in the future.
It is a great pleasure to be called to speak, albeit late, in this well attended, though I must say one-sided debate. I ask right hon. and hon. Members to spare a thought for my right hon. Friend the Minister. He reminds me of one of those renaissance pictures of St Sebastian, who stands tethered to a tree, his body pierced by a multitude of arrows shot by myriad archers. He has been called on many times to defend the Government’s handling of the referendum process. Today he seeks to defend the frankly shabby piece of disinformation posing as an informative leaflet, which has been comprehensively shredded, metaphorically, by the participants in the debate, just as it has no doubt been physically shredded by many of the people who had the unfortunate experience of finding it dropping through their letter box.
The arguments have been advanced and I do not want to repeat them, but there is one point that I want to touch on as a Welsh Member of Parliament, which is the timing of the leaflet. As the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) pointed out, the leaflets have not yet been delivered in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, because the Government wanted to avoid a clash with the elections that took place last Thursday. In England, of course, they were distributed between 11 April and 13 April, which was before the regulated period of the referendum campaign began. In Wales, they will be distributed this week, as they will in Northern Ireland and Scotland.
I have to tell my right hon. Friend the Minister that the timing had no effect whatever on the Welsh Assembly election campaign, because I had exactly the same experience as the hon. Member for East Antrim. Everywhere I went when I was canvassing in that campaign, I found that very few people wanted to talk about the Assembly election, but everyone wanted to talk about the referendum. In particular they were incensed at the fact that the Government had spent £9.3 million of their money— taxpayers’ money—on a piece of propaganda.
The practical effect is that the leaflets will be delivered in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales squarely during the regulated period, which I suggest will give the remain campaign an unfair advantage. During that time, expenditure is carefully regulated and limited. The Government are not affected by those limitations of course, but in any event the remain campaign’s expenditure will be augmented by the delivery of the leaflet through people’s letterboxes. That is deeply regrettable, and the Electoral Commission has pointed out that after the Scottish referendum it recommended that Governments should not conduct any taxpayer-funded advertising during the regulated period. That is what has happened in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
I suggest that the Government should have had regard to the Venice Commission’s code of good practice on referendums, which provides:
“The use of public funds…for campaigning purposes must be prohibited”
and states that any explanatory report produced by the authorities should
“give a balanced presentation not only of the viewpoint of the executive and legislative authorities or persons sharing their viewpoint but also of the opposing one.”
The Government’s document is completely silent in that regard. The leaflet clearly contravenes those recommendations. It is utterly one-sided.
As a Conservative Member of Parliament I am bound to say that I find it highly regrettable that my party’s Government has conducted itself in that way. I would go so far as to say that I am deeply ashamed. The fact that so many people have signed the e-petition, which no doubt is at somewhere around the 220,000 signature mark by now, is a clear sign that my concern, and the concern of so many other hon. Members who have spoken this afternoon, is shared widely by the British people. It has been an unfortunate episode in an unfortunate campaign, and I hope that on reflection my right hon. Friend the Minister will find it in his heart to apologise for what the Government have done.
Before I call the Scottish National party spokesperson, I remind the House that there is approximately 10 minutes for each Front-Bench speaker. Perhaps the Minister will leave two minutes at the end for the mover of the motion to respond to the debate; that is what we do by convention.
I wish you and all other colleagues here a happy Europe Day, Mr Stringer—of course, that has yet to come up in the debate. I particularly wish the Minister a happy Europe Day. When I attend debates such as this I seem to be in the unusual situation of being one of the friendlier faces he encounters. That is a sad state of affairs indeed, but he will be glad to learn that I have brought reinforcements, who are also champions of the remain campaign. Indeed, my hon. Friends the Members for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) and for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) have just returned from a visit to Brussels, where my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond) made a strong case for remaining part of the European Union. The Scottish National party is helping where others are not at the moment.
Today’s debate, like the broader debate, appears to have a lot more to do with Conservative in-fighting than with the future of the European Union or the European debate. Indeed, some of the language used today has been rather intemperate and unfortunate. Of course, the leaflet is not yet for viewers in Scotland, Northern Ireland or Wales; I have no doubt we will get ours soon. We have just come through an important election period when we have been discussing issues such as education, transport, local government and our health service. I wonder whether we should take the opportunity to press the reset button on this particular debate now that we have come through those elections.
We would like to hear some positive remarks. The hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) threatened to grind government to a halt over the leaflet. He also made reference to the armada. Of course, some historians think the armada set forth as a direct result of the execution of Mary Queen of Scots. We have talked about the royal family, and Mary Queen of Scots’ forebears could not be any more European. [Interruption.] We have a monarch on the throne at the moment who is descended from Germans and married to a Greek-Danish prince. You cannot get a lot more European than that.
The key point that I have probably had to reiterate more than any other is that there is Europe, and then there is the EU. The EU is a political construct. Europe is a geographical construct made up of many countries, some of which are in the EU and some of which are not. To continue to misuse the two terms is to treat the Great British public as stupid. They understand clearly the difference between the two.
I thank the hon. Lady. She will be glad to hear that we will not be putting the fact that the Queen is married to a Danish-Greek prince at the heart of our campaign. We will be putting at the heart of our campaign the fact that the European Union makes us greener, wealthier, fairer and safer.
Fundamentally, we need to think about questions of fairness. That was reflected in the amendments that SNP Members tabled to the European Union Referendum Bill. I see in the Chamber Opposition and Government Members who backed some of those amendments—they were unsuccessful, but we are getting used to that in this place. We tabled those amendments because fairness has to be at the heart of this debate.
The Chair of the Defence Committee, the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), said that whoever is defeated must be able to do so with good grace. That is critical. I hope the Minister will agree that the referendum needs to be seen to be scrupulous. In our amendments to the Bill we were quite particular about the purdah period, because we hope not to see any last-minute promises or vows from either side, made out of panic.
I note that some Government Members have hit out at “Project Fear”. I am glad that since the Scottish independence referendum, a large number of Conservative Members have had their hallelujah moment about that. I feared seeing far too much of “Project Fear”. I sincerely hope we will move on from that.
I apologise, Mr Stringer, for not having been here for the whole debate. As my hon. Friend said, several of us were in Brussels and have returned by Eurostar, having heard my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond) make an eloquent and clear positive case for remaining in the European Union—the antithesis of the scare stories we are hearing from both sides south of the border. I have no doubt that he will be a figurehead and champion for the remain cause in Scotland and across the UK. Would my hon. Friend care to reflect on whether such a figurehead or champion exists for the leave side in Scotland?
My hon. Friend raises a good point. We keep on hearing that there is nobody here from the remain side. My answer to my hon. Friend is: I do not know. I have no idea who will be in charge of the leave campaign up in Scotland, because we have no one. So far, we have 59 out of 59 SNP Members of this Parliament in favour of remaining, 128 out of 129 Members of the previous Scottish Parliament in favour and five out of the six Scottish Members of the European Parliament in favour. Nobody is emerging for the leave campaign, but we will see what comes from the new lot.
I know that Members will be wondering what happened in the Scottish Parliament elections. They will all be glad to hear that the SNP won again, with 47% of the vote, which was up on 2011. Furthermore—[Interruption.] I hear sedentary points being made by Conservative Members; I would love to take an intervention. No? Nothing at all. The SNP Government won the highest proportion of the vote of any sitting Government in Europe. They are the most trusted Government in Europe.
Let us compare the track records. The Scottish Government have already published their agenda for EU reform, and they have a better track record on publishing documents. The White Paper published for the Scottish independence referendum was downloaded free, at no cost to the taxpayer, 100,000 times. Will the Minister tell us how many times he expects the referendum leaflet to be downloaded?
What would the hon. Gentleman have said during the Scottish referendum campaign if the Government had paid for a leaflet to be issued to every household in Scotland, urging people to vote for one side? Would he not have complained? Therefore, to be entirely consistent, should he not also complain during this referendum campaign? I am looking for consistency.
The Scottish Government did produce a leaflet, and the Scotland Office, under the Conservative party, also produced a leaflet that was sent to every house. The hon. Gentleman should raise that issue with his Government’s Minister. Our leaflet was downloaded 100,000 times.
Since the hon. Gentleman raises the issue of the Scottish independence referendum, let us look at it. There was an 85% turnout—I wonder whether the Minister thinks this referendum will reach that—with 16 and 17-year-olds engaged in politics and taking part, and in a study conducted afterwards there was a 95% satisfaction rating with how the referendum was carried out.
We are here to state the merits of a petition that I understand was started by Jayne Adye, who is the director of the Get Britain Out campaign. She is therefore not a disinterested person who is independent of the issue or whose only concern, as the petition claims, is about the spending of public money.
We need to be honest about what this debate is about. It is yet another example of the wider leave campaign wanting to talk about process and not the real issues. I do not have a problem with that, but let us not pretend that this is about a leaflet issued by the Government. The faux outrage is intended to drown out the arguments made in the leaflet. I very much doubt that the director of the Get Britain Out campaign would have raised a petition if the Government were spending taxpayers’ money on a leaflet arguing that we should leave.
Has the hon. Lady been listening to the debate? Colleague after colleague has stood up and pointed out that the leaflet is simply wrong and misleading, because we care passionately about getting back democratic accountability and control for the British people.
As the right hon. Gentleman said, I have sat through almost three hours of the debate very politely and courteously and listened to all of the arguments.
If we are going to do this, we should get it right. This is a small issue, but the petition talks about the Government spending
“money on biased campaigning to keep Britain inside the European Union”
and about the “Great British Public”. If we want to get this right, we must talk about the UK, not Britain. Britain is the island; the UK is much wider than that. I am sure that it was not the intention of the campaigners to cut out an entire country and all of the people of Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, let us get it right.
It is not. It is called “Labour In for Britain”. I am part of a Labour campaign. As far as I can see, the leaflet is entirely legal. It has been issued by the Government well in advance of the last 28 days of the referendum period, when section 125 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 will apply and restrict publications about the referendum by bodies or persons that are wholly or mainly publicly funded. The leaflet represents the official view of the Government on the biggest decision that this country will make in a generation and which will impact on this country and our neighbours for decades. In my view, it would be unacceptable for the Government not to have a view on that and not to share that view with the people of this country.
No. As has been pointed out, we have had a huge debate, but we have heard one side of the argument. Hon. Members should do me the courtesy of allowing me to give the other side of the argument.
It seems perfectly reasonable to me for the Government of the day to set out their position in the referendum. This is not a precedent; it is exactly what Governments have done before. This leaflet is clear, and the title is not misleading. It seems to me, and no doubt to those watching the debate today, that those challenging the leaflet are hoping to silence the arguments contained in it, rather than discussing the merits of issuing a leaflet or the cost.
We know that, on this issue, the Labour party—I expect to get one or two requests for an intervention here—is largely of one voice. A handful of my colleagues—I think it is five altogether—have long-held and deep-set views on the issue, and I absolutely respect that, but I think they are mistaken, and they would certainly have to agree that they are out of step with the vast majority of the parliamentary Labour party, constituency Labour parties and Labour voters. The Conservative party, however, is split on the issue. Let us look at the facts. We have a parliamentary Labour party pro-EU group. That group has 214 members.
I will come on to that in a moment. They include all of the leadership and all of the shadow Cabinet. On this one issue at least, in comparison with Government Members, we look like an old married couple.
I have sat here throughout the debate and listened to the arguments, and some good arguments have been made. I absolutely accept some of the arguments made by the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) about fairness. However, I was hoping that, in almost three hours, I would have heard what “out” looks like in terms of jobs, consumers and the environment. What would it look like for women and young people and for our future security? I have not heard any of that. What I have heard is that it will be all right on the night. Even the leading Brexit economist now says that an EU exit would kill off our manufacturing sector.
As someone from the north-east, I was surprised at what was said by the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan), who is not listening at the moment. We are the only region in the country that has a trade surplus. We are a manufacturing region, and hundreds of thousands of jobs depend on our being part of the European Union. Leaving the EU would be a disaster for regions such as mine. I understand what the hon. Lady says about one Emirates flight out of Newcastle airport every day, but that cannot compare to the hundreds of thousands of cars that we export from the north-east to the European Union.
In the leaflet, the Government make a clear recommendation to the people of the UK that they judge it to be in our national interest to remain a member of the European Union. For once, I agree with them. The Cabinet Office has told us that independent polling shows that 85% of voters are seeking more information on which to make an informed decision. That supports what I am finding on the doorstep. When I talk to people, they are clear that this is not their No. 1 priority at the moment. However, they know it is important and they want the facts on which to make a decision.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), I apologise for arriving late. I was stuck on a Eurostar train or I might have wanted to make a speech in the debate. Does the hon. Lady agree that it is a great pity that the referendum is taking place among the citizenry who are the least well informed in the whole of the European Union about what the European Union actually does? Is she concerned, as I am, that whatever the result is, it might not be the result of an informed electorate, and that cannot be good for democracy?
Governments of both colours, over the last 41 years, have failed to make the case for the European Union; they have failed to make it real for real people’s lives. That is part of the problem: we have had 41 years of one side of the argument. It is not unreasonable that we should now start to see some of the other side of the argument.
The leaflet has cost £9.3 million, which is equivalent, we are told, to 34p per household. The official in and out campaigns will each receive £15 million and a higher spending limit of £7 million each, the use of public rooms and a public grant of up to £600,000, in order to make their case to the people of the UK, so the cost of the leaflet will presumably not now be the issue. Presumably there will now be another petition, asking us not to spend the £15 million on each side and provide the access to public rooms and so on if the issue is really the spending of public money.
My understanding from talking to people who have received the leaflet is that it has certainly caused debate and a thirst for further information. The hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) said that he had received 476 complaints about the leaflet, and I do not doubt that for a moment, but I have received two complaints from constituents about it. In the past four weeks, I have received almost 500 contacts and complaints from constituents about tax havens in UK dependencies and overseas territories. I have actually received more complaints from constituents about the degrading quality of modern bricks than about the leaflet. That shows that it is a much greater issue among different people and in different parts of the country. My reading of the situation on the doorstep is that there is a public thirst for information. The public want a debate on the facts, and they do not want a debate on a leaflet that has been sent out already in England. One thing that I hope we can all agree on is that at least the leaflet encourages everyone to be registered to vote—everyone should take part in this far-reaching referendum. No one can say that this issue does not affect them.
I want to reference this fact sheet. Full Fact contacted every Member of Parliament in advance of the debate—I have no reason to think it contacted only me. Having checked the leaflet, Full Fact says, in summary:
“The government explicitly states that the leaflet is arguing for the UK remaining in the EU. So it is not attempting to be even-handed...Given that, much of the leaflet is accurate and the government deserves some credit for ensuring that it was published with details of the sources, making it easier for”
people to “judge independently.”
Finally, I simply want to set out Labour’s case for remaining in the EU. It is a simple case. We believe that for jobs, growth, investment and security reasons, we are better off in the European Union. We believe that, for the protection of the workers of the UK and for environmental reasons, the UK is better off in Europe. We believe that we are safer in an increasingly unsafe world if we are part of a strong economic group of 520 million people. We believe that the people of Europe can tackle those big issues that do not recognise borders and that threaten our future—climate change, international terrorism and global tax avoidance—only if we do so together.
This afternoon, many of the arguments and—dare I say it?—many members of the cast have been an extended reprise of the exchanges that took place following my statement on the publication of the Government’s leaflet on 11 April. The Government’s position remains as I set out then: we believe that the referendum is potentially the most important decision that the British people will make on any political issue in their lifetime.
Independent polling carried out on our behalf made it clear that 85% of people wanted more information from the Government to help them to make an informed decision. We believe that the leaflet that we have distributed, the footnotes that we have published on the Government website so that the evidence on which we have made the statements presented in it can be examined and challenged, and the other Government publications, deliver on that commitment and help to fulfil that need.
Yes, as others have said, the Government are not neutral in the debate. The Government have a very clear collective position to support the United Kingdom remaining in the European Union.
I am sorry, but there was a collective Cabinet decision. There are and always have been—for as long as I have been in politics—honourable, sincerely held differences of opinion within our party and within the Labour party about the European question. The Prime Minister therefore said that, on this issue and this issue alone, he would relax the normal rules by which Ministers are obliged to support the collective Government position without question and that those Ministers would, in a personal capacity, be able to express their dissenting views.
I am happy for the Minister to write to me on this point. As he places significant importance on the Government’s website, can he tell me where, as of today, I can find certain quotations by the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer? As recently as four months ago, they said that we would be perfectly alright outside the EU, but those quotations have disappeared from the website.
The hon. Lady does not have to search through the Government website. She can look at Hansard and will see that my right hon. Friends have, on many occasions, said that the United Kingdom could survive outside the EU. However, the question that faces the electorate in the referendum is whether remaining in the EU or leaving the EU is the best outcome for our prosperity and security. It is my contention, and the Government’s contention, that the economic and political interests of the UK and all its people are best served by continuing to remain as active and leading players in the primary international organisation on the continent of Europe.
The leaflet follows precedent from previous referendums, including that on EU membership in 1975, when a Government leaflet was also distributed. It also follows the precedent of the referendums on the creation of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly in 1997 and on the creation of the mayoral system in London in 1998, and of two Government leaflets during the Scottish referendum in 2014. Government publications of this sort, including the distribution of the leaflet, are entirely lawful. However, I can confirm that, as set out in section 125 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, special rules limiting Government publications of all kinds will apply during the last 28 days of the referendum campaign.
Will the Minister accept that the leaflet has undermined the trust not only of the country, but also of this place, which operates on the basis of trust? I was assured by Ministers in private not only that there would be no leaflets in the 28-day period, but that there would be no leaflets full stop. Does he accept that our trust has been undermined?
I have taken part in debates and responded to questions about the application of section 125, including in the Chamber and while giving evidence to the Committee on Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee. I was very clear, as was my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, that we were talking about restrictions and whether they should be applied in the final 28 days of the campaign. Indeed, the hon. Members who often were most fervent in challenging the Government’s original suggestion that there might be particular circumstances in which the section 125 arrangements should be relaxed were saying to us, “Don’t worry because the Government will have every opportunity to present their case during the earlier stages of the referendum campaign.”
Although hon. Members are right that the overall spending limit for each of the designated campaign organisations is £7 million, those two campaigning organisations will, in addition, have the right to take advantage of a free leaflet distribution to every letterbox or every registered elector. They will also both have the right to a broadcast to the British public.
If the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) is willing, I will write to her about the two specific questions that she asked. I assure the House that no copies of the leaflet will be distributed during purdah and that postal votes will not arrive before 27 May. That includes postal votes sent to registered electors living overseas. I hope that satisfies her to some extent.
A number of hon. Members suggested that, if we remained the EU, we would be inexorably dragged into further forms of political or military integration against our will. I remind hon. Members that we already have, in the European Union Act 2011—an Act that has now been accepted on a cross-party basis in the House of Commons—very considerable safeguards. They provide for a referendum of the people to take place before the UK, under any Government, could join the euro, sign up to an EU army or a European public prosecutor’s office, join the Schengen agreement, or give up national vetoes on areas of policy that are currently subject to a requirement for unanimity.
If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I want to allow time for our hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam to reply.
The truth is that the UK is a European power with global interests, and Europe matters to our prosperity and security. Decisions taken in Europe will affect us, whether we are out or in. I want the Ministers of this country to be at the table, leading the debates, shaping the rules, and deciding the arrangements through which we trade and how we operate in the world. We should not be outside the door waiting for others to sew something up and tell us what they have decided that affects us.
We know at least that the leave campaign believes that we should withdraw from the single market as part of departure from the EU. That would put at risk not only the current tariff-free trading environment, but the enormous reduction in—and, in many cases, elimination of—non-tariff barriers that have proved to be one of the key advantages to British industry of EU membership.
As the hon. Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass) mentioned, one of the leading gurus of the leave campaign, Professor Minford, has said publicly that we could expect to lose our manufacturing sector if we leave the EU, and that we should not be scared of that prospect. For people who have spent their lives working in the manufacturing industry or hope for jobs in manufacturing businesses, that would be a very alarming prediction indeed. It is little wonder that all the major business organisations report that a decisive majority, and in some cases, an overwhelming majority, of their members want to remain in the EU. That applies whether we are talking about the Confederation of British Industry, the EEF, the Federation of Small Businesses, the British Chambers of Commerce, the Institute of Directors, the National Farmers Union or TheCityUK.
Those who argue that we should be unconcerned about security risks ignore the opportunities that membership gives us. We have played a key part in successful European initiatives to defeat piracy in the Indian ocean, to reconcile Serbia and Kosovo, to train the military in Mali and to impose sanctions that brought Iran to the nuclear negotiating table. We would be foolish to throw that away. I am confident in the ability of our country to continue to set the agenda. We should not look inward. We should not retreat to isolation. We should go ahead and help to shape the direction of the continent of which we are, and will remain, a part.
I pay tribute to Jayne Adye and the many people who signed the petition, including the 340 constituents of the hon. Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass). They may not have complained to her, but they signed the petition none the less. The establishment are circling the wagons so, no matter where we shoot, we can hit something. We need a fair and free debate from this moment on.