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EU: Lisbon Treaty

Volume 702: debated on Wednesday 18 June 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether, in the light of the effects of the result of the Irish referendum on the Lisbon treaty, they will reconsider their decision not to ask the British people in a referendum whether they wish the Lisbon treaty to be ratified.

My Lords, ratification of the Lisbon treaty is a matter for individual states to complete through their own national processes. In this country the proper place for debate and decision is Parliament. Votes in both Houses have rejected a referendum.

My Lords, though my Question may seem to have been overtaken by events, the Answer certainly has not. Are the Government not aware—as virtually everyone else outside this building is—that the great majority of the British electorate did want the referendum which Parliament has now decided they shall not have? Are the Government not aware that regardless of whether there is a state of ignorance among the British public about the benefits that the treaty might confer on them, which the Government have allowed to develop, the great majority of that electorate also do not want the treaty which the Government say they must have? Is it surprising that Parliament and politicians are falling into contempt in this country? Can the Government not take the opportunity this afternoon to reverse that?

My Lords, I accept what the noble Lord says about the British electorate wishing to have referendums, or referenda. On practically every question ever put to the British public on any subject, when asked if they would like a referendum on that subject, they have said that of course they would. I think that that is a measure of a healthy and thriving democracy. However, it is quite clear that Parliament must make its view known and take its decision. In both Houses, as I said, votes have been taken with the majority in favour of not having a referendum.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that when a question has been overtaken by events, the sensible thing to do is to withdraw it? As long as you persist with the question one can only presume that it is an exercise in either absurdity or mischief-making. Would it not be absurd to ask both Houses of Parliament, which have supported this Bill and opposed a referendum by big majorities, now to turn their parliamentary sovereignty on its head? Can she see any way in which that would show any respect to the people of Ireland while at the same time not showing serious disrespect to both Houses of Parliament?

My Lords, it is very important to respect the will of both Houses of Parliament; that is a fundamental part of our democracy and the rules that we have both in your Lordships’ House and in another place. I believe—this is an issue that has been raised many times in the course of our hours of deliberation—that we do respect our own parliamentary sovereignty and make our own decisions.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that public opinion polls show that the great majority of the British people, to quote the noble Lord, Lord Elton, are in favour of an extension to 42 days in detention—or indeed, as some would say, 420 days in detention—but that recent opinion polls also show that a great majority of the British people think that David Davis is absolutely right to resign his seat and campaign against it? Should we therefore be a little careful about forgetting that good democratic government is a dialogue between government, the politicians and the public and not simply following what public opinion says this week?

My Lords, the noble Lord makes an important point about trends and what happens within opinion polls. I have heard many politicians on all sides of your Lordships’ House condemn or condone opinion polls depending on what they say at any particular time. Of course the noble Lord is right: this is a dialogue. But it is absolutely clear to my mind that we have a parliamentary democracy and that parliamentarians have a responsibility to make their decisions. On this issue, they have.

My Lords, does the Leader of the House recall that the Conservative Party, despite its new affection for referenda, has in our lifetime introduced only one referendum? It was in 1961, on the closing of public houses in Wales on Sundays.

My Lords, I am sure the noble Lord is correct in what he says. Post all of our deliberations on this particular treaty, I would very much welcome your Lordships’ House having a really serious debate about the important issue of the role of referendums.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that while indeed it is right that we have a representative parliamentary democracy which must decide things, one of the reasons why so many people in this country are anxious about the Lisbon treaty is precisely that they see it leading eventually to an erosion of that parliamentary sovereignty?

My Lords, that may be what the British people have been led to believe, but it is clear to all of us who have had the privilege of studying the treaty in detail that that is not the case. One of the great advantages of the treaty is that national parliaments have a greater say than they have ever had before.

My Lords, the noble Baroness said that whenever the people were asked whether they wanted a referendum the answer was always yes. But has she not, with the greatest of respect, missed the point? The point is that at the general election every party said that the public would have a referendum but now the Government that they will not.

My Lords, I am afraid that the noble Earl has missed the point. The point is that that promise was made on a constitution. This is not a constitution. This is a reforming treaty similar to the reforming treaties that noble Lords opposite brought through your Lordships’ House.

My Lords, is it not significant that in the Dáil yesterday the Taoiseach specifically did not ask us to postpone our process and will not? Is it not also significant that all other Foreign Ministers on Monday at Luxembourg asked us to proceed with our process?

My Lords, in operating within a European Union, it is important that member states retain their sovereignty in making their own determinations on issues. We have talked long, and will talk later this afternoon, about the importance of respecting what the Irish people have decided. Equally, it is important that we continue our deliberations as this Parliament and come to our own conclusions.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the question asked of the Irish people was not the deceptively simple question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Elton? It was so complicated that not even a Lord Chancellor or Lord of Appeal in Ordinary could understand it without detailed examination.

My Lords, I do not wish to comment on the Irish situation, but there is certainly a general issue about the questions that one asks in referendums and whether people are able to understand them and give a considered response. That is a broader question that, as I have already said, I would be keen for your Lordships’ House to debate.