Second Reading (Continued)
My Lords, resuming the debate rapidly after that procedural change, first I express my gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Lea of Crondall, for reminding us of Labour Party history concerning the fundamental change of attitude towards the European Union and for his remarks on the Bill. For those of us who have been fighting the European cause for many years, it has been a great pleasure to see the change in attitude in the Labour Party, and not merely because there were some good suggestions from Michel Rocard and Jacques Delors, as well as, to a lesser extent, Helmut Schmidt. Eventually, before the election that produced the coalition Government, we saw that the Labour Government of Gordon Brown, too, had become fully European so far as we could tell. There are some, although not many, Labour Members of Parliament in the other place who are still sceptical about European matters, but to varying degrees, and I think that one can now officially say that the Labour Party is a pro-European party and that the previous Government were a pro-European Government. In those days, the Liberal Democrats in opposition—I was proud to be involved myself—proposed no amendments to the Lisbon treaty legislation in the upper House. We followed what the Government presented in the legislation and enthusiastically endorsed it. That perhaps is a good example to consider and quote compared with the present sad situation.
This has been a great debate. Inevitably, by this stage, the points that one makes are bound to be a little repetitive but at least I can refer to the House of Commons. Being fairly masochistic, I decided to sit in on quite a few sessions of its deliberations on the European Union Bill. I attended not only the Second Reading but some of the Committee stage of what I regard as a very peculiar Bill, as has been brought out in the comments of other noble Lords in this debate. Even more masochistically, I sat in a little on some of the remaining stages of the Bill in the Commons, and it was not at all edifying. After all, it is not often that we get the chance to listen repeatedly and monotonously to the hyperbolic words of people such as Bill Cash, John Redwood and Jacob Rees-Mogg—a new Member of the other place—and others. I thought that I would briefly convey to the House some of the erudite offerings that I heard during those proceedings. Those who spoke did not prevail with any of their amendments but they put forward these extremely educated thoughts.
I shall quote without giving any names in order to save time:
“We want our country back”.—[Official Report, Commons, 7/12/10; col. 234.]
I think that that is what Sarah Palin says when she is speaking on behalf of the extreme end of the Republican Party in America. Another comment was that the Tory party is now “the old Referendum party”. Another said:
“I am no friend of the EU”.—[Official Report, Commons, 7/12/10; col. 254.]
Another comment was:
“The European Union is a state in decay. It is rotten at its very core. It is corrupt. It is dishonest. It is bullying” .—[Official Report, Commons, 7/12/10; col. 256.]
Another said that the accession treaties give up control of our borders and that means that other EU citizens can circulate freely here too. Another said that the question we should all face is,
“whether we should be part of the European Union at all”.—[Official Report, Commons, 11/1/11; col. 188.]
Yet another said:
“many Conservative Members want withdrawal from Europe”.—[Official Report, Commons, 11/1/11; col. 206.]
I shall not mention any more, although there were plenty of others, in case noble Lords think that those extremely learned utterances give the total picture.
Many such sentiments were expressed throughout the difficult proceedings in the other place, although I am glad to say that the characters who repeatedly expressed those views numbered a maximum of 30, including one or two rather strange Labour MPs who do not seem to be so enthusiastic about Europe. One of them is a lady Member from the Birmingham area who has changed her mind fundamentally in recent years. They were defeated so heavily on amendments that eventually the Tory antis gave up pressing any votes at all.
Although the Tory leadership in opposition had made what I would describe as a disgracefully reckless point of stirring up all those atavistic emotions before the May 2010 election to get their Members excited and to bring about withdrawal from the European People’s Party in Strasbourg and Brussels, together with the rest of the absurd and provocative behaviour, it has backed off since then. I am told that even William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, is developing an interest in the EU and its benefits and workings. Of course, that happens in government. People like going to the grand meetings and gathering with the officials and other politicians. It is a club of like-minded sovereign countries working together for the good of Europe.
However, this Bill remains to be dealt with. Foolishly, following the preamble on Europe, the coalition agreement says:
“We will ensure that the British Government is a positive participant in the European Union”.
How ironic that the following paragraphs came after that promise. To be benevolent, I assume that many Tory MPs have accepted the fact that this is a pretend Bill, and I presume that they are genuinely horrified by the absurd xenophobia of their colleagues, some of whom I have quoted this evening, who merely parrot the non-UK-taxpaying, foreign-based owners of our extreme right-wing comics—called newspapers—whose views on Europe are taken as their subject matter.
I am not sure that this House, now the sole revising and improving Chamber in our Parliament, will take such a benevolent view of the need for this peculiar Bill. We are where we are with the sad story of Britain’s antics in recent years as the increasingly bad member of the club. Despite what I said about the recent Labour Government, that has been the case over many years. Britain is always the one with the exceptions, the opt-outs, the exclusions, the derogations, and the one saying, “I don’t want to do that”. It is the bad member of the club who goes on a coach outing to Eastbourne and shouts from the back seat, “No, I want to go to Hastings”. That kind of attitude has annoyed all our fellow member states.
If government spokesmen tonight, or on other occasions, as this dodgy Bill proceeds to Committee stage, suggest that others do not mind this legislation, an increasing number of our foreign friends and colleagues in the institutions in Brussels and in the European Parliament will begin to see what is happening with this legislation. Despite the arrival of a very distinguished member of the Government from the other place, who is beyond the Bar of the House and whom I must not mention, I add that that will be increasingly so as they discover this daft suggestion coming from the coalition Government.
Unlike other member states, for years politicians from Thatcher to Blair, and Brown to start with—although not in more recent times, to which I pay tribute—cast unnecessary aspersions, had unnecessary rows, needlessly betrayed commitments in the treaties and generally behaved like the Artful Dodger. Contrast that with Spain, which also has a thousand years of glorious history, where the two main parties bitterly fought their domestic battles in the last general election, but no one, including in the Partido Popular, the right-wing party, sought to invoke Europe as a domestic issue to try to get cheap votes.
As the noble Lord, Lord Lea of Crondall, said, I am so glad that the Labour Party has changed. It is the duty of the Liberal Democrats to restore their own enthusiasm for Europe in the processes that we shall follow in the coming months. This wretched Bill is a step back and this House has to deal with it in a way that the other House failed to do. Therefore, I am sure that your Lordships will wish to propose a large number of amendments. Fortunately, the power to determine decisions about what is referendable remains with Ministers, but they will still need Commons approvals via Motions and primary legislation, as has been discussed tonight. There is no need for this Bill at all and in this House we have to deal with the problem through amendments.
Harold Wilson brought in the only national referendum in 1975, solely because of internal divisions in his own party. That is the only reason why it was done. Surely, we must not repeat that exercise this time. The public wisely remain supremely indifferent to the comings and goings of the antis. The ridiculous Daily Express struggled to get just over the population of a single London borough in its recent petition, in comparison with millions of our enlightened citizens who regard membership of the European Union as a natural item, like being in NATO or the UN or the World Trade Organisation. This daft referendumitis disease is now undermining the renewed authority of Parliament after the struggle of the financial expenses scandal and the need for Parliament to become psychologically stronger again.
Even though there are many people in this country who are for the ideals of the European Union, does the noble Lord accept that public opinion is in a different place from that which he says? That is because of stupid things like straight bananas, Cornish pasties and such nonsense, instead of looking at the strategic overview. I believe that many people in this country support the concept of Europe, particularly its ability to prevent war, which was the starting point, but they are put off by some of the nonsense because behind it there are people with a political objective who do not accept the concept of the nation state.
That is entirely true. Politicians leave a vacuum by not explaining the proper arguments about our European Union membership because they become pusillanimous when the mass media and the right-wing papers, owned almost exclusively by non-UK-taxpaying, foreign-based owners, put forward poisonous arguments. I believe that that even applies to Mr Desmond, the Daily Express owner; if I am incorrect, I will apologise to him personally. They put forward these poisonous arguments—pretend, nonsensical arguments—such as the headline about straight bananas. As I mentioned earlier when the noble Lord was not in the Chamber, an independent survey was commissioned which showed there have been 125 banner headlines in the Daily Express, Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph in the past calendar year about wicked things being done in the European Union. Literally all of them were incorrect, and I have the evidence if the noble Lord wants to see it.
I am sorry to interrupt my noble friend, but I want to make it absolutely clear on the Cornish pasty issue that Cornwall fought for 10 years to get that definition. It has been welcomed by the Cornish pasty industry in Cornwall. Under British legislation, it was never possible to keep the name Cornwall for pasties produced in Cornwall only; the same was true for clotted cream. It was a great victory to us, which became possible only through European legislation.
Before the noble Lord continues with his exceptional peroration, will he undertake to put in the Library of your Lordships' House or to circulate to those of us who have taken part in the debate this fascinating survey, to which he has now referred twice, which rubbishes every headline about Europe that has appeared in any of our more sensible national press?
Absolutely, at any time; I am very happy to do so.
It is mischievous tomfoolery of the worst kind to waste Parliament’s time with an unnecessary, foolish Bill, except that it is trying to do just what we cannot accept: bind a successor Parliament, as other noble Lords have said. Suppose that a nervous and weak future Government accepted a referendum on a small change in treaty powers because of a press campaign. As Professor Bogdanor suggested in his evidence to the Commons European Scrutiny Committee, there might be a turnout of, say, 26 per cent, with 13.5 per cent voting against and 12.5 per cent voting for. What should the Government do? That is what would happen with this nonsense.
Of course, the whole pantomime could be made advisory only, as in 1975, at least for the Parliament, if not for the then Government. It is worth remembering that the “referendum lock” proposal enables a Government to reject a new so-called transfer of power treaty change, or presumably major passerelles, but it does not automatically give the public or Parliament the right to vote on it. Then we have judicial review to complicate and delay the whole process. Hence, the lock could even stop other Governments from adopting a treaty change, which is an amazing thought.
We therefore have to look searchingly and meticulously at this very strange Bill. If we can use the phrase “the upper House” in the modern era, this House is ideally suited to this process; the other place is not. I submit that a passerelle is a gangway or a footbridge; it is neutral and level, most the time. It is not a ratchet, which is the wrong word that the Government foolishly chose. The British Government wholeheartedly supported QMV procedures for the single market. That was a very good example to build on. The other member states thought that we would follow it in other fields, as they intended to. We need to look very searchingly, particularly at Clauses 3 to 7 and the rest of the paraphernalia in this difficult and complicated Bill.
I am sure that the whole House is grateful for the timely and extremely critical report of the Constitution Committee, which is damning in its criticisms, although couched in its characteristically polite language. As the Bill attacks existing EU legislation anyway, it may well be repealed as it is incompatible with our existing treaty duties, including under the Lisbon treaty itself. This is also why Liberal Democrats above all have a duty of care in this grave matter tonight and in the later stages of the Bill.
I amplify what the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, said about the noble Lord, Lord Wallace. Not being Scottish, I cannot share the same emotion, but I, too, am a great admirer of my noble friend Lord Wallace of Saltaire. He is armed with another high moral purpose, duty and tradition as a resident of the very houses of Sir Titus Salt in Saltaire. I think his house is in George Street, which was named after Sir Titus’s son. That great creator of the model village, the mill, the workers and the welfare system had a high moral purpose and my noble friend too has a duty to try to deal with this Bill sensibly, bearing in mind the damage that has been done, unwittingly and accidentally, I submit, in the coalition agreement. The Guardian leader of 7 December stated:
“so many ministers know their bill is nonsense. Coalitions involve compromises, but it is a shameful moment to see Britain's most pro-European party”—
the Liberal Democrats—
“and pro-European Tories such as Kenneth Clarke, trooping into the lobbies tonight in support of such a foolish, feckless and futile Bill.”
My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, I give this Bill a qualified welcome, if only because it has brought out a rash of our Europhile friends to complain about it. Any Bill opposed by the noble Lords, Lord Brittan, Lord Hannay, Lord Kerr, Lord Davies and Lord Dykes, must by definition be on the right track. I hope the Minister will not object if I remind him that all these very distinguished Europhile noble Lords were hard-line supporters of our membership of the euro. They were very wrong then, so I hope he will take their no doubt very well meant advice with bucketloads of salt now. Their predictions that the euro would be a rock of stability—I think that is what they used to call it—and that Britain would be left behind by the euro-banger have been almost comically incorrect. I do not know what it is with the europhiles, but they always have this image of motion and transport—“We must not miss the train; we must not miss the euro-bus; we must not be left behind by the euro-tricycle”. Even today, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford was up there with them saying that we are going to be left behind in a lay-by. Given the slow motion car crash that is the eurozone, I think that a lay-by is probably quite a safe place to be at this stage.
I sometimes lie awake at night wondering whether it is not the eurozone that is being left behind. Let us look at the eurozone. Greece and Ireland are now wholly owned subsidiaries of the European Commission. The only thing their Governments can say when the Commission says, “Jump” is, “How high?”. Portugal is next in line. It has already checked in by denying that it needs a bailout, which is always the first prelude to accepting or being forced to accept the bailout. There is no need for it to rewrite history. The script has already been written for it by the Greek and Irish Prime Ministers.
Apart from flushing out the euro enthusiasts, my very cautious welcome for the Bill is based on the fact that for the first time a UK Government may, just may, have armed themselves with a weapon to slow down the relentless pressure from the eurocracy for ever closer integration. The Bill lists very precisely the particular articles under which decisions will be required for a referendum, so when the Minister goes around the table in Europe and there is a particularly unpalatable piece of legislation, he would be able say, “Don’t go there. The EU Act”—as it will be, I expect—“passed by our Parliament will require a referendum on that. You know how you hate referendums because you always lose them”. I think that is a useful weapon to have, even allowing for the many qualifications that have been expressed this evening about that.
Rather churlishly, that is as far as I can go in welcoming the Bill, because it does not even go close to what is required now by this country. Although it is called a sovereignty Bill, it ignores the plain fact that successive Governments have signed a number of treaties since 1992 which make it quite clear that the ultimate authority does not lie any longer with Parliament—it lies with the EU. Why else would Governments now have to talk about non-EU immigration? Why do we have an energy policy that commits us to expensive and useless wind power? Why are women’s insurance premiums going up and men’s life premiums going down? These laws and regulations are not introduced in Westminster, debated and voted on here; they are handed down by decree from Brussels. So claims that this Bill is an assertion of parliamentary sovereignty ring hollow. To that extent I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, who would probably be horrified that I agree with him on anything. This is not about sovereignty. If you are sovereign you do not need a Bill to tell you that you are sovereign; it would be self-evident if Parliament were sovereign. I think that this Bill is, in fact, an admission of weakness.
The noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, was again absolutely right—nowhere does this Bill seek to regain any of the powers that have been given away to the EU by successive Governments. As we heard earlier from the noble Lord, Lord Kakkar, the NHS is labouring under the requirements of the working time directive. This Government are promising, I keep reading in the newspapers every day, to cut red tape on business. But how can they do so when a large percentage—I will not quote the exact percentage, but 60 to 70 per cent; it does not really matter—now comes straight into law from Europe? If these regulations are damaging to British businesses, are they untouchable? Can Parliament do absolutely nothing about it? Will the Government, for example, resist and oppose the new part-time workers directive, or will they roll over and accept it?
The Commons European Scrutiny Committee is interesting on sovereignty, leaving aside the abstruse legal arguments over the primacy of parliamentary sovereignty versus the primacy of EU law. At paragraph 76—I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, is not here, because this takes issue with what he was saying—the committee says:
“We think it right that, should an Act of Parliament instruct the courts to disapply an aspect of EU law, the courts should do so: this is not only consistent with the case law of the courts, but also with the doctrine of the legislative supremacy of Parliament; and also with the rule of law”.
Encouragingly, the committee also goes on to conclude that it is entirely within bounds for Parliament to ask judges to disapply any aspect of EU law if that is the will of a democratically elected Parliament, even if—this is important—that were to lead to infringement proceedings in the EU Court of Justice. That runs exactly contrary to what the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, was telling us in his speech.
A good working example of that—this is not my example but the example given by the Commons committee—is France's recent deportation of Roma immigrants. This is almost certainly against EU law but has not—certainly not as far as I know, and I stand corrected if this is not the case—led to infringement proceedings being taken against France. So it seems that there is some room for Parliament to disapply EU law if it so wishes.
Even more encouraging, and perhaps more challenging for the Government, is that we should very soon have a practical, watertight test of whether this Government really believe in parliamentary sovereignty. On 10 February there was an overwhelming vote, with a 212 majority, against the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights that prisoners should be given the vote. I accept that that was not to do with the EU, but it is about parliamentary sovereignty. This will be a test of whether the Government accept that Parliament is sovereign in this area. Who is going to be sovereign? Will it be Parliament’s will, as expressed in this very large vote, or will it be the will of a gaggle of 47 semi-qualified European lawyers? I hope that the Minister may be able answer that at the end of this debate.
There are serious gaps in the Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Stevens, mentioned justice and home affairs, which I think will have to be pursued in Committee. The Government must decide by 2014 whether a whole raft of EU police and justice laws, which were agreed before the Lisbon treaty, should come into force, including whether the iniquitous European arrest warrant will continue to apply in the UK after 2014. The Government have the choice of opting in or opting out. If they choose to opt in, the full jurisdiction over all these laws will for the first time be removed from UK courts to the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg. That is an inescapable question: should there be more Europe or less Europe? Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, will be able to say something about that, although I appreciate that it does not have to be decided until 2014.
The Conservative manifesto pledged both to repatriate powers from Brussels and to have a sovereignty Bill. So far, neither of those pledges has been met. No powers have been repatriated and this is not a sovereignty Bill. I do not know why some of the Euro-enthusiasts are getting so hot under the collar about this Government and about this Bill. The fact is that the coalition has signed up to the European investigation order without any parliamentary vote or control over the decision. It has given away powers to regulate the City to EU bodies and seems quite happy to give even more power to the EU external service of the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton.
I am sorry to say that the Government’s actions to date belie what seems to be the intention behind the sovereignty Bill. It is by actions that Governments are judged and not by words. This Bill is smoke and mirrors, moving the furniture around. I was grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Howell, who reminded us that it is 36 years since anyone in this country has had a chance to vote on the European Union. That is what is needed now, not the plethora of referendums that have been mentioned in this Bill. We need a Bill to enable people to have a vote on our future in the EU in a referendum. That would be a proper sovereignty Bill.
My Lords, we have had a terrific debate. We have certainly had some brilliant speeches from a lot of distinguished people. I think that the general mood was summed up by the noble Lord, Lord Brittan: the Bill has been received by an undisguised lack of enthusiasm. I have to admit that this Bill, which we have been examining today, is one of the most curious, complicated and confused pieces of legislation that I have encountered in all my 38 years in Parliament. It is also extraordinary that in a country which has previously been much renowned for its parliamentary democracy the coalition Government are introducing a Bill which would, or might, require a national referendum in a wide area of policy questions, a constitutional innovation which is unprecedented in our practice.
As my noble friend has said, and as many noble Lords have quoted, we are all indebted to the House of Lords Select Committee report on the constitution, which examined the case for and against the referendums, and which concluded that referendums are most appropriate where they are concerned with fundamental, constitutional questions. We can probably all agree on the kind of list that would make: the abolition of the monarchy; leaving the EU—as the gentlemen behind me want to do, and that would certainly require a referendum; changing the electoral system and changing the UK system of currency. Most of us would agree that these are the kind of questions that would naturally give rise to a referendum.
When the Constitution Committee examined the European Union Bill, one of the main questions it had to answer was whether it provided for referendums solely on fundamental constitutional grounds. The committee concluded that that was not the case and that many of the matters set out in the Bill are not fundamental constitutional issues. Indeed, relative to the big questions I have just referred to, they are quite small and technical. However, specifying over 50 policy issues where a referendum might be required really does amount to a radical step change in the adoption of referendum procedures. These are small questions, but we are talking about a major constitutional change which the Government are introducing under the guise of this Bill. I do not think that the noble Lord who introduced the Bill, who we all much admire, suggested that this is a major constitutional change, but that is in fact what it is.
How come we have got to this place? How come the Conservative Party, when it was led by the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, would say that referendums were the device of demagogues and dictators? How come this party is now posing such a radical step change? How come my friends in the Liberal Democrat Party—many of them are my friends—who are strong pro-Europeans, are going along with it? The Tories blame the Labour Party for their position, and we have heard one or two noble Lords suggesting that in the debate. We ought to have had a referendum on the Lisbon treaty, even though the Government of the day never said that we would have one. The Tories say that we broke the trust and therefore they have to reintroduce that trust by having a whole raft of referendums. But the real motive is quite different—it is to appease the Eurosceptics in the Conservative Party, but there is a fat chance that that will actually occur. You have only to read the debates in the other House to understand that they totally failed on that front.
When I asked my Liberal Democrat friends why they are supporting this, they say that it is part of the coalition agreement and they have to go along with it. They also argue that as part of the coalition agreement, the Tories have had to drop their extremely unrealistic plans to repatriate certain powers from the European Union, which is perhaps correct. They go on to say that, on the whole, the coalition has been adopting a more positive European approach in its day-to-day affairs than was originally expected. This is the Liberal Democrat argument to justify the position it is taking.
When those who are very concerned about this Bill raise the issue that it may unleash a series of referendums on relatively minor issues, the coalition Government say, “Actually, we have no plans or any intention of agreeing to any treaty changes during the lifetime of the Parliament and therefore the issue of referendums is highly unlikely to arise”. I must say that to pass a referendum Bill in order not to use a referendum Bill is a pretty odd argument, but that is what people, in justifying their position, have been saying to me.
The reality, of course, is that if the Bill goes through, a system of referendum locks will have been erected. I agree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe, that there will be a system of locks on the statute books, a change which could not only alter our constitutional practice in a major way but act as a block and handicap to our membership of the European Union. In the long term, that will be a genuine problem for us. It will not, in the end, be a problem for the European Union because it will use enhanced co-operation to get round our blockage. However, it will certainly set back the way in which we can act inside the European Union, which will be bad for us and bad for our people.
I do not want to say anything about the sovereignty of Parliament because I could not possibly add to what the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, has said. I think we are all very surprised that it is in the Bill. It does not add anything to the Bill—it is a kind of fig leaf—and I do not see why we have to have it. We would be doing the country a service if we kicked it out during the passage of the Bill. Certainly it is ironic that, on the one hand, the Government are putting forward a system of referendum while, on the other hand, they are saying, “We are strongly in favour of Parliament and believe in its sovereignty”. There is a conflict there, as a number of constitutional experts have pointed out. The idea is to somehow kid the Eurosceptics that the Government are concerned about parliamentary sovereignty. The noble Lord, Lord Kerr, suggested that they are kidding them along so that at some later stage there might be a kind of breakout and a repatriation of powers. I hope that he is wrong.
The real fundamental point about the Bill is that it is based on entirely the wrong premise about the way our membership ought to be in Europe. It is designed to act as a long-term brake on UK participation in European integration. It approaches the pooling of sovereignty by the UK at EU level exclusively as though it amounts to a transfer of power to an alien body. It ignores the fact that the sharing of responsibilities with partners in an organisation, of which the UK is a very influential member, is good for this country. As the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, said in a notably moving speech, we have greatly benefited from our membership of the European Union.
I am sorry that the Minister for Europe, who was at the Bar of the House, has gone because I am about to quote him. It may be that he does not want to be quoted because I understand that Ministers do not wish to say anything nice about the European Union in case they are rumbled as being pro-Europeans. However, I should like to read into the record—it is the first time I have seen it from a Minister—what Mr Lidington had to say about the European Union. He stated that,
“membership of the EU gives UK business full access to the world’s most important trading zone, comprising 500 million consumers without the barriers of customs or tariffs. This is of great importance to the UK’s prosperity. 10% … of UK jobs are reliant on exports to EU member states, the beneficial effect of EU trade on UK households is estimated at between £1,100 and £3,300 per year, UK exports to member states are worth more than £200 billion, and EU Foreign Direct Investment … comprises 49% of overall FDI to the UK. Under the present terms of membership the UK plays a strong and active role in influencing and shaping developments within the EU, allowing us to further goals essential to the national interest, such as strengthening and expanding the single market, delivering growth, and promoting a resource efficient, low carbon EU economy … In addition, EU membership gives the UK better leverage and negotiating power on the global stage, allowing us to better achieve our international objectives on issues such as freer international trade, conflict prevention, stabilisation, climate change, human rights and development. There are also wide-ranging benefits for UK individuals, such as the right to study and work within the EU, and to receive free or reduced cost health care on temporary visits within EU member states”.—[Official Report, Commons, 10/1/11; col. 232W.]
That is good stuff. Let us have a lot more of it. I would like to hear more of that from the Minister, who we all much admire, and a little less about how we are falling behind China, India and all that sort of stuff, which I have heard from him for the past 10 or 15 years. I want to hear him say, as the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, said, the good things that have been done in the European Union. We want to hear Ministers say that because it is part of the coalition agreement, too. Let us have more of that and a little less of the kind of stuff that is in the European Union Bill, which is at best unnecessary and at worst could weaken our position in the European Union and strengthen anti-European feeling in this country. We in this House have a duty over the next few weeks to improve the Bill. I hope we will be able to do that.
My Lords, I start by congratulating the Government on their European policy because, since the Government formed, we have not had an attempt to unpick the Lisbon treaty, we have signed two defence treaties with France—not part of the EU framework but an important move towards joint co-operation and some pooling of sovereignty and resources—and we have committed to helping the Republic of Ireland in its work to get out of its economic and fiscal problems. That is probably greatly in our own interests because of the problem of indebted UK banks in the Irish Republic, but these are far more positive moves towards Europe than I may have expected from my coalition partners.
I also welcome part of the Bill. As my noble friend Lord Bowness said, the fact that the Bill requires primary legislation in certain areas is probably not a bad thing for parliamentary scrutiny and the accountability of the Executive. Yet to say that the Bill is about healing the gap and distance between European and British public opinion and the institutions of the European Union has to be classified as total humbug, as far as I can see. The problem is not going to be solved by additional referenda or by the Bill. It will be solved only by greater leadership by British Governments. I am thinking about the current one, but even the previous Government were a huge improvement on the Government who preceded them. I was in Europe a lot in 1997, in Brussels and Strasbourg. The Labour Government coming in were an absolute breath of fresh air—not necessarily because of their domestic policies or whatever but because, at last, there was the possibility of co-operation at European level among all member states and even the possibility that we might actually remain a member of the European Union.
Unfortunately, the momentum of the Labour Government was lost. I am sad to say that, but it is something that happened almost by default and from the top-down leadership rather than the Labour Party itself. A lot more could have been achieved; I say that in sorrow rather than anger. One thing that became clear in 1996 and 1997 was that, during the Major Government, who had such problems in European policy, we had an empty chair policy. We associate empty chair policies with Gaullism in the 1960s in France, but the UK started to practise this at the end of the Major Government. It was a complete and utter failure, which moved us back in terms of influence rather than forward. To me, that is a fundamental lesson in understanding how getting things done and getting your case over in Europe really works. It is not done by threatening not to be there; it is done by threatening to participate and being in every meeting, working up coalitions and discussing your cause. That is the only way in which it works.
What does this Bill do? In terms of the referenda, it says to Europe, as many noble Lords have said, that Britain will not participate any further in the institutional development of the European Union. The problem with that is, first, that it is not just the declaration of this Government; by being in primary legislation, the measure is very difficult to undo even for other, future Governments. The provision takes us out of the conversation and away from many of the important areas of power and decision-making.
The provision also has a fundamental contradiction. Back in the 1990s, I remember it being argued, when we were so concerned about giving up our veto in so many areas, that one big issue in the UK—and quite rightly—was reform of the common agricultural policy. Why could we not get it reformed at that time? Because to reform it required unanimity. However hard we tried, it was impossible to get those reforms. If everybody went down this route and this type of referendum was mirrored among all 27 member states—and in the near future, it may be 29 or even 30 member states—that would give Malta, with a population of 400,000, and Luxembourg, with a population of 500,000, a veto over what other member states wanted to do to move the European Union forward and what we wanted to achieve. It would be to give a veto—not, I agree, through this Bill, but through this philosophy—to an equivalent of Cornwall, where I live. I am sure that Cornwall would love to have that power on the international stage with regard to vetoes of European strategic policy. By this philosophy we would give that to important but small member states such as Malta and Luxembourg.
One thing that is not understood sufficiently by the philosophy of this Bill is that we do not lose power just by giving away sovereignty. That is an argument that you can use, and in certain circumstances it can be valid. But we give power and our sovereignty away by not participating. When we opt out, that is not keeping our sovereignty but giving it away, because we have less influence on the decisions that are made within the most important political grouping that we are part of. That is why this philosophy is wrong.
Having said that, we should not deny that we have a huge problem. As we have heard from the Benches opposite, Europe is not that popular, and we must recognise that as a House. We should remember that in the last European elections—although I notice that the two UKIP Members of this House are not in their place—UKIP achieved 17 per cent of the vote. It beat not just the Liberal Democrats into fourth place but the Labour Party into third place and it came second to the Conservative Party. In national elections, it did not figure strongly at all because Europe does not tend to come high up in national election issues. Yet there is a huge need for us, whether as a political class or as leaders in society, to make sure that this message is far stronger. I, too, hope that my noble friend Lord Wallace will reinforce that message of a positive Europe with Britain playing its full part in it.
I put down a challenge to the Government to be radical. As the noble Lord, Lord Howell, said, this is about connecting not just Britain’s population but Europe’s population to the European Union. I am not completely against referenda on absolutely fundamental constitutional issues but, if you really want to make that connection through referenda, you do it by a referenda of those half a billion people as a whole. If that had been done on the Lisbon treaty, the treaty would almost certainly have been rejected. While I would not have liked that result, it would have meant that, perhaps for the first time, Europe’s whole population could start to take control of Europe in some way. Where we would go from there, I do not know, but that democratic deficit exists. That needs to be changed but this Bill is not a part of it.
My Lords, at the outset I apologise for my late arrival at the beginning of the debate. This is an important Bill and it is timely that your Lordships should have the opportunity to debate it. As a tail-ender, I have listened carefully to the arguments put forward by various noble Lords but I am going to remain firm and support this Bill. The Government’s proposals are in concert with many other member states that give their electorates a voice if treaty changes propose a transfer of power to Brussels.
The European Union has delivered strong benefits for the United Kingdom since we joined and we should all be confident in the possibilities offered through free and open markets. Yet there has been a gradual erosion in public support for some other dimensions of what is sometimes referred to as the European project. We have witnessed a huge transfer of powers to Brussels in many policy areas. For example, although we are not part of the eurozone it has been estimated that approximately 65 per cent of financial regulations affecting the City of London comes from Brussels. As an insurance broker and underwriting agent, I have a long-standing connection with the City of London.
The European Union has changed a great deal since we joined the then European Economic Community in 1973. We all recall the treaties that have come about since then including Maastricht, Amsterdam, Nice and Lisbon. These treaties have altered the nature of the institution profoundly, yet the British people have not had the opportunity to have their say since 1975. Arguably, some of those treaties have featured strongly in general election campaigns and have been grounded in party manifestos. However, we need to recognise that people feel increasingly detached from European-level decision-making. As the European Union has undergone enlargement, so the distance between the ordinary voter and the European institutions has got that bit bigger.
I am of the opinion that greater efforts should be placed on making the public more knowledgeable about European Union affairs. Apathy is a big problem in local and general elections but is even worse when it comes to European elections. Significant numbers of the population cannot name even one of their three MEPs, yet these politicians are now colegislators in many important areas of policy as a result of the Lisbon treaty. Do the Government have any plans to broaden awareness about the European Union among the British electorate?
I believe that the Bill is a carefully considered measure to seek to reconnect the British people with the decisions made in their name in Brussels, and that is a good thing. Never again should we allow the transfer of powers without adequate consultation and scrutiny.
Our membership of the European Union is important for our economic prosperity, and we should be at the heart of those countries driving the agenda for the future. We need to have an ambition to place Britain at the heart of Europe, steering the agenda firmly. To achieve that, we need to be absolutely clear about our future role, which is the basis on which we will engage and rebuild the public trust and confidence that has been eroded in recent times.
The principle underpinning the Bill is simple, even if the technical aspects require rather more careful consideration. Any action that might affect our lives, as stated in the Bill, should be subject to the consent of the British public, and it is proper that that should be defined in statute. Extending economic opportunities is crucial to our improved well-being, but there has been a growing disconnect with what we signed up to and a lack of clarity about where the European Union is going.
In opposition, the Prime Minister was very clear about ensuring that the principle of sovereignty was enshrined in law. I welcomed that then, and I am pleased to see the Government bringing that forward in the Bill. As a sovereign parliamentary democracy, it is proper that we should be clear that European Union powers are exercised through the consent of the United Kingdom Parliament and, where appropriate, with a referendum of the wider British public. I agree wholeheartedly with my right honourable friend the Secretary of State who, at Third Reading in another place, said that the Bill,
“is an overhaul that is as profoundly needed as it is overdue. It marks a real shift in power from Ministers to Parliament and from both Ministers and Parliament to voters themselves”.—[Official Report, Commons, 8/3/11; col. 847.]
Clause 4 lists the criteria that the Government should take into account when deciding whether a transfer of power would occur and thus trigger a referendum. Clause 4(1)(f) specifically covers extended competences of the EU relating to matters involving economic and employment policies. I particularly welcome this clause as it shows a willingness on the part of this Government to stem the flow of regulation affecting businesses and the City of London.
I will confine the bulk of my remarks to Part 1 of the Bill, which deals with the “referendum lock” concept and places the Prime Minister’s commitments into law. However, that needs to be clearly spelt out and be unambiguous. We know that the basic principle needs to be enshrined in law. There was no referendum on the Lisbon treaty, and the ratification involved no consultation with the British public. That could not happen in the case of this Bill; for any future treaties, a referendum would be mandatory. We need to be clear that the responsibility for our laws rests with the British people and our Parliament.
I accept that changes to the existing treaty framework through the ordinary revision procedure are likely to be limited in number. They depend upon the satisfactory conclusion of an inter-governmental conference. I do not envisage that we will see many of these, but it is proper to ensure that the public are given the opportunity to express their views on each future occasion that this might arise.
The simplified revision procedures in the Bill provide greater scope for changes to be made and changes that might alter the balance in future considerations. Those may appear technical but the consequences could be profound. For example, where the voting procedures in the Council are changed from unanimity to qualified majority voting, this could alter the balance and change a large number of future outcomes. While these procedures are designed to make changes simpler, I welcome the fact that the Government are committed to providing a safety valve for additional scrutiny where these instances occur. I also welcome the requirement for Ministers to explain the basis of their decision, which will be open to legal challenge. The Government should not have anything to hide in making these decisions. It is a bold and welcome step that Ministers have taken.
This law may be repealed by a future Parliament, giving rise to the view among some critics that the Bill is unnecessary—that it cannot bind a future Parliament. I do not accept this analysis. I recall how aggrieved many people felt at not having their say in a referendum on the Lisbon treaty. However, I would not like any future Government to repeal the solid commitment that is provided in the Bill and I do not believe that they would do so.
Parliaments must be sovereign in the United Kingdom. Our laws are a matter for our Parliament. We have benefited, and will continue to do so, from harmonisation across our trading networks. The European Union offers great potential to champion the free market robustly. However, we are the custodians of our democracy. It is not ours to give away; it belongs to the British public. We have a duty to ensure that adequate scrutiny is applied where powers and competences are transferred. Where appropriate, the British public must be given the chance to have the last word. The Bill does not solve all the problems of the European Union, but it affords us a valuable protection for the future. It enshrines the clear principle that power rests with the electorate.
Since coming to power, the Government have gone to great lengths to give the British public a chance to determine their own destinies through initiatives such as the big society and the localism agenda. The Bill demonstrates an extension of this concept to the European strata. Above all, the Bill strengthens our democracy and provides the British people with statutory reassurance. That is why I support the Bill and commend it to the House.
My Lords, as a new Member of this House, I have been impressed by the expert contributions on all sides of the debate. With my L-plates on, I am learning fast and am certainly in some awe of the previous seven hours.
It is all too evident that the 21st century offers us phenomenal challenges, including global competitiveness, global warming and global poverty, which we could never deal with effectively as one nation state. Therefore, it is absolutely vital that the UK should play a strong and positive role in the EU, so that all the nations of Europe are equipped to face these and many other challenges. Not to do so would not only diminish us as a nation but seriously impact on our commitments to tackle these major issues. As a Liberal Democrat I am, not surprisingly, pro-Europe. In my life before I joined this House, I saw its absolute strength for business and trading zones; for our universities and research councils, with knowledge exchange and innovation; and for our people and local communities, many of whom have benefited from working together, developing and strengthening our common interests.
We should make sure that there is greater public debate about these practicalities, not about the myths. There was much debate about the press coverage earlier this evening. On the doorstep, when you hear the straight bananas argument, it is a bit like the “What have the Romans ever done for us?” scene in the Monty Python film “Life of Brian”. When you say that recently there has been the EU arrest warrant, which has managed not just to arrest but to convict several paedophiles across Europe and large numbers in this country, they say, “That’s a good point”. Then you mention the EHIC—the health insurance card—and people come up with stories of how it has helped them when they have hit problems on holiday or working overseas. If you start to talk about the contribution of the ESF—perhaps the adult language course around the corner or the IT course at the community centre have been funded by the ESF—the EU suddenly becomes real. Then there is the ERDF. There are many other funds that on their own sound dreadful, but the key point is that they affect our lives, day to day, in our communities.
The Bill is a route map for enacting legislation, but does not reduce our commitment to Europe. On a personal note, some of the detail in the Bill is a tad overprescriptive, and I look forward to the Committee stage. However, life in the coalition is a compromise and I accept that the Bill will deliver the promises made in the coalition agreement. The Bill will give the British public a new sense of ownership, carefully set out and enshrined in law, over how the UK can work with the EU.
We are not alone in the Union in recognising that the pace of EU integration has resulted in a worrying lack of understanding between the EU institutions, national parliaments and citizens. It is therefore worth noting that—following changes that provided similar legislative safeguards in Denmark and Ireland, where referendums have stimulated public debate—there has been significantly more involvement and interest from the general public in matters relating to the EU. For those of us passionate about democracy, this will give the people a real say in important matters relating to our country and the EU. While I accept that the public will not be interested in the detail, it is somewhat patronising to suggest that they are incapable of recognising the UK’s national interest. In Ireland, in particular, the safeguard of the referendum has built confidence and made the people much more pro-Europe than previously.
There has been reference to the detail of the Bill acting as a block to working effectively in the EU. In Germany, regarding the issues around the Lisbon treaty, 80 pages of explanation were produced. However, this was not seen in Germany, or elsewhere, as anti-European. For those who have expressed concern about the so-called increasing power of the EU, the Bill provides real reassurance. It places our Parliament at the heart of the decision-making process; it places a duty on the people to express their views on matters that require a transfer of power from the UK to the EU; and it places a duty to enshrine passerelles in law, rather than by subsidiary legislation. If, as a nation state, we want to clarify and strengthen the democratic processes between us and the European Union, it is incumbent upon us to make specific the process by which we will do it. I therefore understand why the Bill is so detailed, but I hope that we will look carefully at amendments during Committee to consider how we might improve some of these areas.
Clause 4 sets out exactly which powers of competence and transfers of power are affected, for the avoidance of doubt about where the bar is, and what matters must be put to the people. That seems to be right and proper. For those who are worried about the length of Schedule 1 and its high level of particular references, I say as a newcomer that I find it helpful, as it is about the voting mechanisms on those explicit articles and clauses, not about the substance of the clauses themselves. It has explained to me exactly how this new legislative framework would operate, which has to be welcome. The less chance there is for misunderstanding and confusion the better, and there is a possibility of judicial review later.
The Bill makes it clear that our Parliament should take a stronger and more visible role in EU legislation, and that is why, where any transfers of power are proposed, the question should be put to the people. Does the Minister agree that one of the welcome outcomes of the Bill could be that the very low level of public knowledge and debate over the EU in much of British politics and the media will be improved as a result? I suspect that that would shatter much of the Eurosceptic mythology that has fogged our national view and replace it with a pragmatic and more truly accountable legislative process.
I started by saying that the Bill is a product of coalition politics—two parties with differing start points working together to find a level of common agreement, defining the European constitutional question, with the public and Parliament having a final say over the key matters that will determine how the UK and the EU will work together in the future.
My Lords, at last we are moving towards the end of the debate, and the main lines on both sides of the argument have been laid down. That is accurate, but we must recognise that the weight of the argument has been solidly in one direction. It is a bit like the Barnsley by-election. Who will lose their deposit: the supporters of the Bill or those who say that it does not go far enough? The only thing we have to look forward to now, apart from the significant contributions of my noble friends Lord Tomlinson and Lord Liddle, is the winding up from the noble Lord, Lord Wallace. I am afraid that we do so with some mischievous glee, because he has form on this issue. He is not the only member of the Wallace household who has such form, but perhaps we should not pry into what is said over the breakfast cereal: snap, crackle and pop.
At the beginning of the debate, the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, prayed in aid the fact that in the other place the Second and Third Readings were passed without division, and there were no Divisions on amendments. This Chamber is at its best when it does not rerun the partisan jousts of the other place, but sets itself aside, across the Benches, and says to the other place, “We think that you have got it wrong”. On this Bill, the overwhelming weight of argument is that the other place so far has got it wrong and we should ask it to think again.
I could save some time for the House by indicating the noble Lords with whom I agree and whom I follow. The trouble is that that would probably take up as much time as saying what I want to say in any case. We all recognise the contributions of the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, and of the noble Lords, Lord Richard, Lord Brittan of Spennithorne, Lord Davies of Stamford, Lord Hannay, Lord Taverne and Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, to name but a few.
As the noble Lord, Lord Richard, said, this is a bad Bill. It is bad in its construction and bad in its underlying methodology. As a legislature, the least that we should expect of the Executive is that they should bring forward Bills, especially on constitutional issues, that are underpinned by an organising principle. That principle should inform and give coherence to the entire Bill. That is singularly lacking in this case. Not only does the Bill lack any such unifying principle, it is schizophrenic. It is built on the conflicting principles of popular sovereignty on the one hand and parliamentary sovereignty on the other.
The guts of the Bill put in place detailed mechanisms establishing what are in effect binding referendums. The Bill makes it clear that the process of agreeing a transfer of powers and competences to the EU will be an act of Parliament followed by a confirmatory, binding referendum, all followed by a unanimous decision of the Council. I said that it makes it clear, but it does not quite do this because of the significance test. When I read the details of the test, I was tempted to think that it is only there in order to provide outdoor relief to the legal profession, because I am sure that many members of that profession will make a great deal of money by arguing about what is significant and what is insignificant.
I have two points to make. Is it sensible to create a situation where Parliament’s decision is set aside on the basis of a referendum with the possibility—indeed, probability, I am afraid to say—of a derisorily low turnout? I know that that may be difficult for some noble Lords to accept, because I know that some Members of your Lordships’ House and the other place are moved almost to paroxysms of agony and ecstasy when it comes to matters European. However, I doubt whether that is the position of most electors. I think that they will take a slightly more proportional and measured approach and stay at home. Therefore, a very low turnout is a real possibility, setting aside the position of the Government in the Council and the measured consideration of Parliament. I just ask whether that is a sensible way to proceed.
Secondly, on referendums, let us remember the de Gaulle problem, which basically boils down to the fact that a Government can determine the question that is asked but they cannot determine the question that the electors answer. The French people cared little about de Gaulle’s very sensible proposals on reform of the French Senate and regional government in France, but they did know that they had had enough of the general and they voted against him in the referendum in order to get rid of him. That had nothing to do with the content of the referendum, and that situation is likely to be rerun if we go down the route that the Bill invites us to go down.
The main part of the Bill establishing mandatory, confirmatory referendums is couched in terms of popular sovereignty. Then we suddenly come to Clause 18, and with that clause everything changes. Popular sovereignty disappears and is replaced by a rather curious assertion of parliamentary sovereignty. In terms of a principled argument, Clause 18 turns everything on its head and stands in flat contradiction to everything that has come before in the Bill. A legislature deserves something better—at least an attempt at internal consistency and coherence. I believe that it is just possible for parliamentary sovereignty to coexist with a diluted form of popular sovereignty, with advisory referendums on clearly significant and important issues. However, it is difficult to see how parliamentary sovereignty can, over the longer term, survive a sustained onslaught of mandatory, binding referendums, particularly when we introduce them on a whole series of detailed propositions with which, I am afraid, the electorate may have very little direct interest.
Finally, it is clear that the primary political purpose of the Bill is to perpetrate a constitutional outrage, which, as has been mentioned before, is to bind successor Parliaments. I think we all recognise that, and in that case the Government’s acceptance of a sunset clause is a minimum requirement.
My Lords, some time ago I was given a copy of a speech made by a former Comptroller and Auditor-General of the United Kingdom, Sir John Bourn. I put it in a plastic folder and kept it on my desk so that I could produce it the next time someone was so foolish as to raise the question of the qualification of European Union accounts. The noble Lord, Lord Stevens, has hit the jackpot today. He is the recipient of the message from Sir John Bourn, who confirmed in June 2006 that,
“if the UK had the same system as the EU, he would have to qualify all 500 UK expenditure accounts rather than just those where he thought there was a problem (13 in 2005)”.
He went on to say:
“It is worth noting that the accounts of Britain’s Department for Work and Pensions, which is responsible for distributing pension and other social security benefits, have been qualified by the National Audit Office for each of the last 18 years”.
Nothing has changed since 2005.
“Fraud and error in the payment of UK benefits amounts to an estimated £2.5 billion a year—that is substantially more than the £224 million that is thought to be fraudulently taken from the EU”.
I thought that that was worth reading into the record, so that it is absolutely clear. Every time we debate Europe, the canard is produced about a Europe riddled with fraud, as if our example is somehow the perfect one that the rest of Europe should adopt and follow.
The European Union Bill arises from the section in the coalition programme on Europe, in which the Government said that they would,
“examine the case for a United Kingdom Sovereignty Bill to make it clear that ultimate authority remains with Parliament”.
Yet the Government in their response to the House of Commons European Scrutiny Committee said at paragraph 6:
“The Government has never claimed that Parliamentary sovereignty is currently under threat in relation to EU matters. We would agree that, to date, the UK Courts … have rebutted arguments that EU law has an autonomous entrenched status in UK law and have recognised that EU law takes effect in the UK through Acts of Parliament”.
The Government continued, having already demolished the argument about UK sovereignty, to proceed to a Bill that includes Clause 18. In a further report to the House of Commons Select Committee, when they had quoted three main sources for their concern, the Government said:
“Although none of these sources has in any way undermined the operation of Parliamentary sovereignty in relation to EU matters to date, we do think that there is a need to put the matter beyond speculation for the future”.
So this was not a real problem for today; it was an imaginary problem for tomorrow. Yet, when they were pursued further—this is my last quotation—they went on to say in a rather paranoid state of mind that Clause 18 had been included in the Bill to,
“address concerns that the doctrine of Parliamentary sovereignty may in the future be eroded by decisions of the courts”.
Here we have yet another example of the paranoia that is developing in the coalition about the courts. First, it was about the European Court of Justice; then it was about the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights; and now there is this fear that courts in this country may, at some time in the future, exercise an unreasonable power over what they consider to be parliamentary sovereignty. I view Clause 18 as unnecessary in its totality and I hope that the Minister can find persuasive, cogent reasoning to convince us why your Lordships’ House should not seek to delete it at a later stage.
During discussion of the Bill today, we have witnessed a rather sad scene: a rather unhappy and lonely duo on the Front Bench. They are usually such a happy couple, but we have had the noble Lord, Lord Howell, looking fairly miserable and the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, doing his best to raise a smile once in a while. It is not surprising that they are looking discomfited, however much they are wedded and welded together by coalition politics, because today they have by and large been abandoned by the Conservatives—apart from the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh. I always listen to the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, with interest, but, with respect, he gave a rather eccentric constitutional interpretation about binding your successors. Apart from that, they were abandoned by the Conservatives, rather disowned by the Liberals—with the exception of the noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson, who, I thought, tried to play both sides against the middle—and found no support on either the Labour or the Cross Benches. That is a unique achievement even for a dynamic duo such as the coalition’s Robin and Batman on foreign affairs. They have managed to find precious little support anywhere in this House. Even if they were reasonably confident of getting support from the usual suspects on Euroscepticism in this House, they have found that, as we already knew, they were not going far enough to placate any of them.
We have an EU Bill under which there are only two real issues. There is the so-called referendum lock, on which I shall not have the impertinence to say anything, because the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe of Aberavon, demolished it in his remarkable speech earlier. The other part of it is sovereignty, which has not found a friend in the House, as far as I can see. We have Parts 1 and 3. If I followed my instincts, I would possibly get into trouble, but my instincts are that the Bill needs two main amendments: “delete Part 1” and “delete Part 3”. Then we could have a vote on Part 2. That would make it a Bill that would get unanimous support not only in the coalition but in the whole of the House. That is one possibility. The case for the hierarchy of referendum locks has been destroyed and Clause 18 has been shown to be a sham.
Today’s debate has shown that everyone in this House is out of step with the government Front Bench. From the Liberal Democrats, we have had remarkable speeches from the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, and the noble Lords, Lord Taverne, Lord Maclennan and Lord Dykes, among others. From the Conservative Benches, we have had remarkable speeches from the noble Lord, Lord Brittan, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe, and very interesting contributions from the noble Lords, Lord Plumb and Lord Bowness. From the Cross Benches, we have heard from the European trio of the two Davids—the noble Lords, Lord Williamson and Lord Hannay—together with the noble Lord, Lord Kerr. From the Labour Benches, each of my colleagues who has spoken has made an impressive contribution.
I would not have presumed to such an honour, my Lords. Does the noble Lord agree that he has just read out a litany of the more Europhile Lords in your Lordships’ House, who have come together on this issue with unanimity and, I must say, incredible repetition in all their speeches?
All of them are proud to be associated with each other. All of them spoke about the Bill and none of them took 21 minutes to do so.
The Bill is a sham, a fraud, an illusion. It is a piece of cynical deceit. Where it purports to offer referendum locks, it does it in circumstances where unanimity already applies. It is the political equivalent of the three-card trick “Find the lady”: it has always moved by the time you take the cup off the top.
The big questions after today’s debate are whether this Bill can be fundamentally amended and whether it can be meaningfully amended. There is near unanimity that it is pretty near worthless as it stands. If there are to be amendments, minimum standards for turnout and majority in any referenda, were the Bill to apply, should be considered for inclusion. There should certainly be a sunset clause, as many noble Lords have said, in order to prevent the constitutional outrage of trying to bind successors with legislation that, if you mean what you say in your programme, will not apply to the current Government. I do not want referenda on anything other than issues of major constitutional significance. If the Bill is to proceed, it should have a sunset clause; otherwise, it would be an outrageous attempt by this Government to bind their successors.
This Bill is a mess and it has distracted us from serious debate on the serious issues facing Europe. It is pandering to Eurosceptics, but will we never learn? They will never be adequately fed; you feed them a little bit and they will want more. The Bill will not deliver referenda on the issues that Eurosceptics want because we all know that those issues are the ones not covered in this debate, such as the Lisbon treaty and the European investigation order.
We who believe in Europe should be finding every opportunity to talk about the benefits that the European Union is bringing to the people of Europe. When I first started in politics, we used to argue enormously about how much the fascist dictatorships in southern Europe and the colonels in Greece would cost this country in terms of the contribution that it would make to the southern flank of NATO. Nobody knew what the price was. They did not care because it was a price worth paying. Today, we do not even have to think about it, because those countries are now all fully integrated in the European community of democratic nations. We can go on and find example after example of positive issues about Europe that this coalition Government ought to be leading on in making sure that they are popularly understood in this country. That is the way to enthuse people about a destiny in the European Union. They are the sort of things that the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, used to talk about. I hope that he will get back to talking about them some time, because they are the things that are inspirational about what the European Union is, what it can be and what it can do, not just for our people but for our people in a secure Europe playing a part in securing Europe within a securer world.
My position is one of major disappointment that we have managed to spend a full parliamentary day, almost running into tomorrow, without debating the essential issues of Europe: how to make the 2020 strategy create more jobs; pushing for the single market reform that started in 1992 but that we are still not near completing; and how we get the changes to the common agricultural policy so that it can be fair in relation to the budget and play a real role in feeding the world over the next century. None of those things has been present, but those are the things that are partly the opportunity cost for having wasted so much time on a futile debate that is really about a programme that we all know is meaningless. The two parts of it, whether the referendum lock on the one hand or the sovereignty clause on the other, are totally irrelevant to the needs of our people and our country and to the role that we should be playing in building a stronger Europe.
My Lords, I should open with a rare act of deference to the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch: I worked for three years in the European Commission, and for good measure I have a wife who works for the BBC, and I am immensely proud of both. It is humbling and a bit daunting to make your debut from the opposition Front Bench on an issue and in a Chamber where so many noble Lords from all sides of the House have made such a distinguished contribution to the cause of Britain in Europe. Regrettably, the same cannot be said of the Bill before us.
We have had, as many noble Lords have said, some wonderful contributions in this debate, including that from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe of Aberavon—one of my pro-European heroes—who in a memorable speech destroyed the logic of the referendum locks which are central to the Bill. The noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby—who probably sacrificed her chances of becoming Labour’s first woman leader and Prime Minister because of her commitment to Europe—wondered whether it would ever be possible to find the key to any of those locks. That was a wonderful speech as well, as was the speech by the noble Lord, Lord Brittan of Spennithorne, who in his 10 years as a European Commissioner built on the achievement of the Single European Act by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe, and drove through the single market and negotiated the Uruguay round. I thought that the end of his speech, where he said that he could find nothing in the Bill to commend to your Lordships, was a very clear and devastating statement for the Government.
There have also been excellent speeches from the noble Lords, Lord Kerr and Lord Hannay, who served as our permanent representatives in Brussels. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, used to be described in the Foreign Office as the man with the golden pen. Tonight, in a really wonderful speech, he proved that he also has a golden tongue. We have also had the benefit of a tremendously logical and crystal clear exposure of the Bill from the noble Lord, Lord Williamson of Horton, who, as a former secretary-general of the European Commission, served first and foremost the cause of Europe and, in doing so, the cause of Britain. Whatever the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, may think, I think, and we think, that it is possible to do both.
We have had many good speeches but I cannot mention them all. I would, however, like to mention some of the speeches from my own side—from our former Commissioners, the noble Lords, Lord Clinton-Davis and Lord Richard. The speech of the noble Lord, Lord Richard, was particularly excellent and brilliant.
I did a count as we were going through the debate. We will have 37 speakers in all, 33 of them from the Back Benches. There has been one loyal Conservative supporter, the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, from the Conservative Back Benches. There were also four anti-European speeches which basically criticised the Bill because it is too little, too late. The noble Lord, Lord Kakkar, made a speech which I think was as much about how the European processes of legislation are inadequate as it was about the content of the Bill.
There were traces of support in three of the Liberal Democrat speeches—that is how I would assess the position. The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, was perhaps the most enthusiastic in her support, whereas the support of the noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson, was perhaps somewhat qualified. I think that the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, was hedging her bets as to which way the Liberal Democrats will eventually go. However, a total of 24 of the speeches, from all sides of the House, were critical of the Bill in some way. So I think that Ministers will have to go away from the debate today and think, “Never before can a government Bill on Europe have been so comprehensively rubbished by those with the most claim to understand its purpose and content”.
I do not want to be unfair to the noble Lord, Lord Howell, for whom I have genuine respect. On Europe, I see him as the epitome of the cautious pragmatist. I am always conscious of the need not to get too carried away by my own Euro-enthusiasm, so I rather warm to his pragmatism. The noble Lord is a Eurosceptic in the proper sense of the word. He is not someone for whom the misleading label of Eurosceptic is a cover for rabid anti-Europeanism, which this bad Bill was designed to propitiate, but a sceptic who is open to rational argument and persuasion. As this House’s scrutiny of this Bill proceeds, I trust that those qualities of the Minister will be allowed every opportunity to shine through by his political masters in the coalition because he will have some persuading to do. On this side of the House, we will do our best to help him.
The Government have one good point on which they attempt to build their whole case for this Bill. The EU has a serious legitimacy problem and not just in Britain. But so do our national politics, which the anti-Europeans never refer to. They have a serious legitimacy problem as well. Even accepting that the EU’s legitimacy problem is graver, it is by no means clear that the Bill’s remedies provide credible answers to the question or even that it has identified the right set of questions.
There are two schools of thought about how to address the problem of legitimacy. One is “output legitimacy”—that is, making the EU more effective so that citizens will better comprehend its purpose and its benefits. The other is “input legitimacy”—that is, improving the process of transparency and democratic accountability of European decision-making. Output legitimacy—a Europe of results, as the Commission President, Jose Manuel Barroso, once described it—has been a long-standing British goal. But to get a Europe of results requires a pragmatic attitude to the powers that the EU may need in a rapidly changing world to be effective and to achieve results. By no stretch of the imagination can that spirit of pragmatic flexibility which is necessary be on display in this Bill.
As my noble friend Lord Anderson of Swansea put it, Clause 4 puts a ball and chain around the British Government’s agreement to virtually every flexibility to improve procedures that the Lisbon treaty contains, particularly the passerelles and the simplified revision procedure. Its “significance clause” throws the whole process open to judicial review, which, in an extraordinary way, is something that the Government appear to welcome.
I thought that the key point was made by the noble Lord, Lord Williamson. There are already strict safeguards in place on the use of these flexibilities. Under the Lisbon treaty, passerelles and treaty amendments can be agreed only by the unanimous agreement of all member states, including Britain. Under our own law, which was passed in 2008, they have to be endorsed by positive resolution of both Houses of Parliament and, in the case of treaty change, by an Act of Parliament.
Given that these safeguards already exist, what is so fundamentally at fault in the status quo? Surely, in order to give the Ministers the flexibility they wish to make use of, we can amend this Bill to exclude some of the passerelles from its coverage to widen the test of significance, which would allow Ministers more room for manoeuvre when they seek the pragmatic need to improve decision-making.
Instead of widening flexibility, Clause 6 and Schedule 1 list a whole series of decisions that would automatically be the subject of many other referendums. As many noble Lords have pointed out, these go way beyond the fundamental constitutional issues, which in the judgment of your Lordships’ Select Committee on the Constitution should be where referendums are most appropriately used. Does it really make sense, for example, under Clause 6(5)(c) for the,
“participation by the United Kingdom in a European Public Prosecutor’s Office”,
to be subject to a referendum? Let us return to the real world because that is where we should be: a world of “Events, dear boy, events”, as Harold Macmillan famously put it.
Let me illustrate that with one example. In the negotiations on the Maastricht treaty in the early 1990s, the 15 member states of the European Union decided that justice and home affairs should become an EU competence, but set them apart in a separate pillar where the Commission would have a reduced role and unanimity in decision-making would apply. Within 15 years, in a Union which had then grown to 25 member states, there was unanimous agreement that in order to safeguard citizens against greatly increased threats of terrorism, cross-border crime, drugs and human trafficking, these decisions should be made subject to the normal Community method. The nation states of Europe decided this not because they are mad federalists who want a united states of Europe, but because they felt that in our porous world, this was absolutely essential for the protection and security of their citizens. We have to have the pragmatism to adjust in line with events. Yet this Bill restricts, hampers and cramps the pragmatic flexibility the European Union needs for the future.
What the Bill does offer is wonderful provisions enabling the British people to vote in a referendum on matters of supreme clarity and importance to them, such as the suspension of the emergency brake procedure and the substitution of the ordinary legislative procedure for the special legislative procedure. What the coalition does not seem to recognise—I am surprised about the Liberal Democrats here—is that qualified majority voting can be and often is in the British national interest. We had an example of that in the past few weeks when we accepted qualified majority voting on enhanced co-operation on patents to make it work. That was in our interests, but under this Bill, it could not have occurred.
I agree that the flexibility I am talking about has to be complemented by strengthening democracy and accountability in the way European decisions are taken. That is the input legitimacy side. For decades, because of its origins, Europe has suffered on this score because it was the child of diplomacy between what were very suspicious and sovereign member states. But thank God for that diplomacy, which has given us 60 years of unparalleled peace, prosperity, social justice and democracy, in contrast to the previous 60 years of great power rivalry, two world wars and unimaginable horrors. So we need to strengthen both the role of the European Parliament and the processes of accountability within member states.
The noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson, was right to say that Westminster politicians consistently underestimate the European Parliament. They tend to think of it as a talking shop, but now it has real power through the extension of co-decision. There is a point about this that is relevant to the Bill. British Eurosceptics dismiss the European Parliament, saying that its legitimacy is low, the turnout for its elections is low, few people understand the complexities of what they are voting for and media coverage is at best patchy. But these are all arguments that could equally be made about local government, and even more so about the possibility of multiple referenda on obscure EU issues with the likelihood, as my noble friend Lord Lea said, of 10 per cent to 15 per cent turnouts or less, which is the central feature of this Bill.
My Lords, we Eurosceptics do not say that the European Parliament lacks legitimacy just because it is a talking shop; we say it lacks democratic legitimacy because it cannot even propose legislation. All European legislation—now the majority of legislation in this country—is proposed in secret by the unelected Commission; it is negotiated in secret by the unelected COREPER; and it is decided in secret by the Council, now sometimes, as the noble Lord said, with the participation of that fraud of democracy, the European Parliament.
I am afraid the noble Lord is describing a situation which might, at a stretch, have described European decision-making 30 or 40 years ago but certainly does not describe the way in which co-decision works today.
In addition to the European Parliament, there is also a need for a stronger role for national Parliaments in European decision-making. The previous Government did a great deal to push this: the treaty of Lisbon introduced the yellow card procedure on subsidiarity; and the Act of 2008 strengthened the accountability of Ministers to Parliament for their conduct of European business. We should have a serious debate about how we can strengthen parliamentary accountability. The Commons could learn a lot from the excellent work of the European committee of your Lordships’ House under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Roper, the reports of which are listened to across the European Union.
What you get instead in this Bill is not a serious debate about these issues but an attempt to insert a sovereignty clause which has been described in the debate as irrelevant, dangerous, spurious, futile and as a grubby political compromise. What is the point of it? We look forward to the explanation of the noble Lord, Lord Wallace.
The Bill has failed to decide what it is all about; it is a fundamentally confused Bill. Is it about increasing parliamentary accountability, with the added possibility of occasional referenda on issues of fundamental constitutional importance; or is it about a powerless Parliament, with weak leadership, where the most trivial subjects are decided in multiple referenda? Is the latter really the coalition’s vision of the future direction of our democracy? It is reality TV democracy, as the noble Lord, Lord Howell, described it, as against representative democracy. If we can justify the approach to multiple referenda on Europe, why not referenda on everything from hanging to dangerous dogs? It is a fundamental constitutional point.
On the question of whether these referenda matter, the present Government clearly think that they do not because there is no likelihood, they say, that they will ever call a referendum in Parliament under their own legislation—they say that there will be no transfers of powers to Brussels in the present Parliament—so what we have here is not relevant to the present Parliament; rather, it is a crude attempt to bind future Parliaments. This is contrary to our normal constitutional practice, and that is why the Opposition will support a sunset clause in the Bill. We look forward to the unanimous support of the Liberal Democrats on this issue, which the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, promised us. I hope that that promise will be fulfilled.
The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, must know that if the Bill is accepted as permanent it would have a disastrous impact on Britain’s position in Europe. We would have no room for manoeuvre as the EU develops. We would see the gradual emergence of a two-tier Europe, a situation that the Foreign Office has fought for 30 years to prevent. This is in an age when a stronger European Union is needed.
Last week I was in Brazil, speaking at a conference on globalisation. A distinguished Brazilian ambassador told me something that is relevant to our whole thinking about the European Union. Until 1928, Britain was Brazil’s largest trading partner. From 1928 to 2009, it was the United States. In 2010, it became China. After the devastation of the Second World War, Europe, in Alan Milward’s famous phrase, came to the rescue of the European nation state but because Britain had never been occupied or defeated, it never saw quite the same need to be rescued. Now, the huge challenge for Europe is globalisation. For all the nation states of Europe, including Britain, globalisation poses the need for another European rescue of the nation state. Yet instead of thinking big about the issues and how these questions are to be addressed, the Government come forward with this miserable, pathetic little Bill. This is a coalition not of leaders but of panderers. The House has shown today why the Bill is simply not good enough.
My Lords, this has been a vigorous debate—sometimes passionate and often lengthy. On one or two occasions I remembered the time when the noble Lord, Lord Shaw, was just beginning to get to the heart of an argument as he entered the 25th minute of a speech in the Committee stage of an EU Bill. We look forward to an equally vigorous Committee with, I hope, slightly shorter speeches, as we examine the Bill in detail.
As we have discussed the Bill, I have on various occasions said to people, “Please understand that unless I can explain to the noble Lords, Lord Kerr and Lord Hannay, what exactly this particular clause means, life may be difficult for us”. I hesitate to remind the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, that he has benefited over the years from a great many cigarettes that my wife has given him. I trust that this is no longer a trade that is necessary. At this time of night I need to leave many of the detailed issues until we reach Committee and will deal here with the underlying themes of the debate, which are the political contexts for the Bill, developments in the European Union, the constitutional implications of the Bill and the implications for the UK’s position within the EU.
I expected that my noble friend Lord Howell and I would be fired at from both sides and forced to stand back-to-back like the Gloucester regiment at the Battle of the Nile. I have been surprised to discover in this debate that the concentrated fire has only come from one side. From the other, it has been scattered and rather inaccurate. I wondered if the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, had forgotten he was involved in a battle against the EU Bill and gone off to shoot ducks—or, perhaps, EU pensioners. There were some wonderful flights of fancy. If I understood the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Stamford, correctly, there is a danger that Conservatives will fan the flames until they roast the Euro-sceptic penguins. Was that correct?
You did. I am glad to see that the Labour Front Bench is beginning to enjoy the freedom of opposition. Some weeks ago, a former Labour Minister said to me, “William, opposition is so much more fun than being in government. You get to ask lots of questions and you do not have to give any answers”. We then went on to discuss how mischievous one can be in opposition. The noble Lord, Lord Sewel, agreed that mischief is great fun and that that is what he wants to be engaged in on the Bill, as he was on the AV Bill.
The Bill addresses a problem of public distrust that the coalition Government inherited from their predecessors. The noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson, said that we are missing the real issues but popular consent is a real and central issue and cannot be ignored. The noble Lord, Lord Liddle talked about the real world. This Chamber is part of the real world but is not entirely the real world. I remember someone once saying to me, “William, you are much too much of an academic. You do not go to enough football matches”. I have to say that in the past few weeks my wife and I have been to rather too many dinners and other occasions in Yorkshire where the conversation from everyone from businessmen to teachers about what they assumed to be the state of the European Union was horrifying, and made the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, occasionally sound like a moderate.
Popular suspicion of the European Union has risen. In 1997, 35 per cent of the British public thought that British membership of the EU was a good thing; in 2009, that had dropped to 30 per cent. However, on the subject of polls, I should perhaps remind the noble Lords, Lord Pearson, Lord Stoddart and Lord Willoughby de Broke, that in the Daily Mail online poll—perhaps noble Lords have failed to vote so far—on whether there should be an in-out referendum, 71 per cent have said that they were against such a referendum. So there is either some very good lobbying going on or public opinion is not as strong as noble Lords thought.
Under the last Labour Government there was no concerted effort to carry the British public with the Government into a positive engagement with the European Union. I remember the St Malo Franco-British treaty on European defence co-operation. There was still then a degree of co-operation between the Liberal Democrats and the Government on foreign policy and defence, so I was involved in many of the meetings. But as soon as the Daily Mail labelled European defence co-operation as leading to a European army, the Prime Minister went silent.
The British case in Brussels depends, as we know, on steady recruitment of British officials, but the last Labour Government closed down the European fast stream and it is up to the coalition Government now to reopen it. The noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, asked whether the Liberal Democrats were prepared to fight for the European Union. Well, I would say yes—far more than the Labour Government ever did, and I regret that. It is one thing that I deeply regretted about that Government.
Of course, there is a longer history of governmental failure. When John Major became Prime Minister, he said that he wanted to take Britain to the heart of Europe, and he was driven back, and in many ways James Callaghan produced the greatest failure after the success of the 1975 referendum when he said that it was more important to let the wounds within the party heal than to build on that to argue a positive case for long-term European engagement.
The noble Lord, Lord Radice, said that they would like to hear more about what the EU has achieved over the past 20 to 30 years, and he seemed to think that this Government had failed to tell us about that. We would like to have heard that from the Labour Government, too, especially from Gordon Brown and his advisers, who included the young Ed Miliband.
The noble Lord is being a bit unfair to me. I actually quoted one member of his Government, the Europe Minister, and said that I wanted people like the noble Lord and his colleague on the Front Bench to follow his very good example. That was the point that I was making.
We shall continue to do so.
I am grateful for the depth of concern for the purity of the Liberal Democrats. It is most touching to hear so much from the Labour Benches. Indeed, it reminded me of the years in which I used to worry about the purity of the commitment of the noble Lord, Lord Richard, to the Labour Party as it became Eurosceptic, and how on earth he could manage to stay in the Labour Party through all of its twists and turns on Europe. But we worry about each other.
Can I just invite the noble Lord, seven minutes into his speech, to get back to the EU Bill? This wander through memory lane might avoid him having to face up to his responsibilities to answer the debate, but the time has come when he ought to do that.
I am talking about the underlying issue that the Bill addresses, which is that of popular consent and distrust and how we rebuild popular consent.
This Bill is the product of the coalition agreement and a compromise between initially very different positions. It is intended to draw the line underneath popular accusations that power is slipping silently and conspiratorially from London to Brussels. To demonstrate to the public that there will be a transparent process of scrutiny, the competences will not creep away but the complex and opaque processes of EU decision-making —sufficiently complex that my wife and I used to make a good living out of trying to explain them—will have to engage with public acceptability and public persuasion.
The European policy of this Government is a product of coalition. It necessarily differs from what a Conservative -only Government would have pursued, under pressures from their own Back-Benchers, and from what a Liberal Democrat-only Government would have achieved. That is democratic politics and constructive compromise. A certain amount has been said about coalition. Indeed, I felt that the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, was suggesting that this coalition is somehow not entirely legitimate because it has not got an appropriate mandate. Because it is relevant to this, I would remind her again a little about where we were with the previous Government. That was an informal coalition between Brownites and Blairites in which, at one stage, according to Jonathan Powell, the Prime Minister’s party kidnapped a Treasury official from Brussels to Luxembourg in order to try to discover what the Treasury was negotiating on financial concerns.
In the Lords, we now have a Labour alternative team of moderates proposing strong pro-European approaches. I note that it is a very different team to the one we had on AV, rather as one has an attacking and a defending team in American football. We look forward to detailed discussions on this but we start from where we are with the British public. We have their deep mistrust of the European Union. As we talk about the role of Parliament, we also need to remember that we have a mistrust of Parliament and the complex issue of parliamentary sovereignty. The Government, in their programme and policy, are moving to address the causes of that mistrust. The Bill sets out to address the anxieties of the British public.
Several noble Lords have mentioned the position of the press, which is part of the problem. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Stevens of Ludgate, that my understanding is that those sections of the press which are the most vigorous defenders of British sovereignty are indeed those which are most preferentially owned by people domiciled outside the United Kingdom. That is one of the many paradoxes of the situation we are now in. Yet the United Kingdom is no longer an exception. If one looks at public opinion in most other EU states, that has also become more sceptical, as have the press there. Part of that—here I address the noble Lord, Lord Liddle—is that the EU itself has changed a great deal. It has become a great deal more complicated and it is therefore much more difficult to explain, particularly to the younger generation, why the EU is a public good which we should expect our public to accept.
The Brussels bubble itself is one in which policy pursues an easy and seductive competence creep. I read a recent Policy Network document which was talking about how to revive social Europe. Indeed, I think that the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, was its author.
I will move to that very briefly.
However, there is a problem of competence creep and that is part of what we need to address in improving the quality of parliamentary scrutiny on the full range of EU legislation. My noble friend Lady Falkner asked about work on the balance of competences, and the noble Lord, Lord Kakkar, talked about the problem of competences and the working time directive. I can confirm that, in line with the coalition agreement, work is now being undertaken to look at the issue of competences and at the way in which EU legislation is implemented in the UK, with concerns about overimplementation, and, extending from that, to look at issues of subsidiarity. We take the issue of parliamentary scrutiny of justice and home affairs particularly seriously. As noble Lords will be aware, my noble friend Lord Howell made a Statement last month setting out the Government’s intention to introduce new and strengthened arrangements for parliamentary scrutiny.
On the constitutional implications of the Bill, I am more and more struck as I listen to this debate, just as I was when I listened to the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill debate, by the fuzzy nature both of the British constitution and of the understanding of it in this House. The Bill proposes a triple lock: resolutions in both Houses, Acts of Parliament and referendums. Much of the discussion that we have had today has been on one of these locks, the referendums, but I stress that parliamentary scrutiny and the improvement of it in both Houses is an important part of the Bill.
In view of the fact that three-quarters of the Members present in this long debate today spoke strongly and passionately against the Bill’s contents, particularly in Part 1, will my noble friend undertake that, if serious amendments are presented on the main clauses in Part 1, the Government will give them ample consideration and be sympathetic to changes?
My Lords, we shall move into an extensive Committee stage. Of course the Government will give full consideration to the various amendments that are tabled.
I was simply going to conclude by saying that much of the determination to improve the time and effort given to parliamentary scrutiny is indeed addressed to the other place more than to this House. The intention is to focus the attention of MPs on the flow of EU business and on UK involvement in that business.
I turn to referendums. Some are against them in principle; some think it likely that the Bill will lead to too many, while others fear that it will not lead to any. I say simply that we think it unlikely that many of the single issues that are listed in Clauses 4 and 6 and in Schedule 1 are likely to come up on their own. We recognise that the EU often moves through package deals and major treaty changes, and that at the next major treaty changes it will be appropriate to have a referendum on the entire package. However, we do not expect there to be any matters for treaty change in this Parliament. When major changes are negotiated and passed, the British Government, having agreed to those changes, will of course recommend a yes and will campaign for it. They will have to persuade, to win over public opinion and to carry the country with them to gain public trust. That is one of the underlying purposes of the Bill.
I move on to Clause 18, about which we have heard a large number of critical comments—
My Lords, I ask the Minister not to pursue the road that he is about to go down. I think that it is common ground on all sides of the House that no one wants to see a major reform of the European institutional arrangements in the near future. However, in order to get out of the mess that he has got into with this mass of trivia that can be subjected to individual referendums, he now tells us that we can all relax because we can have a big package that will deal with them as one. Please—please—do not.
The noble Lord is well aware that we have had major and minor amendments of the treaty, but in each case and on each occasion they have covered a range of issues.
Clause 18 is a declaratory clause. There is nothing wrong with having a declaratory clause; Magna Carta was intended to be a declaration of existing rights of the members of the public in Britain who mattered in those days—the Peers—but it reasserted what they understood to be the existing situation.
Would the Minister respond to the point that, in so far as Clause 18 has any logic, it is a dog whistle to those who want to believe that we will be not at the heart of Europe but in the second tier of a Europe of enhanced co-operation, which could be a disaster for British foreign policy?
My Lords, I do not accept that but we will come back to it when we discuss the issue in detail. Several noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, insisted that the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty was simple. I think she said that it was a matter of basic civics. The noble Lord, Lord Richard, said that it was a clear and simple doctrine. I recommend that noble Lords read the debates of the European Scrutiny Committee of the House of Commons between the chair of the committee and a succession of law professors. These became increasingly a matter of anxiety over whether the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty was one of absolute sovereignty, a legal doctrine or one in which the courts play a part. That is why we had the argument over the change in the exact phrasing of the Explanatory Notes.
The doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty, as we have been in the process of discovering, is not entirely easy to understand. In its declaratory nature, Clause 18 restates an understanding. It draws a line for all to take. It does not introduce any new legislation. We will have to work from that and the courts will work from that. As various noble Lords have said, there are those from various sides who currently question the role of the courts. From my own perspective and that of my party, parliamentary sovereignty in a liberal democracy is part of the balance between the rule of law and popular democracy. That is another issue to which we will need to return on future occasions.
My Lords, I am now very confused about the noble Lord’s position on Clause 18. The noble Lord has said that it is declaratory. He went so far as to compare it to Magna Carta, which was stretching a point beyond most people’s imaginations. However, his main point was that it was declaratory. He has now gone on to say that it is something more than declaratory; it is something that needed an expression—an explanation—and that clarification is given in the Bill. Which is it? Is it declaratory—something that was clear to everybody already—or is it a further explanation of something that was so unclear that it needs an explanation and clarification, rather than a declaratory principle? The Minister has explained that that was the case in the conversations that took place in another place.
My Lords, noble Lords will understand that we do not have a written constitution in this country. We have a number of conventions and common understandings. I will not go further into the recent Policy Exchange pamphlet and a number of papers that attempt, in different ways, to reinterpret where we are. The debates in the Commons scrutiny committee and in the House of Commons have shown that there are a range of different views on the exact definition of parliamentary sovereignty. However, for our purposes in this respect, Clause 18 restates that no Parliament can bind its successor; that EU law is part of the law of the United Kingdom because Parliament has said that that is to be the case; and that, in principle, what one Parliament has introduced another Parliament can undo. That is what it restates; it is quite clear. We will return to that in Committee and no doubt have lengthy arguments.
A number of noble Lords talked about the implications for the UK’s position within the EU and have suggested that we will be pushed by the Bill towards a marginal position. The noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson, kindly reminded us that other member states also have their own constitutional arrangements. The Germans in particular have detailed arrangements for parliamentary scrutiny that are sharply overseen by the Federal Constitutional Court. The Danes and the Irish have other arrangements. We can and will manage with this Bill to rebuild popular consent. It will, however, require active engagement by the Government.
I end by reminding noble Lords that the coalition Government are already actively engaged in pursuing a positive European agenda. We placed in the Library today the letter on an EU growth strategy that the Prime Minister, with another eight Heads of Government, has just sent round to the 27 Heads of Government. The letter puts forward a number of positive proposals. We are actively engaged on the climate change agenda—an area where the EU is moving forward faster than most other states or federations across the world. We signed another treaty with the French—this time a bilateral treaty. Britain and France between them account for nearly half the EU’s defence spending. We are opting in to a number of justice and home affairs matters. Today, the Government have announced that we are opting in to the human trafficking directive. We have therefore opted in to nine directives since last May. We are engaged actively on the neighbourhood policy.
I say in particular to the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, that we are therefore pursuing a positive European agenda, but we have to persuade our sceptical public. Previous Governments have failed to persuade our sceptical public, and the Bill is a step in rebuilding that trust.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.
House adjourned at 12.08 am.