That the Bill be read a second time.
My Lords, I thank each and every one of your Lordships for being here in such numbers for this important debate. I must apologise for the fact that it is a Friday and it will be a full day. I understand just how difficult that is for many and how much not inconvenience but real sacrifice your presence has entailed. I am grateful. I intend to make a short speech, lasting less than 10 minutes, I hope—if any of your Lordships think that 10 minutes is not showing sufficient respect for such an important Bill, I can only offer a further apology. However, this Bill is short, the principle at its heart is extraordinarily simple and I am conscious of how many others will want to speak.
The principle behind this Bill is that the people have a right to decide their own future. We had a vote of course in 1975, in which we embraced the Common Market by a huge majority. I was one of those voters. However, that vote needs reinforcing. The institutions of Europe have changed beyond imagination since then and no one in this country below the age of 60 has had any say. It has caused great controversy and has resulted in growing scepticism, not just about Europe but about all our political processes. The noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, who, I am sad to say, is not in his seat today, was entirely right the other day in an interview with the Times when he said that voters’ trust in all sorts of institutions was collapsing, so much so that many people simply were not even bothering to vote. I agree with him entirely.
Sir John Major, in a speech a few weeks ago to the Atlantic Partnership, said that Europe had become a toxic issue:
“Many Britons believe they were misled during the Referendum on entry, and we need to drain that poison out of the system”.
He went on to say:
“Only—only a fresh endorsement of membership can do this. Without that we will never be rid of the turbulent debate that has racked British politics for too long”.
That comes from a man with huge experience who is committed publicly and passionately to Britain remaining within the EU.
I will not bother the House with the details of how many opinion polls show that the British public repeatedly, and by huge margins, insist on a referendum. This Bill, which will give them one, came to us from the House of Commons after many days of debate and a great deal of time spent in the Division Lobbies. It passed its Second Reading there by 304 votes with not a single vote against. The lowest vote for the Bill at any stage was 233 and the highest vote for any amendment was 29.
This Bill is needed and it is also very much wanted. It will give us a referendum before the last day of 2017. Some people have insisted that it is the wrong date. I simply ask them: if not then, when? Others suggest that the uncertainty will be damaging, but why should it be more damaging than the outcome of an election campaign? Right now, the whole of Europe is riddled with uncertainty, although perhaps the greatest uncertainty is felt on the Benches opposite. Having been at one stage desperate to get out of Europe and at other stages desperate to bind themselves more closely to Europe, no one in the current Labour Party seems able to tell us what their policy will be at the next election. I do not mean that to be a criticism. This is a difficult issue. We politicians have made a regular mess of it over decades, which is why we need to get the people to decide. After all, my noble friends on the Liberal Democrat Benches, in their last election manifesto, said that they,
“remain committed to an in/out referendum the next time a British government signs up for fundamental change in the relationship between the UK and the EU”.
That is precisely what the Prime Minister intends to do, yet apparently my noble friends have changed their minds. I shall be entirely frank: many people out there have not been particularly impressed with the Conservative record either, which is why the people must decide.
The question that the Bill proposes putting to them is:
“Do you think that the United Kingdom should be a member of the European Union?”.
That is what the House of Commons approved. Most of us would think that this is a straightforward question. The Electoral Commission acknowledges that it is,
“brief, uses straightforward language, and is easy to understand”.
However—and it is a significant “however”—the commission believes that there is a possibility of confusion because some voters may not be aware that we are already members of the European Union. No doubt we can, and will, debate the wording with passion and real commitment in this House, although I think it is worth pointing out that when the commission canvassed far and wide for views on this question it received only 19 responses. Most of the 19 were from various politically involved organisations and politicians; five were from members of the public; but not a single Peer expressed any view whatever, although perhaps that is about to change.
I move on to the franchise. The proposal in Clause 2 is very simple. Those entitled to vote would be those who are eligible to vote in parliamentary elections, with the addition of Peers. It is a very generous Bill and it is also pretty standard stuff. Some have suggested that the franchise could be extended to those from other EU countries who are resident in Britain, to all British nationals who live in the EU or to 16 and 17 year- olds. All those cases are arguable and I have a suspicion that they will be argued passionately and eloquently. They are arguable but none of them is overwhelming. Nothing in this Bill is so unfair or so unbalanced that it is sufficient reason for denying the people their referendum. It would be beyond irony, and in some eyes beyond forgiveness, if this House were to pursue attempts to improve the question to the point where the Bill died and no question could be put, or to try to widen the franchise of those entitled to vote to the point where not a single person ended up getting the opportunity to vote.
There are provisions in the Bill to cover the exceptional position of Gibraltar, the conduct of the referendum and its costs. The AV referendum cost £75 million; this referendum might conceivably cost more, but at least people seem to want this one and it could very well be the best money we ever spent. How much longer can we allow, let alone encourage, the issue of Europe to distort our politics and destroy the public’s respect for our institutions?
Sir John Major has said that he will campaign at the referendum for us to stay in Europe. The Prime Minister has declared very publicly that he will campaign for us to stay in Europe. They both support this referendum. Labour figures, by contrast, have suggested that a referendum is like a lottery. It is not. A referendum is about democracy. It is not about being anti-European or pro-European; it is about allowing people to decide their own future. It will be a brave man who denies them that choice, and an even braver unelected Peer.
We are allowed great latitude in this House to indulge our interests and our expertise but never, I hope, to indulge ourselves. What we want individually from Europe or what we feel individually about Europe is not relevant here. The question is what the country wants. I think that the answer is very clear. They want—they demand—this Bill, which I commend to the House. I beg to move.
My Lords, in rising to put the Labour Party’s position on the Bill, I should like to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, on the very charming and elegant way in which he moved the Second Reading of his Bill, except that we all know that it is not really a Private Member’s Bill; it is a Conservative Party Bill for a Conservative Party purpose. That purpose is to try to create a semblance of unity in a party that is deeply divided on the question of the European Union and, at the same time, to convince voters tempted by UKIP not to follow down that path.
I realise that many Conservatives may not like this characterisation of their position on the Bill but, if challenged on it in the confidentiality of the Lobby, surely their only possible response would be one very familiar to Francis Urquhart, the character created by the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs: “You may very well think that; I couldn’t possibly comment”.
Labour does not have these visceral internal divisions to manage.
It does not. With one or two honourable exceptions, we are unambiguously a pro-European party. That does not mean that we want a European superstate—we do not. It does not mean that we always agree with what the European Union does; we are passionate advocates of EU reform in its economic policies, its regulatory approach, and its accountability to national Parliaments and public opinion.
Some may say, “If you believe in the European Union so strongly, why are you so unwilling to support a referendum on our membership?”. It is a fair question. “Is it only because you are not confident of winning your case?”. I wish to set out today why Labour argues that the question of whether to hold a referendum has to be judged first and foremost on the test of the national interest, not what serves one sectional force of a political party in the land. It is for that reason that we have severe doubts about this Bill.
Labour is not in principle an anti-referendum party. It was, after all, a Labour Government that ensured that we had a referendum on the decision to join in 1975. Where there has been the possibility of major constitutional change, we have proposed a referendum—on whether to join the single currency after 1997 and on the abortive constitutional treaty. In the passage of the European Union Bill through this House in 2011, we were always clear that a major change in Britain’s relationship with the EU would in future require a referendum.
The Conservative Party has never shown that consistency of commitment. Edward Heath refused a referendum in 1972; Margaret Thatcher pushed through the Single European Act without a question of a referendum; and John Major behaved similarly over Maastricht. It is true that David Cameron made a binding commitment to hold a referendum on the Lisbon treaty, but he then abandoned it once Lisbon was ratified in 2009, doubtless because he then believed that it would be damaging to his party in the 2010 general election if, as he put it, it was always “banging on about Europe”.
What has changed since then? The truth is that all that has changed is internal Conservative division and the misreading by Conservative Back-Benchers—certainly if you read the poll of the noble Lord, Lord Ashcroft, it is a misreading—of the nature of the UKIP threat to their position. That is why the party has shifted its position on a referendum.
We judge the question on the national interest. If there was a major treaty in prospect that would radically change the nature of the EU then, yes, there is already legislation on the statute book to say that there would be a referendum. However, the Cameron proposition on the referendum in his eloquently argued Bloomberg speech—with much of which I agree—is nevertheless fundamentally flawed. He has chosen, as this Bill sets out, the end of 2017 as the end date for a UK referendum without the slightest idea of what by then he will have tried to negotiate, whether there is any prospect of our partners playing ball with such a renegotiation, whether a new treaty is necessary as part of that and what he would judge to be an acceptable outcome.
The truth is that he is playing Russian roulette with the British economic recovery. So far we have seen a recovery in consumer confidence and the housing market, but there is as yet very little sign of new business investment and exports. If the business world was to think seriously that this Bill had the slightest chance of passage and that the Conservatives were likely winners of the next general election, the uncertainty generated over our continuing membership of the EU for the next four years could have a devastating economic effect. If the Labour Party were now to acquiesce in the central proposition of this Bill, it could well make that possibility a certainty, with a negative impact on investment, living standards and growth. People may not believe me, but listen to what Nissan has to say, listen to what Siemens has to say, listen to what Goldman Sachs and other overseas banks based in the City have to say. Do we really want to create now four years of major economic uncertainty by passing this Bill?
Even if you disregard the wider consequences, the Bill is flawed. First, as your Lordships’ Constitution Committee and Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee have pointed out, the Bill sets a question for the referendum that the Electoral Commission has judged unsatisfactory. Secondly, it leaves to ministerial discretion the procedures for holding a referendum without the opportunity for parliamentary scrutiny which every other referendum proposition put into legislation has allowed.
Thirdly, 16 year-olds will be able to vote in Scotland on the question of the country’s independence but not on whether Britain should stay in the EU, which is a key question for their future. Fourthly, Gibraltarians will have a voice in Britain’s future in the EU, but not the hundreds of thousands of British citizens living and working in the rest of the Union.
Fifthly, the Bill does not nothing to facilitate the fullest possible unbiased public debate before a referendum is held. In that respect it is an “all power to the Daily Mail” Bill. Sixthly—and this is what I care about most—it is a threat to our union, the United Kingdom. If, as is perfectly possible, Scotland in 2017 were to vote to stay in the EU and England to leave, that would re-open the result of what many of us on all sides of this House want to be a decisive rejection of independence in the Scottish referendum this autumn.
A referendum now would settle nothing. A vote to leave would open up complex negotiations on the nature of Britain’s future relationship with the EU, with demands possibly emerging for a further referendum on the outcome of those negotiations. A vote to stay could be re-opened if, say within a decade, there is a major treaty change. All in all, this Bill is a pig in a poke and it cannot be in the national interest to buy into it. Their Lordships would be failing in their constitutional duty if they did not give this bad Bill the fullest parliamentary scrutiny.
My Lords, 12 months ago, almost to the day, your Lordships kindly and generously paid tribute to my time as Leader of the House and to my 14 years as leader of the Conservative Party in this House. It was a fulsome tribute, and wholly ill deserved, but the best way of showing my appreciation for those tributes was, I believe, a long period of silence from me. However, I think one year is long enough, so I am delighted to support my noble friend Lord Dobbs’ timely Bill and to listen to this vast list of speakers. We have hardly seen such a large list since we last debated the vexed subject of House of Lords reform.
As we all know, referendums are rare beasts. We also know that they are hugely important and significant issues which need to be debated seriously by Parliament. However, equally, they are not unprecedented. This controversial issue of our continued membership of the EU has grown considerably over the course of the past two decades. It is an issue on which parties are divided, notwithstanding what the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, explained in his speech, and it is therefore right that on this issue we should change the normal political process of Parliament and consult the people directly in a referendum.
The European Union has changed out of all recognition over the past 40 years and has changed pretty fundamentally in the past 10 years. The EU institutions continue to evolve, particularly as they digest the full implications of the eurozone. We need the agreement of the people to our continuing participation and involvement. Of course, today is not about the outcome of the referendum or, indeed, the merits of continuing our membership of the EU but about whether a referendum should take place. Some will argue that a referendum creates uncertainty—we have heard some of that from the Labour Front Bench. I argue that having an end date for a referendum resolves uncertainty.
We debate the Second Reading today and, as is customary in this House, there is no Motion to deny the Bill that Second Reading. Therefore, by the end of today, the House will have agreed the principle of the Bill. Many Peers have asked me whether it would be right for this House to block the Bill. We do have the power to block the Bill, but I believe we do not have the authority to do so. The Bill, as my noble friend explained, was passed through the House of Commons largely unopposed, with huge majorities, and nobody outside this House would understand why the House of Lords was deliberately denying the people their say on this issue.
Furthermore, I hear it whispered that a small number of Peers plan to stop the Bill by using our much valued free and open procedures to disrupt its progress, therefore delaying the Bill and using time to stop it from becoming law. I can think of little else that would be so comprehensively damaging to the well earned reputation of your Lordships’ House for fair-minded scrutiny than to see a tiny minority of Peers indulge in the worst kind of procedural tactics. I very much hope that these rumours are untrue.
The Bill gives the people of this country their voice—a voice to be heard directly. It has been passed by the House of Commons, and my noble friend Lord Dobbs, and the Bill’s sponsor in another place, James Wharton, should be able to anticipate that the Bill will become law by the end of the Session. We in this House are unelected and appointed. To defy the elected House from time to time on a government Bill is one thing; to defy the House of Commons and the people at the same time is quite another, and I urge the House not to do it. I support the Bill and wish it well.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, for his bravery in sponsoring the Bill in your Lordships’ House. It was also wonderful to hear the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, break his vow of silence to engage us on the Bill today. It is always a pleasure to hear from the noble Lord.
We welcome the opportunity to debate this brief Bill, which makes provision for a referendum on the United Kingdom remaining in, or leaving, the European Union by 2017. Its brevity is not to be confused with modesty, for its ambitions are too important to be expressed in a 700-word, six-clause piece of legislation debated at the end of a parliamentary Session. This is too important for a Bill to be rushed though the House with 16 weeks to go before a European election and 16 months before the British public give their verdict on this Government’s performance—a Government who have a good record of meeting the challenges that our country has faced in the past three years.
The implications for our country’s future trajectory in the EU should not be consigned to a Private Member’s Bill and the ability to call on the House on a Friday, against a ticking clock, when the other place needs to receive it. Indeed, we know from Mr Cameron’s Bloomberg speech that his passion for an “in or out” referendum for the UK was set out only a year ago, last January, and was to be implemented after a Conservative victory in 2015, not today.
The Bill before us has not had the benefit of being subject to public consultation, pre-legislative scrutiny or the taking of evidence from interested parties, and has arrived here unamended. It has been left to this House to do its duty as a revising Chamber. I have no doubt that noble Lords here are up to the task—indeed it is our duty, as our country’s future is at stake—but this is not the manner in which to pass legislation of constitutional import.
Noble Lords will want to hear the Lib Dem position on the Bill. I will put my hands up at the outset: I was one of the Liberal Democrat policy researchers who first put it to my noble friend Lord Ashdown— the then leader of the Liberal Democrats—as long ago as 1995 that the Liberal Democrats should consult the British people through a referendum on any constitutional changes that might arise out of the 1996 Intergovernmental Conference. I know it is not the tradition of the House to brandish documents around, but if noble Lords on the Conservative Benches wish to peruse that pledge, I have the document here and they can leave the Chamber and do so.
It was from that consistent position that I stood here in this very spot, three years ago, and supported the referendum Bill that become the European Union Act 2011, when many noble Lords across the Chamber were opposed to it. We stood by the democratic principle that the people should be consulted when significant change is proposed and we do so today. We are proud to have enshrined in law the European Union Act 2011. So the Liberal Democrat position is clear: we say yes to reform of the EU and yes to a referendum if there is any further change.
I come to the Bill we are looking at today. The noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, has set out a general case for why the Conservatives believe that we need an “in or out” referendum by the end of 2017. A date for a decision is arbitrarily plucked out of the air as the end of 2017, and the period for the preparation of that decision is randomly established as December 2016, without an indication of what substantive change will have occurred in the United Kingdom’s position vis-à-vis the EU in the interim. The general election is to be held in May 2015.
The question the noble Lord has not addressed is what change will take place in our relationship with the EU between May 2015 and December 2016 for which the European Union Act will not be sufficient safeguard. If he believes that we will have a transfer of competences in that 19-month period, then surely the Act will apply. If there is treaty change from today on, the Act will apply. The answer to the question must be that noble Lords on the Conservative Benches have come to the view that the Act only guarantees a say for the people on future change, whereas they now—only two years after voting for that Bill—feel the need for a repatriation of powers referendum, which is what this should be called. That is the message behind this Bill.
However, even on that reasoning, they are contradicting themselves. Indeed, the Prime Minister himself said in his Bloomberg speech that the next Conservative manifesto will ask for a mandate to negotiate a new settlement with EU partners and that the British people would be asked after that negotiation. Yet now this House is asked to approve a fixed date for a referendum before we even know whether that mandate is to be granted or, indeed, what is to be negotiated. Should the detail of a new settlement not be outlined to the people before they are asked for their view on remaining in or leaving? If it is a matter of trust, then the Conservatives are saying, “Trust us to negotiate before we tell you what we will negotiate and trust us to have a referendum on it irrespective of success”. It will be interesting to see what the House makes of that. I look forward to learning more of their thinking on the Bill as we delve deeper in Committee. I will try to keep an open mind on their responses.
I come to the other significant issue in the Bill: that of the question itself. I should declare that I am a member of your Lordships’ Constitution Committee, which has reported on the Bill. The Electoral Commission has recommended a change to clarify the question, as it appears that a number of voters are not yet aware that we are in the European Union and may not understand the question. We will explore the possibility of improving that aspect and examine the question of the franchise in terms of eligibility to vote in the referendum.
For the moment, let me end on that question of trust—trusting the voters to make the right choice on the EU, which we unequivocally do. William Gladstone 150 years ago defined liberalism as,
“a principle of trust in the people only qualified by prudence”.
It is that combination of trust and prudence that we will put into the scrutiny of this Bill in the coming weeks.
My Lords, the European Union (Referendum) Bill to which we are invited to give a Second Reading today is a mercifully short one, but it is also exceptionally significant. It puts into play Britain’s role as a member of the European Union—a role that underlies much of the functioning of our economy and our capacity to influence and shape events in a rapidly changing world. To act in this way with our European Union membership is a high-risk strategy that has been ill thought through by its authors and is fraught with possible unintended negative consequences for this country. However, our task, as with every other Bill that comes before us, is to scrutinise the Bill rigorously and, where possible, improve it—not simply denounce it, tempting though that may be.
The Bill is also in many respects an oddity. First, take its proclaimed status as a Private Member’s Bill. That is surely more of a sham than a reality. Just about the only characteristic that fits its proclaimed status is that we are debating it on a Friday and will continue to do so as we work our way through its Committee and Report stages. However, I understand that the Bill was as good as whipped in another place and, if I am not badly informed, it is as good as whipped in this House. It has been openly suggested by Ministers of one of the two coalition parties that the Bill has their full support. That hardly makes it much of a Private Member’s Bill, even if it was introduced in this House by a distinguished Back-Bencher, the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, who has, with others, regaled us over the years with the odder aspects of our political life.
The oddities do not stop there. It is generally recognised as a convention of our unwritten constitution that our Parliament cannot and should not aim to bind the hands of its successors, but the sole purpose of this Bill is to do precisely that. It has no other purpose and will have no effect at all during the lifetime of this Parliament. Its object is to ensure that, whatever the outcome of the 2015 election, the die will have been cast. Once a precedent like that has been set, one wonders what there will be to stop any Government that can exercise a majority in the other place from pre-legislating commitments for their successor.
Another oddity is that only two years or so ago, when we dealt with the European Union Act 2011 and its 57 or so varieties of decision in the EU that would trigger a referendum in this country, we were assured with great intensity and certainty by the noble Lords, Lord Howell of Guildford and Lord Wallace of Saltaire, that once that Act was passed Britain would be at ease with its membership and there would be no question of needing any referendum outside the scope of that Act. What has happened in the two and a half years since then to justify reversing those assurances? It is not anything in Brussels, where no decision has been taken to trigger that Act. I suppose the answer must be the rise of UKIP and the attitude of a significant number of the Government’s supporters in another place who believe that, because they cannot secure a majority in Parliament for their objective of Britain withdrawing from the EU, some other means must be found.
The finally oddity is that the cry has gone up before we have even given the Bill a Second Reading that this House should not resist the will of the elected Chamber. Yet, if you come to think of it, every Bill that reaches this House from another place falls into that category. Are we therefore not to scrutinise or, where we consider it to be defective, amend this Bill? If so, there is not an awful lot left for us to do and the concept of a bicameral system would be junked.
In addition to these oddities and constitutional imperfections, the Bill has a number of other substantive defects. Does it really make sense to impose an artificial timetable and deadline of 2017 for the holding of an “in or out” referendum, some three years or more ahead of the event? I suggest not. For one thing, 2017 is a singularly poorly chosen year for such an exercise. In the first half of that year, France will hold presidential and parliamentary elections. In the second half, the Germans will hold national elections and, judging by last year’s precedent, it takes some time and much internal negotiation before they form a coalition. That same year, Britain will next hold the presidency of the European Union. These are as suboptimal conditions as one could devise for this choice of year, so there must be doubt that it is really a sensible way to proceed.
But the whole concept of setting a date so far in advance is surely deeply flawed, too. Would it not make more sense for the Government of the day first to secure the reforms they wish for in order to put the question on Britain’s continued membership to a referendum and then set a date? That is what was done in 1974-75. Does it not also make no sense to create such a long period of uncertainty for inward investors, on whose decisions the continued improved of the economy is so dependent?
Then there is the question to be put in the referendum. The authors of this Bill devised a form of words that the Electoral Commission judged to be flawed on the grounds of clarity and objectivity. More than that, the Electoral Commission submitted two formulations which it believed met those criteria, but the authors of the Bill brushed those aside and continued with their own. What on earth do we have an Electoral Commission for if we just ignore its advice? I was glad to see that our own Constitutional Committee shared my bafflement at this cavalier treatment of that advice.
There is also the question of the franchise, which has been referred to by other noble Lords. It is no doubt very welcome that Members of your Lordships’ House are to be allowed to vote on this occasion, but three important and much larger blocks of voters who will be critically affected by the decisions to be taken as a result of the proposed referendum are being excluded, despite the fact that this is not a vote for the duration of a five-year Parliament but a much longer period. The three blocks are: teenagers between the ages of 16 and 18, whose future job prospects and lives will be directly affected; the 1.5 million to 2 million British citizens resident in other member states, many of whom are disfranchised from our parliamentary elections due to the length of their residence but whose rights and status will be directly affected by this decision; and citizens from other EU member states resident in this country who can vote in our local elections and who will also be affected by this. Does the case for giving these categories the vote on this occasion not deserve careful consideration?
We surely need some threshold to be set for a referendum of this sort if its outcome is to be considered legally or politically binding. If either the turnout or majority for the result was to fall short of certain levels, it would be a travesty to argue—as the proposers of referendums are wont to do—that “the people have had their say”.
What, too, about the requirements for the provision of relevant, objective information to the electorate ahead of the vote? On this, the Bill we are considering is completely and astonishingly silent. Is it just to be left to government edict and the protagonists in the campaign to provide information—or perhaps disinformation? Or will a party with the majority in the other place after the 2015 election simply be able to impose its preferences in this respect? That surely would not do. That was certainly the view of our Delegated Powers Committee when it reported. Would it not be far better to set out in this Bill the way in which information should be provided ahead of a referendum vote on the economic impact of the decision, the consequences for individuals’ rights and status, and so on? Nothing is more distorted—
My Lords, I apologise for interrupting the noble Lord, and I will do so very briefly. I am listening very carefully to what he has to say—detailed arguments which will no doubt be redeployed in Committee. Could he indicate for how much longer we will have to listen to this?
This is not a time-limited debate, and I have not the slightest intention of replying to that interruption, but I am in fact getting rather close to the end. That will give pleasure to the noble Lord, and he would have spared us two minutes’ more time if he had not made that intervention.
It is essential that objective information should be provided, and the requirement for the provision of such information would best find its place in the Bill itself.
I apologise for having spoken at some length about the deficiencies of the Bill. I hope that its promoters will reflect carefully on the points that I and others are making before we reach Committee and Report on the Bill. This is far too serious a matter, with profound consequences for the future of this country, to be handled in the rather slap-dash and simplistic way that the legislation does in its present form.
My Lords, the Constitution Committee, of which I am a member, published a brief but important report on the Bill. Paragraphs 9 to 14 cover the referendum question and the role of the Electoral Commission. Paragraphs 15 to 17 cover the regulation of the referendum. The very important paragraphs 6 to 8 on process make two crucial points must be taken into account: first, that the Bill has reached us having been approved by huge majorities in the Commons; and, secondly, that if any amendments are approved here, it will almost certainly kill the Bill—or, as we delicately put it, “make it unlikely” that there would be time for the Bill to be passed.
In what we have to say about the recommendations of the Electoral Commission, we included the words:
“Taking account of the circumstances described in paragraphs 6–8, the House will wish to consider”,
et cetera. Those circumstances included the rejection by 244 votes to three of an amendment which would have replaced the proposed question with the first alternative proposed by the Electoral Commission.
In paragraph 17, which considers whether the conduct of the referendum should be decided by a process set out in full in the Act of Parliament, we have again used the words:
“Taking account of the circumstances described in paragraphs 6–8, the House will wish to consider”.
Those circumstances include the very limited time available. We have proposed that undertakings should be sought as to how the Secretary of State would intend to fulfil the duty imposed by Clause 3(2), in light of the fact that it would be virtually impossible in a Private Member’s Bill to set up the process in full in the Act.
I turn from the agreed position of the committee to my own conclusions as to how we should proceed. The issue that confronts us concerns the relationship between the two Houses and the proper role of the unelected House. The Bill has come to us with the full authority of the elected House, and with a great deal of evidence that the electorate want a referendum. Having served in both Houses, I am certain that, although the work we do here is hugely valuable, the will of the elected House must prevail. For that reason, I believe that it would be a grave mistake if the Lords were to kill the Bill. We have heard a good deal recently about the cynicism of the public and their considerable contempt for politicians. Very few outside Parliament will understand our arcane procedures, and if the Bill dies in the hands of this non-elected Chamber, many will believe that it was just another political manoeuvre designed to frustrate their legitimate wishes.
I say to the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, who has given immensely distinguished service to his country, but has never been elected, and who indicated that he intended to table many amendments and spend a great deal of time debating them, that if Members in his position take that line, it will simply add salt to the wounds already opened. Many of us fought vigorously and with success to defeat legislation that would have destroyed the House of Lords as we have known it and made it wholly elected. To defy the will of the Commons on this issue would be ample reason for those who believe in Lords reform to drag the question out of the long grass, where it lies at present.
There will be those who will debate the merits of staying in or leaving the EU and related questions. I will not join those debates. I do not think that this is the time or the place to do so. The issues before us are really very simple. Are we to approve or are we to destroy the Bill sent to us by the Commons? Are we to add to the despair that exists about the political system? Are we going to block the wishes of ordinary people who want the certainty that their views will be heard? I profoundly hope that the Bill will pass.
In 1975, Mrs Thatcher, as she then was, said in her first parliamentary speech as leader of the Opposition, that,
“the referendum is a tactical device to get over a split”,
in the Labour Party. She continued: “The referendum’s true genesis” is,
“a piece of thoughtless short-term brokerage in the Labour Party”.—[Official Report, Commons, 11/3/75; cols. 306, 317.]
One could say, with Mrs Thatcher, that Mr Cameron’s conversion to an “in or out” referendum, something which he did not have in his election manifesto, is a piece of short-term brokerage. We have heard some very impressive speeches already, but let us get down to basics. Under pressure from UKIP and his Eurosceptic Back-Benchers—that is where the pressure has come from—Mr Cameron has committed his party to a referendum, as he puts it in his Bloomberg speech—incidentally, notice the language he uses—whether to stay in on renegotiated terms of membership or to pull out altogether. He does not use the language of the Bill, I note.
In short, in order to keep his party together, the Conservative Prime Minister has taken a very big gamble with the country’s future. We know from Mr Cameron’s speech that if a Conservative Government are elected, they will then introduce the necessary legislation and, after negotiation with our partners, hold a referendum in the first half of the new Parliament. In other words, it is quite unnecessary to have the Bill at all.
Like all the speakers so far, I very much admire the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs. I have read his political thrillers and dramas with great interest and involvement, but I have to say to him that his Bill, apart from its place as a piece of political symbolism—because that is what it is—is neither necessary nor fit for purpose. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, that such a crucial step as an “in or out” referendum should not be introduced as a Private Member’s Bill. We all know why it is being introduced as a Private Member’s Bill.
The Bill also has a number of crucial weaknesses. It is no good ignoring them altogether. I have also been in Parliament for 40 years both down at the other end and at this end. Those weaknesses include the inflexibility of the date. If Mr Cameron is going to embark on a process of complex renegotiation, he will need flexibility in the timing of the referendum. He is not going to get that if the Bill goes through. Secondly, the rules under which the referendum is to be conducted are made by orders of the Secretary of State. The Delegated Powers Committee said in its report that these powers are inappropriate. Are we to totally ignore that?
Thirdly, the referendum question should be amended, we are told, by the Electoral Commission. It is no good just brushing it aside; we set it up in order to give us advice on elections and referendums. It has said that the question should be amended and offered two far superior alternatives to the one in the Bill. Although, as I have made clear, I believe that the Bill is unnecessary, I hope that this House does its proper job, as it always does, and is able to amend the Bill to make it better. If there are certain Bills which we are not allowed to amend, where are we as a second Chamber? A special rule for one Bill? Come on—that really is not a good enough argument.
In conclusion, I agree with my noble friend Lord Liddle, who made a very impressive speech. It is absolutely right that our party is not committing itself, in a Gadarene rush, to a referendum until it becomes much clearer what developments are actually happening in the EU. That is not clear at this moment. I end on this sentence: if there is an “in or out” referendum, I shall vote as I did in 1975—to stay in the EU—and I shall be voting that way with great confidence, because I believe British membership to be in the economic and strategic interests of the United Kingdom and of the European Union.
My Lords, I must begin with a confession. I have changed my attitude to referendums. For the first half of my life, my sceptical view of referendums was very much based on the view in Clement Attlee’s dictum that they were,
“a device for despots and dictators”,
and that they were inappropriate for a parliamentary democracy. In 1972, my sympathy was with my then right honourable friends Roy Jenkins and George Thomson, when they resigned from the Labour Party’s Front Bench rather than support a referendum. However, after the 1974 elections I was much involved in the 1975 referendum and I much enjoyed working under the leadership of the father of the noble Baroness, Lady O'Neill, and with my noble friend Lord Hurd of Westwell. I remember that my noble friend Lord Newby, who is the Captain of the Yeomen of the Guard, was one of the most enthusiastic young campaigners in that campaign, and that in Manchester I worked with my noble friend Lord Wallace of Saltaire and Dame Helen Wallace. I, too, am therefore in favour of the broad thrust of the European Union Act 2011, with its obligation to have a referendum when there is a significant shift of power to European institutions.
Why, then, do I have questions about the Bill that we are considering? As the noble Lord, Lord Radice, has said he does, I have considerable doubts as to whether it is right for a referendum to be introduced by a Private Member’s Bill. I do not believe that that in itself is a reason for opposing the Bill. However, like other noble Lords, I feel that there are significant defects in the Bill before us and that this House would be failing in its function as a revising Chamber if it was not to consider them carefully, but not for too long, in Committee.
As has been said by others, I believe that at this stage to fix the date at 2017 is a mistake. It is not clear how long it would take a Conservative Government, assuming that they were elected at a general election, to agree the necessary reforms to the European Union and Britain’s relations to it. There would be a case for a referendum when that had occurred but it is clearly a mistake to make a fixed decision on the year of that referendum now. As has been said, as our own Select Committee on the Constitution has reported, the question in the Bill has been examined by the Electoral Commission and I believe that we must return to that issue in Committee.
The Bill, as has been drawn to our attention, has a rather unusual provision in that it widens the normal parliamentary franchise in order to give your Lordships a vote in the referendum. I am sure that that was to guarantee that there was no amendment on that topic introduced in this House but, as has been said, there are other significant limitations on those voting because of the basis of the parliamentary franchise. There is a strong case for basing it on the local government electorate, as this would permit other citizens of the European Union to vote in the referendum. They will be clearly affected in such a decision and we should certainly consider this in Committee. My noble friend Lord Shipley will be raising the related question of the right to vote of British citizens living in the European Union. I share his view that we should consider that in Committee.
Finally, our Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee raised in its report questions related to Clause 3 on the rules of the conduct of the referendum and suggested that, as in some previous referendums, they should be incorporated as a schedule to the Bill so that they can be given detailed parliamentary scrutiny. It is the problem of having a Private Member’s Bill that it would have been very difficult for the Member of the House of Commons who introduced the Bill there, or indeed for the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, to draft a schedule when in the case of the other Bills it amounted to some 100 pages. This is therefore a matter which we will have to think about rather carefully but we are unlikely to be able to make an appropriate amendment. The House should give a Second Reading to the Bill but then carry on its normal function of careful consideration in Committee.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, on the thoughtful way in which he introduced this Second Reading. In listening to the noble Lord, it reminded me of something that was said to me many years ago: that in life, to be successful, you must answer the exam question before you. The question before your Lordships’ House is not one today of whether our country should remain part of, or leave, the European Union but simply whether the people of our country should have a say by way of a referendum in determining the answer to that question.
Whatever one’s views about whether the Bill is appropriate, wise or necessary, your Lordships need to be sensitive to the circumstances in which we have received the Bill. We have heard already in this important debate that in the other place—the place that is composed of the elected representatives of our fellow citizens, sent to that Chamber to exercise their judgment on behalf of the citizens—that the Bill passed through its various stages either unopposed or with very substantial majorities, reflecting public opinion on this matter of whether the people more generally should have their say by way of a referendum.
Having said that, there is of course a clear constitutional responsibility that this Chamber has, in a bicameral Parliament, to undertake thorough and appropriate scrutiny and revision of legislation. Indeed, this whole question of the role of the second Chamber was debated at length in the last Session as part of discussions and debates generally on the House of Lords Reform Bill, so it is very clear that we have this constitutional responsibility. Although the Shadow Foreign Secretary, Douglas Alexander, speaking at Third Reading in another place stated that members of the Labour Party had provided an appropriate level of scrutiny in all stages of the Bill, both in Committee and on Report, your Lordships’ Constitution Committee identified areas where further scrutiny might indeed be advisable and necessary but also stated very clearly that there are implications in that revision and scrutiny. It suggested ways in which much of that might be dealt with through undertakings provided by the ministerial response to questions raised in your Lordships’ House.
It is vitally important that we come back to the question of how your Lordships should exercise the substantial powers that they have with regard to the conduct of their constitutional responsibilities. In the short time that I have had the privilege of sitting among your Lordships, I have come to understand that we have substantial powers but we show maturity and considerable restraint in the exercise of those powers. The question of Europe and our country’s future role in Europe is important, and one which has been fraught with considerable political disagreement. However, the situation would be made considerably worse if, in addition to the important debate on the future relations of our nation with Europe, the debate were to be attended by a further accusation. That accusation might be that those who have the privilege of sitting in your Lordships’ House and therefore the opportunity for their individual voices to be heard on every issue, apart from questions of supply and confidence, were to deny our fellow citizens the opportunity for their voice to be heard at the ballot box on the question of our future membership of the European Union, particularly when their elected representatives, sitting in another place, have made it very clear that it is their judgment that our fellow citizens should be given a voice.
My Lords, given the need to be brief, I am tempted simply to say that I agree with my noble friend Lord Dobbs, to whom I am grateful for the way in which he introduced the Bill, and to my noble friends Lord Strathclyde and Lord Crickhowell, and then simply sit down, but I do not think that that would be quite sufficient. I want to express a few views about both the Bill and the position of this House.
In the early and mid-1960s, when I first took an interest in politics, I became a convinced supporter of the campaign for us to join the EEC, for all the reasons that we expounded then. During the mid-1980s and 1990s I often had to negotiate in Brussels in the DTI, in agriculture, for the Treasury, in transport and even sometimes on education, and I continued to take a very positive view but with considerable concerns about the extensions of the EU budget and the erosion of the principle of subsidiarity. Today, as others have said, the EU is a very different place and a different Community and we face new situations. I do not have time to elaborate them all but they include many new members bringing new challenges, the eurozone, ever- growing budgets, the increasing temptation for some to extend Community competence and the need to reassert subsidiarity. So I strongly support the Prime Minister’s view about renegotiation.
On the referendum, I am much struck by the facts that we had a referendum on Europe in 1975; we have had subsequent referendums on the alternative vote and now of course on Scottish independence, so they are becoming more commonplace; and there are many in the other place who were not able to vote in 1975 because they were too young or, as in the case of the promoter, were not even born then. I therefore feel that there is a very strong case for a referendum on this issue so I support the Bill.
It seems to make no sense to have a referendum before the renegotiation takes place so I agree with the timing point in the Bill.
I come to the point that most concerns me, and I very much support what my noble friend Lord Crickhowell said. The noble Lord, Lord Liddle, has made it clear that he has severe doubts about the Bill. I must ask him: why then did the Labour Party in the House of Commons not vote at Second Reading or in fact on any amendments to amend the Bill on the points that have been raised here? The Labour Party accepted them, did not vote and did not take a position, and I therefore do not understand why it should be only this House that does so.
I am a firm advocate of our non-elected House, for all the reasons that we have often debated, the most important of which is the expertise and experience of the Members of this House that enable us, among other things, to improve in detail the legislation that comes before us. A crucial point here, though, is that in the end, where there is disagreement on amendments between our two Houses, this House always gives way to the elected Chamber. That is the principle that enables this House to continue to do its work, despite those critics who believe that both Houses in a democracy should be elected. Here, though, we face a rare and most unusual situation. There is strong support in the country for a referendum, as is clear from the polls, and this was very much reflected in the debates in the other place on the Bill and the decisions that the elected House made on it.
I have read all the debates on the Bill in the other place and in principle, as others have said, the Bill was unopposed at Second Reading. There were many amendments that dealt with most of the points that have been raised here today but no one, or a very tiny minority of people, voted in favour of them, so the other place has overwhelmingly made its position very clear. The elected House has therefore debated all these points and, as I say, made its position clear, and the point that we now face is that any amendments passed by this House could almost certainly—indeed, will—kill the Bill. In my view, it is not for this unelected House to do so, and I hope that we will not.
My Lords, we have heard some excellent speeches in this debate so far, including, charmingly, from the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, in a very good five-minute contribution.
Having been a member of the European Commission, I think that I can talk with some experience about the need for change in the European Union. My experience has made me decidedly pro-reform of the EU, but not in favour of a pig-in-a-poke referendum in this country designed to bridge the divisions within the Conservative Party. Of course, at a time when people across Europe are worried about their jobs, borne down by the cost of living and nervous about whether or when the fast-rising economic powers in the world are going to eat Europe’s collective lunch, it is hardly surprising that public hostility is directed at the EU. However, it is instructive that opinion polls, including recent ones, indicate that while the public are in favour of a referendum they are by a bigger majority in favour of Britain showing leadership in the EU, exerting its influence and not walking away from its responsibilities within it. That is why I am very confident that in any public debate we will win the argument that breaking up the EU is not the answer and Britain leaving it will not help our own economic future, which is completely intertwined with that of Europe.
That is why collectively our primary purpose should be to raise Europe’s performance and game globally, and why Britain is an essential component in changing Europe and bringing about that rise in Europe’s performance. We therefore need to concentrate all our efforts and energy on building up Britain’s influence in Europe, not driving Britain out of it. I am co-president with Kenneth Clarke and Danny Alexander of British Influence, the organisation dedicated to making our EU membership more effective. We want above all to see a confident Britain at the heart of a reforming Europe. My opposition to the Bill is based on the fact that it will scupper that objective.
The Bill is not about changing or improving the EU; indeed, it is stage 1 in raising impossible demands of the EU in order to create a pretext for leaving it. It will create huge uncertainty among investors when we need confidence to build our economic recovery, and it will put the Government into a straitjacket, binding them to a rigid timetable regardless of what is happening in the rest of Europe and indeed in our own country. It certainly will not increase the Government’s negotiating authority in Europe, at a time when we need to be reaching out and building coalitions so as to safeguard our national interests as a member of the EU and in the single market but not in the core eurozone.
My message to the Government is: stop grandstanding to the UKIP gallery. If they are really serious about European reform, they have to go out and work for it and join others in achieving it. If the need or cause for a referendum arises in the future—if a new treaty involving fresh European integration or transfer of powers requires it—that will be the time to consider the proposition of holding a referendum.
In conclusion, while we should be out there in Europe banging the drum for British interests, making sure that our people fill the right posts and that our policies are uppermost in the minds of the European Commission or others, we should recall the words of William Hague, who originally got it right before he and the Prime Minister were taken hostage by the militant tendency within their party, when he said about a referendum:
“It would not help anyone looking for a job. It would not help any business trying to expand. It would mean that for a time, we, the leading advocates of removing barriers to trade in Europe and the rest of the world, would lack the authority to do so”.—[Official Report, Commons, 24/10/11; col. 55.]
He was absolutely right. We would simply create more alienation and public disillusion in Britain and on the continent and sacrifice yet more of our authority if we were to accept this Bill and if, instead of leading the charge for reform, we devoted the next three years to a referendum that presents a choice between standing on the periphery of an unreformed Europe or leaving it altogether. That, in essence, is what the backers of this Bill are inviting us to do, and we should resoundingly reject that choice.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, in his very eloquent speech opening this debate, said that the referendum is about democracy. We need to be very cautious about the use of the referendum. It is very much against the tradition of parliamentary government. Personally, I am a great admirer of Locke, the champion of parliamentary government, and less an admirer of Rousseau, who felt that the will of the people should prevail in all circumstances and, if necessary, override that of a Parliament.
It seems to me that we now accept the referendum as part of our procedures, but it has to be used very cautiously and it can be justified only if the choice in a referendum is clear. Will that be the case in 2017? It is extremely unlikely. The eurozone is in a state of flux and the European Union as a whole is in a state of turmoil. In the southern states of the Union, there is a revolt against the austerity which they see as imposed on them by Germany and against excessive regulation proposed—or imposed—by Brussels. Germany is right to insist on structural reforms and effective government, but it has pushed austerity too far and the question still arises: will the eurozone survive? I note that Mr Draghi says that it is wrong to assume that the worst is now over. So the question may well arise by 2017: what sort of Europe are we going to have to leave? It will not be clear. Will there be a larger eurozone or a smaller eurozone? The result will have a very great effect on relations between Britain and Europe. Will there be a new banking union and, if so, what form will it take? There probably will be one, but the form is still very uncertain, and it may take a long time to work out the details, yet the shape of a banking union will make a very big difference to the future of the City of London.
What is going to happen in the May elections? It seems quite possible that the extreme anti-European parties in France, Greece, the Netherlands, Finland and, perhaps, the UK, will win an overall majority in the European Parliament. That will have major effects and cause major changes in the European Union as we know it. Will we know the effects by 2017? It is very unlikely. If we are to have a referendum, it is vital to know what sort of Europe we are going to join, and in the next three years we cannot predict exactly what the implications will be. The only logical reason for having a fixed date now is that the events of the next three years are irrelevant. The only logical reason, in a sense, therefore, is for those who just want out: UKIP and the Tea Party section of the Conservative Party. As Mr Farage has admitted, he does not really care about the economic effects or the effect on jobs and British influence in the world. What matters to UKIP is that in an isolated little England we should be free to keep beastly foreigners out. It is the gut anti-Europeans who really can justify a referendum irrespective of the date.
Apart from the obvious unwisdom of this House trying to throw out or talk out a Bill passed overwhelmingly in the other place, on which my noble friend Lord Strathclyde spoke so eloquently and pleased so many of us, I have just two brief observations to make.
First, I noticed that the other day the very able Treasury Minister Danny Alexander MP was deploring the uncertainty here about the European Union and all the scepticism, argument and talk of actual withdrawal. He believed it was undermining investment in the UK. We have heard the same message here today. My view of Mr Alexander is that much of the time he talks a great deal of sense and is an extremely able Treasury Minister, but on this occasion I believe he and the party of which he is a member have got things completely upside down.
What is the best way to drain the uncertainty and doubts out of the system and end the bickering and difficulties that have gone on? Obviously, it is to have in due course, at the right time, a popular vote which will settle the matter for decades ahead, just as the previous referendum did in 1975. It may not be for ever as things change. The whole of Europe is changing, but it will certainly settle the matter for decades ahead. Anything which assists that outcome, such as this Bill, should be strongly supported, not opposed, by those who see themselves as good Europeans. If Mr Alexander and his colleagues in his party or, indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Mandelson, from whom we have just heard, want less uncertainty and a stronger investor commitment to this nation over the next decade, they should be supporting, not opposing, this Bill. Those who oppose the in/out referendum idea are really saying that they are in favour of more friction and continuing, unending uncertainty, precisely the conditions which turn off investors and weaken confidence. In the end I believe that in reality all the political parties, even our Liberal Democrat friends sitting here, will have to face that and commit themselves to a referendum.
Is the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, whose expertise on this matter is known throughout the House, really saying that the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, who the noble Lord, Lord Mandelson, has just quoted, was wrong when he opposed having a fixed date?
No. Of course I am not saying any such thing.
Secondly, I understand and sympathise with the doubts and cautions that your Lordships have about referendums. We just heard from the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, on that. However the disdain—I heard a lot of that when I had the honour of taking the European Union Bill through this House on behalf of the Government in 2011—of some for referring great issues of constitutional power and the national future to popular judgment damages the European cause which the strongest European enthusiasts claim they espouse. There could be no better way of wounding the cause of European reform and progress—here I want to be optimistic, but careful—which I sensed from a debate we had in this Chamber last night may just be beginning to rise above party and acquire all-party common-sense support, which will be necessary for this nation, than hiding the issue. There could be no better way of wounding all that than hiding the issue from popular judgment and setting that trend back. If I am right, that trend is there. There could be no more effective way of consolidating a more democratic and popular European Union—and, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, one that has been undergoing huge change in the past two or three years and will continue to change over the next three years—than referring it to the people for decision in due course.
Noble Lords may dislike the referendum instrument, but in this information age, they must know perfectly well that Parliament is trusted only up to a point and when it comes to letting go of further powers, or taking steps into a very uncertain constitutional future, not much at all. With two-thirds of this nation on the internet each morning, it is absurd to believe that a decision such as one on our membership of the EU can somehow be kept from them.
I read somewhere that the great Lord Salisbury, at the beginning of the previous century, used to deplore in this House the way that public opinion was beginning to intrude into matters of foreign policy and international affairs. It is probably time that we moved on a little from that. This Bill will help us to do so.
My Lords, there are many features of the EU and our relationship with it that are beneficial, but there are also many that are objectionable, beginning with the complacency of the Brussels elite, exemplified on the radio this morning. There is the contempt for popular opinion; the driving ambition for ever closer union; the relentless expansion of the EU competences; the extravagance over buildings and expenses; the waste within EU programmes such as the CAP, overseas aid and the common fisheries policy; the hypocrisy of demanding a 6% real-terms increase in the EU budget while imposing harsh austerity on national budgets; the economic illiteracy of many of the regimes, such as the euro, the Social Chapter and the working time directive; and the damage to competitiveness in seeking to decarbonise in only 35 more years, largely on the basis of renewables. There is also the jealousy and hostility towards London as a financial centre. Finally, there is the abject failure of the Lisbon agenda, agreed in 2000, to make Europe the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world.
It is not surprising that many people have become exasperated, but does that justify this curious Bill? It does not in my view. To make a rational and informed choice on EU membership, one needs to start with an analysis of the status quo of EU membership—its costs and benefits—and then compare that with not one but two counterfactuals. First, what would life be like as a member of the EU on revised terms? Secondly, what would life be like outside the EU? Current government policy at least attempts to address the first. That is, after a period of negotiation the results are to be put to the people for a decision. However, this still fails to deal with the nature of life outside the EU.
The Bill deals with neither of these cases. Leaving the EU cannot be treated like deciding not to renew one’s subscription to a golf club, which has no lasting consequences. The decision to leave the EU would leave a host of important issues unresolved, including citizenship and rights of residence affecting millions of people who have moved one way or another within the European Union; ownership of property; employment; trade in goods and services; recognition of intellectual property; the operation of cross-border businesses; study at European universities; and many others. We would need to know how many of the favourable aspects of EU membership, such as free trade, we could retain through bilateral agreements, and how many of the unfavourable elements we could jettison.
This is a defective Bill as it does nothing to address these issues and help the people to make an informed decision of a very major kind. It is also, I believe, a pointless Bill as it will not settle the question of whether or when there will be an “in or out” referendum. That will be determined by the outcome of the next election, in the next Parliament, which can endorse, amend or repeal this Bill.
My Lords, I begin by saying that this Bill is, in my view, otiose. That is, I hope, a polite way of saying that it is unnecessary. Two things seem abundantly clear. If, as I hope, the Conservative Party wins the next general election, there will be a referendum. It will appear in the party manifesto and that is quite good enough for me. If the incoming Government is not Conservative or Conservative-led and is not committed to a referendum or enthusiastic about this Bill, all they need is a guillotine Motion and one day to dispose of it in the other place. Therefore, I ask myself: what is the point of all this? Is there, perhaps, a hidden agenda? Could it possibly be an effort to bounce the Labour Party into lining up behind the Conservatives on this matter, or perhaps an effort to attract potential UKIP voters?
I confess that I am something of a Thatcherite where referenda are concerned, but I accept, picking up the point that my noble friend Lord Howell has just made about Lord Salisbury’s remarks 100 years ago, that we have moved on. The Prime Minister has given his word on this matter and I accept that. However, in the unlikely event that the British people vote to leave the European Union, far from it being the end of the game it would be just the beginning. Following a withdrawal vote, the Government of the day would, one assumes, enter into negotiations with our former partners on a treaty setting out the terms and conditions of our relationship with our largest trading partner. I do not propose today to enter into the complexity of such negotiations. Suffice it to say that they would bring into sharp focus the real issues that would arise in such a situation.
Let me give just one brief example. Whatever the detailed outcome of the negotiations might be, there can be no doubt that Britain, like Norway, would be obliged to follow EU rules on the single market. In reality, this would mean that any changes in the said rules—they are, by their nature, constantly evolving—would be made in a forum where Britain was not represented. Any new directive emerging from it would be sent to the UK Parliament and we would have 90 days to comply. It would be goodbye to parliamentary sovereignty. In the trade, I think this is known as “fax diplomacy”. As in so many other walks of life, the devil is in the detail. Those who believe that a vote in favour of withdrawal would signify the end of the game are mistaken—the game is just beginning. I mentioned compliance with single market rules, which is just one of many hugely complex issues that would need to be settled.
I firmly believe that the Prime Minister is right to seek change. Indeed, I believe that many of our partners would be sympathetic to the proposition that “one size fits all” is not always the best way to maintain relations between 28 countries. Again, I give just one brief example. The principle of subsidiarity needs adjusting to ensure greater and smoother involvement by national parliaments. Therefore, I very much support what the Prime Minister seeks to do.
Some noble Lords may be surprised that continued membership of the European Union remains the official policy of the Conservative Party. I just wish we could be a little more robust in setting out the advantages of membership and a little more aggressive in setting out the real dangers of withdrawal. You do not pander to UKIP; you confront it with a barrage of facts.
My Lords, whatever one’s views on the merits of the Bill—I shall come to those in a moment—I hope we can agree on one point, which is that, as a parliamentary occasion, this has certain “Alice in Wonderland” characteristics. I just remind Members of the origins of this Private Member’s Bill, which were as follows. At each stage I feel we probably need another chapter of Erskine May.
First, it was a Bill that the Prime Minister wanted to include in the Queen’s Speech but felt that he did not have the parliamentary strength to do so. Normally, if Prime Ministers—certainly Prime Ministers I have known and, I dare say, most other people—want a Bill in the Queen’s Speech, they tend to get that Bill in the Queen’s Speech. They have various mechanisms that they can deploy to achieve this. However, of course it did not go into the Queen’s Speech because the Minister in charge of constitutional affairs—heaven help us—who is the Deputy Prime Minister, decided that it should not be in the Queen’s Speech because he was opposed to legislating for an “in or out” referendum on our membership of the European Union. He is also, of course, the only party leader who fought the previous election on a manifesto commitment to do that. So the strangeness develops as we go along this journey.
We then have what I can only describe as a slightly humiliating process whereby the Prime Minister keeps all his fingers crossed that one Back-Bencher will be successful in the private Members’ ballot and he can persuade that Back-Bencher to introduce the Bill that he himself could not introduce. It then gets stranger. As the Bill proceeds through the House of Commons, a heavy three-line Whip is imposed on the Conservative Party to vote in favour of the Bill.
If I were being generous I would say, “I’m sympathetic to the Prime Minister because it’s a coalition—we’re in a funny old game at the moment—and maybe he can be excused for this”. But of course the truth is that he has been hoist with his own petard, because what should normally happen in a situation like this is that the Prime Minister should say, “I can’t do what I think is in the national interest to do. Therefore I will call a general election and see whether the public agree with me or not”. That option has, however, been removed by one part of the constitutional vandalism of this Government, which is that they passed the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. The noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, said at Second Reading—he can reread that speech with pleasure—that the problem with that is that it puts Prime Ministers and Governments into a straitjacket. That, of course, is where we see ourselves today. So those characteristics make this situation very unusual if not unique.
As for the principle of a referendum, I have no problem whatever with the principle of an “in or out” referendum on our membership of the European Union. I would be surprised if there were many people in my dear old party who have an objection in principle to that. It was, after all, a Labour Government who introduced what at that time was a brand-new constitutional device: in 1975 we introduced a Bill on which many of us voted, one way or another, and we had our first ever referendum. That is the correct thing to do for a matter of constitutional significance of this kind. For accuracy, I should record that I voted no in that referendum, and I may say that I have never been persuaded subsequently that I made a colossal error of judgment. Indeed, at the very least, had the public followed the same direction as I did, we would be able to be home today instead of debating this Bill.
So I do not have any problem with the principle whatever. However, I do have a great problem—this was the constitutional point that the noble Lord, Lord Turnbull, made—with the notion of this Parliament telling the next Parliament what to do. That point is fundamental, and it is particularly so. We have heard several people ask, “What does this House of Lords have to do with telling that House of Commons whether it should or should not go ahead with a piece of legislation?”. My answer is that this House of Commons should not be telling the next House of Commons what it should be doing. That is particularly true as we are nearly in the fifth year of this Parliament—we come back to that wretched Fixed-term Parliaments Act again—so many people down the other end will either not be standing at the next election or, please God, a few of them on the government Benches will not be back and will be spending more time with their families.
So that is where we are in respect of one Parliament trying to bounce the next. That is my answer to all those who say—and several speakers have said it—that the right thing to do is to put this to the people and that that is the democratic thing to do. It is not democratic for a Parliament elected in 2010, in what is nearly its fag-end year, to tell a Parliament that will be elected in 2015 what it should do in 2017. That is a matter for that Parliament to decide, not this one. We should have no concern, anxiety or sense of embarrassment about saying that this is something on which we should cave in to the Commons.
In particular—I will make this very brief procedural point—it really would contort our procedures in this House to get this Bill back to the House of Commons by 28 February, which is what the procedures would require us to do. We have to have gaps between Second Reading and Committee, between Committee and Report and between Report and Third Reading, and if there are any amendments, they will all have to be dealt with by 28 February. You would never do that with a constitutional Bill, or with a Bill with constitutional implications of this sort.
I conclude by saying that I am not opposed to a referendum in principle at all, but we should look in the history books. The right way to do this is the way in which the dear old Labour Party did it in 1974. It fought a general election with a commitment to a referendum in its manifesto and it carried out its manifesto commitment. If that is what the Labour Party decides, then it will be in the Labour Party manifesto. That is the procedure that the Conservative Party, I respectfully suggest, ought to adopt. That should be enough. That is the correct way to proceed, not the way that is being recommended by the Bill.
My Lords, this is an utterly unnecessary, indeed otiose, Bill. It does serious damage to business and jobs in Britain and to stability and security in Europe. As my old friend the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, pointed out, it is playing with fire for long-term confidence and investment from all over the world.
Let me make my own position clear. I was actively involved with my then boss, Roy Jenkins, who was president of the 1975 yes campaign in the referendum. I fought and nearly won a seat—like the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, who won his—in the October 1974 general election on a pledge that our future in Europe would be decided either at a referendum or at a general election. How I wish that we had stuck to a general election as the way to decide. Unlike my old noble friend Lord Roper, the more referenda I see, the less I like them. I agree with the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, on this, if on nothing else. Who fixes the topic, and who decides the date? We had a crystal-clear result by 2:1 in 1975. Will we have another referendum every 10, 20, 30, 40 or 50 years? Who decides that, and why? No; referenda are the coward’s way out. They are an abdication of responsibility by leaders and parties who do not have the courage to take a decision and put it to the people. In any case, there is no need for a referendum on Europe when there is a clear choice at the next general election. If you want to come out of Europe, you vote UKIP. If you want to stay in, you vote Liberal Democrat or Labour. If you do not know or do not care, you vote Conservative.
Nevertheless, the Commons in its infinite wisdom has sent us this defective little Bill, so we must do our constitutional duty and scrutinise, amend and examine it as thoroughly as we possibly can. I will press, with my noble friend Lord Shipley, one amendment in particular as the Bill proceeds, to ensure that all the estimated 1.5 million UK citizens living in the other member states of the EU—that figure is from the Commons Library—have a vote, if, by any chance, a referendum comes to pass. Those fellow citizens of ours, 1 million of whom live in Spain, France and Ireland alone, have made the decision, often many years ago, to go to work or retire in the rest of Europe in good faith and in the assurance that we were part of the EU, with free movement of labour guaranteed, and equal rights with any other European citizen to live wherever they want in Europe. What a betrayal of their trust it would be to take away their rights and risk uprooting them from their jobs and homes, without giving them a vote in a referendum which would be so crucial to their future.
A decision to leave the EU could hit Britons living abroad far harder even than many people who have always lived in this country. If, heaven forbid, there is ever another referendum on Britain’s place in Europe, all Britons living in the European Union must have a vote.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, must be correct that the procedure that should be followed in a perfect world would be the one that he outlined. The trouble is that we do not live in a perfect world, and we never have done. Europe splits parties and families, and has been doing so for 40 years. That is what we have to grapple with on this issue.
As my noble friend Lord Roper knows, I supported a referendum in 1972, and was defeated in the argument in our group. I resigned over the issue, but it was not really the central core of that question. It is right that there was a vote—but in those days it was a vote on whether there should be referendum then, in that Parliament of 1972 to 1973. I think that this is a gimmick, in many respects. However, why are we here? We are here because successive Prime Ministers have given commitments to hold referendums and then have not done so. The country does not trust us. On this issue of Europe, they have seen party after party manoeuvre and manipulate, and they do not believe it—and they do not actually believe it, even if they say at a general election that there will be a referendum. I was told by the parties opposite at the last election that there would be no top-down changes in the National Health Service. And what have they done? We used to believe that the mandate meant something, but now we are told that the mandate cannot be trusted.
Under these circumstances, it seems not unreasonable for all three major parties to commit themselves to a referendum, because it is a settled will of the British people in my judgment that there should be a referendum. I personally believe that we should start negotiating that now; I do not accept at all that it is not possible to get to a situation in Europe where we could have a referendum in the early part of next year before there is a general election. That would be the best thing; we would have a lot of political parties actually trying to get a serious negotiation. Most people in Europe feel that this issue going on is debilitating to Europe, and damaging to confidence. We have not resolved the issue of the eurozone, which is not yet safe. The whole situation that will come over the next year or so is hanging around—whether or not Britain will or not be in the European Union—is not good for Europe, not good for Britain, and not good for foreign investment or the world economy.
Personally, I do not have any particular wish to have a referendum in 2017. I agree very much with what has been said by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, that that will not happen. There are juxtapositions of presidencies and general elections in Germany, which are crucial, and you would not opt to have it in 2017. So if it comes, it is more likely to be in 2016—but I would far prefer it to be at the end of this year or in 2015.
As to the constitutional process, it would be madness for this House to reject the Bill, and to invoke the Parliament Act would be absurd. It would also be ridiculous for us to be bullied into not having proper constitutional discussions of these very important issues. We are actually saying that we do not like the Electoral Commission set-up on the question. I personally think that there is a very good reason to go along with it; why set up an Electoral Commission and then ignore its advice? The other thing that is absolutely crazy is to go again with what was done over the alternative vote and have a whole year in which you have announced an election. The provision that you must do this by December 2016 seems ridiculous, but I do not get very fussed about it because I do not think that there will be a referendum in 2017. Let us have a proper debate and make time for that. The Government may have to postpone starting the new Session, if it is so important to them.
I believe that what has happened has improved UKIP’s chances. The politics of the Prime Minister’s decision was wrong, I think—but that is his judgment and one for the Conservatives. It is a fact that this Bill comes to us not having been contested in the House of Commons, with great big majorities there. I think that the largest opposition vote was 240 to 30. Neither the Liberal Democrats nor the Labour Party wants to break cover and say that they will not have a referendum, but that is because it is quite obvious that the general public wants one. So my advice is to do it.
The referendum in 1975 settled the issue for a long time, and was salutary and important. We were not going into Europe in 1972 with the whole-hearted consent of the British people—and we did after that. When we were negotiating and when we held the first presidency in 1977, it was an inestimable help to have that referendum behind us. So there is another reason. And then, in the 1983 election, the proposition was put to the country to come out of the European Union without even a referendum. That was blown to smithereens in the election. We will never come out of the European Union without a referendum, and I believe that that is an important constitutional safeguard. So those who decry having referendums on anything, like the noble Lord, Lord Oakeshott, are not living in the modern world. Referendums are here on constitutional questions; they have been incredibly helpful in Northern Ireland and can be stabilising mechanisms if they are used wisely.
We are not using the referendum wisely in this case. This is a silly piece of legislation and should not be in front of us. Were we to vote, I would vote rather reluctantly for it, because any other vote shows to the general public that you do not want a referendum and that you are afraid of it. As to the question of how I vote, I would leave that open. I do not think that this renegotiation is trivial; I hope that in the European elections we will have a long period in which people advance their reform agendas. Let us hear what they are, and hear what the Social Democrats want.
On present conduct and performance, I do not think that the present Prime Minister is ideally suited to negotiating a good deal for us. It is quite likely that a new Labour Government coming in in 2015 would be in a far better position, for one practical reason: they are fully paid-up members of the social democratic grouping, which is hugely influential in the European Parliament. That is another thing that has changed dramatically since 1975. You do not make changes nowadays in European treaties or make any major reform without the European Parliament. I regret that, because I think that it has been given too much power, but the fact is that you cannot get through any substantive reform without a fair measure of support in the European Parliament. Therefore, getting a political party like the Labour Party, which can mobilise the Social Democrats, would be helpful. The fact is that the Conservative Party is not able to mobilise the Christian Democrats.
I have spoken for long enough and feel that I have said all that I intend to say on this debate. I do not intend to participate in Committee.
My Lords, I was going to start by saying that I thought that there was a lot of common ground between my views and what the noble Lord, Lord Owen, was saying until, unfortunately, his last comment, which I was not able to go along with. But I certainly agree with him in his support for the principle of a referendum on occasions, and particularly his reference to Northern Ireland. The very existence of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom depends on referenda; that is the constitutional position that we have established, and its value has been shown. But there is common ground.
I accept that this is not a normal parliamentary Bill—or it is not a normal Private Member’s Bill, let us put it that way. It is due to the courtesy of the coalition that we have to go about it in this way. That is what is being respected. The other problem about the courtesy of coalition makes difficult another of the propositions of the noble Lord, Lord Owen, which I would otherwise strongly support. I refer to the difficulty of entering now into negotiations on this matter, which the coalition may make more difficult.
Having said that, I think that there is general agreement. The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, made the point that it is quite wrong for us to lay down an Act of Parliament that will affect things that successive Parliaments may want to do. But how many Acts of Parliament might that apply to? That is what Parliaments do. No Parliament can bind its successor; if the successor Parliament is deeply offended by something, it can change it. That is our parliamentary process.
We all come to this without trailing clouds of glory and with some memories of our previous involvement. I was in Parliament when we joined the Common Market, and I supported Prime Minister Heath at that time. I voted yes in the referendum in 1975 and then found myself as the Minister representing the United Kingdom, first for environment and then for employment. I had a whole succession of ministerial meetings. I worked at first with my noble friend Lord Heseltine, a staunch European who found his Europeanism was helped by never attending any of those meetings. I actually did them all, and it was a test of one’s European faith, at three o’clock in the morning in Luxembourg or Brussels, on some of the turgid exercises that we got involved in. But what I remember, of course, is that we joined the six—and we were part of the nine. I tested one or two of my distinguished colleagues of this House in asking them how many members there now are of the European Union. I have to say, sparing one or two blushes here, that neither of them got it right.
I was out by only one.
In case I test other Members of this House, I will make the simple point about how much it has changed: from the Common Market to the European Economic Community and now the European Union. The current figure—the lunchtime score—is 28. That is the simplest illustration of the extraordinary changes that have taken place.
Of course, the point has already been made that over this period we have had four more treaties, changes happening in all sorts of directions, and the real feeling that the founding principles of the European Union—how it is going to be managed, administered and led—need amendment and change. I think that is common ground. This morning I heard Mr Chuka Umunna, the spokesman for the Labour Party, saying that the problem with the enlargement of the Union, with the whole lot of other countries that have come in—as Wikipedia says, “located primarily in Europe”—and now make up the European Union, a number of them, sadly, with vastly divergent economic situations, standards of living and income expectations, is that the free movement of labour should now be interpreted as being not for jobseekers, only for workers. As the noble Lord, Lord Turnbull, pointed out, as various tensions and issues have given rise to public concern, the current economic situation and prospects of employment for young people have brought a particular focus on the free movement of labour, and this is a challenge that will have to be faced.
The noble Lord, Lord Liddle, made a very interesting speech. He set out all the arguments for why it is a pretty bad idea ever to have a referendum and all the risks that you have to face, but I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Owen, that in the end you cannot just duck it; you cannot have Prime Ministers promising and never delivering; you cannot have parties moving one way or the other. I am sure that the Labour Party will be outstandingly responsible in this House but its performance in the other place, where it could not make up its mind whether it was yes, no or maybe, underlines the lack of public confidence in this.
Of course, I recognise that there are risks. There have to be significant reforms and there then has to be a major campaign. My noble friend Lord Garel-Jones made the point that people will have to start standing up—not now because we do not know what the changes will be, but when the changes are made—and if they believe in Europe, fight for it. But to say, “We will not have this Bill, we dare not trust the people”, is an impossible position for this House and this Parliament to take. I support this Bill.
My Lords, I am not against referendums in principle. I have long expressed my conviction that in this parliamentary democracy, referendums are justified when proposals are made to change significantly the way in which our country is governed. But this Bill has nothing to do with any fundamental alterations in the governance of the United Kingdom. It exists because the Prime Minister, through a series of lame gestures and rejected assurances, has tried to assuage the militant Europhobes in his party and has failed. He has sought to mollify them; in return he gets mockery, intensified demands and a host of Private Members’ Bills, including this one. His efforts have been as fruitless as appeasement always deserves to be.
The most celebrated manifestation of the Prime Minister’s futile attempts to buy internal party peace with concession came in his long gestated Bloomberg speech a year ago. Setting out his case for a referendum, he repeated, with apparent endorsement, some of the nostrums favoured by the Europhobes. He said that,
“many ask ‘why can’t we just have what we voted to join—a common market?’ … People feel that the EU is heading in a direction that they never signed up to”.
Of course, Mr Cameron could have answered himself by revisiting the irrefragable fact that in 1973, in the approach to accession, and in the staying-in referendum in 1975, proponents and opponents of Community membership very loudly, repeatedly and graphically told the people of this country of the significant and essential political and constitutional obligations and implications of being part of the European Community. There was no doubt—there is no doubt—about that. Even more relevantly, Mr Cameron could have acknowledged that participation in the single market, which he says is,
“the principal reason for our membership of the EU”,
clearly and inevitably had to involve and will continue to require full political, legal and constitutional engagement in the European Union.
The reason is simple. To function properly, markets must have rules that are meaningful, and the Commission, Ministers representing our Governments and other Governments in the Council and the European Court of Justice are vital to ensure the fair application of those rules. There is no single market, no participation in the single market, without full recognition of that judicial, political and constitutional reality; to pretend otherwise is to mock the intelligence of the British people. The British people definitely—to use Mr Cameron’s term—“signed up” to that explicit condition of participation in the single market.
In response to what Mr Cameron has called the people who feel concerned at the direction allegedly being taken by the European Union, he could have recognised candidly and crucially that if in the future, as in the past, proposals are made about the EU, the euro or the banking system that would be harmful to the well-being of our country, we can and will be able to exercise our ability to secure modification, derogation or opt-out, or, if necessary, use our right to veto. He could add that we can and must use the same powers, derived from full engagement, to secure the necessary reforms of the European Union and its operation.
Those truths, all supported by evidence and experience, would have been fitting weapons for a Prime Minister who sensibly wanted the United Kingdom to remain in the EU and the single market, as he says, and was prepared to show resilient, responsible leadership. By heeding those in business and commerce who are gravely alarmed by the pall of doubt now hanging over our country’s continued membership, by recognising the sincere concerns of allies who understand the necessity of the UK’s continuing role in the world’s most developed association of democracies, and by repelling those who seek departure from the European Union, Mr Cameron would have shown those qualities of determination and duty.
The Prime Minister has chosen not to follow such a course. Instead, again echoing the Europhobes, he declared portentously:
“It is time to settle this European question in British politics”.
It is a statement made absurd by the tortured experience of my party for years after the 1975 referendum was supposed to resolve schisms between proponents and opponents of Community membership. More relevant for the Prime Minister, it is a statement made pitifully ludicrous by the vexatious history of his own party, not for a few years but for five whole decades.
At one time, I thought Mr Cameron understood that. In 2006, as a newly elected leader, he called on his party to concentrate on,
“the things that most people care about”,
and to stop “banging on about Europe”. I thought then that the obsessive introversion of the Europhobes was to be rebuffed, as it was by Margaret Thatcher and by John Major. Instead, Mr Cameron’s appeal to stop the “banging on” has been greeted daily by the war-drums of the unyielding Europhobes inside, and UKIP outside, his party, and to the detriment of our country, he has pranced to their rhythm.
As a result, the basic question about the Bill is why the United Kingdom should suffer the potentially huge risks and costs of an “in or out” referendum on issues yet to be indentified and negotiated, involving conditions and consequences yet to be revealed, under a Government yet to be elected, simply because the Prime Minister lacks the fortitude to lead his own party with authority. The answer to that question is, like Mr Cameron, blowing in the wind.
Let us scrutinise the Bill. Let us expose the fictions. Let us concentrate on the facts and, then, let us ensure that the people really have the information that they need to come to the right result at the next election.
My Lords, I led a debate in your Lordships’ House in October on the importance of our continued membership of the EU to our economy and to jobs. I live in the north-east of England, where our regional economy is hugely dependent on exports to the EU and inward investment from abroad. As we know from the warnings of Nissan, Hitachi and others, leaving the EU could cost us thousands of jobs if we lost the benefits of the single market.
I have no difficulty with the principle of referendums. They can give legitimacy to constitutional change, they can clear the air when there are differences of opinion and they can engage voters directly in decision-making. However, they should be used only when there is an identifiable constitutional need, when the question to be asked has been approved by the Electoral Commission and when the franchise applies to all those who could be personally affected by the result. The Bill fails those tests: the timing proposed does not reflect constitutional need; the question needs to be changed because the Electoral Commission recommends a different question; and many people likely to be directly affected by the result will be denied a vote.
I now pursue this latter issue about who can vote. UK voters who move abroad can vote in UK parliamentary elections from their last UK address for up to 15 years after moving, but not after 15 years. So, UK citizens who have lived elsewhere in the EU for less than 15 years can have a vote in this referendum if they have a registered address in a UK constituency. However, what about UK pensioners who may have lived elsewhere in the EU for more than 15 years? They will be denied a vote. Yet their pensions, currently uprated, as in the UK, could cease to be uprated if we leave the EU. They could be treated as UK pensioners living in Commonwealth countries are treated, where pensions are not uprated. These pensioners may have contributed all their lives and they have a right to be involved in a referendum. So do all those working and living elsewhere in the EU, whether under or over 15 years, since they could lose their rights to do so. So do all those from elsewhere in the EU working in the UK and paying taxes here. They should have the same rights in a referendum as they hold for local elections.
It is of great interest to me that, in the referendum on Scottish independence later this year, the test for who can vote is residency. A voter must reside in Scotland, so 790,000 people born in Scotland but living elsewhere in the UK cannot vote. Conversely, 413,000 people born elsewhere in the UK can vote because they reside in Scotland. This is a very different approach, but that difference confirms my view that we need to explore the matter of who can vote in this EU referendum in much greater depth in Committee.
My Lords, I support the Bill for two reasons. First, it seeks, finally, after 40 years, to re-establish the rights of the British people to decide their own future in or out of Europe. That is to be welcomed. Never in the history of democracy has there been such a large bureaucratic empire built over nearly half a century without once consulting the peoples who are affected by it as to whether they wanted it or whether they liked the shape of it. The Bill really establishes a principle which has to be welcomed.
I have been interested in this debate to try to analyse why the dog that should have barked has not barked or perhaps dared not bark—expect that it almost barked in the case of the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Oakeshott, but he withdrew from it just before its sound was fully heard. That bark is that there are, and have been all over my political career, people who are passionately in favour of Europe and believe that it is too important and complex an issue to trust the British people to decide. Those same people, and there have been one or two today, will say, “Well, they have the right to do that in a general election”. Some of us who have fought many general elections know that a general election cannot be fought on a single issue. There are many issues, so to say after a general election, “Part of our manifesto touched on Europe, and you voted for us and have therefore made your decision”, is actually nonsense. We have to have a clear decision taken, and I believe that this is the right way to do it.
The other thing that I have learnt in my political career is that this issue, however hard we have tried, is irresolvable by political parties. It is irresolvable between political parties and within them. In the end, when you have a situation like that, the only answer is to let the people themselves decide.
The second reason I support the Bill is that it gives us time. It gives us until 2017 to prepare. That is the one distinction between the 1975 referendum and this one. In 1975, we had very little time to prepare. We were told, if I remember rightly, that there had been a renegotiation. In fact, when we look at it in retrospect, the renegotiation was not worth a row of beans, but some of us were taken in. We regret that now, and we voted yes in that referendum.
The noble Lord, Lord Turnbull, touched on an important point: on this occasion, when the referendum comes, we must have established fully the cases for and against, so that the British people can make a sensible decision. I have heard the arguments for the reforms that are needed. They have to be fundamental, reversible only by further referendum, and must ultimately return to the people of this country the sovereignty which we have given away without asking their consent over many years.
The noble Lord’s second point was to make the case as to what would be the situation of this country were we to come out of the European Union. That equally requires time. The argument so often used on Europe is, “You may not be very happy with Europe, but look what it will be like if you come out. You will be cast into the outer darkness of isolation”. Well, we must fill that outer darkness of isolation over the years between now and 2017 by exploring what other arrangements can be made.
I hope that we will explore with some of our Commonwealth colleagues, some of whom have some of the larger economies in the world, what free trade or further trading arrangements can be made. We need to take part in further discussion about the future of NATO, which is a crucial issue whether we are in or out of Europe. It has to be part of what would be there were we to come out of Europe. We also have to start discussing with our European partners what trading arrangements we can have with them if we did come out of Europe. There is no question that they are going to need to continue to trade with us just as much as we are going to need to continue to trade with them.
We have the ability over three years to start filling that vacuum. If we do that, when we get to the referendum—and I think we will, because I am confident that there will be a Conservative Government which will deliver a referendum—then, for the first time, we will be able to ask a sensible question of the British people, to make a decision between two viable alternatives: “Which way do you want to see your country going?”. I hope that, if we do that, they will decide that governing our own destiny must be the right answer.
My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, for introducing this important Bill. It has been a long time getting here, has it not? It is more than 20 years since we last debated an EU referendum, when there was a Motion to approve a referendum on the Maastricht treaty. I voted for it, but we were defeated, thanks largely to the very successful whipping of the then Conservative Chief Whip in this House, the noble Lord, Lord Hesketh—who, I am happy to say, has now seen the light and is a member of UKIP.
I have to say that I am still astonished and disappointed that it was successive Conservative Governments who started handing over the powers of Parliament and of the British people, without asking them, to Brussels. That was enthusiastically followed up by successive Labour Governments, who were cheered from the sidelines by the Liberal Democrats, for whom no surrender to Europe and Brussels is ever meek enough.
Many of the powers were given away, as I will tell noble Lords in a minute, without the British people ever being asked whether that was what they wanted. Treaty after treaty—Maastricht, Nice, Amsterdam, Lisbon—drained ever more power away from the British Parliament at Westminster and from the people of this country and channelled it to the unelected bureaucrats in Brussels. Very little that matters is now left to the Westminster Parliament, which has nothing at all to say about the economy, immigration, energy, trade, agriculture, fisheries and social policy.
During those 20 seemingly endless years, with endless debates about our membership of the EU, some of us were always against the handover of powers—the surrender to Brussels of the powers of Parliament and of the British people. However, in this House at least, we have always been outnumbered by the Europhile tendency—the Euro-grandees, who seem unable to see politics except through their Euro-prism. They accuse those who believe in parliamentary democracy in this country—the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, was at it today—of being “little Englanders”, of wrapping ourselves in the union jack and of wanting to turn back the clock. That is patronising rubbish. Why are they so blinded by Brussels and the desire for further integration that they are unable to see the truth?
After all, it is the Europhiles who got it wrong, not us, the “foam-flecked Europhobes”. It was the Europhiles who wanted us to join the euro. They said that if we did not we would be marginalised. However, the euro has not exactly been a shining example of political and fiscal success, has it? Just ask the millions of unemployed in France, Spain, Ireland, Portugal and Greece how they are getting on with the euro. It is not really very successful.
The Europhiles were badly wrong then and they are badly wrong now when they say that we will be marginalised and somehow turned into a pariah state if we were rash enough to leave the EU. As EU Employment Commissioner László Andor happily put it the other day, we will become the “nasty country” of Europe—that is, the nasty country that gives the EU £20 billion a year at the moment. We look forward to getting that back.
The Vice-President of the European Commission, Viviane Reding, could not have been blunter when she spoke in Athens the day before yesterday. She said:
“We need to build a United States of Europe with the Commission as government”.
That is not an invention of Nigel Farage and UKIP’s “foam-flecked Europhobes”—it is straight from the apparatchik’s mouth. So we know what direction Europe is going in. I am grateful to Mr Andor and Ms Reding for reminding us that the EU is going one way and one way only, for reminding us how damaging and how humiliating our membership of this club is and for reminding us that the European project is all about rampant supranationalism, with a sneering disregard for national sovereignty.
This Bill will give the British people a chance to make their voice heard, and to vote on whether they wish to continue to be run from Brussels or whether it is time to throw off the shackles of the EU and to be a truly free nation with the ability to frame our own laws and decide our own destiny at last.
I begin by congratulating my noble friend on his sponsorship of this important Bill and by commiserating with him on the fact that its Second Reading is being held on one of the alternate Fridays in which the moon is in the orbit of Jupiter and both the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats find themselves against a European referendum at the same time.
However, we should not be too critical of those who wish to extend the debate. After all, if they do that for long enough, it will soon be Monday and they might by then be in favour of a European referendum. I admire the courage of those opposite who have thrown themselves into the case against a European referendum and their touching confidence that their leader will not change his mind. It is a bit like Charlie Brown’s faith that Lucy will not pull the ball away when she holds it for him.
I will confine myself to three points that reflect my status as a new Member of the House as I contemplate, without the advantage of others’ long service, my obligations as a Peer. The first is that we are a revising Chamber, with a particular duty to protect the essential liberties and good government of the United Kingdom, and to be always mindful of the potential for abuse through the arbitrary use of executive power in the House of Commons. It is our job to insist that the House of Commons enjoys legitimacy and public consent for its actions. This is particularly the case where its actions have constitutional implications. Here I look for correction from more experienced colleagues. Would it not be odd for the House to attempt to block a proposal made in the other place for a referendum? Would it not be odd for it to be us who removed a check on executive power and ruled that the people should not be consulted? Should an appointed House stand between the people and a chance to vote? Surely not.
I hope noble Lords will forgive a further piece of naivety. Is it not also one of our duties to accept the principle laid down in the manifesto of the governing parties? Surely it would be almost a breach of the Salisbury convention for us to veto the principle of an “in or out” referendum advanced so steadfastly and well by the Liberal Democrats at the most recent general election.
The same principle should surely persuade noble Lords to embed this principle in legislation now. New though I am to these things, it seems to be in the best traditions of the House to act as a guarantor when previous referendum promises have been made and then ignored. There has been much talk of UKIP, but we all understand the politics here. We understand that the Labour Party promised a referendum on the European constitution. It won an election on that promise and then denied a referendum on the Lisbon treaty. With the best will in the world, that was a scandalous event that demands and requires this Bill.
My third point is that this House brings experience to the debate, as today has shown. If an argument is made, the House has heard it before and knows its worth. At every stage of Europe’s development, we have been told that what happens is inevitable, that a better deal is impossible and that Britain cannot stand apart and insist on its own terms. When the euro began, France’s Finance Minister said that Britain would pay the penalty for being out of it. We would be excluded from the councils of Europe. “Monetary union is a marriage”, he declared forthrightly, “and people who are married do not want others in the bedroom”. How wonderful the bedroom metaphor was, given that the Minister was Dominique Strauss-Kahn.
Apposite it was—but wrong. We can with confidence negotiate reform of the European Union. We have learnt from experience that we can insist on our rights, that we can negotiate with success and that it is right to trust the people. I am therefore pleased to support my noble friend.
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Liddle, in his excellent speech on behalf of the Labour Party, reminded us that our party is not against referendums, and that is certainly the case, as the record shows. My personal position is a little different in that I have always been rather concerned about the way that ad hoc and ill thought out referendums have seemed to become part of our constitution. Therefore, I was glad that the noble Lord, Lord Roper, reminded me that my political hero Clement Attlee greatly distrusted referendums.
However, I accept that at this stage the genie is probably largely out of the bottle and, certainly, if we are to have referendums, the major constitutional issues of the day are, presumably, suitable subjects for them. Therefore, my objections to the Bill do not relate to the fact that it calls for a referendum but are much more concerned with other aspects of it, including the substance of the clauses and, indeed, some of the political circumstances surrounding the process and passage of the Bill, which were very effectively described by my noble friend Lord Kinnock a few minutes ago.
The timing issue is a very serious one. To call for a referendum by a specific date, regardless of the circumstances of the time and whether we might be in negotiations with other EU countries, is simply crazy. I am also concerned at the suggestion that we should deal with this Bill in this House in a completely different way from the way we would normally deal with legislation, including Private Members’ Bills. I certainly cannot see the justification for that. That point was made very effectively by my noble friend Lord Radice.
Another possible rule seemed to emerge during the debate that we should give easy passage to items which have been heavily voted in favour of in another place. This would be a rather dangerous route for us to go down if it were applied to all future legislation. I am not sure what the proponents of such an approach mean in terms of how many votes would need to be cast in favour of a measure in the other place for us not to treat it seriously in this House. However, as I say, I think that it would be a very dangerous route to go down.
I join other noble Lords in saying that I do not like the fact that the Bill attempts to bind a successor Parliament. That is quite wrong. Although it is true, as I think the noble Lords, Lord Howell and Lord King, said, that Parliaments pass many bits of legislation which may have effect in the future, this Bill is unusual in singling out a specific date in a future Parliament. I do not recall that having been done before in quite this way. If we give the Bill easy passage, we will follow a constitutionally alarming procedure.
The point has been made many times that the general public are very much in favour of a referendum. I accept that opinion polls show that to be the case. However, we should also remember that in recent general elections Europe has been a much lower priority than many other issues, certainly compared with such issues as the cost of living, health, education and housing. This was confirmed to me in the most recent spate of door knocking that I took part in, which was during the South Shields by-election. While canvassing in different areas over two days, Europe was not raised with me once although many other issues were, despite the fact that there was a great deal of media frenzy about it and that UKIP’s best efforts were deployed to try to raise the issue and profit from the unpopularity of the coalition parties.
Much has been made of how much certainty the Bill introduces into the debate, but I do not think that it introduces any certainty at all. As I said, Parliament cannot bind its successor. Therefore, there are many reasons why a referendum held at the particular time envisaged in the Bill will not go ahead. For that reason, it is very understandable that businesses in particular are very worried about the uncertainty that the Bill would create. I agree very much with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Shipley. Certainly, in the north-east of England, which has the Nissan car plant, which is one of the most productive on the planet, and which is an exporting region—I think that we are the only part of the country to have a positive trade balance—there is great fear and uncertainty as a result of this measure. Given the number of firms involved and the number of people they employ up and down the country, it would be wrong for us to disregard this in our approach to the Bill.
For all those reasons, I hope that the Bill, which has attracted so many excellent speakers today, will be given the closest and most careful scrutiny in your Lordships’ House, and that we will deal with it seriously in the way that we deal with other legislation.
My Lords, your Lordships may have noticed that on the list of speakers this slot is down for the noble Lord, Lord Bichard. Your Lordships will also note that I am not the noble Lord, Lord Bichard. Apparently, what has happened is that, when I registered my name to speak in the debate in the government Chief Whips’ Office, they succeeded in confusing “Bichard” and “Richard”, so that is why I am in this slot.
Your Lordships may have gathered from my earlier intervention that I believe this Bill should be treated in exactly the same way as any other Private Member’s Bill. I want to deal, although in not too much detail, with the argument that somehow or other this Bill is so special that this House should resile from its normal position as a revising Chamber. That argument was accurately recounted by the noble Lord, Lord Finkelstein, in his rather refreshing speech. This House is a revising Chamber and should remain so. I think that there is a clear division in this House and in the other place as to the desirability, or otherwise, of this legislation. The only way in which we can proceed sensibly is to ensure that our consideration of the Bill is strictly in accordance with the rules and conventions of this House. That includes the timing of sessions and the intervals between the different stages of the Bill.
I say at the outset that I do not oppose the Bill getting a Second Reading. It has passed the House of Commons and deserves full consideration in this House. However, I do not accept that the Bill somehow or other deserves to be treated differently from any other Private Member’s Bill. It should have its Second Reading and proceed to a Committee stage, at which no doubt amendments will be put down and debated. It may even be thought appropriate for some amendments to be passed by this House. The Bill should then go to Report and Third Reading in exactly the same way as any other Private Member’s Bill. The idea that somehow or other the Bill should be given an accelerated and easier passage is to my mind constitutional nonsense. It should receive proper scrutiny and proper consideration. The timetabling of legislation in the other place is not something that we up here should have to take into account. It is a matter for the House of Commons and is not a matter for this House.
If, after the Bill has completed its passage here, it has been amended, the Commons will have to consider those amendments. Perhaps we will be into ping-pong—I know not. At the end of the day, the House of Commons must be entitled to have its way. Of course it must. That is a view that I have held and expressed on many occasions in the past few years, particularly when this House was actively considering the issue of House of Lords reform. However, to say that at the end of the day the House of Commons must be entitled to have its way is not quite sufficient. This Bill is not at the end of the day but at the beginning, and I do not approve, frankly, of the Bill having a dawning in this House and suddenly going back to the House of Commons unconsidered and possibly unamended.
I regard the Bill, I am bound to say, as grotesquely premature. I do not want to say too much about its merits or demerits, particularly as I have spoken for four minutes already. I regard the Bill as ill advised and ill intentioned. It is ill advised because how on earth can we say now what the issues will be in 2017? How do we know what sort of negotiations will be carried out? How do we know what the result of those negotiations will be? How can we now, today, say that we believe that the result of those negotiations should be put to a referendum in four years’ time? It is absurd. One could not do it. The only reason that we are beings asked to do it is because of the ill intention behind the Bill. It is nothing to do with the merits or demerits of a referendum.
The problem with the Bill is that it is patently inspired not by the issue but by the politics of the issue. Relations with Europe have proved toxic to the Conservative Party over the past 30 years, and the Bill is an attempt to do two things—first, to try and recoup some of the party’s losses to UKIP and, secondly, to try and wrong-foot the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party.
This is not a government Bill. It is a Private Member’s Bill supported by the Conservative Party. The noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, who is to wind up the debate, speaks not for the Government but for the Conservative Party. No. 10 has been briefing not for the Government but for the Conservative Party. It is a partisan Bill and deserves to be treated accordingly—strictly in accordance with the rules and conventions of this House, no more and no less.
My Lords, I should like briefly to revert to why we need a referendum and why this Bill is thus so important. Our nation has nearly bankrupted itself fighting three wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, all of which aimed to give democracy and self-determination to those three nations. Yet here at home we daily deny self-rule, even to the extent that last week, contrary to the views of our own Health and Safety Executive, the EU issued a diktat controlling the nature of how much spice bakers can put into pastries. This is a perfect example, albeit insignificant in itself, of how Parliament has become a charade, as the EU reaches into every nook and cranny of our nation. Surely, it was never meant to be like that. Things have moved on. Currently, thousands of the decisions that widely affect the lives of voters are taken by anonymous and unaccountable bureaucrats rather than by parliamentarians responsible to those voters. Is it any wonder that there is widespread voter disenchantment?
Noble Lords will recall that the American War of Independence, just over 200 years ago, was triggered on that famous slogan, “No taxation without representation”. We are now back to roughly the same position: we have regulation without rectification. It is virtually impossible to change EU regulations. Most decision-making has been taken away from national Parliaments and for virtually everything that matters, from the economy to immigration, decisions are made elsewhere, many of them extremely damaging to our national efficiency—not least as regards the working time directive; and we were told last night in an excellent speech by the noble Lord, Lord Kakkar, of the harm that that had done to our medical service.
Far from being little Englanders, there are those of us who believe that democracy, however imperfect it may be, is the right for citizens to sack those who rule and regulate them, something we are unable to do today. This democratic deficit lies at the malfunctioning heart of the EU. The people of this country have been promised a referendum and I hope that they will get one as we need our sovereignty back. Meanwhile, of course, every attempt will be made from the Benches opposite to scare people into thinking that we should hold on to the EU nurse for fear of meeting something worse.
Unbalanced projections are given that 3 million jobs in this country depend on our EU trade, conveniently forgetting that 4 million jobs in the EU depend on us. We are advised that the car industry will be in deep distress, overlooking the fact that we import some 800,000 more cars from the EU—450,000 from Germany alone—and that this only partially accounts for our huge trading imbalance with the EU, currently running at £50 billion a year.
Trade crosses all boundaries. Germany exports all round the world. It will continue to export to us, just as we will continue to export to it. Can anybody seriously argue that trade on this scale would come to a standstill? Bilateral trading arrangements would be made, as they have been recently with Turkey, and trade would carry on. They need us more than we need them.
It is high time that the truth of this matter was given to the British people, and the BBC editorial committee, for once, has encouraged a fair and balanced coverage of the alternatives. Frankly, I believe that it is impossible to be a democrat today and to support our continued membership of an unreformed European Union. It is time that this matter was put to the British people—we want our country back.
My Lords, there is much mention of people being told the truth in the European debate. I ask supporters of this Bill to reflect for a moment on the following truths, which seem self-evident to me as a former general-secretary of the TUC and the European TUC. An important truth is that, once the business world—or certainly those parts of it concerned with exports—considers that Britain may well leave the EU, thousands of British jobs will be at grave risk. If the Bill is enacted, the prospect of that exit will become rather more real and tangible.
Europhobes and Eurosceptics often say that the British people are not being told the truth about the EU—there was an echo of that from the previous speaker—but let us have a go at some of those truths. The first is that the British economy is closely integrated with the economies of other countries, not just in Europe but perhaps particularly in Europe. The 40% share of our trade with the EU is easily the biggest component of our business. Before nostalgics get too keen on the Commonwealth connection, they might just bear in mind that the level of our trade with North Rhine-Westphalia is larger than that with Australia and India combined. Our trade with China has only recently exceeded our trade with the Republic of Ireland.
So get real. The booming motor industry—all foreign owned—exports the bulk of its vehicles to European destinations. We certainly import a lot but the import side is not going to change in a way that threatens the export side. However, there is a threat because many UK manufacturing firms are foreign owned, including a huge slice of the City of London. There has been a big change since 1975 and inward investment would certainly be affected. There have been several references to Nissan and its importance to the north-east economy but its importance goes much wider than that. Siemens has also been mentioned, and Goldman Sachs was referred to by my noble friend Lord Liddle. We have to start believing what some of these chief executives say. Others who are not saying it publicly are saying it privately.
The fact is that, like it or not—I address this particularly to the nationalist tendency here today who are dreaming of a Britain that was perhaps relevant 30 or 40 years ago but is not relevant today—many of the levers of power are in foreign hands. They are the sources of much of the investment, technology, know-how and jobs that help Britain to pay its way in the world. Mr Farage may not care if an EU exit makes us all poorer; the rest of us just do not have that luxury.
Remember this: foreign firms will not have a vote in a referendum but they can surely vote with their feet if they become worried about the future of this country. By the way, no Europhobe or Eurosceptic ever seems to complain about the selling of Britain to foreign owners. That is a much great constraint on our sovereignty than any Europhile ever dreamt of. That is the reality and the truth which people on the other side of this House, particularly those in the Conservative Party, should face up to.
Another truth is that if many of the better foreign firms started to wind down their activities in this country—it would not happen overnight—new product lines would go to other countries and outside the EU we would become a sub-contractor to the world, with zero economic sovereignty and a disappearing tax base. We would become a bits-and-pieces economy, offering low-paid, transient work to our people. People knock the Social Chapter and the working time directive, but do we really want junior hospital doctors to go back to working 100 hours a week? Do we really want to get rid of the four-week minimum holiday entitlement that workers have been given? That is what the Social Chapter is about. If those on the other side of the House want to get rid of things, I hope that they will tell us specifically what those things are.
My Lords, as the House knows, I am a former EU Commissioner and, as such, I look forward to campaigning in the referendum that the Prime Minister has promised to hold in the event of a Conservative election victory. Whatever happens to this Bill, that remains the case. The Prime Minister set out his policy in his Bloomberg speech and I support that policy. The Prime Minister has given his word and I am sure that he will keep it. So, in the event of a Conservative electoral victory, there will be a referendum whether or not this Bill goes through Parliament. The important thing is that the referendum will take place because the Prime Minister has said it will, provided that he of course can lead a successful campaign in the election.
So the Bill is, in part, unnecessary. However, I am afraid that it is also, in part, a bad Bill. A referendum on UK membership of the European Union will be a major political, economic and constitutional event. On that point everyone can agree. It should therefore be organised with the greatest possible care and thoroughness; it should not be based on a rushed and inadequate Private Member’s Bill. The Electoral Commission has drawn attention to some of the inadequacies, as have the reports of the Select Committee on the Constitution and the Delegated Powers Committee. In the interests of brevity I will not repeat the points made by the Select Committee on the Constitution, the Electoral Commission or the Committee on Delegated Powers, but I endorse a great many of them and I do not think that the House should fly in the face of them. The points deserve serious consideration.
I would add two further points of my own. One point concerns the position of Gibraltar. It is bizarre that Gibraltarians should be given the right to participate in a referendum of this kind. I do not see why that particular overseas territory, or any other overseas territory, should be given that right. If Gibraltar has a referendum on its relationship with Spain, or whatever it might be, we will not have a vote, and I do not see why it should have a vote here. There is an element of absurdity in that.
Much more serious is the position of the hundreds of thousands of British citizens who work, live and have retired in other countries within the European Union. Those people will be directly affected by the result of any referendum and I think that they certainly have the right to participate. I do not know what the figures would be but it would not be impossible to put together arrangements which would enable a great many of those people to participate.
We should perhaps learn from Australia, a country which goes in for referenda from time to time. It had an important referendum some years ago on whether or not it wanted to remain a monarchy. Australians living, working or retired in this country, the United States, the continent of Europe, India or wherever it might be were able to vote, under certain conditions and as long as they met certain criteria. Just as Australians were able to vote on the constitutional future of their country even if they were not at the time living in Australia, so British citizens should be able to do the same even if they are not at the precise time living in this country.
To conclude, the Conservative Party will ensure that there is a referendum if it wins the election. That is true whatever happens to this Bill. However, the Bill provides an inadequate basis on which to hold such a referendum. Therefore the House should not feel inhibited about seeking to improve it.
My Lords, we have had a number of very interesting speeches in the past couple of hours, but the first few sentences of the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Tugendhat, absolutely sums the situation up. If the Prime Minister wants a referendum on Europe before December 2017, he puts it in his manifesto, goes to the people and, if he is elected, gets his referendum. The noble Lord, Lord Finkelstein, in his very amusing speech, talked about leadership—it is not a sign of leadership to cower behind the, albeit elegant, coat-tails of a Back-Bencher to try to get a piece of legislation before this House because of fear of UKIP on the one hand or of what the noble Lord, Lord Garel-Jones, described as the Tea Party tendency in the Tory party on the other. Nevertheless, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, on his opening remarks. It is quite interesting that the ghost of Francis Urquhart is sitting out in the Prince’s Chamber, because that gives the show away—this is a government Bill masquerading as a Back-Bencher’s Bill. That is regrettable for two reasons: first, it is here under false pretences and, secondly, the very fact that it seeks to bind a future Government is absolutely outrageous. It is a constitutional outrage that one Government should seek to bind another.
This has been the morning for true confessions, with a number of noble Lords saying how they voted yes in 1975. I voted no, but have changed my position, because I have seen the advantages of the single market. The oldest and best single market is here in the United Kingdom. Right now, another referendum is going on—it seems to have been going on since time began but has actually been going on for only a couple of years—which seeks to break up that oldest and best single market. This Trojan horse of a Bill seeks to take us out of the biggest single market in the world—the single market that changed my opinion. My fear about this Bill is that it talks about a referendum in 2017 and that there will be uncertainty between now and then.
Anyone who has had anything to do with foreign direct investment—not just with the Nissans of this world but with SMEs, many of which are at the high-tech end of the market—knows that when you go to the United States, Australia, the BRICs or, as we are now supposed to say, the MINTs, one of the great advantages we have is that we say, “Come and settle in the United Kingdom. We have access to the biggest single market in the world, transparent accountancy and a transparent legal system”. What we are saying to them today is: “Hold on a minute, maybe we will but maybe we won’t”. At this stage in what we hope is an economic recovery, that is barking mad. We need stability and certainty and to be able to play, as my noble friend Lord Monks said, to the power of that single market, to bring jobs to this country and to consolidate them.
The noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, and a number of other noble Lords have said today that the country wants a referendum. That is not the case where I come from—it is very far down the list of priorities there. The saloon bar may want a referendum but most of the people of this country have other priorities and we should be concentrating on those. Mark my words: the problem that you get with a long and protracted referendum is that the focus of attention is diverted from key and influential matters that we should be addressing. I ask your Lordships’ House to give this legislation detailed line-by-line scrutiny. As many have already said, the Bill is not fit for purpose and, as Members of a revising Chamber with a respect for the unwritten constitution of our country, we should not be prepared to tolerate a Trojan horse. That is what this Bill is.
My Lords, the European question was sent to try us. It has succeeded mightily in doing so ever since that week in May 1950 when Jean Monnet turned up in London and sprung his and Robert Schuman’s plan for a Coal and Steel Community upon a suspicious and resentful Attlee Government and what was then a deeply sceptical Treasury and Foreign Office. The Bill before us today is but the latest instalment in what is so far a 64 year- old psychodrama.
Standard British political boundaries have never been able to cope with the European question. The divisions are as much within parties as between them, as the noble Marquess, Lord Lothian, reminded us. The particular fervour of our great and perpetual European debate is fuelled, too, by deep individual as well as collective questions about who we are, what kind of country we wish to be and how best we can engineer for ourselves a decent and effective place in the world. Our free trading instincts jostle against our protectionist impulses. Our maritime, open-sea instincts cut against excessive continental commitments.
All the time, though it is little spoken of, the question of Europe arouses a sense of our specialness; our quirkiness; our suspicion of grand schemes and their dirigiste implications; our refusal to contemplate life as a medium-sized power folded inside a huge European grouping; and our absolute belief that we are not and never can be just any old country. All these factors leave a profound emotional deficit for many of our people with the idea of a deeply integrated federal Europe. This deficit has not eased over the four decades since accession. On the contrary, I think the deficit has steadily accumulated.
In my judgment, all these impulses and feelings swirl through the Bill before us, short though it is. Europe is undeniably a first-order question for our people and for our place in the world. Therefore, it is necessary that the consent of the British people to our membership of the European Union should be tested every couple of generations or so. The bulk of the British electorate has not been asked the “in or out” question, as the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, stressed in his eloquent opening speech. The time is approaching when they need to be—but how soon? Is it desirable now to fix a deadline and set the clock ticking? Here, for me, the reservations set in.
The negotiating climate today is far less manageable than in 1975, with our current EU of 28 members, several of whom deeply resent their experience of the UK as the permanent awkward squad in Europe, emitting a constant drizzle of complaint within the Union’s councils. The climate is different, too, at the very top. It is not the era of Schmidt and Giscard. To borrow from PG Wodehouse, if you are a 21st century German Chancellor or French President, it is always easy to distinguish between a ray of sunshine and a British Prime Minister bearing a request to renegotiate.
I accept that there is never an ideal time for a renegotiation followed by a referendum. Our economy was in terrible shape in 1975, with inflation rising above 25%, deindustrialisation proceeding apace and stagflation everywhere—but the road to a 2017 referendum would be hard, stretching and sloggy, even if unforgiving and unforeseen events do not add to the wear and tear of high diplomacy and political manoeuvre. To legislate now for a date three years away and the other side of a general election strikes me as not just undesirable but immensely risky for our country.
Only one thing is certain: even a meaningful and successful renegotiation followed by a referendum in which the British people showed a continuing desire to remain within the EU would not settle the matter. There were those nearly 40 years ago who thought the 1975 referendum had done just that. How wrong they were. Even if the UK is still an EU nation in 2020—I profoundly hope that it will be—we will remain the awkward squad over the channel, while for us at home the European question will always retain its own special talent to torment.
My Lords, I will be brief, because I think that the issue before us is important but simple, and also because my noble friend Lord Selsdon has told me that I have made more than 6,000 speeches in Parliament since the date of the previous referendum Bill in 1975, so a short speech is probably to be recommended.
This is an important Bill for me, not so much because of its substance as because of the position that the House of Lords should take on a Bill of this sort. The previous referendum Bill was passed in the Commons by a majority of 64. At that time, many noble Lords, particularly on the Labour Benches, took the view that although they were totally opposed to referenda, it was not the role of the House of Lords to seek to overturn or delay the will of a democratically elected House of Commons if it wanted to consult the people. In 1975, I voted against the referendum Bill, but then I was a Member of another place. I am no great fan of referenda, but then I was a democratically elected representative.
The Bill we are considering today was passed in the Commons by a majority of more than 300, and I find it very hard indeed to think of a proper justification for opposing or delaying it here today. We know that, in practice, any amendment—I would vote for some of the suggested amendments if we could—would almost certainly be detrimental to the Bill’s progress and so it would be lost. An amended Bill would go to the bottom of the list in the House of Commons and never be reached.
I do not think that it is proper or right for us to seek to reject the Bill, or to alter it in such a way as to achieve its rejection. If I remember correctly, in 1975, your Lordships gave Second Reading to the Bill on 6 May, Committee on 7 May, Report and Third Reading on 8 May, without a Division, and shortly after it received Royal Assent. That seems to me to set an example that your Lordships would be well advised to follow.
My Lords, the substance of what the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, said, is surely that this House has no serious role in the debate; we should pack up now and go home. The normal position of this House as an advising House, looking coolly at what comes from another place, would be thrown out of the window. We should simply say. “They have decided, full stop. We should go home, because any amendment might scupper the Bill”. Is the noble Lord really saying that we should not pass any amendment because of that danger?
I did not say that at all. If noble Lords want to vote against it, they can vote against it, but they should not pretend that there is any alternative.
I am not pretending at all; any amendment may well have certain consequences.
I am reminded of the noble Metternich, the great leader who, when news was brought to him of the death of his opposite number, the Russian ambassador, was alleged to have said, “What was his motive?”. We are quite entitled to ask of the Bill: what is the motive? What has changed the view of the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary over the past two years? Can it be anything other than the rise of UKIP? I congratulate the UKIP representative on the influence that the party has had on the Government.
Is it just the result of looking at opinion polls or the taking of soundings by a well padded Lord? Is it the fact that the Conservative Party has no confidence in the word of its leader, who has said that he would certainly have a referendum, and wants to tie him down? Equally, surely the Conservative Party has no confidence that it will win the next election. As many Members of your Lordships’ House have said, no Parliament can bind its successor, so this is a total charade. It may be a signal, but it is a signal only of the divisions within the Conservative Party. This is a partisan Bill and should be treated as such.
I could linger on the details of the Bill, but they are matters for Committee: the Electoral Commission, the wording of the question, whether there should be a threshold and the precise electorate. I just want to make three brief reflections at this stage.
First, there is the problem of the alternative. The Prime Minister put it well when he said that,
“the problem with an in/out referendum is it … only gives people those two choices: you can either stay in with all the status quo, or you can get out”.
Surely, if we seriously wanted to ascertain the views of the great electorate—Rousseau’s “popular will”—we should ask them, “What is the alternative?”, and therefore have questions on that. Is it the fact that you, the people, would want to be wholly alone? Is it the fact, as the noble Marquess, Lord Lothian, said, that you would wish to evolve some sort of new, free-trade relationship with the Commonwealth? It is not clear that any members of the Commonwealth seriously want to do that. Certainly India would not. Perhaps Canada would, but you really need two to tango and there is no traction in that.
What about the Norwegian example? There is a continuing debate in Norway—I am part-Norwegian—and the Norwegians certainly know that with the single market, they are told without any serious input what they should accept. That is hardly democratic, but it is the current reality of the Norwegian relationship with the European Union. What about the Swiss? No—surely, rather than going into the emptiness of a void, there should be some way of ascertaining, if that be the case, what it is that the people want. What are the so-called alternatives?
I shall not linger on my second reflection, because the point has been made often, but the date of 2017 is wholly arbitrary and unrealistic. Since the Prime Minister has said that any negotiations will not start until after the 2015 general election, can the position be such that we will know clearly what is on offer from our European partners and that all the various ratification processes will have been gone through? The only question that can be put is: do you, the people, believe that the Government should continue along the course they have set? What are the prospects of a radical new deal and of it being done and dusted and ratified by 2017? The Prime Minister is not going about it very well. He must have read over Christmas the book, How to Lose Friends & Alienate People, because he has already put off a potential ally in Mr Sikorski of Poland and harmed his relationship with Monsieur Mitterrand.
I am sorry, Monsieur Hollande. Already, the Prime Minister has given a clear signal to our partners in terms of the opt-out on justice and home affairs. If you are serious about the European Union, you have to be seen as part of the team if you are to achieve your objectives—so how would he define success?
Finally, it is an illusion to imagine that having the referendum would result in closure. Many colleagues have confessed, and my own confession is that in the 1974-75 campaign, I stood on campaign platforms with Mr Heath. I have not changed my mind and it is an illusion that we can somehow get rid of the spectre of Europe from our body politic. I recall Mr Benn at that time telling me that it would lead to closure, yet almost immediately afterwards he was campaigning for an exit from Europe. The separatists in Quebec, who almost succeeded in the Quebec referendum of 1995, have not suddenly forgotten their separatist ambitions because they keep on losing referenda. No, the clear message—I see the clock—is that, yes, the Prime Minister is right to seek to negotiate, but he should seek to negotiate in the right spirit, showing that he is a member of the team, and not bring to this House a narrow, reckless Bill for partisan reasons.
My Lords, my personal view is very straightforward: we are inevitably and intricately linked with Europe, and we need to work out our future in it through negotiation. I am also very clear that change is needed; I agree with my noble friend Lord Turnbull about the range of issues that need to be tackled in our relationship with Europe. There may be a place for a referendum in that process but I would not start with one. There will be consequences of doing so, as many noble Lords have spelt out today.
However, in the course of this debate I have been very impressed by the points that have been made about the will of both the Commons and indeed a significant part of the public. The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, spoke about the House having the power to defy the will of the Commons but asked whether it has the authority. The noble Lord, Lord Kakkar, spoke about us having that power but having the tradition of exercising it maturely. In some ways, I was most impressed with what the noble Lord, Lord Owen, had to say, and if I may summarise it to him, although he is not in his place, it was that there is a political inevitability about the process of having a referendum and we should get on with it—there was a political dynamic in place. I have some sympathy with that. Let us have the real argument, not these shadow ones about process.
Scrutiny has to happen, though. As a Back-Bencher, I rather feel—“resentment” is not quite the right word—slightly taken aback by what I think I am hearing: that we may discuss the Bill but may not put forward amendments or vote on them, which seems to be a very peculiar position for us to be in, particularly when there are two very clear issues that need to be scrutinised. They are the most fundamental points about any such Bill, which are, put simply: what is the question, and who gets to vote? Those are the two that have come up from a number of people. On the point about who has the right to vote, the noble Lord, Lord Oakeshott, raised an interesting point about the position of the 1.5 million British citizens living in Europe, which clearly needs debate and discussion.
With regard to the question, I have not yet heard what is wrong with the independent Electoral Commission’s version of the question. I have heard that there is not time to discuss it but I have not actually heard what is wrong with it. Parliament needs to have a good reason to overrule a group of independent experts which it has set up to advise it, and we need to understand what that good reason is if we are to go ahead with the question that is currently in the Bill. Very simply, my view is that we need to respect the will of the Commons and there is an inevitability about moving towards a referendum, but we need to have the power and the time to scrutinise these important issues and get answers.
My Lords, I confess from the very first that I am Eurosceptic and always have been. I voted in 1971 against the principle of joining. However, this Bill is not about Euroscepticism; it is about giving an opportunity to the people of this country, who are very confused in many ways about various things that have happened. It is crucial that they should be given this opportunity and should be given it at a time when the principles of what had been accepted have been discussed, expressed and investigated. They need to be informed and they need a referendum because at this moment in time they are very puzzled indeed.
We all know what the main issues have been—it is not a question of UKIP; these things have come up over and again—which have been disturbing to the general public and have never fully been explained. I remember that when we were on the Benches opposite there was a huge question of millions and millions of pounds, or rather euros, that had been spent or not spent and had vanished down some black hole. There never was a proper explanation. My only slight dismay is that I do not think this should be an issue of a very narrow number of situations about which people have concerns, any more than it should be about the nitty-gritty. I was extremely impressed by the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Owen, with a whole part of which I found myself in great agreement.
I believe so strongly in referendums that when we faced the question of entering Europe, I told my constituents at the time that they would get the benefit of my advice. I visited all the cities twinned with my constituency of Gloucester and held a referendum at my own expense, which was organised and carried out by the Hansard Society.
I do not want to rake up a lot of old and certainly worrying issues that have occurred over the years or any of the matters which I believe have left the people of this country worse, not better, off. I will be very satisfied indeed if this Bill is given a Second Reading in this House. I regard it as a very important step that should be taken as soon as possible, as long as the British people are given the right answers.
A young lady working for me yesterday wanted to see me today. She is a very—I shall not say ordinary—normal person. She has just got her mortgage, and she is very pleased. I said, “I can’t come tomorrow because of this European debate”. She replied, “I just don’t know about Europe. Do you?”. That is it.
My Lords, I am a strong and committed pro-European, and if noble Lords will forgive me, I shall describe the reasons for that as three Ps and an S. First, I am a pro-European because of peace. Many people say that dealing with conflict in Europe is a thing of the past. That is manifestly not so. There was a bloody and horrible war in the Balkans some two decades ago. It is highly important for Serbia, Kosovo, Albania and the Balkan countries to enter the European Union. Secondly, I am a pro-European because of prosperity. It sounds an odd thing to say given the travails of the eurozone, but the single market adds something like 2.6% to the GDP of its member nations, and the eurozone is in the process of basically positive reform.
Thirdly, I am a pro-European because of power. In our globally interdependent world, if Europe cannot collectively exert an influence over the rest of the world, we will live in a kind of G2 world in which we will be a backwater and will simply be subject to the decisions of others. Fourthly, and this is important in this debate, I am a pro-European because of what I call “sovereignty plus”—that is, because, contrary to what many people seem to imagine, each nation gets more sovereignty from being part of the European Union than it has outside it. This was recognised in the Prime Minister’s Bloomberg speech where he said that in foreign policy we get much more clout from being a member of the European Union than we would otherwise. This can be generalised to most aspects of EU membership.
I am a committed pro-European, but I am not one of those who hold that it would be economic and political suicide for the UK to leave. I think that the UK could at some point leave the European Union and could survive outside it, but the conditions of doing so would be extremely damaging indeed. Like most other noble Lords who have spoken, I think that at some point the people should decide. I am therefore in favour of a referendum, which would be sensible and democratic to hold at some point.
However, no one should doubt that if Britain were to exit the EU, there would be a wrenching and protracted process of readjustment. Other noble Lords have drawn attention to this. The idea that the country would magically retrieve lost sovereignty is superficial and foolish. What matters in the contemporary world is not paper sovereignty but real sovereignty in a world that has been transformed out of all recognition over the past two or so decades. For example, the European economies and the American economy are likely to be transformed by the transatlantic free trade agreement. This is very much on the books; it is likely to happen within the next two years. There is very strong support from the Obama Administration. You cannot tell me that if the UK were outside the EU and had to negotiate individually it would have more sovereignty than it would inside the EU.
This is not a trivial thing; a tremendous process of transformation is envisaged here. Essentially, the country would have to reinvent itself and the reinvention that would have to follow would be the opposite of UKIP’s “beer and cigarettes, back to 1950s” version of Britain. It would have to reinvent itself not like Switzerland or Norway but, if you want a really positive model, like Canada—as a kind of open, small economy, heavily dependent on a much larger one to which it is adjacent and to which it must orient its actions, with far less influence in the world than the UK has at the moment, but nevertheless a society that survives well. That could be a model for the future but it would be a dramatic process of transformation. The country would have to be anti-UKIP because it would have to be much more cosmopolitan and open-looking. There would have to be more immigration, rather than less, just as Canada has.
I think a referendum should be held but only if certain conditions are satisfied. Since these have been widely discussed in the debate, I shall zoom through them fairly quickly. First, as many noble Lords have noted, it should not be driven by short-term political concerns but by the long-term interests of the country. As I have just stressed, it would be the biggest transformation that the country has faced for more than 60 years. It would be quite different from the 1975 referendum, which was held when Europe was in the process of being formed. We would be leaving an entity of 520 million people, which is still moving forward. It would be a very dramatic and consequential step to take, and the whole country should realise that.
Secondly, a referendum should not be held until it is clear what shape the EU, and specifically the eurozone, will assume. This point has also been made previously by noble Lords. Europe is in flux and in movement; we do not know what the outcome will be. What we can be sure of is that there will be treaty change; I think that is inevitable. That treaty change is likely to happen within the next five or six years. That is the process to be monitored at the time when people should be asked to decide in an “in or out” referendum in this country.
Thirdly—I feel this very strongly as I am very worried about it and I do not like the impact of the Bill on it—there must be a full and fair open public debate. It takes a long time for such a debate to be set in motion. What really worries me is that the UK could drift out of the EU without most citizens fully understanding the consequences and implications. I think a great deal of attention needs to be given to this because it would be the very worst outcome for anyone.
In conclusion, I am strongly against the Bill because not one of the three conditions is realised. It deserves, at the minimum, to be substantially overhauled in this House and I am strongly persuaded that it will be.
My Lords, it is surely ludicrous that a debate of this significance is limited to just one day and for us to be told that we cannot amend the Bill. I make it clear where I stand in the context of the Bill: I am as passionately pro-European as I am committed to Wales. Wales is a European nation in language and religion, in history and culture. We belong to Europe. This year we remember how, twice in the past century, our continent tore itself apart in two bloody wars in which millions of innocent people were killed. The vision of European unity was born to ensure that never, ever again does that happen. Anyone who mindlessly jettisons the structures that have helped to ensure peace over the past 60 years does so at his peril.
I believe in the value of nations but mine is a civic, not a racial, nationalism. Everyone who chooses to make their home in Wales, whatever their language, colour or creed, is a full and equal citizen of our country. Yes, we want to see as many decisions as possible that affect Wales taken in Wales. That chimes in with the European principle of subsidiarity, that decisions should be taken as close as possible to the communities on which they impact, and that principle certainly needs to be strengthened. But some decisions—environmental ones and those relating to the single market—must be taken on a European level, and we must be there, arguing our corner, whether that “we” refers to Wales or to Britain.
Of course there are things that need reforming in the EU, but that does not mean that we chuck our toys out of the pram and throw a tantrum if we don't always get our own way. It should mean that we argue our case, without the implicit blackmail that unless we get our own way we quit. That is the fundamental problem with the Bill: it is driven by UKIP, which wants only one thing—for Britain to quit the EU. For them, it is not about getting better terms, less bureaucracy, quicker decisions, less waste. It is simply about getting out.
The Bill does not attempt to establish what would be the acceptable terms on which to remain in the EU. It does not accept the logic that if reforms to improve the EU can be achieved, why should we need a referendum at all? The Bill will clearly need to be amended in Committee to ensure that everyone living in Britain, whose well-being may be at stake, can vote. The Bill as currently drafted does not deal with the possibility of a yes vote in Scotland’s referendum. It does not provide for the results to be published in each of the constituent nations of the UK. It is our duty, as a revising Chamber, to consider such amendments and to make them if we deem it appropriate.
The fact that the Bill comes to us late in the parliamentary year is not our fault. Since the Bill proposes a referendum in 2017, there is no reason why such a Bill should not come next year for proper discussion and debate. A Bill of such enormous implication should never be steamrollered through Parliament. My fear is that that is what we are experiencing today.
My Lords, I support the Bill and look forward to it passing. However, I also look forward to campaigning for a yes vote in the inevitable referendum. Although some people have said, “This isn’t the right Bill”, there is an undercurrent that there should be a referendum, and there is, again, a need to get the will of the British people expressed. That, of course, is one of the inconveniences of living in a democracy—from time to time you just have to let the people say what they want to do. This Bill is a vehicle for that.
I spent 25 years in the European Parliament and the overwhelming impression I got was the failure to understand and to engage between both sides. As an MEP I constantly felt—having, of course, the joy of serving in both parties—that neither party knew what to do with its MEPs. They felt that they were a bit of a nuisance and a bit of an irrelevance. However, seriously, if you look at other European member states you find a much better level of integration between what is going on in Brussels and what is going on in the member state than you do in the United Kingdom. We have consistently failed to engage, and that comes down to very petty things. When do you ever see an MEP wandering around this House? I see the former leader of the Opposition, who will know the Danish Parliament well, and if you go to the Danish Parliament you will often find MEPs wandering around it because there is a structure for them to relate to it and be there. Therefore we need to settle quite a lot of things.
We also need to look at what would happen if people vote no. The question will be, “Do you want to be in the European Union?”. That would start a long process of disengagement, which would be messy. On this side of the House our Conservative Party is not best served by not being in the European People’s Party, which contains a lot of people who have influence. We need to be in a position of influence, because if we were on the path to withdrawal—and I sincerely hope that we are not—the European Parliament plays a very central role in the settlement that is reached, because there will be a huge number of financial overhangs.
I still serve as president of the European Parliament Pension Fund. If you look at the liabilities towards European public servants, they are considerable and would have to be met. Other liabilities that would have to be untangled are also considerable—and, with all of them, the European Parliament would have budgetary authority. My noble friend Lord Tomlinson is much more of an expert than I am on that matter, and he will know that the European Parliament would have a considerable say in what happens.
I draw attention to the role of European civil servants. We sometimes bemoan the fact that British nationals are not getting their fair share in Europe. But what are we offering them in terms of a career? We are saying to the brightest and best of our graduates, “Well, yes, if you go to Europe we might help you and we might not—or we might withdraw tomorrow”. Is that how you get people to the top? There was a time when we held the general secretaryship of the European Commission; indeed, the noble Lord who held that is a Member of this House. We held the general secretaryship of the European Parliament, with the distinguished Sir Julian Priestley, for many years. We have held the general secretaryship of the European Economic and Social Committee. Today we hold no senior positions in any European institutions that would be worthy of the weight of this country; we are slipping behind.
We are always talking about numbers, but this goes beyond numbers. Britain has a moral duty in Europe to lead and to join. There is a long queue of people wanting to join; there is only a small queue—and then not a representative one—of people who want to leave. Our job and our duty is at the heart of Europe, campaigning and helping the emerging democracies in the European Union, setting an example, bringing them forward and welcoming them into the family of European nations. We should not be going on in the xenophobic way that the British press has been so fond of recently, which frankly I feel ashamed to be associated with, when I read it. We need to pass this Bill, we need a positive yes vote, and we need a full and thorough engagement with the European Union.
My Lords, while I cannot congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, on bringing this Bill before us, for reasons that I shall go into in a moment, I commend him on his energy and diligence, both qualities that he will need in Committee, when we deal with all the amendments that will come before us. However, I was slightly surprised to hear him on the Radio 4 “Today” programme this morning describe the European Union as a pestilence and a poison. While I agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Turnbull, said—
I hate to interrupt, and I promise that it will be the last time, if I possibly can, but I did not say that. I was quoting other people and reflecting the mood out there, which I wish to resolve not to emphasise.
Even picking up from other people and repeating that it is a pestilence and a poison gives a certain tenor to the noble Lord’s argument.
I agreed with the noble Lord, Lord Turnbull, in his criticisms of the European Union. However, on the so-called renegotiation, when the Prime Minister was being gently interviewed by Andrew Marr on his programme and was asked what the issues were that he wanted renegotiating, he could not answer the detail of any of them. That is one of the great problems that we have.
As my noble friend Lady Liddell, said in her excellent contribution, the idea that we may have a referendum creates uncertainty. We get that argument in relation to Scotland. I ask this House to contrast and compare the comments made by the Conservative Members opposite and in the other place in relation to the referendum in Scotland with what they are saying in relation to this referendum. They say, rightly, that the referendum in Scotland is causing and will cause uncertainty about the future of the United Kingdom and that people will not invest in Scotland. Exactly the same applies to a referendum on the United Kingdom’s place in the European Union.
I want to deal with the point raised by Members opposite that there is great demand for a referendum. Okay, if you specifically ask the question, “Would you like to be consulted on Britain’s membership of the European Union?”, most people will say yes. But if you ask, “What is the most important issue facing you today?”, the latest Ipsos MORI poll said that only 7% thought it was Europe—24% thought it was the health service. Of course, one reason why the Government want to do this—we have heard the other reasons—is to deflect our attention and that of the public away from the manifest failures that they are having in other areas. It is a distraction.
The main point I want to raise is that a number of Members opposite, almost all the former Ministers who have been lined up—the good old trusties who have been brought in early on to support the Bill—have been saying, “No, no, you must not even consider amendments. You are not allowed to, the House of Commons is supreme”. My noble friend Lord Richard dealt with some of this earlier. “Scrutiny procedures should not be used”, they said. First, I remind the House that we scrutinised the Bill relating to the alternative vote and the boundaries review. If the other place had paid attention to what we said in relation to that, they would have saved a lot of time and money and another referendum would not have taken place, with all the cost that that involved. That was discussed during government time—all that time we took to deal with the amendments.
What has happened now is that by asking the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, to bring forward this Bill, the Government are hijacking Private Members’ time. By doing so, they are imposing an arbitrary deadline on us, an artificial timetable, and saying that if we do not get it through this House by the end of February, it is going to be lost. That is not our decision; we have not imposed that timetable; it is an arbitrary timetable imposed upon us. At the same time, they have hijacked all the time for Private Members’ Bills. Have a look at all the other Private Members’ Bills that are waiting for a Friday to come forward. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, that I have kept all my Fridays free for the next few months—just a little indication to him. But look at all the other Private Members’ Bills that are waiting: on mental health services, crime, care—a whole lot of other areas. No, this is a misguided effort, which is why I could not congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, however much I like and admire him. In fairness to this House, this issue and the other Private Members’ Bills, he should think again and perhaps decide to withdraw the Bill.
My Lords, like anyone born after 1958 in this country, I have never had the opportunity to vote in a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union. Some noble Lords, with all their experience of actual referendum campaigns, may tell me that I am being a little optimistic, but as a pro-European I have always believed that a referendum campaign could allow the positive case for membership of the European Union to be heard—or at the very least provide the opportunity to correct many of the more ludicrous Euro-myths that have gained currency over the years.
I very much agree with the speech made earlier by my noble friend Lord Garel-Jones. He said it is a matter of considerable regret that successive UK Governments have failed effectively to make the positive case for EU membership. Instead of arguing for much needed EU reform from a position of strength as a committed European leader, we have consistently weakened our negotiating position by giving the impression that we really do not know whether we want to be in or out.
There is therefore a good case for a referendum, which is why the Liberal Democrats supported the 2011 referendum Act and why we are in favour of an “in or out” referendum the next time there is a further transfer of power from London to Brussels. I agree with many of the noble Lords today who have said that they believe that a referendum is now inevitable. However, the Bill in front of us today is flawed in many important respects and leaves a great many unanswered questions. Indeed, it reads like a Bill drafted in haste for purely party-political purposes.
In particular, I ask those noble Lords who support the Bill to ask themselves the following questions. Do they believe that the referendum question in the Bill, as currently drafted, is genuinely fair? Is it not a leading question? Do they not agree with the position taken by the Electoral Commission on this issue? What is the justification for the somewhat arbitrary date of 2017? Is there not a danger that setting this random date in law will provoke economic uncertainty at a time when the fragile economies of the UK and our EU partners are only just beginning to recover? What is the justification for the inconsistencies of who will actually be allowed to vote in this referendum? In Scotland later this year, 16 and 17 year-olds will be allowed to vote in the Scottish referendum on the basis that it is very much their future at stake. Surely the same logic should apply to a referendum on our membership of the European Union? Also, should the electorate not be based on local election electoral lists, as it will be in the Scottish referendum?
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, that it is not acceptable for this Parliament to attempt to mandate a future Parliament on an issue of this magnitude. At the very least, should the enactment of the Bill not be subject to an affirmative resolution of both Houses following the next general election? I look forward very much to discussing these and other issues in more detail in Committee and on Report over the next few Fridays.
My Lords, as one of a very small number of current Members of your Lordships’ House to have been elected to the European Parliament in the first direct elections in 1979, a time when the ideals and opportunities of the European Economic Community gave rise to much more enthusiasm than they appear to do now, I feel that it is important to state my support for my noble friend’s Bill. As a Minister in your Lordships’ House well over 20 years ago now, I, too, participated in meetings of the Council of Ministers and saw at first hand how it was possible to influence and to work with Ministers from other member countries for the benefit of our own.
I wish it were not necessary to hold a referendum, particularly given the clear result of the previous one in 1975, which I acknowledge was only two years after we had joined the then EEC. However, institutions change and develop, and sometimes need reform; that is true even of our own, venerable, mother of parliaments. I therefore see it as now inevitable.
As someone who believes, like others who have spoken today, that we are inextricably linked in and cannot and should not detach ourselves from full membership of the European Union, and that the United Kingdom has an appreciated and influential role as a leading member, I would be working for a yes result in any referendum. It is therefore of the utmost importance that the case for our remaining in the European Union should be made in a clear, calm and measured way, and illustrated with the many social, trade and economic benefits of our membership which have been cited today. I hope that this will result in a resounding yes for remaining in.
Apart from my noble friend Lord Balfe, few speakers have referred to the European Parliament, or indeed to the European Parliament elections which are due on 22 May this year and which in themselves provide an opportunity for the electorate to voice their views and vote on the issues. The party manifestos for that campaign should therefore give the British public the chance to understand the pros and cons and the differences between party policies. Let us hope that the apparent keenness on the part of the British public for a referendum will be reflected in a better turnout than usual at those elections.
Given the fact of the European parliamentary elections this year and the need to make absolutely clear the implications of our membership and of the alternative, the referendum campaign should not be rushed. I therefore cannot agree with those who wish to bring forward the proposed date. As for binding future Parliaments, my noble friend Lord Garel-Jones disposed of that worry very effectively. Good arguments have been made for altering the wording of the question to be put to the electorate—I prefer the proposal of the Electoral Commission—but that is a matter for Committee.
It is clear that, when asked, the British public want a referendum. While I have been disappointed by the hectoring tone of some of those who have written in demanding a referendum, I believe that there should be one and that is why I support my noble friend’s Bill. However, let us not forget that no country has yet seceded from the European Union—Greenland is only a partial precedent, but there can be no comparison there. I certainly do not want the United Kingdom to be seen as the only country that cannot cope and wants to drop out.
My Lords, I share some of the constitutional distaste for referenda, and I share the dismay of many of my pro-European colleagues about the toxicity with which the European issue has infected British politics for the past few decades. However, I am also a political realist and, like the noble Lord, Lord Owen, I recognise that it is pretty much the settled will of the British people that, at some point, there will be a referendum on our future relationships with Europe. The noble Lord, Lord Balfe, and I shall campaign again on the same side, and I believe that the campaign is winnable.
Between then and now, we have a very interesting political period; that is, interesting in the Chinese sense. We have European elections coming up this year, the outcome of which may well determine—or, rather, the relative success of UKIP may well determine—the vehemence with which the Conservative Party approaches the general election; later on in the year, we will have a referendum in Scotland that will irretrievably determine the future of the United Kingdom; and with this Bill and the referendum in 2016 or 2017, we will be voting on something that will irretrievably determine the future geopolitical position and influence of the United Kingdom.
In between all that, we have an old-fashioned general election. As my noble friend Lord Grocott, who takes a rather different view from me on Europe, pointed out, no Parliament can bind its successor. It has been argued on this Bill that the Lords should not attempt to dispute the will of the House of Commons, but it is the will not of this House of Commons but of the next one that will determine the nature of the referendum. This Bill attempts to determine now the timing, the question and the electorate—although, as the Electoral Commission and Delegated Powers Committee have pointed out, it fails to deal with the basis of conduct of that referendum. Whoever the next Government are and whatever the balance of the next House of Commons, we will need a new, comprehensive Bill if we are going to carry out any referendum. In that sense, although we have a very good attendance in the Chamber today for a Friday, we are all wasting our time.
However, there are aspects of the Bill that I want to address, because, apart from the valid objections from the Electoral Commission, any referendum will follow only a treaty change or the outcome of a bilateral negotiation. Given the turbulence in the eurozone, we do not know what kind of treaty changes are likely to be proposed, and we have no idea, not even from Mr Cameron, what the objectives of any bilateral negotiation will be and therefore in what context the possibility of a unilateral withdrawal will arise. The referendum and politics surrounding it will be utterly dependent on the outcome of one or other of those negotiations.
The present formulation of the question in the Bill does not allow for any reference to the outcome of negotiations or to any treaty. The outcome, will, of course, determine how many people vote. Under certain outcomes, I would find it difficult to vote for staying in. If the Tea Party totally takes over the Conservative Party and it wins the next general election and we opt out of many of the more beneficial aspects of the European Union, I would hesitate. I would probably still vote to stay in, but it would be a very different European Union. The outcome of the negotiations is important, and the way that it is sold to the electorate will determine the vote. That effectively makes the Bill redundant, although improvements could be made to it in this House regarding the conduct of the referendum, the electorate and the question itself. If the powers that be insist on giving substantial time—unprecedented time—to the Bill, the House will need to insist on conducting its normal scrutiny of Private Members’ Bills.
The Bill will not be the basis for a future referendum. There will be a prolonged period between now and then, and the world will inevitably change. All the passage of the Bill will do at this time is aggravate discord with our EU partners, and cause dismay in Washington, uncertainty and a reluctance to invest among global investors, as my noble friend Lord Monks graphically pointed out, and a reduction in Britain’s influence in the world. That is not a very good use of our Fridays, now or in the next few weeks.
My Lords, I say at the outset that I am strongly in favour of Britain’s membership of the European Union. As the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, said a little while ago, in this year of all years we should surely be conscious of the need for an effective, endurable network linking the member states of the European Union east and west, and removing the risk of conflict—as, indeed, the European Union provides. Is it perfect? Of course, it is not perfect. My noble friend Lord Turnbull explained very elegantly the defects that it has. However, the European Union entrenches democracy and the principles of a market economy in much of our continent and, in so doing, benefits this country, too. I will take just two examples.
Membership of the European Union enhances the projection of our foreign policy. What would be our influence on Iran, Syria or the Middle East if the Foreign Secretary were not engaged fully in EU councils, where Britain and France are by far the most influential countries in the European Union on foreign policy matters? Membership benefits our economy, too. Other noble Lords have made this point, but we should imagine the impact on jobs in Sunderland if Renault-Nissan were to stop investing or to switch its investment elsewhere—as it well might were we not a member of the European Union.
Therefore, our national interest surely lies in working with like-minded partners within the EU to ensure that the European Union is, indeed, an open, democratic Union, enhancing the security and prosperity of its members, as, in their rather different ways, Lady Thatcher and Sir John Major did so effectively when they were Prime Minister—at least in the 17 successive European Councils at which I had the pleasure and honour of accompanying them. I would infinitely prefer that we fight our corner in the European Union, using our undoubted influence to do so, in the way that they did rather than through the threat of renegotiation followed by referendum.
However, I accept that the mood of the country favours a referendum and that the Commons has voted by a large majority for the Bill—the noble Lord, Lord Owen, made those points very forcefully—so the question, it seems to me, is how to ensure that, if there is to be a referendum, it is properly prepared and thought through. To do otherwise on a subject of such profound importance for the United Kingdom would surely be wholly wrong.
That leaves me with two major concerns. The first is timing. The process and the outcome of the renegotiation are uncertain—but so, crucially, is its timing, which may well not fit with the timing proposed in the Bill for the referendum. The final decision on when to have a referendum must surely depend on the progress of the negotiations—something that we cannot possibly know now.
My second point relates to the view of the Electoral Commission, as other noble Lords have mentioned. It is unwise to go against the view of the commission on a matter as important as this. Those two questions—the question of the referendum itself and of the timing of the decision on when to hold it—will need to be considered further in Committee. That is the constitutional duty of this House as a revising Chamber.
My Lords, I have been a Conservative almost all my adult life, and, during that period, a supporter—but certainly not an uncritical supporter—of UK membership of the European Union, which is, as my noble friend Lady Warsi commented to your Lordships earlier this week, in the national interest. That perspective is shared by hundreds of thousands—no, millions—of other people in this country.
In the Bill, I am being asked to support a course that could put that at risk. I understand that and the reasons for it; and I am not on my feet now to oppose a plan for a referendum on this country’s membership of the European Union during the next Parliament. That is probably going to be the most important political decision taken during the next Government’s term of office. For that reason, it seems to me that the procedures and context of that decision have to be handled with the greatest care and wisdom.
Two points are absolutely central. First, the Prime Minister is absolutely correct to negotiate and see what changes might be forthcoming in the arrangements within the European Union, both looking to our country’s best interests and to the Union’s. That is what he is doing and I fully support him. Secondly, we must remember that we are talking about the future and not the past, whatever problems there have been and whatever mistakes have been made. In addition, it is important that the public must be able to handle the goods before they buy. We must know what the options are before any decision in this direction is taken. Let us not forget that we had a referendum on EC membership and it did not bring closure to the issue.
Whatever we do must be handled wisely and even-handedly. The problem we face is that the Bill’s authority has been damaged by the criticisms made by both the Constitution Committee and the Delegated Powers Committee, as well as by a number of criticisms made in this debate. Even if we as individuals think that the criticisms do not matter, many electors are going to think that they do. Even if the authors of the Bill do not think that the criticisms matter, millions of people who will inevitably find after a referendum that the outcome for them is unsatisfactory and not to their liking will use that fact to keep the issue alive.
I confess that I am also concerned about the circumstances of the Bill’s conception and birth, which are weird. Its passage through the Commons as a Private Member’s Bill strikes me as being extraordinary and irregular for a Bill of such significant constitutional and political importance. I really do not like the prospect of throwing poison pills through the next general election into the legislative programme of the next Parliament. I feel very strongly that process and procedure matter because they provide a framework for important decision-making and send out a message to those affected about the even-handedness and integrity of what is involved.
One of the interesting conclusions of our debate thus far suggests that had the Bill been drawn up slightly differently from the way in which its authors saw fit to do, it would probably have moved on to the statute book relatively seamlessly. However, against that background, am I, and we as a House, prepared to acquiesce to the prospect that we must set aside our revising and amending role because the Bill is so important? Surely the more important the Bill, the more important it is that one exercises that role.
Equally, I say to my noble friends Lord Dobbs and Lady Warsi that, because the Bill is so important, they should get up, show a bit of can-do and find a way of enabling this House to amend it so that it can proceed in a proper manner. The ball is in their court. This is a very important issue and, whatever one’s views, I find it extraordinary to be told that I should not propose or vote for amendments. At the end of the process, we need something that is simple and straightforward, and that—as they say in Cumbria, where I come from—does the job right.
My Lords, this is an inadequate Bill. However, it is worse than that because it is a grossly premature Bill and a shabby political manoeuvre to appease UKIP and Tory Back-Benchers in another place. It has nothing to do with the quality of governance but everything to do with appeasement. I hope that we treat this exactly as we would treat any other Private Member’s Bill. That means that we have 45 minutes.
A noble Lord
Then sit down.
I will sit down sooner than most of the people who have spoken. Everybody who has taken part in this debate favours reforms but we have not had any statement about what those reforms are, how we are intending to progress them and how we do these things. We have often been told by people coming back from Brussels that they have achieved reform. For example, we have had a vast expansion of qualified majority voting, which in many ways I regard as a reform. Is that what Members in the Conservative Party view as a reform? It involves losing our veto, which they seem very much to want to keep.
I know what I have asked for. I have asked this question of the noble Baroness on several occasions, and I ask it of her again today because she is speaking for the Government. Is she prepared, as a fundamental and much-needed reform—one pursued previously by my noble friend Lord Kinnock and by me when I was in the European Parliament—to get a system of zero-based budgeting? It is the only method by which we will be able to get a proper evaluation of the quality of expenditure and its value for money and direct resources as they are needed, rather than in this across-the-board way that happens at the moment.
I want to reply to two people who have spoken in this debate. One is the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, who, having given of his wisdom, has now departed, although I shall make sure on Monday that he reads the bit that I am going to say about him. He implied that we have no right whatever to challenge in any way any piece of legislation that comes from the other place. In fact, that is saying that we might as well pack our bags and go home. It is always our job to challenge views if we believe that they are wrong, and nowhere does that responsibility lie heavier than when we are challenging a major constitutional reform, fully backed by the Government but wrapped up under the illusion and pretence of it being private Members’ business. We have to examine this Bill in Committee thoroughly and fully and, if necessary, pass amendments to it, irrespective of the significance of any date, such as 28 February.
This Government still have more than a year to run. If they do not get their way in this Session, they should have the courage to bring forward their own Bill in the next Session of Parliament, when we will subject it to full scrutiny, including the tabling of amendments. Of course, ultimately the Government must get their way on a government Bill, but that is not the same as saying that we will always bow our knee to whatever Motion, in whatever form, comes from the other House. This is a means of trying to cheat the people of this country and it is a cheating process that we will not go along with. I hope that, having properly given the Bill a Second Reading, on Report we will take every opportunity to challenge it in every way necessary.
My Lords, I do not intend to spend time today on the intra-party or inter-party shenanigans of this Bill. I propose to underline only two points, which have already, of course, been made in this debate. There are only about three points to be made throughout the debate.
On the first point, the Prime Minister has made a clear commitment that if he returns to office after the election next year he will enter into negotiations for changes in this country’s relationship with the European Union with a view to concluding them by 2017 and in time for the outcome to be the basis for a referendum. He needs no legislative reinforcement for that commitment, although of course he will be able, if he wishes, to reiterate it in his party’s manifesto in due course. If he is returned, he will be able to use his best endeavours to fulfil his commitment whether or not the Bill is passed. He does not need to have his feet held to the fire by a law.
If he is not returned in the election, his successor will not be bound by his commitment. It is the established convention that no Parliament can bind its successor. If another Prime Minister after the 2015 election decides that a referendum is not necessary or called for, he will be entitled to invite the new Parliament to pass a new Bill—one of those mythical one-clause Bills—and guillotine it, repealing this legislation if it has been passed by this Parliament. The Prime Minister’s commitment is quite as binding as it need or can be without legislative underpinning. This Bill is unnecessary and, I might almost say, pointless.
The second point I should like to underline—it was made a few moments ago by the noble Lord, Lord Jay of Ewelme—is that the Bill is, in some respects, bad policy. Negotiations within the European Union for major changes in the constitution of the Union can take a very long time. This is particularly the case at a time when many other member countries will also be looking for changes and wide-ranging reform seems likely. It is impossible to predict either the form in which or the date by which the Union will emerge from the process of renegotiation.
It is admirable for the Prime Minister to say that he intends to achieve changes by 2017, but he cannot be sure of being able to do so in complex negotiations which will involve 27 other member countries as well as the United Kingdom. It is not likely to be conducive to constructive negotiations and he is not likely to be assisted in his negotiations if he goes into them with a time bomb in his briefcase which he says that he must detonate if he does not get the result he wants by a fixed date in 2017.
He would do better to take a leaf out of the book of Mrs Thatcher. When she wanted to get a satisfactory outcome on the British rebate, she did not threaten her partners with an “in or out” referendum if she did not get her way by a certain date. It took her five years to get an outcome which she was prepared to accept, but she stayed in there until she got what she wanted or, at least, what she was prepared to accept. There are some of us who still bear the scars received in the course of that bruising process; but it worked.
If the Prime Minister is returned to office in May 2015, he should be allowed to take whatever time it requires, even if that is more than two and a half years, to stay in there and get the result he wants or at least a result that he is prepared to commend to the Parliament and people of this country. He would no doubt try to achieve that outcome within two years—and I should wish him the best of British luck in doing so—but the issues at stake for this country, and for the European Union, are too great, too important, to be confined by this kind of deadline. It is not in the best interests of the United Kingdom for Parliament to send the Prime Minister into these negotiations with a fixed two-year deadline.
I conclude by saying that this is a funny old Bill. I am not sure whether it is a government Bill masquerading as a Private Member’s Bill, or how you should define it, but in a sense it is a one-off and a unique thing that defies the conventions. All your Lordships will accept the rule—it is not just a convention—that the will of the House of Commons should in the end prevail, but that should not, in this case, be allowed to override the duty of this House to exercise its own responsibility to revise and improve the Bill if it sees fit to do so. If the Government really feel very strongly that this Bill has to be completed in this Session and cannot wait, as the noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson, suggested, until the next one, I suggest that the Government make room in business for the proceedings that would be required to enable the Bill to complete its passage in this Session.
My Lords, I support my noble friend Lord Dobbs in championing this Bill in your Lordships’ House. In the contributions today from noble Lords, who clearly hold diverse views not only on this Bill but on the wider subject of our membership of the European Union, the common theme has been the recognition that the people of this country are in the mood for a referendum on the subject. It is worth drilling down a bit to ask why that is. My own view is that people now feel so much more strongly about the need for a referendum because, as other noble Lords have already mentioned, of their lack of confidence and trust in the body politic, for which many of us—all of us perhaps—should take some responsibility.
On the specific subject of our membership of the EU, in the quiet corners of the Conservative Party, when my name is mentioned in conjunction with the subject of the EU, I might perhaps be described as one of the “usual suspects”. I agree that that would probably be the correct terminology, but I have noticed today that the language we use when discussing Europe and people’s different views on it is not the language that one would expect to find in a debate on education, health or any other big political issue. It is very personal, very subjective and, sometimes, very unpleasant. I am one of those in the Chamber—looking around, I see other noble Lords who have had this experience—who have been subject to name-calling over the years because we have taken a certain view. For example, we have warned against our membership of the single currency and of the dangers of a central European bank, and argued that we should not readily give up our gold to buy up euros in order to prop up that currency. When these things have been discussed, they have not been discussed in a very mature way across the parties in either House.
That has influenced the way in which the public no longer have any confidence in what any of us say about promises to do with Europe. Prime Ministers of both parties have successively prayed in aid their negotiations in various treaties when they have gone to the electorate in a general election. We have come up with all sorts of politics-speak about subsidiarity and things like that, which we hoped would comfort the general public and suggest that, somehow, we were still in charge as politicians. However, the nub of this, and the reason why this referendum and this very specific promise of a referendum are so important in this Bill, is that the general public out there believe that the power that they thought they had through the ballot box—not the power we as politicians have—has gradually been eroded. We have conspired across the parties to use language to defuse and to try to subjugate the real discussion that was needed so that people could have a very clear understanding of what was being done, in successive treaties, in their name. Gradually you erode from people the opportunity to hold their elected representatives in another place to account. Increasingly, when those elected representatives then quite rightly hold the Ministers of the day to account, those Ministers have to defuse matters and cannot answer straight questions.
A classic case in point before us in the debate today is the question of our borders. It does not matter what a Minister says about our borders. No Minister here or in another place can do anything to control immigration across our borders as far as EU citizens are concerned, and yet anybody who has raised that issue in the past few years has been name-called in a way to stop that debate. In the end, the general public see through that and realise that they are the loser here. The general public cannot get answers from their democratically elected representatives, who in turn cannot get answers from Ministers. That is the end of democracy as we know it and have understood it for many years. That is why we need a renegotiation to bring some balance back into what was an agreement that we voted on in 1975. I put my hand up to being one of those who voted for us to go into a Common Market, as I understood it, but over the years the EU has changed. That is why the renegotiation is needed and the British people now want the guarantee of a referendum.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, on picking up this piece of legislation from the House of Commons. I am very pleased to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Browning, on this subject.
I shall certainly support the Bill on the basis, first of all, of pressuring government and opposition parties to ensure that the issue of a referendum and our place in Europe is dealt with in their manifestos and by whoever forms the next Government. Secondly, we should not seek to frustrate the will of the House of Commons on this particular issue, which surely must be a matter for that House—not us. Of course, we should have had a referendum over the Lisbon treaty. Mr Blair promised that we would have one and then, through a device, broke that promise. Had it been kept, we would not be bothering ourselves on a Friday with this particular Bill because the issue would have been settled in 2009.
This issue transcends party politics. It is not about party politics and never has been because all parties are split on the issue. The issue is about who governs Britain: whether we govern it from Westminster through our own Government and institutions or are governed from abroad by an undemocratic Commission and the institutions of the European Union. Many people describe those such as me as Europhobes. We are not: I love Europe. The problem is that the way Europe is governed, and is likely to be governed in future, will injure Europe. Europe is Europe and has its great history because it has been a collection of different people, countries and borders. To merge this into a great conglomerate will do the interests of Europe very badly indeed.
I have to confess that I was never in favour of joining what was then called the Common Market, and I still believe, despite all I have heard today and hear all the time, that we would be better off out on our own, as a country with a great history which still has a great deal to offer to the world. I believe that very sincerely.
We had a referendum in 1975. The people were urged to remain in what was then known as the Common Market and they did exactly that—they voted to remain in the Common Market. As so many people have said today, things have moved on since then. Treaty by treaty, powers have been transferred from our Government, from our Parliament, to the institutions of the European Union.
I will finish on this point. We now have the vice-president of the European Commission, Viviane Reding, really telling the truth in a speech, blowing the gaffe, because she wants a United States of Europe in which the powers, the sovereignty of this Parliament would be transferred to the European Parliament. Of course, the sovereignty of Britain would be transferred with it. I am very much against that. I feel quite sure that the people of this country are very much against that. That is why the people of this country should and must be consulted on our future in the European Union, or whatever it may become.
My Lords, I begin with a confession. I have form on this matter as one of those who opposed the Maastricht treaty when it came before the House of Commons. It is always a bad thing to say that one was right or that I told you so, so I will not do that, but I will say that what was clear in those days has become a fact of life in many cases now.
Take for instance the linkage between fiscal policy and monetary policy, which is absolutely clear after the events of last year. It is quite clear that if you have a monetary union, you have to have a fiscal union as well. If you transfer your tax policy, your expenditure policy and your monetary policy to another institution, you have at the very least created a circumstance of constitutional change for which a referendum is highly appropriate. That is in the context of something irrevocable, not changeable, being written into the treaty and therefore for ever—that is the key issue about Parliament having given up its sovereignty: a successor Parliament will not have the powers because the previous Parliament has given them away.
That has been put forward as a situation which would be created by the Bill. Actually, it has already been written down in a treaty which we have signed. We have already signed away the power of Parliament to keep sovereignty for itself. The two eminent former Permanent Secretaries raised that as an issue about the Bill. They were fighting each other, by the way—I do not know if anyone else noticed—because the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, was saying that it is a bad thing because we were binding another Parliament, and the noble Lord, Lord Turnbull, said that it was a bad thing because we were not. Leaving that aside, it has been done already. We are already giving away powers to control the economy and we are doing it for ever. If that is not something which requires a referendum, I do not know what is.
There is one remaining question: does this apply to Britain? Is Britain, because of its opt-out, perhaps the only country which does not need a referendum? It might be argued that all the other countries need referendums and we do not. The answer to that, in my view, concerns something I asked a Question about yesterday: the acquis communautaire. That is endemic to the treaty of Rome. It is stated clearly throughout the treaty that any change in the treaty must be in one direction, towards European statehood. That is absolutely clear. It is written in there and it will, incidentally, sweep Britain along with it in a great tidal wave.
That is the answer, by the way, to the “Waiting for Godot” people who say that we must wait for some great event to take place in Europe before we have a referendum. A dynamo already exists in the system, and if I was keen on preserving a move towards a federal state of Europe I would just leave things alone as it is all there already. It is a very strong argument, they usually say, for us to wait for some great event to happen before we have the referendum. They are absolutely wrong about that—but right in their own terms because a federal state of Europe is what they want. If you do not want that then at some point the British people will have to be consulted. That time should, in my view, be here as quick as possible, but the Bill is certainly a step in that direction.
My Lords, in the 1975 referendum campaign, I voted and campaigned for yes. I am strongly in favour of the European Union but I am not in favour of the Bill that has been brought to the House today. It has been brought as a Private Member’s Bill instead of the Government and the Prime Minister having the courage to take it to the Cabinet and get the Cabinet on side. In spite of that, I will ensure that the Bill is dealt with in this House. I will participate in the Committee so that it might be so and be scrutinised. I really am upset, in a way, that the Bill has been brought here. Also, having looked at the Bill, there is no real substance on how we tell the British people what the European Union is about and what we would be going into a referendum about. It is wrong for a future Government to have their hands tied. For all those reasons, I would vote against the Bill at the end of its Committee in this House.
I agree very much that the European Union needs reform. It has changed dramatically, in some ways for the good and in some for the bad, since 1975. But the way for us to do that is by giving leadership from the centre of Europe, not from being on the outside or threatening that we will leave. We must be there and we have to be part of that. I will not go into what the right honourable William Hague said in the other place, because I do not want to take up too much valuable time in this Second Reading, but I agree with what he said. If we continue to go down this road, as the Bill would have us do, we will put at risk everything that Britain has in this difficult economic time. We will put at risk jobs, growth and investment. We all know how investors are global and if there is any chance that something is jittery about Britain plc, they will move out and other companies will not think to reinvest. All this makes us very vulnerable.
At the same time, we have to remember that part of the reason that the European Union came together all those years ago, before we were rejected and then allowed in, was because it was about peace and security. It was all about Britain and Europe’s role in the world. If we were not part of Europe, the American Government would not look at us a second time and we would have no traction in the ASEAN countries, as they are today. The Commonwealth would steer away from us. Where would our trading be? Where would we be going with our e-learning or our legal learning? Where would we be in the Middle East? Would they wish to continue to invest with us? No, we have to be part of the European Union for us to survive and it is for all those reasons that I feel really strongly about this referendum Bill.
My Lords, this is not so much a declaration of interest as a declaration of pride. I worked with the late Lord Jenkins when he was President of the European Commission, its only British President to date, and during that period I was enormously impressed by the professionalism and effectiveness of the UK Permanent Representation in Brussels—the so-called UKRep. As many of us know, at the end of last year Sir Robin Butler passed away. He was an outstanding civil servant who worked within UKRep as well.
Sir Michael Butler; I am so sorry. Sir Robin Butler—the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell—is still here. Sir Michael was closely involved in the negotiations that led to the rebate.
If you look at the track record of British membership of the European Union in its various stages of evolution, you see that UKRep has been remarkably effective. I absolutely do not accept the inherent pessimism and lack of self-confidence that we keep hearing that somehow we are fated to lose every argument that we join. The track record of this country in the EU simply does not bear that out.
One of the reasons why what is proposed in the Bill is in many ways a dangerous course is that it weakens the diplomatic power and effectiveness of this country in its negotiating position in Brussels. We should not make the mistake of believing that there is an indefinite tolerance among other member states of the British position on this. The results of a poll published last week stated that only 16% of Germans and 26% of French believed that they would favour a special deal for the United Kingdom. Whenever these negotiations take place, they are not going to be a pushover; they will be really difficult, and we will have to persuade our colleagues in Europe that it is clearly in their interests to participate in them and to progress with further reform.
In that, incidentally, the position of Germany is particularly important. The Germans have gone a long way, as they did over the rebate, to give support to British positions, but if you say to the German Government, “Well, here it is, we’d like your full support and if you do not give it to us we’re going to press the button and we may be out”, what is the end result of that attitudinal position?
If there is a threat, certainly implicit, to our diplomatic effectiveness as a result of committing ourselves to an “in and out” referendum in this Parliament to bind the next, what is the likely effect on our economic and industrial strength? Many of the figures have already been rehearsed in this debate, but one struck me the other day that I had not picked up on before: one-half of all non-EU companies operating now in Europe are headquartered in the UK. That is a far greater proportion in total than those headquartered in either Germany or France. Do we really believe that those companies would continue to be headquartered here were we to exit from the EU? I very much doubt it. Goldman Sachs, Hyundai, Toyota, Siemens and so on—the list is endless and I assure the House that it will get longer and more strident as this debate continues.
The noble Lord, Lord Garel-Jones, was quite right to say in this debate that were the referendum to result in an out vote, it would not be the end of anything; rather, it would be the beginning of an extraordinarily difficult, painful and protracted process. That is why I am glad that my own party, in its own commitment on a referendum, has been very specific, not generic. We are committed to an “in or out” referendum the next time that there is a significant transfer of power from the UK to the EU. That is a specific commitment.
I was glad that the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, said in his fine speech at the beginning of the debate that if there is a fundamental change in our relationship with Europe, in many cases the reality is that the statutory power to have such a referendum already exists, so the Bill is unnecessary.
I find that the proposer of the Bill has made a very odd argument. If I have understood it right, and he also said it on Radio 4 this morning, the reason for this referendum now is that no one in the UK under the age of 60 has had a chance to vote on EU membership. If you think about other vital elements of our constitutional and societal arrangements in this country, in many cases no one alive today has ever voted on them either. Have we voted on the Hanoverian succession? Have we voted on the monarchy? Do we need to do both in order to legitimise the present position? I do not seriously think that anyone would propose that in this House.
We are engaged in something which is inherently foolish and significantly risky. If our main concern is about how we are viewed by the British people, I think the expectation of the British people is that this House does the job that it has been given, which is to review legislation and to do it with integrity, honesty and thoroughness.
My Lords, this has been quite a debate. We have seen Mitterrand reincarnated and the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, buried. I am bound to say that, like the proverbial Irishman, I would not have started from here, but there is a very serious issue to address and I will seek to do so in a moment. Let me just make it plain that I am one of those who have for many years—indeed, since the Maastricht treaty ground its way through another place when my noble friend Lord Spicer and I were in opposite corners—advocated an “in or out” referendum to lance the boil and have made it quite plain at the same time that in any such referendum I would campaign, as I did alongside Labour parliamentarians in 1975, for this country to remain within the European Union. That is my position.
I am somewhat tempted by the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong of Ilminster, to recount a story. I was standing outside this House, before I entered it, talking in Prince’s Chamber to the late Lord Carter, the Labour Chief Whip, much loved by many people in both Houses. One of his colleagues came up to him and said, “They’re going on in there. It’s all been said”. “Yes”, said Lord Carter, “but not by everybody”. One is reminded of that in this debate.
I want to address the most serious subject to arise: the position of this House as a revising Chamber. I do not think that anyone in this House could reasonably accuse me of not being devoted to it or of not being prepared—as indeed I did on Wednesday this week—to vote against the Government of the day if I felt that the legislation before us could be improved, but we are dealing with something rather special here. We are dealing with a Bill that had a fair amount of time in the other place and was never seriously opposed by either the Official Opposition or our partners in the coalition. If noble Lords need to be reminded of that, all they need to do is look at the figures and the Division lists. In other words, this Bill has come to us with the other place having had the time to revise and amend it but having decided, for a variety of reasons, not to do so.
In a sense, what the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats have said to us is, “Let the House of Lords do our dirty work for us. Let them be the ones to defeat this Bill by making it run out of time”. I believe that any constitutional arguments have to be measured against that. The noble Lord, Lord Richard, may be shaking his head, but he cannot deny the figures or the fact that this Bill was not properly scrutinised, even though there was an opportunity for it to be scrutinised, in the other place.
The noble Lord said it was not scrutinised in another place. It may be so. Is that not an additional argument for it being scrutinised properly here?
No, because it came to us—and the noble Lord, Lord Richard, ought to know this as a former distinguished Member of another place—with massive majorities. In other words, they said, by their votes, “We don’t want to do anything about this. Your Lordships’ House should have it”. Your Lordships’ House having been given the Bill, it now has a duty to allow the people of this country to have the referendum. I would not have tackled it in this way but, in those famous words, we are where we are. We are confronted with a particular situation and we have to respond to it.
I hope that it may be possible for the Government to devote a little more time. I would not be against having amendments debated, but for this House, by whatever means, to kill this Bill would not be acting in the best interests of our parliamentary system or of this House. I believe that I am entitled to say that, having played a reasonable part in ensuring that the malevolent schemes of the Deputy Prime Minister were seen off, as they rightly should have been.
I find the position of the Liberal Democrats, our beloved partners in the coalition, for many of whom I have individual affection and regard, a little queer. If your Lordships’ House found itself the butt of criticism, the Liberal Democrats would quite welcome it, because it would advance their case for abolishing this House and replacing it with an elected second Chamber. Therefore, do not let us be deceived by those who sit by our side and let us not be seduced by those who sit opposite. Let us say that this Bill is imperfect and has got here by a most peculiar route, but let us speed it on its way so that those outside this House cannot say that the House of Lords stood between them and having their say on perhaps the most important international issue of modern times.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, made an excellent speech in introducing this Bill, as he invariably does. He is a very respected and popular Member of this House and I quite understand why the Prime Minister asked him to be his standard bearer in bringing this difficult piece of legislation before us. I hope, therefore, that he will not think it in any way a personal attack on him if I say that the Bill he has brought before us is a very bad Bill. It is not a good Bill at all. It is a very dubious Bill that, in at least three respects, purports to be something that it is not. There is an English word for that but it is not a parliamentary word so I will not use it. It is, at the very least, a cynical Bill, which we should treat with considerable scepticism.
The first example of the Bill purporting to be something that it is not has not escaped the attention of many colleagues in the House on both sides. We have already discussed it at length today. It is the fact that it is a Private Member’s Bill that is really a Prime Minister’s Bill. Prime Minister’s Bills that are whipped through the House of Commons and will be whipped through the House of Lords—and are said by the Prime Minister of the day, to his supporters, to be essential for the credibility of the Government, as has been said in this case—are not Private Members’ Bills. If the Government have chosen to bring the Bill forward in this camouflage, two things follow.
First, they must accept the rules of the game—the rules that apply to Private Members’ Bills. They have chosen that route; it is their fault. Under no circumstances should we allow ourselves to be blackmailed by being told that there are difficulties with Private Members’ Bills but the Government need to get this one through by 28 February, otherwise there will be difficulties. It was the Government’s decision to bring forward this Bill as a Private Member’s Bill and they must take the consequences. Under no circumstances should we be blackmailed along those lines. Indeed, if I am still speaking at 3 pm, which I probably will be, I hope someone will interrupt me. If they do not interrupt me at 3 pm, I hope that will be established as a precedent for future Private Members’ Bills going through this House, which should equally be allowed additional time if there is particular interest in speaking on them on the part of the House as a whole.
The second thing that follows from the Government’s voluntary decision to bring this forward as a Private Member’s Bill is that, clearly, we should not treat it with the respect and regard with which, normally and naturally, the second, unelected House treats government initiatives. Normally, we operate on the basis that we can hold up legislation—we can put forward proposals for amendment to the House of Commons—but, at the end of the day, the Government of the day tend to get their business through. This is not, by the Government’s own choice, a government Bill. We therefore do not need to regard it with quite the same respect and consideration that we would give a government Bill. We should, of course, be sceptical and we should do our duty. If we come to the conclusion that the Bill needs to be amended, we should be even more confident of our duty to amend it than we would be if it were a government Bill.
The second aspect of the lack of straightforwardness to which I referred—of the Bill being presented as something that it is not—is again a matter that has, unsurprisingly, received quite a lot of attention in this debate. This is a Bill that purports to be a democratic, altruistic initiative designed to give the public their say. That is a phrase that we have heard several times. In fact, it is nothing of the kind. Only 18 months ago, both the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, were bringing forward arguments for not having a referendum in this Parliament. They were powerful arguments, which have already been referred to—some of them have been quoted today. I had it in mind to bring in a whole sheaf of quotations, but I thought I would not burden the House with them because it is very familiar with the words concerned. Only 18 months ago the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and other members of the Tory party in the Cabinet said that we should not have a referendum in this Parliament, giving all those reasons—uncertainty of the economy, and so on and so forth—why we should not do that. They were absolutely right about that.
Why did they suddenly switch? We all know why—there has been a purely party politically orientated initiative to try to buy off the Eurosceptics in the Tory party and keep them quiet until after the election and to prevent Conservative voters slipping over to UKIP because UKIP is offering a referendum, so the Government thought that they had to offer one too. Of course, no sane or sensible person would ever go to the public and ask them to decide on something and say, “It’s important that the public have their say—but you can’t do it for the next four years”. Nobody knows what will happen in the intervening four years; in fact, there is quite a large probability that there will be a new treaty under negotiation—not concluded—by 2017. It cannot possibly be concluded in practice before the French and German elections in that year, which have already been referred to. How absurd it would be if we had a legal obligation to hold a referendum before the end of 2017, but there was another treaty in gestation and we were part of that negotiation, so we would have to have another referendum on that in 2018 or 2019. That would be absolutely absurd.
From a practical point of view the whole idea is ridiculous and any sensible person would have been able to see that it was ridiculous. Indeed, I have no doubt that the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary know that it is ridiculous, and that that is what they would have said a year and a half ago in public. However, they have decided on this slightly squalid party political ploy, which is why we have the Bill before us today.
There is a third aspect to this lack of frankness about the Government’s legislative proposal this afternoon, which has not been referred to at all. That is, although the Government purport to wish to give the public a free choice, to consult the British public about our future in the European Union, there is one obvious choice—not just a coherent or a theoretically possible choice, and not even a practically possible one. It is an obvious choice that has been the default choice, the consensus choice and the automatic choice of 17 out of the 28 members of the European Union. That choice is to be a full member of all aspects of the Union: to be a member of the core, if you like, of the Union—which, of course, means being a party to Schengen and to the euro and so forth.
Noble Lords opposite may well think that that is an appalling prospect, and they are entitled to feel that. However, they cannot deny that that is a possible choice. They also cannot deny that that is a choice that many of our partners in the Union—the majority of them—have taken. They cannot fairly deny that there are good theoretical arguments for all those proposals. It might very well be argued that now would be a very good time to join the euro, before interest rates and the parity go up, but we are not having that discussion today. However, that choice is being denied to the British people. Other people have had the choice of doing that, but we have not—our electorate have not.
Clearly, both parties in this rather squalid transaction between the extremist Eurosceptics in the Tory party and the Prime Minister have been at one, I am sure, in wishing to exclude any possibility of going down that road, which they would call the federalist road. So democracy has not reached that far, and democracy will not include giving the opportunity for that particular choice to be expressed in the referendum. There may be practical reasons: people would say, “Well, you can’t have more than two questions in a referendum”—but that is nonsense. If there was an aggregate majority of those who were in favour of our joining the core of the European Union on the one side and those who were in favour of joining the Union with the various derogations negotiated by the Prime Minister on the other, and if those two votes together came to a majority of the vote, clearly you could not argue that there was a majority in favour of our leaving the European Union. So in practical terms this is a very real possibility.
I notice that I have gone beyond 3 pm. Quite disgracefully, no one from the Front Bench and none of the Whips sitting there has interrupted me, which of course they should have done. Therefore, I have no bad conscience at all in delaying the House a little longer. That is their fault, not mine. They are in breach of the rules. What is more, this precedent is something that we should not forget, and one that should be applied in all fairness and in all honesty to all future Private Members’ Bills. Otherwise, this will just be seen as a very underhand procedural trick by the Government. Of course, it also blows the cover completely about this being a Private Member’s Bill. It is nothing of the kind.
No, I am not going to give way. I know perfectly well what the noble Lord is going to say, and I am not going to give way. I am going to finish my remarks, and I am not going to give way. I make that absolutely plain. There has been scandalous conduct in this House this afternoon, not by me or anyone on my side but on the part of the Members of the government Front Bench sitting opposite, and I am certainly not going to allow them or any of their minions to interrupt me.
What do we do in the squalid circumstances that I have described? We do our duty, and look at this Bill thoroughly, sceptically and responsibly. If we can improve it, we improve it. There are one or two particularly scandalous aspects of the Bill, notably where the Government try to override the decisions of the Electoral Commission on the formulation of the question. That amounts to appointing an umpire and then rejecting the umpire’s decisions. It is a scandalous thing to propose and, obviously, something that this House needs to look at very sceptically, along with many other things. We will not do our duty if we do not do that.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Dobbs for his introduction to the Bill and his explanation of why your Lordships should not attempt to scrutinise and maybe as a consequence amend this Bill. As you would expect, he told a compelling story, but I regret to say that, despite advice to the contrary from many distinguished colleagues on this side of the House, I remain unconvinced that we should accept a Bill of this importance without proper consideration. Opposition to giving the electorate a referendum on any terms is not to seek to deny them that referendum, but this Bill in its current form may well be detrimental to all our interests.
I share with other noble Lords at least two concerns about the Bill. The first is about the question, which has been referred to many times. It is clear from the report of the Electoral Commission that it has concerns about the neutrality and clarity of the question. My noble friend questioned the consultation, but with respect he cannot question the unambiguous recommendation, and no doubt this will be pursued in Committee. If there is indeed a referendum and a future Conservative Government are campaigning in favour of the United Kingdom’s continuing membership, they may well find themselves at a disadvantage if the question leans against a yes vote, since I fear that it is almost certain that the Conservative Party will not be united behind a recommendation to stay in on any terms which retain the essential principles of the European Union. I do not seek a question which leans the other way, merely one which is neutral and fair.
My second concern relates to the date. This could put a negotiating Prime Minister at a huge disadvantage if critical negotiations were not complete by the time when the date for the referendum arrived. The timescale is in my view unrealistic. If we are seeking significant changes, which may well involve treaty change, the fast-track procedure in the Lisbon treaty will not be available, and the normal procedures under Article 48 take time. I have asked in previous debates how it is anticipated that this will be resolved in two years, between 2015 and 2017, but I have not received an answer. I hope that the Minister or my noble friend Lord Dobbs may address that when replying.
For those reasons and others, I do not believe that we should abandon our usual scrutinising role. I know—I am not comfortable about it—that many of my noble friends will consider this an act of considerable disloyalty to the party but, more importantly, detrimental to your Lordships’ House. I regret that.
However, perhaps we might examine the history of this issue without calling into question anyone’s motives. Originally the Prime Minister resisted calls for a referendum but after a large vote, against a three-line Whip, it was promised for the next Conservative manifesto. Those who, like me, question the wisdom of referenda generally accepted the position, as I do today, although I would campaign for a yes vote and for the UK to stay in the European Union. A Bill to provide for the referendum was then demanded and when it was not included in the gracious Speech, government Members in large numbers, unusually, voted against their own gracious Speech. A Bill was then produced, to be taken up by any Member successful in the Private Members’ ballot.
The question in that draft Bill was very close indeed to the suggestion and recommendation of the Electoral Commission, unlike that which is in the Bill before your Lordships today. But even if that were not enough and the potentially skewed wording of the question in the Bill were substituted for that in the draft, we are now in this position. In the latest instalment of this story, we are being asked to accept a position into which we have been placed because some people have been unwilling to accept the word and leadership of the Prime Minister.
I cannot accept accusations that concerns about the Bill, if it is pursued, amount to an attempt to deny the people a vote. The pressures of time were not of our making but of those who precipitated a Bill despite the original policy of my party. I hope my noble friends will at least understand that I find that unacceptable, and therefore my unwillingness to accept the Bill as it stands, and that, upon reflection, my noble friend Lord Dobbs and the Minister may engage as they would in connection with any other Bill to see how the question of amendments and timetables might be resolved within the proper proceedings of not only this House but the other place.
My Lords, this debate has proved far more interesting than many would have expected. A number of points have become politically clear. One is the central point made in his magisterial speech by the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong of Ilminster, whose conclusion was that this Bill could almost be described as pointless. He was pretty forensic in describing his reasoning; namely, that whoever is Prime Minister after the next election will not in practice be constrained either way by this Bill.
Presumably, if it is a Conservative Prime Minister—although there are all sorts of variations of the configuration—you can write the script. There might well be some sort of timetable of negotiation leading up to a referendum. However, if it is a timetable that looks like blackmail, saying to Angela Merkel and Mr Hollande, “I have got only 18 months to come back with the goods, you must help me”, is that really the best sort of diplomacy? Other colleagues have put it in terms of an unrealistic, artificial timetable but I would like to put it in terms of the personal relationships between the party leaders.
I would like to put this in the context that was going through my mind as I was listening to the noble Lord, Lord Jay of Ewelme. It is now exactly 100 years since the misunderstandings—let us put it that way—which led to the First World War. All these splendid books on the origins of the First World War which have been published in the past three or four months show that the total absence of a context of regular meetings between Russia, Serbia, Austro-Hungary, France, Germany and Britain had a considerable impact on the causes of this catastrophic event 100 years ago in Europe, with 50 million, or whatever, killed as a consequence. Even leading up to the declaration and mobilisation of the First World War, there were misunderstandings as to who was doing what as well as mutual suspicion between all the capitals.
Helmut Kohl said about 15 years ago to one of my colleagues, in my presence, that Germany must continue to be locked into Europe and that it was vital that Britain was the country that ensured that Germany was always locked in. That is the relationship. The noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, will corroborate that the late Lady Thatcher did indeed have a good working relationship, as, I think, did all the other Prime Ministers from Edward Heath onwards—certainly the late Lord Callaghan and the Labour Prime Ministers who followed had good working relationships. That point seems to be given no consideration at all by those who want to play the nationalist card. Europe is not about the nationalisms of 1914; we are in a different world.
The noble Lord, Lord Howell, gave his standard speech, which is very interesting, about China and the emerging nations. However, the European economy is twice as big as China’s. Our relationship with China is mediated through the fact that it invests here because we are part of the European Union. You do not need to take my word for it, as somebody said earlier: take the word of the Chinese President; in the case of Japan, take the word of the president of Toyota; take the word of the chief executive of BMW.
It may well be, as has been said by several speakers on the other side, that it does not matter too much if there is a different balance of trade. We will have trade with the rest of Europe, yes, but with the balance of trade deficit growing and growing. At that time the pound probably would sink to the level of the euro—not the scenario envisaged by my noble friend Lord Davies of Stamford but one which could come about.
Finally, the Bill should be considered in the proper way. We cannot have a position where the famed democracy of Parliament has to be put aside when we are considering a matter of this import. I suspect that to go to the British people and say that we have brought in some legislation which has not properly gone through Parliament would be an impossible proposition in any case. I trust that this rearguard action, that we cannot have a proper examination in Committee, will dissipate.
My Lords, I have rather enjoyed myself, which is quite usual in your Lordships’ House. However, when I first came here something over 50 years ago, I was told, “Don’t worry, my dear chap. You will be used as cannon fodder for a period of time”. There were two great people who used me as cannon fodder: the late Lord Jellicoe and the late Lord Shackleton.
On one occasion, Lord Jellicoe said, “Look, this European lark is getting rather interesting. We are going to shove you on the Council of Europe”. I could not possibly admit to him that I did not know what the Council of Europe was. Lord Shackleton said, “Well, I’m getting involved in eastern European matters and things of that sort and, soon, part of the Soviet bloc will come back and become part of Europe”. This was all right for me, but I had a full-time job with two weeks’ holiday, and swanning off to Strasbourg was not really part of the game, so I agreed with my employers that I would not take a rise in salary and would have only one week’s holiday.
As I went off to Strasbourg, I suddenly realised that what we were talking about was people who had a fear of war; almost everybody you met had fought in the war. That was something that I had not thought about. As you moved on over a period of time, so trade became important.
I thoroughly enjoyed that period but began to wonder where it would lead us. We then came to the referendum of earlier days, and I would like just to quote Alec Douglas-Home, who in 1971 said:
“In this House and out of it, there is widespread recognition that we have reached the time of decision, and that the proper place for that decision to be taken is Parliament”.—[Official Report, Commons, 21/10/71; col. 912.]
That is what we are talking about today. James Callaghan, at the same time, said:
“Tonight is no more than the first skirmish in the struggle, in the course of which we shall, I hope, by debate and discussion between ourselves, establish what is Britain’s correct relationship with Europe and what is our role in the world ahead”.—[Official Report, Commons, 28/10/71; col. 2202.]
Again, that was in 1971.
In the middle, I got dropped in it again—it was not really due to my noble friend Lord MacGregor—because I suddenly found that I was, effectively, treasurer of the Conservative Group for Europe. I was the one who was meant to find money and, in particular, money for the referendum. Of course, a lot of mistakes were made in those early days and, suddenly, you found to your surprise when everything went through that the Labour Party refused to send a delegation to Strasbourg. As a result, the Conservatives had a problem in that they did not have any money, because you could not get any money for a vote of that sort. So what did they do? They turned to the treasurer of the Conservative Group for Europe, who with his secretary found himself in difficulty. I suggested that we should hold a great event. We managed to get the Banqueting House—Geoffrey Rippon was very kind and helpful—to hold a big event for the first time so that those in industry and the financial world would understand the difficulties that we were in, would understand that I had been dropped in it and would agree to subscribe.
Unfortunately, a certain leading Conservative figure made a speech during that period, when life was pretty bad, and said that everything was good, so no money was forthcoming. So I had a brief moment wondering whether I would be sued, but somehow the great and the good turned up and gave me a cheque and we managed effectively. But they were the problems in those days.
When Sir Alec Douglas-Home made the suggestion in that debate that a decision should be made by Parliament, Stanley Orme said:
“No. Ask the people”.—[Official Report, Commons, 21/10/71; col. 912.]
In the time when I was involved, we went through the EEC, the ECSC and all those areas and finally thought, “Well, could we not actually call it Europe?” and then, “Where does Europe begin and end?”. Without doubt, in all my time there, the key factor was bilateral trade, which in due course became immigration. But suddenly, we ask ourselves the question: “What is it all about?”. It is really about economic rather than political affairs, and I would be most grateful if any one of your Lordships would be kind enough, quietly over the weekend, to sit with a piece of paper and draw for me the current map of Europe.
My Lords, it is always a pleasure to listen in this House to the autobiographical discourses of the noble Lord, Lord Selsdon. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, on accepting a challenge that even Eddie the Eagle would have balked at, but he made an elegant speech.
The outstanding feature of this debate so far has been the total failure of the Bill’s supporters to address, let alone answer, any of the flaws in the Bill repeatedly identified by speakers around the House. The Bill will need serious amendment if it is to serve any purpose beyond that of attempting to quell unrest within the ranks of the Conservative Party. To appropriate a matter of such high constitutional importance for so narrow a purpose is, in my view, not worthy of the senior partner in a coalition Government.
We on these Benches will apply to this Bill what we apply to any other Bill before us, which is a thorough scrutiny of it clause by clause throughout its legislative passage through this House. We will table sensible and responsibly framed amendments which we judge would materially improve the Bill, and seek their acceptance. That is our constitutional duty. The noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, appears to disagree. I found his intervention on this point incredible, coming from someone with such a long career in Parliament.
There is absolutely no reason or justification for granting the Bill special treatment, which is what its promoters seek in their efforts to ensure that not a single word or number in the text is amended. What is so sacred about this text that it has its promoters so paralysed by fear of any attempt to tamper with it? From the degree of panic visibly permeating their ranks in the face of this perceived vandalism, one might think that we were daring to rewrite the opening bars of the Fifth Symphony or draw a moustache on the face of the Mona Lisa. No, we are not vandals, and they know that. The cause of their fear is of their own creation. Mismanagement of the timing of the Bill has resulted in a time-bind that could lead to the loss of it. If that is the outcome, they will have only themselves to blame, and the prospect of that can neither excuse this House from its duty to scrutinise properly nor deprive it of its right to propose amendments to improve the Bill. The Bill cannot possibly be allowed to go on to the statute book in its present form. There are serious questions surrounding: the timing of a referendum; the almost unfettered powers granted to the Secretary of State to appoint the day on which the Act would come into force; the wording of the question to be put to the people; the need to spell out a turnout threshold and a voting age; and the Bill’s inappropriately restrictive policy on voter eligibility—and there are other issues which time does not permit me to enumerate.
Many of the amendments will be tabled, and supported, by Members drawn from all sides of the House. We fully expect them to be resisted by the promoters of the Bill because that is their blanket response to any attempt to amend it. They will dismiss them as the confections of troublemakers bent on obstructing the Bill’s passage to the statute book. However, I ask them to consider carefully this: are they going to toss aside the conclusions and recommendations of such important Lords committees as the Constitution Committee and the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee on such crucial questions as the exercise of the powers conferred by the Bill on the Secretary of State? Are they going to reject the Electoral Commission’s recommended wording of the referendum question? I cannot believe that they would follow such a risky course but, if they do so, it will confirm in my mind, at least, that the Bill’s Conservative promoters are not acting in the national interest but only in the narrow interest of a party divided on Europe.
We on these Benches do not believe that an “in or out” referendum by 31 December 2017, at the latest, is in the national interest. That is why we oppose the Bill. As my right honourable friend the shadow Secretary of State said in the Second Reading of the Bill in another place:
“The Bill reflects an arbitrary date unrelated to the likely timetable of major treaty change”.—[Official Report, Commons, 5/7/13; col. 1181.]
That can hardly be in the national interest. What is the purpose of holding an “in or out” referendum at a point when we will almost certainly not yet know what treaty changes will need to be agreed to reform the EU, and thus what kind of EU, and what our negotiated relationship with it is, is the subject of the question to be put to the people? In the same Second Reading debate in the other place, the Secretary of State, Mr Hague, repeatedly said that his Government’s policy was to seek reform of the EU. The noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, said it at least twice yesterday, and will surely say it again this afternoon. We all want to see effective reforms. Our European partners want to see effective reforms, but why risk a British exit at a time when reform is work still in progress, in which we are all—and should be—actively participating ? It makes no sense at all, so why the rush?
I conclude by suggesting to our Conservatives on the other side of the House, particularly to its leadership, that they heed the words of a formidable European statesman:
“In the European card game we must not allow ourselves to be forced from the phase of waiting into the phase of premature action by impatience, complaisance, vanity or the provocation of our friends”.
The greatest political truths have long lives. That was Otto von Bismarck.
My Lords, when speaking at number 59 in the list one can reflect, as one hears all of one’s points made by others, on how very much better one would have made them oneself. One can also keep score. I have to tell the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, whom I greatly admire for his cavalry officer skills, that it begins to look a bit like Balaclava. At the present rate it is 2:1 against, counting on the side of the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, those who are all-out supporters of his Bill and those in the Cormack school, who believe that the Bill has warts but, warts and all, it must be “waved on its way”—I think I heard that. That school combined amounts to half those who have spoken in favour of the House of Lords doing its job and amending the Bill.
I had intended to try to deal with what seemed to be the two central heresies in the brilliant speech of the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs—the heresy that if one gets this Bill one is guaranteed a referendum, and the heresy that if one does not get the Bill one does not get a referendum. Those are both nonsense but that was clearly explained most recently by my noble friend Lord Armstrong of Ilminster, so I see no reason to trouble the House with that.
There is a third argument lurking in the House, about which the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, needs to think as he considers how he proposes to handle Committee and Report. That is the feeling in the House, from the bias of the question, from what the Bill says about the franchise and from what it does not say about the rules, that it is all slightly slanted—that this is a Bill to produce not just a referendum but a referendum result whereby the UK is to leave the European Union. That feeling is quite prevalent in the House and it would be good if the promoters were to consider what adjustments to the Bill could be made to deal with that point.
I want to add only two points that I genuinely think have not been made so far in this debate—one on timing and procedure and one on perceptions. On timing, the big point is the one made by the noble Lords, Lord Hannay and Lord Owen. You would be plumb crazy if you seriously thought that the right year to bring to a climax a renegotiation of the terms of British membership of the European Union was the year of a French presidential election and a German federal election. You would be mad if you thought that the last thing Mr Hollande would like to do before he seeks re-election is make concessions to the British in order to, in his judgment, increase his electoral chances. You would be mad if you thought that the SPD in the German coalition which will be in office for the first half of 2017 would be likely to agree to the changes to, say, the human rights or social elements of the treaty, or to the free movement of persons, all of which government spokesmen have told us in the past four weeks are to be elements in our renegotiation strategy. The noble Lord, Lord Owen, also made the important point that it would be quite a good idea, if renegotiation were intended, to start now defining what we want rather than going with whatever the Daily Mail suggests this week is the right element to be in the renegotiation.
Our foreign friends greatly enjoyed the Bloomberg speech and admired a lot of things in it, but they are very puzzled that, in the year that has passed since the speech, no papers have been produced and no attempts have been made to secure allies. Indeed, in recent weeks it has rather looked as though we have decided that it is essential for domestic reasons that we have a major row with the Poles, the Romanians, the Bulgarians and all eastern Europeans.
I turn to the issue of procedure. I do not know why we want to amend the treaty. Mrs Thatcher secured the rebate after five years’ hard work, as my noble friend Lord Armstrong reminded us, without any treaty change. However, if we have decided that it is really important that the reforms we need are changes to the treaty, we have to go through four stages. First, we have to secure a simple majority. That means that we need to find 14 member state Governments who agree with us. We have not started that task and it looks as though we are not going to start it until after the election. Secondly, we have to get a consensus in the necessary convention. The last convention took 18 months. The third stage is that we have to get unanimity in the intergovernmental conference—Maastricht took a year—and the final stage is ratification.
This Bill tells us that the referendum will happen in 2017. Even if renegotiation finished in 2017, would we really want to have our referendum before we knew whether everybody else could sell the deal in their countries? Supposing that we have our referendum and the Latvian or Luxembourg referenda go the wrong way. What would then happen in this country? What would happen to our position in the European Union and the world? All four stages have to be gone through and it is crazy to lay down a deadline now, in advance—a point which I think is almost bound to come back in Committee.
I turn to my point about perceptions. This concerns what foreigners think. I do not know what all foreigners think but those whom I meet—I am sorry but from time to time I do meet some—find this all very puzzling. They are waiting for the British proposals. They are sorry that the British seem to be slightly out of the game and will clearly be staying out of the game for another 18 months. It is their treaty too and they all need to get ratified whatever changes we secure. We need to buy their consent and they need to get their publics to buy it. They find it very odd that this Bill appears to be slightly slanted towards producing a no vote and that it appears to lay down a deadline which they know—because they are going to be in the IGC and the convention—is impossible.
They are beginning to wonder about our motives and about why the Prime Minister, in the year since the Bloomberg speech, has not filled out the speech or produced anything to follow it up. They are beginning to find it very sad that the party of the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, Alec Douglas-Home, Ted Heath and Margaret Thatcher is behind this kind of Bill, which they find, as a minimum, surprising. They suspect our motives. This has an immediate effect. I am talking not merely about the future but about today and our negotiating clout in Brussels. Eleven months ago, Herman Van Rompuy, the President of the European Council, came to London and made a speech at the Guildhall in which he warned us about the effect of our present position on our negotiating clout in Brussels. He asked us:
“How do you convince a room full of people, when you keep your hand on the door handle? How to encourage a friend to change, if your eyes are searching for your coat?”.
He was right. This Bill is not just nugatory; it is also noxious because it increases that perception abroad.
My Lords, on his introduction of this Bill, I join with others in warmly congratulating my noble friend Lord Dobbs.
The Government and those supporting the Bill have stressed the current necessity for European Union revision, arguing that otherwise European democracy and quality of life will increasingly suffer. However, as we have also heard today, detractors claim that this position is adopted only for political gain, with the United Kingdom and our Government thereby trying to attain some narrow advantage. Also that renegotiation, and thereafter a British referendum, are said to be both disruptive and mistaken expedients.
Yet what is intended and proposed is not in the least irresponsible; instead, it is much overdue—that is, if European Union revision should remove competitive burdens and restrictions while completing the single market. Few would dissent from this and the majority of member states would welcome that changed direction.
To colleagues and fellow member states, clear presentation of the case is of course a separate matter. Can the Minister say what steps the Government are taking to communicate this simple prescription, and to date which measure of European consensus may have been achieved?
To some extent the distinction between renegotiation and reform is semantic. In other respects it is extremely important. No doubt the aim of single market completion is already common ground, but many other aspects are not. Over them, and with our European partners, progress will continue to demand constant diplomacy, and by us a determined programme of give and take.
Another shared perception is that reform will revitalise European democracy. If so, what different role do the Government envisage for national Parliaments? Internally, within regions and communities, how far will they advocate and promote more active citizenship, and externally, in what ways will they encourage working synergies between different European cities and localities?
There is also the connection between reform of the European Union of 27 states and that of the Council of Europe of 47 states, of whose Parliament I have the honour to be a Member. Does the Minister agree that the Council of Europe’s much respected and necessary functions in human rights and the rule of law ought to remain as they are and thus should not be tampered with by a reformed European Union? Not least is that so owing to the Council of Europe’s link to the Court of Human Rights, and in political democracy, owing to that institution’s unprecedented achievement which has managed to put state and citizen on an equal footing.
Nevertheless, a European Union reform process can now considerably benefit from that of the Council of Europe. The latter, for example, has recently slimmed its bureaucracy and, for the first time in its history, in real terms cut its budget. Also, in common with the Council of Europe, a reformed European Union should now seek to advance those things that really matter to individual people. Equally, it must come to sharpen its focus upon what it does well and upon areas where, for the British and European citizen, it can have proper meaning and impact.
My Lords, I shall not detain the House very long but, having listened to virtually all the speeches in this debate, I am, first, surprised at the lack of supportive speeches from the Tories for the Bill and, secondly, I am still not persuaded why we need the Bill at all.
The noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, mentioned the war. I hope that we are not going to go onto the war again—I shall not—but I go back to when I lived in Romania in the 1970s in the communist period and was struck by the complete lack of liberty of all the people who lived there. The European Union has given eastern Europe liberty and peace and we must never forget that. We need only look at what is going on in Ukraine at the moment to reflect on whether they will or will not come.
My interest now is, and has been for many years, in the single market and in particular in the rail sector. Some 40% or 50% of our trade is with the European Union now. Of course, we can gain a great deal of benefit from the rail industry exporting and from train operators—particularly passenger ones but also some freight ones—operating on the continent.
When you get into negotiations with the Commission and other member states you find many of the other member states—the big ones, France and Germany, come to mind—blocking everyone else coming in. They are obstructing the single market and the Commission, bless its heart, is doing a great job in infraction proceedings. However, the point I am making is that with all this trade potential we could do an awful lot more.
The smaller member states, in particular, look to us as an example and for support and leadership, as the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, has just said. This will all stop if we leave. If we want trade, we will have to conform to their standards, which of course they set to protect their own domestic industry, not European industry. As I have said, the French and the Germans are particularly good at this. We will probably lose an awful lot of our trade and exports.
When the Government have decided what it is they want to renegotiate—which, as I said, is not clear to me—I hope that they will negotiate from the inside. They should do it not in an arrogant way—it is not as if we are still a global empire, addressing one of our small colonies—but as one member among equals. We will go a long way that way, but let us do it from the inside and forget about this Bill completely.
My Lords, I have been a supporter of Britain being in Europe ever since I was at Cambridge and I had the honour and duty of showing Mr Robert Schuman around the university. Mr Schuman wanted to talk about religion, while I wanted to talk about politics. We are not talking today about the benefits or disadvantages of membership of the European Union—we shall presumably leave that until later, to our campaign in relation to this referendum. Most of us are concerned about the need for radical revision of the rules and practices of the European Union, something which has not really divided us today either, and we look forward to having elaborate discussions on the matter later on. We are instead concerned with the very narrow issue of whether or not to have a referendum on the country remaining inside the European Union. We need to have more thought on this issue than we have had.
British politics has always seemed to me to be a garden, with many diverse streams, rockeries and rose beds, but also animals, including monsters. The referendum is the monster which we have now discovered, to our surprise, is in our garden. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Oakeshott, on the subject of referenda. He seemed to place the position of the monster of a referendum very clearly. I largely agree with what he said and regret that I also agree with, and realise the importance of, what the noble Lord, Lord Owen, said when he talked about the role of referenda in Northern Ireland.
A referendum is a curiously foreign concept to all political philosophers whom we know about. We talk of Burke, Peel, John Stuart Mill, Salisbury and even Churchill and Disraeli. None of them has anything to say about referendums—or referenda—and all of us are obliged, when we look up the subject in encyclopaedias, to rely on the Swiss or, perhaps, if we are lucky, Napoleon III. Noble Lords may say that the names I have mentioned are from very long ago but, nevertheless, most of us would think that the definition of the relationship between a Member of Parliament and his constituents was put better by Edmund Burke than by anyone else. Mr Callaghan—Lord Callaghan as he was known for so long in this House—said more or less the same thing in 1975 when he pointed out that Parliament makes decisions, not the people.
We have not discussed, in this debate, in what circumstances the adventure of a referendum should be embarked on. At some point, as the noble Lord, Lord Spicer, said, the British people have to be consulted. But is a referendum really better than an election? The noble Lord, Lord Oakeshott, would not agree. The risks of a referendum in normal circumstances are very considerable. What would the public have said about the question of a referendum on capital punishment, membership of NATO, or support for Israel or Iran? All those are issues on which the public would be entitled to insist on a strong point of view.
I recall two statements made in relation to the referendum of 1975. First, Harold Wilson said that the decision in consequence of the campaign would have to be final and binding. We all realise that the reverse happened. Lord Callaghan said in his memoirs that, in the end, he looked on the referendum as a life raft on which both sides in the Labour Party might take refuge. In the end, they both did.
My Lords, I contemplated making a comment on what the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, raised just now but on further reflection I think my comment would be a diversion. I had better restrain myself and allow the House to proceed without any further ado.
My Lords, I place it on record that those of us who wish to consider this Bill properly are not defying the will of the Commons. Also, at least one noble Lord referred to the fact that by agreeing to a Second Reading, the House would accept the principle of the Bill. That is not true. I accept the conventions and accept that this Bill should have a Second Reading. I also believe that it ought to be revised in many ways. All the issues—such as who votes and when the timing of the vote is right—need to be debated in depth by your Lordships.
If there is to be a referendum, some of the most recent speeches would indicate that there needs to be widespread public explanation and debate about the complementary but differing roles of the Council of Europe and the European Union. Far too many people confuse the two. Among those who are asked about continuing membership of the European Union, many of the replies are actually to do with the Council of Europe and not with the Union. I enjoyed the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, enormously. Of course, all the changes that he thought should, might or would be introduced are already protected under the 2011 Act because they involve revision of treaties.
The most important thing that has been debated is the perception of Britain’s allies in the European Union. In a very minor way, I had experience of that—the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, was present—as a founder member of the Committee of the Regions. The first thing I learnt was that to secure agreement in a pan-European forum one had to speak quietly, build alliances, listen to people’s concerns and consider the needs of northern Europe, central Europe, centralised countries, decentralised countries, small countries and large countries. Our Prime Minister will have to do that to secure any sort of hope of getting agreement to changes. That is a painstaking situation. It is not something secured by grandstanding or throwing down the gauntlet in advance.
Like virtually everyone who has spoken, I believe that aspects of current European Union policy and practice do not always work in the interests of this country. However, to look at the interests of this country in a calm, rational way, one has to have regard to the timing of political events. The Bill looks at the timing of political events in this country. We are not alone in having political events; political events are occurring all the time. I cannot find it in my heart to accept any argument that we here ought to agree that other people will fall into line with our timing, our needs and our wishes just to suit a Bill which has not even got the title of a government Bill.
I am pleased to be speaking towards the end of the debate. I did not expect to be in a meeting discussing the details of Tory manifesto commitments, how they were worked out in the past and they will be worked out in future. I would say that I leave this debate pretty startled. I have heard many subjects repeated, rightfully at length, in your Lordships’ Chamber. I ask those noble Lords who have always fought for the interests of the CBI and the financial status of the City of London: where were you?
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, made the interesting comment that this issue is not party political. I agree that the fundamental issue is not party political, but the Bill is completely party political. It is not a government Bill, it is certainly not an opposition Bill; it is a Bill of the Conservative Party.
In the past—certainly during my membership of the Liberal Democrats—we have been accused of being the party that obsesses about Europe. We were always accused of putting Europe or discussion about internationalism first and our own nation second. As a party, we have grown up. We have gone through that adolescent stage. We are now a party of government, but a party that puts things in proportion. I regret that our coalition partners seem to have gone in the opposite direction in terms of obsession which, together with our popular press, gives a very tempting and addictive formula that means that the issue of Europe starts to dominate our politics in a negative fashion.
Some of the most interesting e-mails I get, which do not go into my junk e-mail box, come from a member of my fellow coalition party, the noble Lord, Lord Ashcroft. He does some very interesting polling, which I am sure all of us in this House read. I congratulate the noble Lord on making his information public. He wrote:
“As I found in my research … Europe is not much of a priority even for those who say they might vote”,
“the EU is just one of the (many) things they are cross about”.
“For most voters … Europe barely registers on their list of concerns”.
Those are the poll findings of the noble Lord, Lord Ashcroft.
What are those other concerns? The economy and jobs, welfare payments, migration, which is related to Europe, the deficit and the National Health Service. As someone who believes in democracy and, in some ways, in Parliament reflecting public views, I might ask: what about all those constituencies who want important decisions, whether different decisions or to endorse decisions on those areas? I see no request for referenda in those areas. I therefore question why this issue is quite so urgent as to bring a Bill to this Parliament at this time.
I will clarify the Liberal Democrat position again. My noble friend Lord Watson of Richmond did that absolutely adequately but there seem to be some questions about it. Before I do that, let me move on to two other things. A number of proponents of the Bill have said that we should not in any way contest the sovereignty of the House of Commons. Clearly, that is a good principle. However, I remind a number of those proponents that there was a Second Reading vote in the last Session of Parliament which had a parliamentary majority of 338. That was for the House of Lords Reform Bill. Why did that not come into this House? It was because a cabal of Back-Benchers within the Conservative Party had a discussion with the Prime Minister and that Bill went no further whatever. So I question the sanctity of majorities in the other House. I believe they are important, but in that case it certainly did not happen.
In terms of amendments to the Bill, I, too, agree that until this House is abolished or changed—I would certainly welcome a change—it needs to carry out its responsibilities. We are always reminded of the Dangerous Dogs Act and the bad legislation that has been passed, although maybe some Members of the other place would see it more as the dangerous frogs Act in this case, given the difficulties that we have with some of our European partners.
What is the Liberal Democrat position? First, I make it absolutely clear that our manifesto in 2010 said:
“Liberal Democrats … remain committed to an in/out referendum the next time a British government signs up for fundamental change in the relationship between the UK and the EU”.
We pretty well have that now in legislation, having worked with our coalition colleagues to deliver it through this House. We were successful as a coalition in passing that legislation. We as a party have always said that it needs to be about not just that treaty but an “in or out” question. I suspect that my coalition colleagues would agree with that as well. We are united; so I question the need for the Bill.
We also agree that Europe requires change and reform, whether on budget expenditure, the ridiculous situation of having two parliamentary seats, the common agricultural policy or employment issues. There is also the obtaining of all those worldwide free trade agreements, such as the one with North America. That started with Canada and we wish now to conclude it with the United States. All those are important but we need to negotiate with our 27 other partners. We saw under the fiscal pact back in December 2011 what happens when you tell your partners that you will do something different—they will go off and get on with it themselves, except maybe for the Czech Republic on that occasion. We were then isolated and that is not the way to approach these matters. I suggest that there is also a golden rule in negotiation: that you do not insult the citizens of the nations that you are trying to negotiate with, because internal conversations and debates within the United Kingdom are looked upon carefully in other member states.
The key issue at the moment is that, yes, we will at some point have to have a referendum about the EU. That is a Liberal Democrat policy and I believe in it strongly. We need to lance that boil. We also need a negotiation which is led through real leadership to show that we are a European nation that can meet the expectations of our partners, let alone our own. So we should show real leadership, obtain a real negotiation and a real improvement for all of Europe. Rather than having a referendum now, we can achieve one then. I am sure that it will be positive, but I am also willing to take the risk that it might be negative.
My Lords, I am sure that the whole House will be delighted that we are close to the end of what has been a very long debate. It has been a good one, with a number of very interesting contributions. A number of noble Lords have referred to the problem of those British subjects who live on the continent of Europe. As someone who lives in France, I strongly support the principle of this Bill so ably introduced by my noble friend Lord Dobbs.
Among the other contributions—unfortunately, there is not time to mention many—I shall refer to two. To show my complete and customary impartiality, there will be one from each side of the House. I single out those noble Lords because they made good points that, remarkably, have not been made by anyone else, and they each drew the wrong conclusion from them.
The first point was made by the noble Lord, Lord Kinnock, who alone referred to the importance of banking, finance and the City of London to the British economy, and the relevance of the regulatory proposals that are coming out of Brussels that will affect us. However, he then said that if there is something we do not like there, we can veto it. I have to tell the noble Lord and indeed the House that we simply cannot do so. This is a very serious point because in my opinion the destiny of this country is not European; it is global. In the City of London, we have one of the only two global financial centres, and it is the only one in the European time zone, which is tremendously important. I have to tell noble Lords, and to some it might come as a shock, that even if we were to leave the European Union we would still be within the European time zone. Our global reach is particularly important—this point has frequently been made by my noble friend Lord Howell—given the great opportunities that will continue to arise in the coming decades in the emerging world.
The other point was made by my old friend— I do not see him here but I am sure he is—my noble friend Lord Garel-Jones. Oh, he is here. He likes to come close to me, I know. He made the important point that there needs to be a debate about how we as a nation are going to conduct ourselves should there be a referendum and should we choose out. That needs to be considered. His mistake was to say that we will be in the position of Norway. No way Norway! I have a high regard for Norway and the Norwegians. I got to know them very well when I was Secretary of State for Energy and we had a lot of discussions about North Sea oil, which we shared. They were very amicable discussions and I was immensely impressed by the calibre of the Norwegians. But Norway is a very small country while we are a pretty sizeable one, and anyone who is as interested in realpolitik as my noble friend will know the enormous difference.
My Lords, will my noble friend give way?
No, I do not have time to give way.
If I may add this, official demographic projections suggest that within a few years’ time, because of the declining population of Germany and the increasing population of the UK, this country will be the largest in Europe in population terms. Even now, the Americans are interested in a free trade agreement with the EU, and I hope that this happens. Even today, before we are as big as we are likely to become, exports from the rest of the EU to the UK are even greater than exports from the rest of the EU to the United States. We are an even more important market than it is, so to compare us with Norway is ludicrous.
Another argument which has been raised is that we should not have a referendum. The noble Lord, Lord Thomas, was very much against referenda. In most cases, that is a perfectly valid argument, but not in this case. I recall my maiden speech in your Lordships’ House some 20 years ago. The subject on which I made it was an amendment proposed by Lord Blake calling for a referendum on the Maastricht treaty. Lord Blake was a distinguished political historian and a very eminent constitutional authority. He was an old friend of mine. When I was an undergraduate at Oxford his were among the very few lectures I bothered to go to. He set out with constitutional propriety why this was the kind of issue on which it was appropriate to have a referendum.
Noble Lords ask why now, as there has been no specific change. There has been a huge change, a sea change, in the nature of the European Union since the 1975 referendum. It is not just the passage of time. I agree with noble Lords who think that that alone is not a reason for having a referendum, but the people of this country want a referendum and they are right because of the huge change that has come about following the creation of the European monetary union and the political consequences of that decision. This is fundamental. People say there is now no specific event which would trigger a referendum. The fact is that a major and fundamental change, even if it is incremental, is still major and fundamental. There does not need to be some specific event to warrant a referendum on the issue.
Some 25 years ago, when I was Chancellor, I warned in a speech at Chatham House how fundamental it would be were the countries of Europe, who were thinking about it, to move to a monetary union and what the enormous political consequences would be. That has happened, and it has been disastrous, but there it is. However, there are consequences not just for those countries which are members of the eurozone. It has changed fundamentally the nature of the relationship between this country, which rightly decided not to join the common currency, and those countries that are part of the eurozone. That is a fundamental change. This divergence is going to increase. There is no way that we can stop that unless we are prepared to embrace the common currency, which I do not think any of us, or very few of us, with the exception of the noble Lord, Lord Davies, wishes to do.
We are now in a position where a referendum is called for. Indeed, I have reached the careful conclusion that we would be considerably better off outside the European Union. I wrote this in a long article in the Times in May last year. I was reassured to see that that article was followed by a column in the Financial Times by its most perceptive European columnist, the German Wolfgang Münchau. He wrote his article under the excellent heading, “Lord Lawson is right”. I commend it to the House.
My Lords, it has been a long and remarkable Friday, not least perhaps for the extraordinary role that a Private Member’s Bill has taken up. This is an issue that has generated 68 speeches, which were bound to demonstrate widely divergent views. However, even given the nuances of those views, I think I can tell the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, that it is still roughly 2:1 in favour of those who do not support an unamended Bill. I will settle for 2:1 every average weekend.
I doubt that my role today is to seduce Lord Cormack, or indeed any others, but I will certainly have a go at it. The Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, will undoubtedly, over the years, make people reflect on his courage. It is a poor Bill and it is a Trojan Bill. I suspect it has the unintended benefit of making us address some fundamental questions. I suspect it will also have the intended or unintended disbenefit of edging us still further towards exit from Europe, whether that is a declared intention or not.
Some of our questions go to the heart of why so many accession nations, starting with poor rule of law, a lack of democracy, overweening state bureaucracy and no viable markets, have sought to bring all these deficiencies to an end in order to join the EU. I share with my noble friend Lord Giddens the view that they have also understood the unstoppable progress to peace in Europe, historically one of the most bloodstained continents in the world. In every case, I believe those countries have honed in on the paramount issue: what is right for their nation? So should we this afternoon.
What is right for the people of the United Kingdom? I have a preference; of course I do. I want the United Kingdom to remain part of a non-nationalistic and peaceful Europe. However, the Bill would impose on that decision an arbitrary date for a referendum, which is why it is imperative to weigh the evidence. It gives a fixed year for a referendum, come what may. Is that the optimum position for the people of the United Kingdom?
The case for the United Kingdom’s continued membership is better than strong. Putting it at risk seems unwise. Starting a process that is likely to lead to exit by fixing the date in this way is still worse. Indeed, continuing membership of the EU was so compelling that, at the previous general election, nobody thought to raise it in the way that it has been described in either of the major party manifestos. There was no mention at all of an “in or out” referendum. Nor did the coalition mention it in its agreement. I think we have heard a decent explanation of the Lib Dems’ position at that time in the course of today’s debate.
Our national interest is about our ability to earn our living in a complex world. It is about families having the opportunity for prosperity rather than tumbling standards of living. It is about the best education that we can afford and the healthiest population that we can create. It is about dignity and decent standards in old age. It is about all those things because only a sound trading economy can generate the wealth that can deliver them. It is about the values of a decent society. It is about fairness and is opposed to the unfairness that always accelerates when we see any corrosion or downgrading of an economy. The interests of the United Kingdom seem straightforward enough to me.
Indeed, there has been a long-standing consensus on the issue. That was clearly expressed by Sir John Major recently—a leader who had at least won a general election and had dealt with some volcanic anti-Europeans in his party—who said: “I’m not in favour of Mr Wharton’s Bill”. He said that his party should focus on taxes, jobs, education, health and living standards. He recognised that in a world of 7 billion, the EU was the closest and largest of the trading groups drawing together that offered us any kind of option—an option that simply would not be available, in his words, “for our island”.
In that Sir John Major echoes the CBI, which, like all of us, most certainly sees the case for reform in Europe and the development of more appropriate institutions but which is clear that leaving the EU would be catastrophic for our economy and for jobs and that the EU provides global leverage that we, on our own, cannot exercise. He echoes business leaders such as Sir Martin Sorrell, Sir Richard Branson and very many others, leaders to whom we look for the energy to fuel economic recovery. I know that not all business leaders take exactly that view, but it is fair to say that an overwhelming proportion of them do. He echoes what has been said by businesses such as Nissan, which has been quoted several times today, which described its remarkable Sunderland plant as,
“a very competitive plant, it’s a very productive plant and it’s a European plant”—
not just simply a plant in the United Kingdom.
About a week ago, commenting on whether we are now in a period of economic recovery—we will see whether that is true over time—the Chancellor cautioned the whole country, saying that the job was not yet half done. I will take him at his word, not argue about whether we are making progress. This, then, is a period when uncertainties and instabilities are best avoided. Two days ago, a sober analysis of our major banks suggested that there is a further £28 billion hole in their far-from-repaired balance sheets. The problems of lending and the cost of lending are still serious issues. The costs of maintaining and building small and medium enterprises still rise. Europe, where we already have less influence in its financial institutions, has a long way to go to achieve overall stability. That is another instability that impacts on us. Who knows where all this will be at some arbitrary date in 2017?
It may be that, with the unresolved issues, the party speech that was given by David Cameron when he became leader of his party will now come to be seen as very significant. He told his party that they had been locked in a dispute. People have been quoting the part about banging on about Europe, but the beginning of the quote is more interesting. He said that they had for too long been locked in a dispute about being in the EU. While normal people,
“worried about childcare, getting the kids to school, balancing work and family life, we were banging on about Europe”.
I can tell the House that, as a rather elderly dad of a young child here late on a Friday afternoon, I think I know what he means. In November 2011, the Foreign Secretary said that,
“a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU … at this time of profound economic uncertainty, is not the answer”.
He then developed the case very cogently. Therefore, although there is internal dissension, which has reached mega-decibel level in the Conservative Party, largely giving rise to problems of party management, that has now come to trump national interest.
Let us in this House, therefore, consider this. There will probably be some economic turbulence for some time to come—possibly, even probably, including major anxieties about unemployment, household incomes and acute pressure on pensions. The British people may be asked whether to leave the EU in circumstances that might lose another 3.5 million jobs, which would be at stake, and they might reflect on whether an invigorated trade with North America and the Asians would make us more prosperous in what has been described as potentially the Asian century. All of that will be at play during the course of 1917—or, rather, 2017. It was probably at stake in 1917 as well—we have not come very far, have we? That will be very likely to turn into a referendum on the Government of the day or on any of the dissatisfactions that emerge during tough financial times.
The comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, on all the other events of 2017 are all absolutely fundamental to understanding whether progress can be made. Of course, there is always uncertainty. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, said at the beginning, “In a world of uncertainty, why not 2017? There is always uncertainty”. I hope that I do not misquote him.
The point is surely to choose the time that is least likely to rack up the degree of uncertainty, plainly set out by business for us and by many others, or a time when the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary of the day can feel most confident that the interests of the nation will be properly served and resolved. It does not drain uncertainty to have the date 2017; it makes uncertainty a certainty. As far as possible, it is our obligation to try to measure certainty and mitigate uncertainty.
I said earlier that the case for reform in Europe is powerful. There are issues that should and must be addressed, such as democratic enlargement, managing enlargement itself, the push for more liberalised services sectors, the budget, mechanisms for changing Community law and so on. It is not difficult to identify a reform agenda, but I would start by trying to reform eurospeak, which is a form of language that I do not personally understand—and I am not sure that I have ever met anyone from Tottenham who did.
The fact is that any kind of negotiation on these issues will not be helped by an arbitrary timetable with a difficult background, which, as I have said, we are very likely to face. It is always easier for the negotiator who has no time constraints than the one who has to perform to time constraints, and those of us who have earned our living over the years as negotiators know that only too well. The silence from the Government on this is alarming. I do not prejudge Mr Cameron’s future work in negotiations, although I am not optimistic, as noble Lords can tell. I always want success for any negotiator who goes to negotiate for our country. I observe only that Mr Cameron has taken on this task in the least propitious circumstances that could be created. It is a millstone that he bears from Tory EU history. Labour itself had a difficult history—it was 40 years ago, and I remember it well. My own trade union told me to vote no, but I voted yes. It is clear that our European partners are becoming tetchier with us all the time.
There are a number of faults in the text that we have to consider, but I shall not go through them, as they have already been mentioned. But I suspect that all colleagues on all Benches believe that saying that any attempt to make this Bill better will “Kill the Bill” is gratuitous hyperbole. Proper scrutiny and amendment are the central purpose of this House, and the purpose will be served without any impropriety. There is no possibility of any amendment making that worse in terms of our process and practice. A Private Member’s Bill on a take-it-or-leave-it basis could lead only to one conclusion, which has been expressed in the House today—a very dark conclusion, which would be a disaster for this House. The Government have at least 14 months to get it right, and there is no point in blaming anyone else for the difficulties of timing. They can use the time properly if they wish to, and can take account of the decisions that may be taken in this House. The odds are that we would not produce a wrecking policy for the future of our people.
Before the noble Lord sits down, could he clarify for the benefit of the House whether Labour is in favour of an “in or out” referendum, or is it keeping its options open?
My Lords, I thought that I had collapsed then, let alone sat down. If there is to be such a referendum, or consideration of one, it will be at a time that does not wreck our economy.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, spoke today about Alice in Wonderland and the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, referred to “tea parties”, but the quality of the debate, the expertise, the experience and the humour have not allowed my concentration to wander on to thoughts of Mad Hatters, Cheshire Cats and cream cakes.
When I first joined your Lordships’ House many years ago, I was told that it was good practice to acknowledge most people’s contributions when you stand to respond to a debate. Six and a half hours after we started, even at the speed at which I can speak—and I can speak at speed—I could not realistically refer to the dozens of excellent contributions that we have heard today. Therefore, I hope that noble Lords will be understanding. My noble friend Lord Dobbs is to be applauded for introducing the Bill, and for his excellent speech. Huge numbers of people across this country, as well as in this House, will thank him for it.
The matter before us is about Europe’s future, our country’s place in it and, above all, democracy. It is about giving the people of this country the decisive say that is their right. At a time of profound change in Europe and scepticism about Europe across Europe, the Bill could give the British people the power to decide one of the greatest questions facing Britain: whether we should be in the EU or out of it.
In deference to my noble friends in the Liberal Democrats, I must say that I am not speaking for the whole coalition. As will be obvious to the House, I am speaking on behalf of the Conservative Party. Two years ago we passed the European Union Act 2011 to ensure that no Government could agree to transfer areas of power from Britain to the EU without a referendum. Sadly, at that time, as we see now, it was met with complete indecision from the Opposition, who resolutely and bravely abstained. However, support for it, especially now from the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, is welcome. Two years on, they have adopted our policy and we are pleased that they have done so. Today, with this Bill, we discover a similar wave of indecision on the opposition Benches. I certainly look forward to a time when they could possibly adopt our current position as well.
The two points that we have heard from noble Lords many times today are, first, about proper scrutiny of the Bill and, secondly, about the clear will that has been expressed by the other place. I will briefly remind noble Lords of the very large majorities on votes in the other place: at Second Reading, 275 and 304; on Report, 257, 261, 290 and 299, to list but a few. On many occasions, the numbers passing through the other Division Lobbies did not rise even to double figures. The other place had six Committee days, and three Report days—many hours to scrutinise the Bill and many hours for opponents of the Bill to table an amendment to kill the Bill if they, as the noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson, said today, opposed it vigorously, or to table and vote for amendments which now exercise noble Lords, especially those on the Labour and indeed the Liberal Democrat Benches. But we did not see that there.
No institution can survive without the support of the people. The EU needs reform if it is to be democratically sustainable for all its members, which it will not be if ever greater centralisation sucks ever more powers from its member states. As the Dutch Government recently said,
“the time of an ‘ever closer union’ in every possible policy area is behind us”,
and they are right. Our policy, therefore, is to seek reform so that the EU can be more competitive and flexible for the modern age so that powers can come back to the countries of the European Union and so that national Parliaments—the indispensable vessels of democracy—can have a more powerful role and to put the decision in the hands of the British people. This Bill does that. That is why every Member of this House who is a true democrat can and should unite behind the Bill. It is about letting the people decide.
This is not a pro-Europe Bill or an anti-Europe Bill; it is a pro-democracy Bill. It will finally enable the British people to have their say on one of the greatest questions facing our country. The last time the public had their say was nearly 40 years ago. Since then, the Common Market has become something that nobody could have envisaged. We are convinced that we can negotiate a fresh settlement, and it should be up to the British people to decide whether they want to be in or out.
Those who like the EU as it is—not me, but evidently some on the Labour Benches—can campaign to see the EU regain its democratic legitimacy in this country. Those, like me, who want to see Britain succeed in reforming the EU can see what success we have in changing it and then put that choice to the people. Those who want Britain to leave the EU, come what may, will also have the chance to persuade the British people. Ultimately it would be up to the voters to decide and that is the essence of democracy. That is why my right honourable friend the Prime Minister said that in 2015 we,
“will ask for a mandate from the British people for a Conservative Government to negotiate a new settlement with our European partners in the next Parliament”.
I have stood at this Dispatch Box on numerous occasions and spoken about the benefits of EU membership but also about how much better the EU could be: more competitive, more flexible and more democratically accountable. It is in that vein that we have been ambitious about reform.
The noble Lord, Lord Triesman, can be optimistic. There can be no doubt about our commitment to reform. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister is tirelessly, in this Parliament, never mind the next one, going around Europe making sure that this country gets what it needs. The Opposition do not have a policy to reform the EU but we do, and we are pursuing it. Labour never cut the EU budget, but we already have. Labour signed us up to eurozone bailouts, and the Prime Minister has got us out of them. Labour surrendered part of the rebate; the Prime Minister has never surrendered part of the rebate. Noble Lords can rest assured that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister is well equipped to go around Europe preserving our national interest.
It has been said by a number of noble Lords that now is not the right time, that the uncertainty would not be right and that the date is not the right date. There is already uncertainty. Public calls for a referendum are growing. I refer noble Lords to a UN survey, published only months ago, which said that, despite the debate in the United Kingdom, in the first half of 2013 the UK attracted more foreign direct investment than anywhere else in the world. Ernst & Young reported last year that the UK attracted nearly a fifth of all European foreign direct investment in 2012. There is a question out there, and that question needs to be answered.
Some of the debate we have had today has been on the question that would be put on the paper, on the constitutional position and the binding of a future Parliament. Some of the debate has focused on trading quotes of what different Members from different parties have said at different times. There has been some questioning of motivation, but I can say that the number of speakers, the interest both inside and outside Parliament, the passion and deeply held views all show that this is an important political issue of our time. Some, like my noble friend Lord Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay, said that there was no need for a Bill because it could be dealt with in manifestos at the next general election. Well, I can say on behalf of the Conservative Party that, in our manifesto, there will be a commitment to have a referendum.
However, we have heard neither from the Labour Party nor from our friends in the Liberal Democrats definitively whether or not they will have a referendum commitment in their manifestos. My sense is that both will eventually move to that position, which is why their objections to the Bill today, I think, leave a bad taste.
Is the noble Baroness asking us to believe that there is not one single flaw in the Bill? Is the Conservative Party claiming a kind of papal infallibility that cannot be changed?
My Lords, my point is that we have heard clearly from neither the Labour Front Bench nor the Liberal Democrats whether, at the next election, the question of a referendum will or will not be in their manifesto.
Forgive me; my noble friend cannot have heard me correctly. I sketched out the point that, since 1995, we have had a commitment to a referendum in every Liberal Democrat manifesto. At this point, we may not know what will be happening in 2015 and are therefore not going to disclose the content of our manifesto to the noble Baroness. However, we have a consistent record of having done so, which is more than I can say for the noble Baroness’s party.
I am delighted to hear my noble friend talk about this commitment being in every single manifesto. I hope that, in that vein, she can persuade her colleagues to support the Bill.
The Bill boils down simply to giving the people of this country a choice. If noble Lords were not to support the Bill, it would be a double blow to democracy: an unelected Chamber preventing the people having their say. The mandate from another place was overwhelming, and it reflected the huge public support for a referendum. The public will see through any attempts to scupper the Bill. They will see it as politicians blocking their right to decide. This is the right question at the right time, and it is right that we should finally let Britain decide.
My Lords, I congratulate this House on what has been an exceptional day and an exceptional debate. I thank every Member of this House for their patience, their courtesy and their commitment. It has been a long day—nearly seven hours. I have been here for every minute of that.
I am reminded of the politician who said, “Always speak with a full bladder to be sure that, even if your audience falls asleep, you won’t”. How right he is.
I started off this debate by suggesting that no party has an unblemished record on this European issue and I shall not, at this late hour, follow those who have dashed down the narrow party-political path. Let me deal with some points, starting with that made by the noble Baroness, Lady Liddell, the noble Lords, Lord Grocott and Lord Turnbull, and others that this Parliament cannot tell future Parliaments what to do. We tell them all the time what to do. We have told them in this very Session of Parliament that they will have their next election in May 2020. The constitutional principle behind all this is very clear: if they do not like it, they change it. That is the way to deal with it, and that is the way in which we will deal with the emotional deficit to which the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, so eloquently referred.
The noble Lord, Lord Tugendhat, spoke about Gibraltar. Gibraltar is part of the South West England constituency. Gibraltarians have a vote in our European elections. Their relationship with the EU is entirely dependent on our membership of the EU and it is only right that they should be included in this Bill.
The noble Lord, Lord Garel-Jones, mentioned Norway. Its arrangement is not an alternative that I would happen to support. Although I agreed with much of what he said, he will understand that I do not agree with every word.
Let me turn to the franchise, mentioned by the noble Lords, Lord Oakeshott and Lord Shipley, the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, and many others. The points that have been made about the franchise and extending it are of course arguable, and I have some sympathy with some of those representations, but all these matters are a balance—we always have to draw a line somewhere on them. The arrangements in the Bill are not unfair. What would be unfair would be to hide behind this issue to deny everyone a vote. Similarly with the wording of the question, mentioned by so many noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lord Radice, Lord Crisp and Lord Davies, and my noble friend Lord Bowness, and very eloquently by the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, the Electoral Commission has not declared that the proposed question is unfair. It says that it is simple and easy to understand. It has concerns that a few might be confused and might not be aware that we are members of the European Union. That is a matter of judgment. Whether that confusion would remain after the lengthy and fiercely fought referendum campaign I happen to doubt. Tellingly, the Electoral Commission was unable to come up with a single alternative but instead has offered two.
I have been struck by how many passionate pro-Europeans are in favour of this Bill, not just Sir John Major, whom I have mentioned, and the Prime Minister but the noble Lords, Lord Howell, Lord Balfe and Lord Cormack. Many other passionate Europeans, because they are passionate Europeans, oppose the Bill—like the noble Lord, Lord Giddens. Those who truly believe in the European Union should embrace this Bill with every ounce of their energy, because it is the best way, and perhaps the only way, to cement the European Union in the hearts and minds of the people. Of course, I forgive the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, for mishearing me this morning while he was splashing about in his morning bath.
The view has been expressed that 2017 is not the right time for a referendum. That was mentioned by many noble Lords—the noble Lords, Lord Jay, Lord Tomlinson, Lord Roper and Lord Taverne, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Quin and Lady Falkner—but if not then, when? Answer comes there none. We all know that for many the answer is never.
The noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, echoed by the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, talked about the Bill holding the Prime Minister’s feet to the fire. It is not; it is strengthening his elbow. That is how he sees it. That is why he is a pro-European. He wants reform and has already achieved so much in that regard. It is not a process that has not yet begun; it is already under way. It also shows the public that their disillusion has been noted, their voice has been heard and there will be no more broken electoral promises about Europe, of which we are all guilty.
On the Benches opposite much has been made of how a referendum putting the “in or out” question before the people will cause rampant uncertainty. In fact, listening to some speeches, I thought that it would be the end of civilisation. I think that the noble Baroness, Lady Goudie, and the noble Lords, Lord Whitty, Lord Watson, Lord Monks, Lord Inglewood, Lord Lea and Lord Mandelson, all echoed that point. I have nothing more to say on that. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Lawson, has said it all for me. If a referendum were to cause such uncertainty, is it the case, then, that we can never have a referendum and take the risk of asking the people? I do not hear many Members of this House suggesting that, but that is the logic of their case. I am still left wondering why the Opposition and the Liberal Democrats simply did not seek to divide the House of Commons on the Bill.
Much has been made of the role of this House. The noble Lords, Lord Richard, Lord Bowness, Lord Grenfell, Lord Inglewood and Lord Thomas, all made very eloquent speeches on this. A long list of noble Lords of huge experience have offered their views, and some have warned about the dangers that might be in store for this House if we mishandle this very difficult and delicate matter: for instance, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde—no one comes with a longer pedigree than his—the noble Lords, Lord Crickhowell, Lord MacGregor, Lord King, Lord Wakeham and Lord Spicer, the noble Marquis, Lord Lothian, and, from the Cross Benches, the noble Lords, Lord Stoddart and Lord Kakkar. One of our newer Members, the noble Lord, Lord Finkelstein—I enjoyed his words—expressed his views most amusingly and we heard a most powerful speech from my noble friend Lord Cormack.
I do not think I can add to what has been said except to say that it would be a tragedy if we were to find ourselves appearing to adopt a position of Peers versus the people. It would be a desperately uncomfortable and damaging position to be in at a time when the reputation of this House is already under attack almost weekly in parts of the media.
The hour is late. I apologise to those whose views I simply have not had time to mention effectively. I thank all noble Lords who took the time and attention to contribute to this debate. It has all been said by almost everyone, and now by me. The noble Lord, Lord Anderson, was reminded of Metternich, although I think actually he was talking about Talleyrand. However, I have in mind Mary Tudor: 456 years ago this week, Britain lost its last foothold on the European continent after the siege of Calais. The Queen said that when she died they would find “Calais” engraved on her heart. I think that when my time has come, they might well open me up and find this Bill engraved on my heart. In that spirit, I ask this House to give the Bill its Second Reading.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.
House adjourned at 4.49 pm.