Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.Donate to our crowdfunder
I beg to move,
That it be an Instruction to the Committee on the European Union (Amendment) Bill that it have power to make provision in the Bill for the holding of a referendum on the United Kingdom's continued membership of the European Union.
I am probably not the only Member of the House who is pleased not to have to make points of order on this instruction, but instead to debate it. I guess that you, Mr. Speaker, are also pleased that I am not making points of order.
The purpose of the instruction could not be clearer: it is to put it beyond reasonable doubt that the amendments to the Bill that include a call for a referendum on Britain's continued membership of the European Union are selectable for debate tomorrow.
The hon. Gentleman knows as well as most people in the House what my view is on the European Union. I believe that we should leave it. He is not arguing about the great principle of staying in or leaving the European Union, because he does not want that referendum at all. This instruction is just a weasel tactic to get out of the promise that he made to the electorate at the last general election to hold a referendum on the European treaty. Nobody who shares my opinion will be fooled by this rather disgraceful tactic.
The hon. Gentleman could not be more wrong. Let him debate that matter tomorrow. I and my colleagues believe that our amendments on a referendum are already in order and selectable, but we recognise that not everyone in the House is yet of that opinion. That is why we have sought, from the first day of the Committee's proceedings, to give the House the opportunity to help the Chair and clarify that such amendments are indeed within the scope of the Bill.
I shall give way in a moment.
Let us be clear what the instruction is not about. It is not about the substantial point of a referendum. It is solely about enabling a debate on an in-out referendum—a debate that could occur tomorrow.
The hon. Lady would help the Chair if she did not make a point of order like that.
Can the hon. Gentleman confirm that he and his party stood on a manifesto commitment to have a referendum on the constitution, which is exactly the same as the Lisbon treaty? Will he show some integrity and vote for that referendum tomorrow?
Order. Every hon. Member shows integrity, so the hon. Gentleman should not speak like that.
If the hon. Gentleman had attended all our debates, he would know that we do not believe that the constitutional treaty is the same as the Lisbon treaty. There are many arguments we can have about that, and no doubt we will have them tomorrow. If the hon. Gentleman votes for our instruction, we can have that debate, but if he votes against it he will prevent it from taking place
I want to make some progress, so I shall give way to the right hon. Gentleman later.
Hon. Members may disagree with the Liberal Democrats' proposition, and they may disagree with the proposal for a referendum. They may disagree with the Question that we wish to put, because it was proposed by the Liberal Democrats—I am afraid that one sometimes hears that opinion from others in the House. However, all such people—all our opponents—can and should vote for the instruction, because to deny debate on an in-out referendum in the context of the Bill would be undemocratic. To restrict tomorrow's debate to only one referendum Question would limit the freedom of the House of Commons. To vote against the ideas of a significant number of MPs, and to prevent those ideas even being debated, would be to gag those Members of Parliament. The House should be the champion of freedom of speech, so we look to Members on both sides of the House to defend freedom of speech.
If the right hon. Gentleman looks at our amendments, he will see that they are absolutely clear. They have been tabled for some days, and we have made it clear that the in-out referendum would take place after the ratification of the treaty. I know that some hon. Members, like the right hon. Gentleman, do not share our view, but we should have that debate tomorrow on the substance of the issue. By passing the instruction, we would facilitate that debate. Denying the instruction would deny some Members the chance to vote on what they believe they put before the electorate at the election. I simply cannot believe that the Government, the Conservative Opposition or, indeed, MPs from any other party wish to curb open debate in the House.
The Liberal policy on the referendum is apparently encapsulated in early-day motion 1083, which was tabled in the name of the Leader of the Liberal Democrat party. It says that a referendum
"will force off the fence those political parties that seek to obscure from the public their true policy towards Europe".
I have sought to add the words "including the Liberal Democrat party" to the EDM through my amendment. Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that the EDM is a bogus, vacuous attempt to obscure what the Liberal Democrat policies towards Europe really are? They are very different at the local level from what they are in Parliament.
Absolutely not. The hon. Gentleman should vote for the instruction, so that he can challenge us in debate tomorrow. What is he afraid of? [ Interruption. ] We have one convert, and I hope that we will have more. Will they vote for democratic debate in the House of Commons?
Will the hon. Gentleman clarify a simple point? When the constitutional treaty, as he said, was around and his party members looked at it, they said that it transferred more powers than this measure. Why, at that stage, did they go for a referendum on the constitutional treaty, and not an in-out referendum, if it transferred more powers? Why have they suddenly come to this measure now?
We believe that it amounts to the same thing. If the right hon. Gentleman had listened to my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Menzies Campbell, the then Leader of our party, he would know that he said that at the time.
The Government say that through their business motions they wish to promote debate. Ministers have told us that they are keen to find innovative ways to enable the House to debate all aspects of the Bill, and to make our debates more accessible to the public, and we have used a 19th century procedure to help the Government to achieve that. The general public simply do not understand why an elected Member of Parliament should not be allowed to debate and vote on the Question. They want the Government of the day to ensure that such a debate is held.
I was grateful for the hon. Gentleman's support on
Turning to the Conservative position, Conservative Members have said in Committee and on many other occasions that they want to promote more open debate and that they do not like guillotines, programme motions and knives. Well, here is a test for them: they should vote for this instruction and for the House to have as many options as possible tomorrow in order to promote an open and wide debate. If they do not do so, we will not be able to take their protestations on future procedural motions in all sincerity, and, more importantly, the country will not be able to take their commitment to freedom of speech seriously.
In response to my right hon. Friend Mr. Duncan Smith, the hon. Gentleman said that an in-out referendum would amount to the same thing as a referendum on the constitutional treaty. In that case, he should vote for a referendum on the Lisbon treaty on the basis that it amounts to the same thing as an in-out referendum?
The message is clearly not getting through, which is yet another reason why we should have the debate tomorrow, when we can explain it to again and again to make it absolutely clear. For the hon. Gentleman's sake, I shall repeat some of the basic arguments. For a start, the constitutional treaty, unlike the Lisbon treaty, contains the treaty of Rome, the treaty of Maastricht, the Single European Act, the treaty of Nice and the treaty of Amsterdam, so a vote on that document would be a vote on all the rules and the whole EU constitution.
In 2006, Mr. Hague said that the constitutional treaty was a constitution, not simply a treaty, and as such would have revolutionised the European Union. He was right, which is why there was a case for a referendum. The nearest question with which this House can provide the people of Britain is an in-out referendum, which is nearest to the manifesto promises on which most hon. Members stood.
If there had been a vote on the constitution, it would have been a vote against a rulebook. How can one remain a member of a club when one has rejected its rules? It would have been an in-out referendum.
Indeed. Both the Prime Minister and the then leader of the Liberal Democrats talked in exactly those terms. In the spirit of upholding parliamentary democracy, I appeal to the other parties to back our instruction today.
If we are committed to democracy, we can disagree with the rulebook while remaining committed to the overall organisation. When France and Holland said no, their positions were regarded as completely democratic and nobody said that they should leave, which is why we should have a referendum on this particular rulebook. The hon. Gentleman's proposition is undemocratic blackmail.
The hon. Lady is entitled to her view, but I ask her to back our instruction to allow us to have a full debate tomorrow. Why is she afraid of having a debate? Indeed, what are the other parties afraid of today, and why are they trying to curb debate in the House of Commons?
Order. The hon. Gentleman has indicated that he will not give way.
If the other parties in this House are not prepared to vote for this instruction and to have the debate tomorrow, one must question their motives. [ Interruption. ]
Order. Hon. Members must allow the hon. Gentleman to speak.
It will appear to people outside the House that the other parties are afraid of open, public debate. They are afraid of facing the question and will not allow the amendment to be put. Some people might say that they are split down the middle on the issue. I am looking forward to the speeches of hon. Gentlemen and hon. Ladies in this debate; we want to know why they are frightened of open, public debate—
Order. The hon. Gentleman is not giving way, Mr. Cash—[Hon. Members: "He's frit!"] Whatever his reasons, he is not giving way.
Mr. Speaker, I am genuinely grateful to you for calling this instruction today. You have done this House a great service—
Order. Whatever you do, do not draw me into the argument.
I shall obey your instruction totally, Mr. Speaker.
I hope that all Members will now do the House and the country a service. I hope that they will vote for this instruction—for freedom of speech and democracy.
A little while ago, a good friend and colleague came up to me and said, "Andrew, we don't need to spend too much time on this motion—do we?" I had to say that we did. I am speaking, and I intend to vote for the instruction. I want to explain to the House why.
First, in my own defence I should say that I have been consistent. The last time the House had a debate and vote on this issue, I was in the Division Lobby voting for it and there was not a single Labour Member in the No Lobby voting against it. That was some time ago, but the principle of having a referendum on Britain's continued membership of the European Union has not altered. This instruction would enable such a referendum.
Secondly, I believe that the referendum is the way forward. We have had countless hours of debate on the question of whether the Lisbon treaty is the same as the constitution. Clearly, there is great division on that issue in this House and elsewhere. However, it would be in the interests of good governance, of the current Government and of any future Government in the next quarter of a century if the matter were put to bed and resolved.
It would be cathartic if between now and, say, 2012 it was enshrined in statute that there should be a referendum to reaffirm our membership of the European Union—a political vehicle that has been very good for this country. It has been a vehicle for conflict resolution and conflict minimisation, and it has been politically, economically, and commercially good.
I am prepared and keen to go out and argue for the European Union; the trouble is that the traffic has all been one way. There have been stories about straight bananas and other absurd things; rather than each one of us having to go out to evangelise and argue the case for Europe, stating how positive it has been and what the consequences would be for every constituent were there ever a day on which we withdrew.
I do not say this arrogantly, but I think that the referendum would be won; Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour Members would put in all their energies because they would know that it would be good for Britain. Therefore, the case would be overwhelmingly put. [Interruption.] The members of the flat earth society and all those who have peddled the most God-almighty nonsense about the issue would be quashed. The traffic has been one way, so it is now time that we said this.
In response to a couple of interventions that I have made on the Prime Minister, I have noticed that he has not totally dismissed the idea. He may well be waiting to see what happens tomorrow. However, whatever happens tomorrow, I hope that he will see that committing us by statute to a referendum between now and 2012 would be good for democracy and good for reaffirming Britain's membership of the European Union. I believe that it would satisfy many constituents who want that opportunity.
It is time that everyone reflected on the fact that the instruction for the House in Committee to consider an amendment along these lines tomorrow is sensible. It would be fair to everyone. It would help many of us who have a dilemma as to whether the Lisbon treaty is the same as the European constitution—there will be arguments about that for ever and a day.
While I have the House's attention, I would like to point out that in the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs I have tried to move amendments to the effect that we should have such a referendum—it is in the minutes. I have asked for a referendum at every stage. I ask Members to pause and reflect on the matter, particularly those on the Treasury Bench, because it would be good for this Labour Government to do such a thing. I hope that Ministers will think about it over the next 24 hours. Even if the instruction is not passed, a signal from the Prime Minister or the Minister for Europe that we are thinking about it would help us all in the constitutional dilemma presented by the Lisbon treaty.
I am delighted and surprised in equal measure to have the opportunity to debate our instruction today—[Hon. Members: "Your instruction?] The instruction. I am delighted to see Mr. Davey in his place again. I am delighted to see so many of his hon. and right hon. Friends in their places, too. Last week, most of them only walked in so that they could walk out again. They have stayed a little longer today, and I hope that they will stay for the rest of my remarks. I said on
First, the House has already come to a view on these matters. On
Secondly, and equally importantly, we have never had a debate on an in-or-out amendment of the nature proposed by the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends on any amending treaty. We did not have an amendment or debate of that nature on the Single European Act, Maastricht, Nice or Amsterdam, and we are not convinced that there is anything different in the nature of the Lisbon treaty that means that we should break that established European precedent.
Thirdly, and finally, the Bill is about the merits of the Lisbon treaty, not whether we should or should not be in the European Union. Some commentators—unfairly, I am sure—have said that this instruction is not so much about the inner detail of the Lisbon treaty, but about the inner dynamic of the Liberal Democrat party.
On the basis of those three considered but brief assessments I encourage the House to reject the instruction.
The Minister has spoken briefly, and I will attempt to do the same. In a way, this gives rise to a happy and rare occasion during these debates: an occasion when I can support some of the things that the Minister has said.
The weaknesses of the instruction are self-evident. The first was mentioned by the Minister: it is unnecessary. The House considered a motion on an in-or-out referendum, as it has been termed, at the end of debates on the Queen's Speech. An amendment was moved by the Liberal Democrats solely on that subject, to the exclusion of any consideration of education, health, foreign policy or taxation. They moved it solely on that subject in a House that they have just said is afraid of debating the matter, and the amendment was rejected, as the Minister set out, by a vote of 464 to 68.
It seems unlikely that, in the passage of three months in an identical House of Commons, a majority of 400 will be overturned tomorrow. All Opposition parties have Opposition days available to us on which to table any motions that we wish. It is therefore unnecessary to insert the instruction into our Committee proceedings, still less to do that as a deliberate distraction from what is genuinely at stake with the Lisbon treaty.
Mr. Davey said that the motion's purpose could not be clearer. I agree—its purpose is to try to paper over the deep divisions in one party between those who want to fulfil their manifesto pledge and those who wish to break it. I have never heard such a clear parliamentary equivalent of a cry for help. The Liberal Democrats are waving at us but we are not sure whether they are waving or drowning.
The pledge on which all Liberal Democrats stood at the election could not have been clearer, but I shall read it out in case they need reminding:
"We are therefore clear in our support for the constitution, which we believe is in Britain's interest—but ratification must be subject to a referendum of the British people."
Their manifesto did not pledge a referendum on membership of the European Union or anything about voting for a treaty identical in all but name to the European constitution without consulting the voters.
The instruction is not a way of giving people their say, as the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton put it, but of denying people their say by letting some Members off the hook of deciding whether to stick to their manifesto commitment or abandon it. Ms Stuart punctured beautifully the Liberal Democrats' discredited central argument. If, as they claim, a referendum on the EU constitution is substantially equivalent to a referendum on EU membership, France and the Netherlands would no longer be members of the EU.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Liberal Democrats do not even want a referendum on in-or-out? I would like nothing better than an in-or-out referendum, but, however the Liberal Democrats vote today, it has no relevance to the way in which they should vote tomorrow. Does my right hon. Friend agree that they should still honour the promise that they made at the last election and vote for a referendum on the treaty?
I absolutely agree. The full absurdity of the Liberal Democrat leadership's position is that it wants a referendum on the possible use of one clause in the treaty, which provides for withdrawal from the European Union. Liberal Democrats do not support the use of that clause, yet they want to deny the British people any say on the hundreds of other clauses in the treaty, the use of which they support. They confidently expect them to be used.
The instruction is patently a fig leaf to cover their embarrassment at their attempt to renege on their manifesto commitment. It is pretty small fig leaf over a pretty huge embarrassment. It does not deserve the support of the House because it is a distraction from the genuine issue before us.
My hon. Friend moves on to the terms of a referendum, which is beyond the scope of our debate on the instruction.
"after much thought and consideration I have not been persuaded that the overall effect of the treaty is sufficiently different from the EU Constitution which was proposed prior to the last election. I am mindful of the promise I made at the last election which was to support a referendum on the Constitution. I will not use semantics to wriggle out of a promise so, unless something unforeseen happens, I intend to support the call for a referendum."
What a pity that not all her colleagues are not prepared to
"use semantics to wriggle out of a promise."
The House should reject the instruction.
I want to make three brief points. First, I was filled with horror at the prospect of my hon. Friend Andrew Mackinlay being alone in the same Division Lobby as the Liberal Democrats, and for that reason I have decided to join him.
Secondly, I have sat through much of the debate over the past few weeks and have listened with growing alarm to the Conservative arguments that have been deployed. The exchange that just took place between Mr. Hague and Mr. Cash illustrates my point perfectly, because the right hon. Gentleman evaded the question that was put to him.
The truth, which has become increasingly apparent over the past few weeks, is that the fault line that has run through the Conservative party since the time of the corn laws is as apparent today as it ever was. The truth is that the Conservatives are the ones who are hopelessly divided. What many of them would really like is to come out of the European Union. For once in my life, I think that the Liberal Democrats are right. Let us test the Conservatives on that principle, because the reality is that they are playing semantics on this occasion, not the Liberal Democrats.
There is a smell of fear over this Chamber this afternoon. We know perfectly well what this is about. I am disappointed that Mr. Howarth is going to join the Liberals—I actually vote in the Division Lobby. [Laughter.] I am glad that is clear.
I voted in the notorious Division last November. I believe in referendums as a general proposition. In fact, I moved for a referendum on Maastricht, as some hon. Members present will recall. To try to get support for that, I went to see the then leader of the Liberal Democrats, Lord Ashdown, who gave his support. The Liberal Democrats would have voted for a referendum on Maastricht. I use that example because Maastricht was a treaty.
There is a fear hanging over the House, because each of our parties—those on the Liberal Democrat Benches are not alone in this; the parties include the Conservatives and Labour, as well as the Liberal Democrats—promised a vote on the treaty in their election manifesto. We have now heard all the semantics and the attempts to say, "This isn't the same, it's slightly different" or "Its composition is this or that", but when the public look—and as we have seen in the 19 hours given to clause 2—they see that the transference of power goes on.
When Andrew Mackinlay said that there was one-way traffic, I woke up. "Ah, yes! I've heard that expression before", I thought, but normally it is a one-way ratchet. No, the hon. Gentleman has got the traffic direction wrong. He was complaining that other people in this country argue about his proposition—about the divinity of Europe or otherwise.
The issue is controversial: people do criticise the treaties; they do believe that they knock the sovereignty of Parliament; and they do believe that they undermine the relationship between a Member of Parliament and his constituents and between the Government who make the laws and the population of Britain. People do believe that, but the ratchet—the one-way traffic—has been the ever-increasing power of the European Community, now Union. That is what the central issue has always been. However, the promise that the three parties made is what Parliament is all about—the greatest trust of all.
When we stood in front of our electorate and said that there would be a referendum on the treaty, it caused panic.
The hon. Gentleman must forgive me—I quite understand the difficulty of his position. That is why—[Hon. Members: "Give way!"] I am going to finish my sentence, at least. That is why we have seen a construct today. It is a change from the storm in the Commons. Perhaps we will end up on the roof next. But whatever else we do, we know what the Liberal Democrats are about. They made a promise, and they now wish to resile from it—that is as plain as anything—but they still think that the public are fools, and that they will not understand the distinctions involved in what they are doing.
They said that, if this were a vote on—[Hon. Members: "Give way!"] I have the floor, if the House will forgive me for a moment. I should like to finish a sentence, or two, or three. As the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston pointed out, a vote on a treaty would not be about whether we were in or out. I remember the immediately previous leader of the Liberal Democrats standing in Westminster Hall saying that if Britain voted against the constitution in a referendum, it would mean that we had to leave the European Union. He was wrong on that, as France and the Netherlands demonstrated. The House cannot elide the two propositions as though they were one. They are distinct. That is what this proposal is about. It is to deceive the public out there.
While I am finishing this very lengthy sentence, I am also looking at the Government, no less. The Government of my country also promised a referendum on this treaty, and I have watched them trying to resile from that proposition as well. When I go into the Lobby today, it will be to damn—I think that that is a parliamentary term, Mr. Speaker—the Liberal Democrats for their phoney attempt to cover over their own divisions. Now I will give way to the hon. Gentleman.
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I was also extremely grateful that he joined us in the Lobby on this issue in November precisely for the reason that he gave earlier in his speech. I am surprised that he does not recognise that Maastricht was a far more significant treaty than this one. It is precisely because the British people were not consulted—again and again, under the Conservative Administration, over the Maastricht treaty, the Single European Act and all the other changes to the European Union—that we need an in/out referendum. And that is precisely why the Conservatives are so divided.
I can only hope that the hon. Gentleman's electors out there heard his shouting. They will hear his words. What we stand for is what we undertake to the electors who send us here. Everyone knows that this treaty further disconnects the people of this country from their Government and their representatives in the making of law. It is fundamental to the rule of law that, when we vote, we accept the rule of law because consent has been given by the people. Once we break the link between the sovereignty of Parliament and the rule of law, we are in the kind of really big trouble that we find ourselves in today.
To hear that smug attestation from Chris Huhne is not helpful. It is not helpful to his own cause. That is the point. He is saying, "We must have a referendum, on our terms, that we think we can win." But what he is telling his electorate is that he has resiled from an undertaking that he gave them. I do not accept this referral, and I shall vote against it.
I have some sympathy with the Liberal position—[Hon. Members: "Surely not.] It is not only because I have a natural sympathy with beleaguered minorities who find themselves in a hole of their own making—not least because I have often found myself in that position. I am unhappy about the Liberal proposition because it poses the question of in/out against the question of yes/no, as though people could decide on only one of them. I would be inclined to vote for an in/out referendum if the Liberals were prepared to support the idea that I and others could have the opportunity to vote on a yes/no referendum. I would vote yes to remain in, but vote no to the treaty. Under the Liberal proposals, as I understand them, there would be a referendum only on in/out.
The hon. Gentleman is wrong in his interpretation of this debate. If the instruction is given, tomorrow the House of Commons of the United Kingdom will have the opportunity to decide whether there should be a referendum just on the Lisbon treaty or on the wider range of issues—or, in theory, both. If the hon. Gentleman votes no today, that option tomorrow will be precluded.
I will give the hon. Gentleman the answer. We have made it clear that our preferred option is to vote for the referendum on the package—the whole issue of whether we are in Europe or not. That would be a vote in Committee, which we would hope to win, but we cannot even try to win it if the House will not allow us to have that vote. That is what the instruction is about.
Order. We should be debating the instruction before us.
I wish to clarify the implications of accepting the instruction, because I am anxious if I vote for the Liberal proposition that I will be less likely to be successful in a motion that I would like to propose on yes or no. If the Liberals give me an undertaking that they will vote for a yes/no referendum on the treaty, I will vote with them on in/out. If not, I have to assume that they are guilty of hypocrisy.
Order. I understand that the hon. Gentleman has finished his speech.
I will be very brief. It seems to me that this is an extraordinary example of sanctimonious chicanery. [Interruption.] What we had last week— [Interruption.]
I would certainly not wish to be a president of any club that that gentleman could join. [Hon. Members: "Ooh!] Last week, we saw an attempt by this shower to bully the Chair. Because they did not succeed in bullying the Chair, we now have this motion before us this afternoon. It comes side by side—and this is the answer to Mr. Davidson—with something that I have never known in all my time in the House: a three-line Whip to abstain. Frankly, the Liberal Democrats ought to be ashamed of themselves. They gave promises to their constituents, on which they are indeed resiling. Other Members have done the same, but for sheer two-faced effrontery, the third-rate biscuit is won by the Liberal Democrats.