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United Kingdom and the European Union

Volume 764: debated on Tuesday 8 September 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government when they will publish the changes they are seeking to the United Kingdom’s relationship with the European Union.

My Lords, as the Prime Minister set out in another place on 29 June, the Government are seeking substantive reforms in four areas: sovereignty, economic governance, welfare and immigration, and competitiveness. Following the June European Council, talks have begun on these issues in Brussels. The European Council will return to the issue at its December meeting. The Government are committed to holding a referendum on EU membership before the end of 2017.

I thank the noble Earl for that reply, but is it not the case that in many areas the Government’s intentions are as clear as mud? Take, for example, employment law and social Europe: there are rumours about the Government seeking an opt-out from social Europe, and about ditching the working time directive and the agency worker directive. By the way, the working time directive gives four weeks’ paid holiday entitlement a year to workers. Is it not right that the British people should be given full details of what the Government are trying to achieve? At the moment we simply do not know what is true and what is innuendo. When can we learn that?

My Lords, the first phase of the work requires just these technical discussions. This is the start of the process. These discussions should be led by substance, not schedule. I quite understand the points made by the noble Lord, with all his experience of the trade union movement, but we are not going to show our hand and give our position away to other members.

Does my noble friend the Minister agree that few things could be more damaging to Britain’s negotiating position than to go beyond the broad areas that he has just pointed out and to go into the fine detail referred to by the noble Lord?

My noble friend is quite right. He has great experience in this area as well. To show our hand too early would not be conducive to help.

Does the Minister agree that it was absurd of No. 10 to tell businesses to shut up about Europe on the ridiculous pretext that it would undermine the renegotiation? Does this not again demonstrate that the best strategy would be for the UK to lead a multilateral effort to reform the EU to enable it competently to tackle all those critical economic, security and humanitarian challenges that press in on us—an approach that would have a unifying, not divisive, effect?

My Lords, as far as the business community is concerned, both the CBI and the British Chambers of Commerce have supported my right honourable friend the Prime Minister’s proposals. On the other matter the noble Baroness raised, all other member states are being consulted on these issues.

My Lords, does the noble Earl agree that not declaring or showing your hand is appropriate for a game of cards but not for deciding the fate of a nation, especially when the people most interested in the outcome, and, indeed, the inputs, are the British public? Will he reconsider that position? Will he also consider what we read in the Financial Times yesterday: that the Government are seeking to persuade businesses not to declare their pro-European Union views for fear of upsetting the apple cart? Is it not appropriate for large investors and large employers in our country to say categorically and candidly where they stand on the future of our participation in the European Union and in the single market?

My Lords, the noble Lord brought the House’s attention to the recent newspaper article, which I did not see. If there is anything on which I can inform him, I will, of course, write to him. However, he is talking about making sure that Parliament is kept informed, and it will be. We are already keeping Parliament informed. My ministerial colleagues are having a conversation with a broad range of colleagues and Peers, and will continue to do so. In addition, the Foreign Secretary has indicated that he will be willing to appear before the EU Committee of the House of Lords at a later date.

My Lords, will the noble Earl think again a little about this brilliant tactic of not revealing our hand? How are we to get 27 other member states to agree to some firm substantive decisions if they do not know what it is we are trying to get? Might we not cause a little confusion by concealing our hand for too long?

I think there are far too many hands around, to be perfectly honest, my Lords. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister has spoken to all 27 member states on this issue. It is just as important to speak to some of the smaller states as it is to speak to the larger ones.

Does the noble Earl agree that some members of his party are tending to the view that if Europe did not exist we would have to invent it? Recent events, ranging from refugees to wider international questions, demonstrate that. Will the White Paper that is the result of all this have to demonstrate also that we are aware of all the legitimate points being made by the other 28 states—or 29, including the EEA and so on—and that we need to find consensus among all of them?

My Lords, consensus is very important. However, we should get back to the basics here. It is has been 40 years since the British people had a say on our European Union membership. The organisation has changed vastly since then and it is time to put that right.

My Lords, is it the Government’s intention to set out their aims and policy with total clarity after the negotiations have concluded?

My Lords, the noble Lord, as ever, makes an important point. Of course, those matters will, where necessary, be presented before Parliament.