I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
It is an honour to introduce a Bill that has at its heart the heart of our democracy. Power should reside with the people. In introducing the Bill, I speak for many in the House, but I speak for millions more outside the House.
I thank my hon. Friend for that ingenious intervention. I have not yet heard from Mr McCluskey, but I am sure that when the Labour party has decided what its position is on giving the British people a say on our relationship with the European Union it will let us know. In introducing the Bill, as I said, I speak for many in the Chamber and for many millions outside. It was in 1975 that a Labour Government gave the British people a say on our membership of the then European Community. How things have changed: politics has moved on, and the European Union has moved on.
In 1971, I voted against the then Common Market, and I voted for a referendum in 1975. Sadly, the country did not follow my advice, or we would not be doing what we are doing today. However, the Bill is deficient in one respect: it does not ask for a referendum until 2017. What we need is a referendum before the next election. Will the hon. Gentleman give that guarantee?
For the first time, I find myself agreeing with at least part of the hon. Gentleman’s comments. I wish more people had listened to him in 1975, and I am sorry that they are not going to do so now.
As I shall come on to explore, it is important that we secure the best possible deal from the European Union and put a real choice to the British people. It is sensible that we set a time frame within which that must be done. That is what the Bill does, and that is why I have introduced it.
First, I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Secondly, I totally agree that—and I think he will probably explore this—it is important that this will reinforce the hand of our marvellous Prime Minister in negotiations with Europe, and then give the public a say. The public deserve a say.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is about giving the public a real say—a real choice between the best possible deal that we can get from the European Union and, if the public so choose, leaving it, if that is what they want to do. That is what we on this side are offering the British public: I think that Members on the other side should consider their position very carefully indeed, because at the next election the public will not forgive Members who do not trust them.
Order. The hon. Gentleman is not giving way at the moment. I think that that is clear.
The first time I voted was in 1974. My son and daughter have never had the opportunity to make that democratic decision. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is what we should be doing today? That is why I sponsored my hon. Friend’s Bill.
Of course I agree with my hon. Friend. She was lucky if she had the opportunity to vote. I was, as one hon. Member whispered in my ear as she made her contribution, but a twinkle in an eye at that time. I did not have the opportunity to vote.
My hon. Friend will be staggered, I am sure, to find that of course I agree with him. But what matters is not that I agree with him; it is that the people who are watching this debate, who care about the issue, who want to have their say—the great British people—agree with him. They will make their views very clear, come the next election.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the most important reasons for the Bill has already been mentioned—that a whole generation has not had a chance to have a say? But there is a second reason, which is that the EU is a fundamentally different creature from the one on which we voted in 1975, and it is on that issue that the country must have a say.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He is making his points more usefully than some of his Whips have done so far—[Interruption.] but is he aware of the fact—[Interruption.] Tory Members should calm down. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that 40% of UK exports go to the EU tariff free, and that business leaders in this country have said that it would be dangerously destabilising if a referendum were to go ahead. Does he think—[Interruption.]
Order. There needs to be rather more calm in the Chamber. Interventions need to be shorter. I should point out that well over 40 colleagues want to speak. I want all of them to do so. They have an interest in minimising the noise level and maximising the progress. I call Mr Gordon Marsden—briefly.
Does James Wharton think it is in the interests of this country that we should have four years of uncertainty for business from his Bill?
The hon. Gentleman read his intervention very well, but the British people deserve a say and they deserve to be given a real choice. They should be given a choice between the best possible relationship with the European Union that we can offer, and leaving.
The hon. Gentleman has done a great job in coming up with this idea for a Bill, but has he had an opportunity to talk to representatives from our territory of Gibraltar about the impact on them and whether he plans to give them a say in the referendum?
The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point. Despite being a young and new MP, as I am, he knows very well that parliamentary procedure is one of the greatest challenges that the Bill will face. Were it a large and complex Bill, it would be easier for him and his colleagues to slow its progress and wreck the chances of it getting through and delivering what the British people want. So although I hear what he says and I know he is deeply concerned about anything that will allow him at a later stage, should the Bill go forward today, to slow it down and bog it down in parliamentary procedure, I hope he will resist the temptation and allow us to get it through so that his constituents and mine can vote whichever way they want and have their choice and their say on such a fundamental issue.
We have already discussed the fact that the European Community is not the same as the European Union. What we joined has changed. Those who voted yes in 1975 believed that they had bought a ticket to a clear and certain destination—to a free trade area that would benefit Britain’s economy without undermining our sovereignty. They did not buy a ticket for a never-ending journey to ever-closer union, destination unknown.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on this excellent Bill. Does he agree that we have heard from many businesses in the form of Business for Britain, who have said that businesses in this country also want to see the terms of our membership of the EU renegotiated? They also believe that finally giving the public a vote on this massive issue will create more stability than there is at present.
My hon. Friend is right. There are hundreds of businesses that support the campaign for a say on our membership of the European Union. An important point about the Bill, which I should make clear to Members on all sides, is that I am not arguing today that we should be in or that we should be out. I am putting forward an argument that we should trust the British people to make that decision and have a say.
I regret that I disagree with my hon. Friend. He is wrong to say that the Opposition have not made up their mind. They are quite clear: they do not believe in a referendum, they do not believe in renegotiating in Europe to get a better deal for this country, and most of all—they have made this absolutely clear—they do not believe in giving the British people a say.
I am the eternal optimist. It may appear that the Opposition are united against the British people in refusing them a chance to have their say, but I do not believe that is true. I believe that at least a substantial number of them are split. They know that the people need to have a say on this important issue and even though their leader has chosen not to be here and lead them today, I hope he will summon up the strength in the future to take a firm position and will back the Bill.
When we joined the European communion—[Laughter.]—the European Community, it certainly was that. We thought we were joining a union that would increase economic prosperity and give even greater political stability. We cannot now say that to new members, given the economic problems within the European Community. As things are going on in not far distant countries, after their next elections there will probably be serious fascist representation in
France, in Spain and in Italy. Is it not just in the interests just of this country for the Prime Minister seriously to renegotiate, but in the interests of the whole of Europe?
The right hon. Gentleman is right. We are talking about a European Union that is changing before our eyes. No one knows where it will be in a few years. It is the right approach that rather than rush headlong now to make a decision, we should negotiate to get the right deal and to understand what future membership of the European Union would mean. Whatever the result of that process and whatever our understanding might be, ultimately it must be put to the British people so that they can choose whether to renew their consent to membership or to withdraw it. That is what we must do and why we are here today.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate today. Neither he nor I was alive at the time of the last referendum on the EU, and we are now sitting here in the House as MPs. Does he agree that it is high time that our generation had a say on our membership of the European Union?
My hon. Friend is right. We have generations of people who have not had a say and we have generations of people who, when they had their say, voted for something which is not what exists today. Taken together, the changes that we have seen to the European Union and the length of time since the British people gave their consent in that original vote are significant. They make the case for a fresh referendum an obvious one and one that should be supported. The times have changed, the European Union has changed, and public sentiment has changed. It is time we had a referendum, it is time we gave people a choice, and that is why we are here.
I voted enthusiastically yes in the ’70s and I cannot imagine any circumstance in which I would not vote yes in any future referendum. Why do we need this Bill when we have already legislated for a referendum anyway, and when I hope his constituents, like mine, believe that the priorities are jobs and growth and investment, not putting the whole of the European investment links at risk for the next few years?
It never ceases to amaze me—I hope my colleagues on the Government Benches will allow me this indulgence—how the Liberal Democrats change their position as the wind blows. On this important matter Liberal Democrat MPs campaigned at the last election to offer the British people a referendum. They have now changed their mind because it looks a real prospect. I hope that they may change their mind again and agree with what some of us are trying to achieve.
Following on from the comments of Simon Hughes, it must be made clear that the Bill is not put forward just by those who are inherently Eurosceptic, there are many of us who campaigned vigorously in the 1975 referendum for our entry into the European—
Order. Appealing though it is to look at the back of the hon. Gentleman’s suit, it would be quite nice to see his face.
I apologise, Mr Speaker. There are many of us who campaigned for yes to Britain in the 1975 referendum campaign, but to paraphrase Goethe, that which thy forefathers bequeath thee, one must earn anew if one wants to possess it. There comes a point where one has to demonstrate the wholehearted consent of the British people to our membership of the European Union if it is to be valid for us and for them and, importantly, for the whole of the European Community.
I want to make a little more progress if I may.
We know that the European Union has changed from the European Community that was voted on in 1975. We know that generations did not get a choice. But what of the question of having a referendum itself? This was once seen to be alien to the British political system. It was not what we did. Well, I would contend that we live in the age of the referendum. We have had referendums on whether Scotland should have its Parliament and whether Wales should have its Assembly, and on the alternative vote. We had a referendum on whether we should have a regional assembly for the north-east of England, and my hon. Friend Mr Jenkin came up to the north-east and campaigned in that referendum. He campaigned against and he was remarkably successful. I would like to give him the chance to campaign in a referendum again, not on an issue of regional government, but on one of national Government that affects us all.
Yes, I am.
It is important when we look at referendums to understand what they mean. They go to the heart of what democracy is about. They go to the heart of giving the British people their say on fundamental matters of importance.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way and for his excellent Bill. Which does he think the British public will trust—the last Government who refused to give us a referendum on the Lisbon treaty, or this Government who have vetoed an EU treaty, cut the EU budget, passed legislation on EU sovereignty and given us an in/out referendum?
My hon. Friend makes an important and valid observation. It appears that the Leader of the Opposition does not even trust his own party, because he cannot lead them one way or the other on this important matter, but he has ordered them to run away from the debate.
The hon. Lady is of course right. We know that the majority of people in this country want a referendum. I would extend to her on this issue the hand of cross-party co-operation and friendship, and to any of her colleagues who would like to join in what we are trying to do to deliver that, not just for Labour voters, not just for Conservative voters, but for everyone, whether they believe that we should be in European Union or should leave it.
On the subject of cross-party activities, I was keen to follow the example of Margaret Thatcher in 1975 and vote enthusiastically for Europe, and I would do so again. However, is the hon. Gentleman aware that the late Baroness Thatcher happily quoted Clement Attlee’s comment that referendums are devices of demagogues and dictators.
I had forgotten the hon. Gentleman’s record of having voted against every referendum brought forward by the previous Government. It had slipped my mind that he had such a distinguished and principled position on this matter. However, we must also recognise that things change, which is why in my earlier comments, not long into my speech today, I said that we are in the age of the referendum. We have had so many referendums on so many things. It would seem farcical then to try to deny the referendum on such an important thing that matters to so many people.
It may help my hon. Friend, who is doing a wonderful job here, if I could just refer to something that was put out by the Liberal Democrats at the last election, which said that the reason for giving a real referendum was that it was over 30 years since the British people last voted, and although they wanted to campaign to stay in, they firmly believed that length of time justified having the referendum.
I thank my hon. Friend. That leads me neatly on to my next point, which is that I have no objection in a referendum to those who would want to campaign to stay in, just as I could have no objection to those who would want to fight to come out. I do wonder, though, at a democratically elected Member of Parliament who would seek to deny the British people that choice. That is the fundamental area of disagreement, and beyond that I am sure we can reach across parties to find agreement and deliver a Bill that is so important and long overdue.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on this excellent Bill. I have just learned that the leader of the Labour party has apparently cancelled an engagement today and he is not in the House. Does my hon. Friend think that he is sitting at home Buddha-like, contemplating whether to give the British people a say?
The Buddha-like qualities of the Leader of the Opposition are well-known of late. However, I would not choose to speculate on what he is doing. It may be something to do with the unions, it may be something to do with the television; it certainly is not something to do with leading his party in the right direction.
A majority of my constituents appear to agree with me rather than with the Prime Minister that the problem with Europe is that there is too much labour market flexibility, and that people are coming in and taking jobs here. Does the hon. Gentleman agree with me and my constituents that in the renegotiations we need to remove this labour market flexibility in Europe, or does he agree with the Prime Minister that what is needed in renegotiation is more free flow of labour?
I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman sees the value in a renegotiation and in getting a new deal. We may disagree on what that deal should look like, but his support is much appreciated, and I hope that he will back the Bill so that he can campaign for it when we get it.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing forward the Bill. Does he agree that at its heart lies the issue of trust? That is what this is about. The parties that trust the British people will support this, and the parties that do not trust the British people will not support it.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As I have said, I do not mind whether people want to campaign to be in or out. I do not seek to influence in this debate or in this Bill how the British people might vote. I believe that we must give them a say.
Does my hon. Friend agree that Europe is in a very volatile state at the moment? The eurozone is in an even more volatile state. Between now and 2017 there will be vigorous negotiations to try to repatriate powers that are best used in our own country. By 2017 the public will be able to see whether those negotiations have been successful and to make an informed decision.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That takes us to one of the key points about the Bill: it makes provision for a referendum by the end of 2017.
I believe that it is right that we should look to secure that better deal, that we should go to Europe and negotiate a better settlement that is more suited to the British interest. I believe that is possible. There are those who say that it cannot be done, but I believe that in reality the Germans will want to continue selling us cars and the French will want to continue selling us wine, just as much as we will want to continue trading with them. I think that a deal can be achieved and that it could be a great improvement.
As I was explaining, I believe that we need to put a real choice before the British people: either the best possible Europe we can get or coming out, if that is what they choose. I believe that that can be delivered, that we can return powers, renegotiate and get a better deal, but I also think that it would be to cheat the British people to deprive them of the opportunity to benefit from that better deal. This is about serious politics and delivering a real choice, not just playing party political games, as some Members seem keen to do.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing forward the Bill. He talks about serious politics. Does he agree that Members on the Opposition Benches, and indeed some sitting just below us, say one thing in this Chamber and another in their constituencies, demonstrating that they are not serious politicians, that they are not serious about a Bill, and that it is only us who will ensure that this happens?
Again, I will endeavour to be generous in my interpretation, excluding our Liberal Democrat colleagues, who often say one thing in one place and another somewhere else. Opposition Members are not consistent within their party, but I am sure that they are consistent as individuals. The truth is that the Labour party is split down the middle on this issue, because it knows that the British people want and deserve a say, but its leader is too weak to lead and refuses to offer it direction.
Does my hon. Friend share my shock at the way the Bill has been mocked by Opposition Members—there are one or two honourable exceptions—the people who are supposed to represent the very communities, such as mine in Goole, that have been most affected by uncontrolled EU immigration and by our membership of the EU? It is those people who want a say, and it is those people whom Opposition Members are mocking today.
My hon. Friend makes the important point—Kate Hoey alluded to this earlier—that as many Labour voters want the Bill to succeed as do Conservative voters. This matters across the political divide, which is why I welcome those hon. Members, from whatever party, who have said that they support what we are trying to do, and I am grateful to the Prime Minister and the Conservative party leadership for getting full square behind what we are trying to do. I think that this is something that unites the nation in agreement: we trust the British people and want to give them a voice.
I believe that more of what is done by the EU should be done by this Parliament and by the British people. It should be for the British people to decide what they want to be legislated on, who they want to support and who they want their Government to be.
For many years, and under different parties, our leaders have disappeared into Europe, only to return to this House to present their failures or successes, and whatever happens is invariably presented as a success. This House has had its say on those measures, but the British people have not been given a say in over a generation. I think that it is time they were given a say. I want a British Prime Minister who goes to Europe to negotiate not simply in order to come back to this House and present what they have done, but to present what they have done for the British people so that they can finally decide.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and support his Bill—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] Would he like to explain to the workers of Greece and Spain about workers’ rights in those countries?
I thank the hon. Gentleman. I suspect that the workers of Greece and Spain would welcome a referendum, just as the workers in the UK would, and I hope that they might get one.
I absolutely support my hon. Friend, who is doing a massive service not only to Parliament, but to the country as a whole. May I suggest one improvement to the Bill that I think would find favour with the Prime Minister? It relates to a question I asked him recently. If the British people voted in a referendum to come out of the European Union, is it my hon. Friend’s intention that that should be that, so we would not have the usual European Union tactic of having yet more referendums until they get the result they want? Perhaps it would be better to make it clear in the Bill that if the British people voted to come out of the European Union, that would be that.
I welcome my hon. Friend’s intervention and have no doubt at all that whoever is Prime Minister at the time—I am confident that it will be the current Prime Minister—would be unable to defy a vote of the
British people in a free and fair election with a proper debate. If the British people voted to come out, I am sure that that would happen. I am conscious, however—this point was made earlier—that this is a private Member’s Bill and so has limited time. Any amendments or changes, or anything that lengthens our considerations, will give the minority of Members who wish to wreck it, not by force of democratic argument, but by misuse of parliamentary procedure, too much opportunity to do so. I would therefore resist further amendments, but I understand and sympathise with my hon. Friend’s important comment.
Does my hon. Friend agree that what irks the people of this nation more than anything else is the democratic deficit that exists in the EU, and that deficit has grown time after time as a result of the treaties that Labour Members signed up to? His Bill will remedy that democratic deficit by giving the British people trust?
I hope that it is a point of order, rather than a point of frustration.
It is. In answer to an earlier intervention, James Wharton said that Members of this House who propose amendments to the Bill would be misusing parliamentary procedure; he said that to do so would be a “misuse.” I seek clarification, Mr Speaker: would it not be perfectly in order for any Member of this House to propose many amendments to the Bill if it gets a Second Reading?
Many hon. Members in this place have made the case and raised their concerns about our relationship with the European Union over many years. I am pleased to stand here today and speak for them, for those who have dedicated countless hours to pursuing the cause of democracy in holding the European Union and our relationship with it to account. However, I am bringing forward this private Member’s Bill not just for me, the Conservative party and my colleagues: I am bringing it forward for the people as a whole. I therefore hope that we can drive it forward and make it a success.
There seems to be a tendency for trust in the people to wane when a party gets into government. Given that a private Member’s Bill is a rather precocious creature that could easily be killed, if this is so important and if the Conservative party trusts the people, why can we not have that trust expressed before 2015, rather than waiting until 2017?
Of course, one of the challenges the Bill faces—and it is the reason it is a private Member’s Bill—and the reality of the parliamentary dynamic that the hon. Lady observes exists, is that the Government include not just Conservative Members, but Liberal Democrats, who have gone back on their manifesto pledge, do not want to support it and, sadly, despite my best efforts to persuade them, will not yet give it Government time.
My hon. Friend has a consistent and principled track record on this matter that I am sure this House recognises and appreciates. He makes a helpful contribution that reminds us of the historical reality within which we are operating. Over the years, many Members have warned us about what was happening in the European Union, yet those warnings have not always been heeded.
This Bill is about making good the central promise of our democracy: that we are the servants of the people and not their masters. We want to give the people a voice. I was born in Stockton-on-Tees, a town that I am now proud to represent in this place. I am also proud to be presenting this Bill, which will give not just the people of Stockton but the people of the United Kingdom—[Interruption.]
Order. Mr Wharton is developing his argument, and I think it is very clear to Wayne David that he is not currently giving way.
I am proud to represent the people of Stockton in this matter, but also the people of this country as a whole. It is about time we gave those millions of British people who want a say the chance to do so—from Stockton and beyond. This Bill would legislate for that and give them confidence that they will get their say and that it will be at the right time and in the right way. We have a chance to give the British people a voice through this Bill, and I commend it to the House.
Let me begin by congratulating James Wharton on achieving first place in the ballot and on introducing this Bill.
Any judgment about an in-out referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union has to be based on what is in the national interest. We do not believe that an in-out referendum in 2017, as anticipated in the hon. Gentleman’s Bill, is in the national interest. The Bill reflects an arbitrary date unrelated to the likely timetable of major treaty change, it represents an unrealistic and uncertain negotiating strategy, and it is brought forward by a party divided between those seeking consent and those seeking exit.
I will give way in a moment or two, but let me make a little progress.
Only this week, the hon. Gentleman faced criticism from none other than one of his own Conservative councillors, who called it
“a cynical, pointless stunt, nothing more”.
The Conservative councillor for Yarm and Kirklevington went on to say:
“I think it should have been something to get the economy moving or to speed up help to get women into work.”
I could not have put it better myself.
Surely the right hon. Gentleman and his party must accept some responsibility for this uncertainty. In 2012 they cheated the British public with a tidying-up exercise on the Lisbon treaty, and now, again, there has been a broken contract with the British public. This Bill is a full contract with the British public that they have confidence in. I hope that he would at least go back and establish a bit of trust with the public on this matter.
Let me keep going and make a little progress.
Let us get to the nub of the argument advanced by the hon. Member for Stockton South about why this Bill is before the House today. The Bill is not being debated because Conservative Back Benchers trust the public; it is being debated because Conservative Back Benchers do not trust the Prime Minister. That is the reality.
Can the shadow Foreign Secretary explain why he believes that a Scottish independence referendum is not in the national interest but voted for the Bill to allow it to happen, yet believes that this Bill is not in the national interest and will not vote for it to become law? Where is the consistency there? He is saying that it is good enough for the people of Scotland to have a referendum but not good enough for the rest of the country.
Let me try to help the hon. Gentleman with his understanding of devolution and, indeed, democracy. The last time I checked, there was an election in Scotland in 2010 that resulted in the Scottish National party, which had committed to a referendum in its manifesto, securing a majority in the Scottish Parliament. By contrast, not one of the principal political parties that stood at the last general election in the United Kingdom and secured representation in this House advanced what is proposed in this Bill. There is a fundamental difference because a majority was secured in the Scottish Parliament.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give this House an absolute assurance on behalf of the Labour party that it will not change its mind about opposing a referendum for the British people before the next election?
We have maintained our position that any judgment in relation to an in-out referendum has to be based on the national interest. Our judgment is that the national interest is not served by this Bill, and that is why we do not support it. If there is a leader of a political party who has changed his position on a referendum, I think I am looking at him right now.
I am keen to make a little progress, and then I will happily take further interventions.
I just mentioned the Prime Minister, so let us remember how far he has travelled. This is what he said at the Conservative party conference when he became leader:
“For too long, we were having a different conversation. Instead of talking about the things that most people care about, we talked about what we cared about most. While parents worried about childcare, getting the kids to school, balancing work and family life—we were banging on about Europe.”
Three years into government, this is a Conservative party still banging on about Europe—a party talking to itself and not to the country.
Can the right hon. Gentleman give the House an indication of what a Labour Government would do, were this country to have the misfortune of him and his colleagues assuming power in 2015, if this Bill becomes law, which the British people want, and many of his hon. Friends want, as well as us? Will he undertake that they will not seek to repeal legislation passed today?
Many people who have advocated the position taken in this Bill have argued in the past that, given the sovereignty of Westminster, no Parliament can bind its successor. There are a number of stages of scrutiny that the Bill needs to go through, so it is a little presumptuous to presume that it will reach the statute book today.
Let me try to make a little progress.
For many years, Conservatives have argued for national Parliaments to have a greater say in European affairs, yet since 1997 all previous Bills that legislated for referendums that actually took place have had their stages debated on the Floor of the House, including a Committee of the whole House. Instead of that, with this private Member’s Bill the Conservatives are apparently planning to try to cut short the time that we have to debate it. It seems that the Government are willing to let it progress without going through these vital stages.
That should be a matter of regret for all Members who continually assert the importance and sovereignty of Westminster.
The right hon. Gentleman says that he does not want a referendum in 2017. When does he want a referendum? Why did his party support a referendum on a monkey in Hartlepool but will not support a referendum for the British people on the European Union?
I had better try to make a little progress.
No doubt when the Foreign Secretary gets to his feet in a few moments’ time he will make a characteristically witty and engaging speech; there is certainly material available to him. However, we all know that he has been drawn into supporting this Bill out of weakness, not strength. In November 2011, he argued that committing then to an in-out referendum would put the economy at risk, undermine jobs and growth, and compromise vital British interests. This is what he said on that occasion—
I think it is important that hon. Gentlemen listen so that they understand where their Front Benchers were then and so that we might understand where they have ended up.
“a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, especially at this time of profound economic uncertainty, is not the answer.”
At that time, he also said at the Dispatch Box:
“The deficits of recent years, and the slowness of growth in all western economies, make this a difficult and uncertain time for many individuals and firms. The eurozone is clearly in crisis, and to pile on that uncertainty the further uncertainty of a referendum on leaving the European Union, when half the foreign direct investment into Britain comes from the rest of the European Union, and half our exports go out to the rest of the European Union, would not be a responsible action for Her Majesty’s Government to take.”
Further to that, does my right hon. Friend agree that, although many Conservative Back Benchers say they support the Prime Minister, in reality they do not want renegotiation; they want us to get out?
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. The difficulty for the Prime Minister was that his attempt to secure brittle unity in his January speech was achieved only through the device of obscurity. We have heard it again today in relation to employment and social rights. We have all read the Beecroft report and know that the real agenda is to bring powers home to take rights away, but the Prime Minister could not even find it in himself to talk about unemployment and social rights in his speech at the end of January. The fact is that he knows and understands that the gap between what his Back Benchers want and what Europe could possibly countenance remains achingly wide.
Let me return to the Foreign Secretary, who back in November went on to say 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.”
That last point seemed to pass the Prime Minister by when he made his point in County Fermanagh 10 days ago. The Foreign Secretary went on to say:
“It would mean that as we advocate closer trading links between the EU and the countries of north Africa as they emerge from their revolutions, helping to solidify tremendous potential advances in human freedom and prosperity, we would stand back from that. That is not the right way to respond to this dramatic year of uncertainty and change.”—[Hansard, 24 October 2011; Vol. 534, c. 55.]
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. In answer to my hon. Friend Robert Halfon, he actually clarified Labour’s position a little. If I heard him correctly, he said that his view was that if there was a substantial change in the relationship, the law provided for a referendum. Will he therefore confirm that if there were a Labour Government and there were no substantial change to the relationship, there would not be a referendum on our membership of the European Union?
I was simply making the straightforward point that, given the terms of the sovereignty clause, there is no objection in principle to referendums, because we are mandated—indeed, it is the law of the land—in such a way that if there is a transfer of sovereignty a referendum will take place.
“European markets account for half of the UK’s overall trade and foreign investments and as a result, around 3.5 million jobs in the UK are linked to the export of goods and services to the EU.”—[Hansard, 12 July 2011; Vol. 531, c. 256W.]
When I asked the Foreign Office the same question last week, it decided to pass it to the Treasury—I see that the Chancellor has left his place on the Front Bench—which came back with the intriguing reply that the Government have made no estimate. Well, there we are—that’s leadership for you.
What is to be made of that answer? The Government have gone from such a positive estimate just 11 months ago to being unable to give any estimate of the economic benefits of Europe today. One would almost think that they are frightened of facts, because facts are intolerable to their own Back Benchers.
Incidentally, I have a further point for the Foreign Secretary to consider when he makes his speech. Do he and the Prime Minister agree with their Cabinet colleague the Secretary of State for Education, who is also not in his place on the Front Bench but who said the following—this is a direct quote—about our membership of the European Union:
“Life outside would be perfectly tolerable, we could contemplate it, there would be certain advantages.”
Is that the view of the Government? Perhaps that is the answer being passed to the Foreign Secretary.
Then, as now, our judgment is that the priority must be to deliver stability, jobs and growth for the British economy. In fact, the irony is that even the Bill’s proposer has himself acknowledged that Parliament should be focusing on more important things. In a press conference on
“I think the reality is that we need to be seen to be talking about the things that matter to people in places like Stockton South that I represent on Teesside, which is the cost of living, immigration, jobs, the economy, things that we need to get right to improve people's lives.”
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way. There has been a lot of talk this morning about the national interest. I have been listening to the director general of the CBI, who has said that the most important thing in the British national interest is to bang the drum for Britain’s interests in Europe. Does my right hon. Friend think it would be easier to hear that drum if we were in the room fighting for British interests or if we ran away after shutting the door, as some in the Government seem to want to do?
I find myself in agreement with my hon. Friend. It is not simply the head of the CBI who is saying that. Some of the most distinguished leaders of British business, including Richard Branson, WPP and a range of others, wrote to the Financial Times in January in response to the Prime Minister’s speech. They made very clear their deep concern about the reality of the negotiating strategy, which the Prime Minister cannot even be explicit about with his own Back Benchers, because if he is explicit on this side of the channel it is deemed unacceptable on the other side of the channel.
My right hon. Friend has paid tribute to the impeccable oratorical skills of the Foreign Secretary and I agree with him on that, but is he looking forward, as I am, to hearing him argue his way out of the impeccable logic he has displayed in the past—his quotations apply as much today as they did back then—not least when 3.5 million jobs in the UK are dependent on our membership of the EU? I look forward to hearing the Foreign Secretary deploy his impeccable rhetorical skills to explain how black is now white.
I think we are all looking forward to that, but let us stick to the theme of the economy. Since November 2011, when the Foreign Office was at least willing to answer my question about the economic benefits—it now seems to have lost its nerve in the face of Tory intransigence—the number of people claiming jobseeker’s allowance for two years has increased by a staggering 173%. In the past six months alone, there has been zero growth in the economy. Since the Chancellor’s first spending review of 2010, the UK economy has grown by just 1%, compared with the 6% forecast at the time and the growth of nearly 3% in Germany and nearly 5% in the United States. Today almost 1 million young people are unable to find work and long-term unemployment is up by more than 100,000 since the last general election. This is the slowest economic recovery in the United Kingdom for more than 100 years. That is the reality of what people are talking about in constituencies the length and breadth of the country.
None of us doubts that Europe needs substantive change or that there needs to be reform; the tragedy for the United Kingdom is that the intransigence of the Conservative Back Benchers behind the Prime Minister means that he cannot address those needs in a sensible, straightforward manner. He did not wake up in January with a sudden democratic impulse that had somehow eluded him in the preceding years. He is being driven by weakness, not strength. This is about external electoral threats and internal leadership threats. This is not about trusting the people; it is about these Back Benchers not trusting the Prime Minister.
I will not give way, because I want to make progress. The Conservative approach to Europe undermines the prospects for growth, because, as my hon. Friend has just made clear, it creates unnecessary uncertainty that could undermine investment, because it risks Britain sleepwalking to the exit of the European Union precisely when the economic benefits of membership are most needed, given the stagnating economy. At least we have the courage to acknowledge that membership of the European Union is vital to the economy of the United Kingdom, not least because of the benefits of free trade and integration in the world’s largest trading bloc.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. He is a reasonable fellow, but what he does not seem to grasp is the fact that this debate—this issue—is about the principle of a referendum, not the relative merits of in or out. He also seems to fail to understand that this is about trust between politicians in general and the British electorate, given that too many promises have been broken in the past, including Labour’s promise of a referendum when it came to the EU constitution and Lisbon. Why will the Labour party not trust the people on this issue?
Why does the Conservative party not trust the Conservative Prime Minister? When will it release the Downing Street One? That is the question. He is sitting on the Front Bench like a hostage, not a leader.
Let me address the hon. Gentleman’s point. He was generous enough to describe me as a reasonable fellow and I return the compliment. As a reasonable fellow, he will be keen to defend and protect the jobs of his many constituents who work at places like Ford’s Dunton technical centre. I am sure that he is concerned for those jobs. Perhaps when he has the opportunity to speak he will explain to them why the European chief executive of Ford has said:
“All countries should have their sovereignty, but don’t discuss leaving a trading partner where 50pc of your exports go… That would be devastating for the UK economy.”
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman’s constituents will be very interested in that.
I am keen to make a little progress.
I believe that the case for membership of the European Union is clear and, as I have acknowledged, that the case for change is clear. That is why reform and not exit is the right road for the UK.
I am keen to make a little progress. I have been generous in taking interventions.
In the face of such a severe economic crisis, Europe needs to be better focused on promoting growth across the continent. That is the priority for national Governments and that should be reflected at a European level. There is of course pressing work to be done, on which I hope there is cross-party agreement, such as the completion of the single market and its extension into digital, energy and finance. The rescue of the currency, protections for the single market and the revival of the prospects for growth should be Europe’s priorities for change.
On so many issues that matter—jobs, growth, trade and security in central Europe and the middle east—the EU remains an indispensable force multiplier for all its members. That includes the United Kingdom. Our membership gives us access to the single market, a stronger voice on international trade and amplified influence on international diplomacy. That is why, when today’s spectacle of a Tory party talking to itself is long forgotten, we will continue to make the case for Britain’s place in Europe and for change in Europe.
It is kind of Opposition Members to look forward to my speech. After the speech of the shadow Foreign Secretary, that is not altogether surprising. Rarely in this House—[Hon. Members: “More!”] Rarely in this House has a speech accusing others of causing uncertainty been so totally shrouded in uncertainty itself.
After the right hon. Gentleman’s speech, he has still not said whether the Opposition will vote for or against or abstain on Second Reading. He has managed to speak for half an hour without even saying what their position is on the Second Reading of the Bill—a feat almost unknown in this House and in all the Second Reading debates that I have attended in the past 24 years.
The parliamentary Labour party briefing, of which I have helpfully obtained a copy—they are left all over the building in surprising places—states:
“This is a Conservative Party Bill…which we are opposed to.”
If the Opposition are opposed to it, presumably they are going to vote against it. The shadow Foreign Secretary is not able to answer that question. Not only does he not know what his policy is; he does not even know whether he is going to vote against something that he is opposed to.
Opposition Members are asking when the Prime Minister will leave, but the Leader of the Opposition is not even here. He is presumably sitting somewhere, wondering whether his instructions will come in a phone call from Unite or from divine inspiration through the ether. There is no other way in which he is able to decide on the Bill.
I will make a bit of progress before giving way.
My hon. Friend James Wharton is to be applauded for introducing the Bill and for his excellent speech. Huge numbers of people across the 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.
I will give way in a moment.
At a time of profound change in Europe, this Bill would 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 hon. Friends in the Liberal Democrat party, 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. It met complete indecision from the Opposition, who resolutely and bravely abstained. However, support for it is now their official policy. Two years later, 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 and we look forward to their adopting this policy in due course. Perhaps Mr Reed will clarify that point.
Opposition Members will have to do better than that. The policy of the Government, which was set out in detail in the speech made by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, is to achieve a reformed European Union and a better settlement with it. We do not agree with the status quo and we want to be able to campaign for Britain to stay in a reformed European Union.
For the avoidance of doubt, I would vote to leave the European Union. The Foreign Secretary said that he was not speaking for both parts of the coalition. Is he sure about that? Surely he recalls how, in the last Parliament, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, the Deputy Prime Minister, marched his MPs out of this Chamber when they were denied the opportunity to move an amendment to have an in/out referendum. My right hon. Friend cannot be telling us the exact truth when he says that he is not speaking for both parts of the coalition. Perhaps he will clarify that, because I thought he was speaking very much for the Liberal Democrats as well.
When my hon. Friend said that he would vote to withdraw from the European Union, he was not avoiding doubt—I do not think we were in any doubt about that at the beginning. He makes a fair point about our hon. Friends the Liberal Democrats. I will helpfully explain my view on their position during my remarks.
On the subject of democracy, despite the resolute irresolution of Her Majesty’s official Opposition, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is important for democracy that Members have a chance to record their support for the Bill in a Division? If a Division is not called, there are strong supporters of the Bill—myself and my hon. Friend Geoffrey Clifton-Brown—who stand ready to enable such a Division, to ensure that right hon. and hon. Members may show their support for the Bill.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. That may well be necessary given that Opposition Members, despite being opposed to the Bill, have not decided how they will vote. They have a few hours to decide.
I will get through a few more paragraphs, but then I will give way to the right hon. Lady.
I do not need to remind the House that it is almost 40 years since the British people last had a vote on what was then the European Economic Community. Since then, there have been major treaties—four in the last quarter of a century—all of which would have required a referendum had the 2011 Act been in force at the time. Through those treaties, the EEC has become the European Community and now the European Union, and not once has there been a referendum on any of it. Some of us campaigned for referendums on the treaties of Amsterdam, Nice and Lisbon. Everyone can concede of Maastricht, Amsterdam and Nice that the party in government had said that it would ratify them in the general election campaign.
The Lisbon treaty is in a special category, in that there was no mandate in a general election or a referendum from the people of this country. Persisting with the Lisbon treaty with no mandate from either a general election or a referendum—[Interruption.] Ian Lucas asks where I was when Maastricht took place. Is he not aware that there was a general election in 1992? There was no mandate for the Lisbon treaty from a general election or a referendum, and the Labour party deeply undermined the democratic legitimacy of the European Union when it took that decision.
The Prime Minister and I are in exactly the same position. Of course we will vote to stay in a successfully reformed European Union. Now perhaps the right hon. Lady will tell us how she will vote on this Bill—[Interruption.] No, Opposition Members still do not know how they will vote on this Bill.
When Ministers from other countries ask me why public opinion here is disillusioned with the European Union, I point out that there have been referendums on the EU in France, Denmark, the Netherlands, Spain, Luxembourg, Sweden and Ireland—often twice, of course, in Ireland—yet there has been no referendum for more than a generation in the United Kingdom. The efforts of those who wanted to build European integration without bringing the people with them have been utterly self-defeating. The EU now lacks democratic legitimacy because so many of those most enthusiastic about ever-closer union have been afraid of asking what the British people might think of it.
My right hon. Friend is completely right in what he just said. Furthermore, with respect to Maastricht, how far the Conservative party has come! The other day my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister actually stated that he believed there should have been a referendum on Maastricht—and he was right.
I will not give way for a moment, but I will later on.
No institution can survive without the people’s support, and the EU that will emerge from the eurozone crisis may look very different from the EU before the crisis. Every country in the EU will have to make potentially fundamental choices about their place in Europe as a result, and the future shape of Europe for decades will be determined by those choices. But whatever the outcome of the crisis, 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’s recent report stated,
“the time of ‘ever closer union’ in every possible…area is behind us”.
They are right.
Our policy is therefore 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 indispensible vessels of democracy—can have a more powerful role and then put the decision in the hands of the British people, as this Bill would do.
I think I would get into trouble if I used our powers for that particular purpose, but we will no doubt discover in due course where the Leader of the Opposition is today. We hope he is thinking hard about what Labour’s policy will be.
I am extremely grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, who, as Foreign Secretary and previously, has played a distinguished part in supporting EU expansion in eastern and central Europe. Given his reference to national Parliaments, will he tell the House what sort of message he thinks it sends to countries that have recently acceded to the EU that he is orchestrating a cynical attempt to bring us out?
I think the Bill sends the message that we are a robust democracy too. We welcomed Croatia into the European Union, and it had a referendum about whether to join. Therefore, it does not find discussion about referendums in other parts of the European Union surprising. That is why every Member of the House who is a true democrat can and should unite behind the Bill. It is about letting the people decide.
Those who like the EU just as it is—not me, but evidently some Labour Members—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 the 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 hon. Friend the Prime Minister said that
“in 2015” we
“will ask for a mandate from the British people…to negotiate a new settlement with our European partners in the next Parliament.”
The Conservative party is ready to trust the voters with this Bill, and we are happy that the Democratic Unionist party is of the same mind. The Scottish National party is not here but it is content with a referendum next year, which means that the people of Scotland will vote twice on whether to leave the European Union. It is completely open to Members of other parties to support this Bill. Liberal Democrats can support this Bill. They are democrats and I remind my hon. Friends in the other part of the coalition of their last election manifesto, which stated:
“The European Union has evolved significantly since the last public vote on membership over thirty years ago. Liberal Democrats therefore remain committed to an in/out referendum the next time a British Government signs up for a fundamental change in the relationship between the UK and the EU.”
The right hon. Gentleman is a fine Foreign Secretary and he bangs on about Europe very eloquently indeed. He will recall that at the time of the Lisbon treaty, the Liberal Democrats voted for an in/out referendum, not in four years’ time, the next Parliament or at some point in the future, but then and there. Will the right hon. Gentleman remind me whether we were supported by a single Conservative MP at that time?
My hon. Friend must remember that had our Liberal Democrat colleagues voted with us for a referendum on the Lisbon treaty, there would have been a referendum in 2008. Some Labour Members support a referendum. We have heard from some of them already, and this Bill is their chance; it is the best chance currently available to make it happen. Not only would it be a badge of honour for them, but it would help show their weak leadership some real leadership that is sorely needed.
This is not the first time that the question of whether to consult the people has caused unmitigated dither, muddle and confusion in the Labour leadership. When the previous Prime Minister, Mr Brown, was trying to decide whether to call a general election in 2007, he asked the current Leader of the Opposition, the current shadow Foreign Secretary and the current shadow Chancellor, resulting in the decision taking so long that they never made a decision at all and never held a general election. The impulse to trust the people is not exactly their hallmark.
“I think at some point there will have to be a referendum on the EU. I don’t think it’s for today or for the next year, but I think it should happen…My preference would be an in-or-out referendum when the time comes.”
In January, the Leader of the Opposition told the House,
“we do not want an in/out referendum”—[Hansard, 23 January 2013; Vol. 557, c. 305.]
The shadow Foreign Secretary said that Labour will not commit to an in/out referendum now, but might do later—apparently that is the way to avoid uncertainty.
The shadow Chancellor said:
“I don’t think we should set our face against a referendum and I certainly don’t think we can ever afford to give the impression that we know better than the voting public”— although that was never a problem for him when squandering tens of billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money. Will Labour make up its mind or not? Its chief strategist, the noble Lord Wood, said the week before last on whether Labour would offer a referendum:
“It’s conceivable because we are going to make up our minds before the next election.”
Last week, the shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury said, “No, no, no. There’s no change of policy and there’s no prospect of a change of policy”.
With some in favour, some against, some adamantly in favour of not having a referendum, some adamantly for deciding later, at some point, perhaps before the general election but who knows?—with such a shambles of confusion and weak leadership, no wonder Labour Members are wondering what they are here for and where their leader is today. One day Unite will give them their orders on how to vote on these matters.
The Leader of the Opposition and his closest friends are being asked to make a decision—to vote one way or another and be held accountable for it. The position of the Labour party on this vital national and international issue is that Labour Members would rather not be asked and they would rather not be here.
As the Foreign Secretary knows, I am with him on the idea of a referendum, but would he help me with this? As someone who has attended many, many summits over the 24 years that he has been in Parliament—as a Minister, of course, he has attended many summits—does he think the Prime Minister will have the time and space between 2015, if he is re-elected as Prime Minister, and 2017 to go around the whole of Europe to get the concessions he needs in order to secure reform of the EU?
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is tirelessly—now, in this Parliament, never mind in the next Parliament—going around Europe making sure this country gets what it needs. The Opposition do not have a policy to reform the EU, but we do and he is pursuing it. Labour never cut the EU budget, but he already has. Labour signed Britain up to eurozone bailouts and he has got us out of them. Labour surrendered part of the rebate and he has never surrendered part of the rebate, so the right hon. Gentleman can rest assured that my right hon. Friend will be well equipped to go round Europe preserving our national interest.
I agree with my hon. Friend. The note circulated by Labour Whips—which has also come into my possession—said:
“We will be looking for suitable speakers so that the chamber is not completely empty”.
They need not have worried that the Chamber would be empty, because there are hundreds of us here, determined that the people will have their say.
I believe it would be right for the House to support this Bill today. It is the right Bill, at the right time, to give the British people their democratic right to have their say on this country’s future. We will do everything we can to make sure it becomes the law of the land, so that the people can decide, and in the next Parliament, the Prime Minister is determined that we will deliver on this commitment—a democratic commitment in a robustly democratic country.
I trust I will be judged a suitable speaker to make sure the Chamber is not completely empty.
I am delighted to speak in this debate, which has so far lived up to expectations. I would not have missed it for the world, because it must be one of the oddest debates ever held in this Chamber on a private Member’s Bill Friday. It is odd because of the politics of the occasion. I do not think there has been a private Member’s Bill Friday in the time that I have been in this House when the Prime Minister has been forced by his Back Benchers to come here to jump to their tune. Normally, Prime Ministers hold a sort of lofty disdain for private Members’ Bills, but our Prime Minister, in the eyes of Europe, has been humiliated here today by his own Back Benchers. That is one oddity about today. The second oddity is the reason the Bill is here at all, which I shall come to, and the third oddity is what is in it.
As I will explain to the hon. Gentleman and the House, the reason for that is that this is a Bill about the private problems and the private political difficulties of the Conservative party, so it is not surprising that so many Conservative Members are here today. These matters do not really affect the rest of us very much, except for—I will come to this—the damage that is being done by the antics within the Conservative party to the interests of this country.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about the oddities of today’s Bill, and there are certainly some oddities in today’s proceedings. The greatest one I have heard so far is the shadow Foreign Secretary asking the Foreign Secretary how he will vote in a referendum in four years’ time, when the shadow Foreign Secretary cannot answer how he will vote on this Bill in less than four hours’ time.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The right hon. Gentleman has said that he will not be here. I wonder whether you could give some guidance on how long Members should remain in their places at the conclusion of a debate to hear the winding-up speeches.
Mr Rees-Mogg, I think you know the answer to that. Members are required to hear the speech before them and two after. We are on a private Member’s Bill today, not a Government Bill, and the Front Benchers have already spoken.
I am not one of those who have been accused of abusing the courtesies of this House, but there is no requirement in the courtesies of this House to vote on a motion that is ridiculous, so I will not be voting on it.
There was a time, not so long ago, when private Members’ Bills were used for matters of great social reform, such as homosexual law reform and gay marriage. Issues of great constitutional importance were seen as the responsibilities of the Government. That may have changed. Gay marriage is an important social reform, so perhaps making it a Government proposal is progress—the Government’s gay marriage proposals certainly had many Government Members beside themselves. However, constitutional reforms, such as the Great Reform Act, the devolution referendum and the initial referendum on the European Union, which were the responsibilities of Government, have now been devolved by this weak and hopeless Prime Minister to private Members’ business. That is one great oddity.
No, I will make a little more progress.
Why has this situation come about? Why has supposedly the most powerful politician in the land come begging his MPs to support a private Member’s Bill? The Prime Minister’s position on the issue seems clear enough. He made a speech in January in which he said that after the next election, if there is a Conservative Government, he would aim to renegotiate our relationship with the EU, with an in/out referendum by 2017, come what may in those negotiations. That might not be wise—there is absolutely no guarantee of any negotiations being clear by 2017—but it is certainly a clear position, and it came from the Prime Minister.
Why was that not good enough for the Conservative Members who have turned up today? Of course, many of them just want to leave the EU. They do not care when, as long as it is as soon as possible, and they do not trust their own Prime Minister. As soon as the Queen’s Speech was published, they were after him. Mr Baron was first off the mark, moving an amendment regretting the failure to mention a referendum Bill in the Queen’s Speech. He was very clear why one was needed. He wrote in The Daily Telegraph:
“The Prime Minister made a historic pledge to the British people during his January speech,” but
“where the Prime Minister’s pledge falls down is its believability.”
Let me repeat that:
“where the Prime Minister’s pledge falls down”— this “historic pledge”, let us remember—
“is its believability.”
What an extraordinary statement! The reason we are here today is because the majority of Tory MPs do not believe that a historic pledge made by their own leader is believed by the British people. That is the only reason we are here, and that is why the Prime Minister is humiliated by these proceedings today.
I am afraid the right hon. Gentleman quotes very selectively from that piece. Having written it, I will correct him for the record. What I went on to say was that the issue was believability, not because there is an issue between the Prime Minister and his Back Benchers, but because the issue has been between politicians in general and the electorate, because far too many promises in the past have been broken, particularly by the Labour party and the Liberals, at every single general election. If the right hon. Gentleman is going to quote me, he should please do it correctly.
I quoted absolutely verbatim from the hon. Gentleman’s article. Let me respond to his further point. I would expect a Conservative MP to say, “You can’t really believe what Labour MPs say” and I would expect Labour MPs to say, “You can’t really believe what Conservative MPs say.” That is what we do here in this House. It probably does not do us much good with the general public, but that is what we do—we throw these things about. What I do not expect is a Conservative MP to say, “You can’t believe a Conservative Prime Minister,” and that is what the hon. Gentleman did. The Bill has arisen from the decision of Conservative Back Benchers—
It is a point of order Madam Deputy Speaker—or I hope it is. I seek your guidance. I have been misquoted by the right hon. Gentleman. [Interruption.] I promise the House that I have been directly misquoted. [Interruption.] I wrote the piece, so I seek your advice, Madam Deputy Speaker, on how one can correct the misquoting by the right hon. Gentleman.
The issue is a matter for debate, as the hon. Gentleman knows. I believe his name is down to be called in this debate and he will have ample opportunity at that point if he feels that the record needs to be corrected. I think he is experienced enough to know that these matters tend to be a point of debate rather than a point of order.
The first point is that this is really a private matter for the Conservative party. Whether they believe that their Prime Minister is trustworthy or believable is primarily a matter for them, not for the rest of us. If they wish to humiliate their party leader, that is up to them. I do not intend to participate in the vote later today.
We know what happened. The humiliated Prime Minister was forced to let the Tory party publish a referendum Bill, and James Wharton was unfortunate enough, from his point of view, to come top of the ballot. He might have made his name by trying to improve the lot of carers, improve animal welfare or tighten gas safety, or by engaging with the traditional territories of private Members’ Bills, but instead he has introduced this Bill. I do not blame him for it, but the Bill is about the Tory party and not the national interest.
No, I am going to make a little more progress and then I will take another intervention.
The aim seemed clear enough: to put the Prime Minister’s promise on to a statutory basis. We know what the promise was: after the next election to have a renegotiation and then to have a referendum by 2017. So imagine my surprise when I read the Bill, because it does not commit to a referendum after the next election. The Bill is very clear: the referendum could happen as soon as the Bill has been passed. It is not about after the next election or after renegotiation—it is any time now. That is very odd, because the Prime Minister is on the record as opposing a referendum Bill now. Why, then, does the Bill, which was introduced by the hon. Member for Stockton South and drafted in Tory party central office, provide for the possibility of a referendum now? The hon. Gentleman gave the game away in an interview, again I am afraid, in
. Discussing possible amendments to the Bill, he said that the most difficult amendment to deal with would be one calling for a referendum before the next election, because
“many MPs would be sympathetic” to such a move.
There we have it: the Bill has been drafted as broadly as it has, because if it accurately reflected the Prime Minister’s January speech and excluded a referendum before the next election, too many Tory MPs would have turned up demanding to amend it for an early vote. Far from showing the unity of the Conservative party, all the Bill has done is show how thin is the veneer of unity that they are trying to present. Again, this is private grief and is no business for the rest of us. Of course, it is entirely pointless, because no Bill of this sort can bind the next Parliament. Either the Conservatives win the next election or they do not—this is a pointless exercise.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman and near parliamentary neighbour for giving way. I think that the people of Winchester and Chandler’s Ford, which are both near to his constituency, are clear that they want a choice on our relationship with Europe. He has called the Bill ridiculous. Will he explain why he is so sure that the people of Southampton, Itchen do not want a say on our future relationship with the EU?
Let me turn to the point I was about to address on how the national interest is served by this discussion. The national interest is the one thing that has been entirely missing from the debate so far. It is a debate about the Conservatives, and that is not the national interest. It is not a debate about the future of our country, our influence in the world or what is best for our children, but what is best for the Conservatives as they run away from the UK Independence party.
The debate is not doing the Tories much good. The January speech intended to lance the boil of UKIP, and some may have noticed that it led immediately to the Conservatives coming third in Eastleigh and losing seats all over the country to UKIP in the council elections. Again, that is private grief and I want to talk about the national interest.
There is no doubt that this whole exercise is driven by the Conservative party’s terror of UKIP.
In answer to Steve Brine—I will come on to the specific point on a referendum in a moment—I want our future to be as a confident part of a reformed European Union. There are people who say that we could be like Switzerland or Norway. They are fine countries, but I do not want to be like them. Clearly, the days of empire and global military might are long gone and rightly so, but I am still sufficiently confident in this country and sufficiently patriotic to believe that we can be a country of influence and leadership in the world. I am not going to join those who just want to scuttle away from the challenges of the world, as Eurosceptics do.
Yes, there is a case for a referendum in principle, and I see that. It is a long time since we had one, and to an extent the demand for it has taken on a life of its own beyond the issue of Europe. However, those of us who can see that case also have a responsibility to be clear about the conditions in which a referendum would serve the national interest. If we are to ask people to vote, the choice has to be clear. We need to know what the effect of saying yes will be, and we need to know what the effect of saying no will be.
The hon. Member for Stockton South and the Foreign Secretary both let the cat out of the bag. The hon. Member for Stockton South said that no one knows what the European Union will be like in 10 years’ time, and the Foreign Secretary said that it may be very different from the way it is today. Both those judgments are true, so how can we have a referendum when the consequences of leaving might be clear enough, but it is not clear what the consequences of staying will be. Clearly, we need to pursue reform and to reshape the EU so there can be a clear and settled choice. I am not one of those—not all of those in my party agree with this, but I do not mind there being a discussion in our party—who rule out a referendum on Europe. However, a referendum should only happen if it is in the national interest and if we can put to the people a clear and settled choice. That has not yet been delivered.
My right hon. Friend is making an important and thoughtful speech, and he is right to embrace the reform agenda. Does he agree that that reform agenda can start now, and that we can only conduct the reform agenda if we are at the top table of Europe? There is nothing to stop Ministers beginning that process immediately.
My right hon. Friend is right. What worries me is that the Prime Minister represents a party in which that generation of confident patriots, who believed that this country could shape Europe to the benefit of Europe and in the interests of our country, has gone. The Conservative party is split. There are those who simply want to leave come what may. They are the people Lewis Carroll satirised 150 years ago when he had the Queen of Hearts say, “Sentence first, evidence later”. They have made up their minds. The other faction of the Conservative party simply believes in repatriation and repeal: returning to the country those rights that give working people decent protections—maternity pay, the right not to be maimed and killed at work, and paid holidays—in order to repeal them. Those are the only two positions that exist in today’s Conservative party. So when my right hon. Friend says that these negotiations should start now, the problem is this: yes, but you must have people who are going to be credible in those negotiations.
We send a Prime Minister who has been forced. He goes to meetings and everyone is laughing behind their hands, because they know that he does not control his own party, and that his strength to negotiate on our behalf is being shot away by the antics of the people behind him, who know that 2017 is an arbitrary date that bears no relationship to any decision-making processes in the EU, but is entirely about trying to head off—unsuccessfully, it has to be said—the threat from UKIP. That is not a way to approach the national interest.
I am not one of those who says, “These are only matters for general elections and that there must never be a point where people have a choice.” But to return to what the hon. Member for Winchester said, if I say, “Let’s have a choice”, my constituents have a right for the choice to be clear—clear about the nature of the European Union they could vote for or the nature of the European Union that they would leave. There is no clarity to that choice today. There is no reason to believe that there will be clarity to that choice on the arbitrary date of 2017.
Order. Before I call the next speaker, it might be helpful if I inform the House that more than 43 Members wish to participate in today’s debate. There will not be a time limit, because there is not in private Members’ business, but it would help if all Members could bear in mind that many of their colleagues wish to speak and, therefore, perhaps, make their speeches just a little shorter, if possible.
I just reflect that, after the last three contributions by Labour Members, I genuinely think that their policy is unsustainable; this will, I am sure, be changed before we get to a general election.
I commend my hon. Friend James Wharton on moving a Bill to give the British people a referendum, and wish him well in this. It is a curious Bill for a private Member’s day, but I give a cheer for that as well, because, on
I also notice that there is a three-line Whip on this Bill; I think it diminishes it. I say that straight away, because I remember that when I tried to reform or failed to reform—I am sorry that this is a catalogue of failed private Member’s Bills—section 2 of the Official Secrets Act in 1988, so aggrieved were the Government, with movements on the Back Benches, upstairs, outrage and all the rest, that this was clearly not a matter for a Back-Bench Member of Parliament, that the then Conservative Government, under someone I respected greatly, put on a three-line Whip, again, against me. There is no paranoia in what I say, just realism.
I will say that, on the private Member’s Bill on the Official Secrets Act, there was a queue in Central Lobby of Conservative Members who had served in the second world war and were what used to be called, unlike me, knights of the shires, going into the Whips Office to tell them that this was a constitutional outrage, that their Fridays were being interrupted and that this was exclusively a space of time left for the consideration of Bills by private Members, and to bring forward Bills of great importance, as we all think of our own initiatives.
I wish my hon. Friend well and I shall most certainly vote for this Bill, because there would be a slight inconsistency if I did not—although that has never been a difficulty for most politicians in the past.
I am most interested in what the hon. Gentleman is saying. He is right about three-line Whips. We Labour Members have not been three-line whipped. I have come here of my own volition. Are his colleagues being three-line whipped to attend or to vote for the Bill?
I assure the hon. Gentleman that I am not the progenitor of the Whip, but I respect my wonderful party, which at last has found a voice to express those they represent. I think that the Labour Front Bench is in genuine difficulties over this matter, because it is a rejection of a movement and feeling that is now effective in the country. This has been too long coming: an unconscionable period of time. I made a famous prediction, which I regret to say did not come about, with the experience and arrogance of youth, and in a television studio in Birmingham announced that this common market racket would be over in 10 years. That is, of course, now 32 years ago.
I learned from that the tenacity with which a particular class of those who lead us have sought to control this issue. There is no defence of conversation within a nation, or anything. All the way through this, an elite in our political parties, which rises to the top, forms judgments and changes its judgments. Peter Shore wrote perhaps the most balanced speech, titled “A thousand years of British history”, when we knew nothing, rather like the other day in the Commons, about what the Government’s intentions were in joining. That speech asks a series of questions. We know nothing about this. We wonder. We have to wait. The Conservatives also knew nothing about it and did not have to wait. So in the end they were great supporters of our joining what was called the common market. The Library—
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is a huge paradox in hon. and right hon. Members arguing against this Bill on the basis of the national interest, because the national interest cannot be determined by the nation while we are in the European Union under its current constitution?
I love the question. Years ago, when I was a very young Member, the BBC kindly asked me—I had been disobliging over official secrets, or whatever it was—whether I would do an essay and a short broadcast for it on the national interest. University being not so far away, I filled rooms with books. What came out on the national interest was that whoever has a majority in this Chamber is the national interest. We will debate it until the end of time, but in the end it is resolved by a vote here, ultimately.
I am more cautious about this grand expression of the national interest. I have the clearest view of what the national interest is: we should have immediately, as soon as possible, a vote on continued membership of the European Union. I would affirm that that is in the national interest. When I hear people casually throwing around questions about what is the national interest, my own truthful observation is that it is, as Madam Deputy Speaker would say, debatable. That is what I see as the national interest.
I want to say of my gyrations through my private Member’s Bills, and this matter, that this is about the most profound question that this House faces. It is not a narrow question of whether the country is interested in dogs, or this and that; the country is indeed interested in all those things. This touches on a living democracy.
The opponents of these measures never understand that this is an ancient collection of islands, an archipelago, in whose history, and in the lines of whose history, lies the very story of liberty and freedom, whether in Scotland or England, with our own Magna Carta. We forget that. This was the integrity.
During my unsuccessful speech in the past, there was a magnificent contribution by a Labour MP; it was Peter Shore. Some will remember him; he was a considerable figure in his own right. He made a contribution to the debate on my Bill, saying that I had
“managed, in a few words, to address two major points, the first of which is the role of the referendum, which offers one of the few possibilities to remedy a fundamental weakness in our constitution. We have no written constitution and no procedures to protect and entrench features of our national and constitutional life. Everything can be changed by a simple majority. Many other countries, as we know, have quite elaborate procedures requiring a majority of two thirds for changes in constitutional matters and arrangements, often backed up with public referendums.”
“We have no such defence. Indeed, previously we did not need them, because only this generation of British parliamentary representatives has contemplated handing to others the great prizes of national independence, self-government and the rule of law under our own elected representatives. It would not have occurred to a previous generation to hand to others that which we prize most greatly and have given to other countries throughout the world in the past 50 years. That is the novelty of the proposition, against which, because we did not think it conceivable, we have no defences. A referendum is a major constitutional device for defending the rights of the British people and our constitution.”—[Hansard, 21 February 1992; Vol. 579, c. 590.]
That is what is at the heart of this matter; that is the question we always have to answer; that is what it is about. Why should we hand over our self-government, which we prize, to others? This is not a criticism of other nations’ wishes to do what they want; it is about our ability to judge for ourselves what is most appropriate. This is not a repudiation of our friendships and our commitments to our allies.
Not at the moment, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me.
This is about not consigning to others the making of laws and treaties for ourselves; this is about ourselves. This vote, what we decide and what people in the future decide will determine the character and strength of our national constitutional history, which is being threatened. Why should we defer in such an adventure, when this is the most remarkable and ancient of all the democratic communities within western Europe? Why?
We have had a generation of politicians who have acceded and conceded. As we know, nothing was yielded over Maastricht. I therefore wish the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary well—God knows where they are in their travels—as they look at competences and all the rest of it. I believe that a referendum is inevitable for the British people, and I believe that what the Labour party decides on this matter is also important to the British people. Labour Members, like Conservative Members, have changed their mind a number of times on this issue. I profoundly believe, as I think all Members do if they reflect on our purpose here, that there should be a change in the law. When change come from Europe, it comes from an authority greater than that of this Chamber because of the cravenness of a generation of British politicians who did not think that they could govern their own land or believe in their own country. The people must be able to make a judgment. Let the people speak.
I find myself agreeing completely with what I believe to be the three motivating thrusts of those who have brought forward the proposal we are discussing today. The first is the clear need for renegotiation of the terms of Britain’s relationship with the European Union; the second is the need for a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU on renegotiated terms; and the third is the question of whether we trust the British Government. I find myself agreeing with Conservative Back Benchers that the Government cannot be trusted, so it is necessary to put things down in legislation in order to allow them no wriggle-room whatever.
I remember being one of those Members who voted with the Foreign Secretary on the question of a referendum at the time of Lisbon. I remember the Conservatives saying that when they got to power, they would have a referendum on the Lisbon treaty, yet no referendum on Lisbon did they hold. I think that in those circumstances words are not sufficient so legislation is necessary.
I was not quite sure whether the Foreign Secretary was going to seek to intervene on the hon. Gentleman. May I remind him that what the Conservative Front-Bench team said in opposition was that they would hold a referendum in the event that the Lisbon treaty had not been ratified by the time we came into office? That is why my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary went round a number of European capitals, urging them “Please, do not ratify”—unlike what the United Kingdom had done—so that when we came to power we would be able to veto it and have a referendum for the British people. It is that misunderstanding that is so important. This was not a categorical undertaking for a referendum; it would happen only in certain defined circumstances.
It sounds like a get-out to me. The clear impression created was that the Conservatives were against the Lisbon treaty and that a referendum would be held. When they got into power, was a referendum held? No, it was not. That is what people will remember. That is what the people out there remember; they remember that the Conservative party could not be trusted to abide by its promise to have a referendum on Lisbon. That is why I support the proposals before us today.
A small group of us here have shared these debates. For the benefit of those who did not, Governments have found ways to get out of having to comply with their promises once they are in government —and with the Tories it was about when to ratify. With the Lib Dems, they got out of having a referendum on the Lisbon treaty by suddenly wanting an in/out referendum —and now that they can have that, they want something else. The real lesson is: once in government, people do not allow referendums; in opposition, they are much more likely to promise them.
Well, the Whips have been to see me and they deployed the ultimate threat. They said, “If you think of voting for this, we will send round Len McClusky.” I said, “I know Len McClusky. Len McClusky is a friend of mine. I had Len McClusky’s support in the last general election. I had the support not only of Len McClusky but of the GMB, Unison, UCATT and the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen, while opposing me were only Conservatives, nationalists and snivelling Liberals. And I got 60% of the vote.”
Now, in those circumstances, Len McClusky does not frighten me. I am drawing to people’s attention—this is only fair—the fact that, as I understand it, Len McClusky and Unite are in favour of Britain remaining in the European Union. They find themselves in these circumstances in agreement with the snivellers opposite. It is not necessarily the case that Len McClusky and Unite are right on all questions, as Members will be aware. Before I move on, I want to congratulate James Wharton on introducing this measure. He was obviously enjoying himself, and if he carries on like that he will undoubtedly be punished by being promoted to the Front Bench—sooner rather than later.
Given the hon. Gentleman’s childish remarks about the Liberal Democrats, I can tell him that he has lost one member of Unite today. I am holding up my trade union membership card, which I have stuck to religiously since my days in the charity sector, but I can give it to him after the debate and he can do what he likes with it.
Well, I suggest the hon. Gentleman does not tempt me to do what I like with it, because what I might like to do with it is not necessarily what he would enjoy, unless he is not the man I think he is.
No, no; if you offer it to one, then you have to—Anyway, I will be having consultations in Room 220 in Portcullis house for those who wish to see me privately.
As we all know, it is really UKIP that has to be congratulated on this Bill. This would not be coming forward in this way if the Conservatives were not under pressure from UKIP. My side should not be unduly enjoying what is happening with the Conservatives and UKIP, because UKIP is also entirely capable of eating into our vote, as voting for UKIP is a vote against leadership and government by an elite that is seen to be out of touch. It is a revolt, in a sense, by those who see themselves as little people ignored by the existing system. While Europe has been the particular issue around which it has coagulated, that is not necessarily the only issue on which it sees itself as divorced from politics. However, the Conservatives have reacted to UKIP almost solely on this issue.
The Government’s position is much weaker than it appears. I was appalled to hear the Prime Minister say before the negotiations had started that he was going to be voting for Britain to stay in. That grossly undermines the Government’s negotiating position. Who goes into negotiations and says, “We will vote to accept the terms we are offered” before the negotiations have started? That seems to me to be an incredibly weak position.
After today’s votes and discussions, we ought to enter into a period of seriously discussion of the terms on which we wish to seek renegotiation. What is it that we want to see? I want to spell out a number of points I think we ought to discuss, because, knockabout apart—and snivellers apart—these are serious issues that we have got to debate.
Clearly that discussion is going to start now and go on for four years until 2017. If there was a vote now, I would vote to come out, but now we are going to have this alternative plan. It is good that we have four years to try and get it right, so the British people can then say, “Actually we like the end result that the Prime Minister has negotiated”—or they say that they do not. and we leave. In my view, this makes a pretty good fist of dealing with this problem.
I have considerable sympathy with that point of view, but it is grossly undermined by the fact that the Prime Minister has already indicated he intends to vote for the terms that are offered after renegotiation, irrespective of what those terms are. That is an absurd negotiating position, and the silence now among Members on the Government Benches speaks eloquently to their support for my position.
What points for renegotiation should we be focusing on? The first is the question of ever closer union. It is clear to me that we have to make it clear—absolutely clear, crystal clear—that we reject totally the concept of ever closer union and the idea that the EU is a ratchet which only ever turns in one direction. I support devolution for Scotland on the principle that I believe powers should be moved downwards. I support the concept of subsidiarity, too, as I believe that in principle we ought to say that all powers held at any given level should be moved to the level below, unless a very strong case can be made for retaining them where they are. The onus ought to be on those who wish to hold them centrally to justify that position, rather than the converse. That has not been the position of successive British Governments up until now, and it should be, and I think we ought to make it absolutely clear that that is our position going forward, so that the inexorable expansion of the EU’s powers—like the Blob in the science fiction films that used to replicate itself every 24 hours and expand into new areas—is halted and constrained.
The hon. Gentleman has a reputation for being a straight-talking politician and he is making a powerful case, but the suspense is too much. Will he tell the House which way he is going to vote?
I will leave the hon. Gentleman in suspense for a little longer, if he does not mind, as I am worried that if Members know how I am going to vote, they will leave the Chamber with the question resolved.
I am glad to hear that.
The second issue is control of our borders. I do not believe that it is appropriate to have enormously tight restrictions on immigration from outwith the EU and have unlimited immigration from within the EU. That leads to a situation in which some of the restrictions on migration from outside the EU are, in my view, too tight, driven by a desire to keep down the numbers. It is meaningless to have restrictions on the outside and allow anybody who is given leave to remain in Spain, France, Greece, Bulgaria or Romania to come into the United Kingdom simply because those countries have given them citizenship rights. We have to have control over our borders, which means saying to our European colleagues that we do not accept unfettered free movement of people if it is not in the United Kingdom’s interest at any particular given time.
I agree with my hon. Friend’s general views on the EU, and I agree with him about the Lib Dems, and I agree with the points he is making about what renegotiation should consist of. In that, however, he is asking for fundamental changes to the treaty of Rome and many of the treaties that follow it. Does he really believe that the other 27 countries of the EU are going to vote to change those treaties?
I possibly have more faith in the Prime Minister than my hon. Friend does. Had the Prime Minister not to some extent sold the jerseys, I think all these issues could very well be negotiated with our colleagues, because we are not alone. I do not believe that Britain is the only country that wants to retain control over its immigration policy. I think many colleagues support the position we are taking on this question, and I will come on to the question of dates in a moment.
The next point we ought to be dealing with is the question of the common agricultural policy. That has been covered in this House on a number of occasions, so I will not delay us by discussing it, as has the question of the cost of the European Union, and the waste and extravagance.
The final point I want to make is that the Conservative drive for renegotiation seems to be driven by the sort of impulse that means every time Conservatives walk by a house and see a chimney, they regret that a small boy is not climbing up it. I think the Conservative party’s wish to repatriate powers over labour relations and working conditions is driven by a desire to drive down terms and conditions to the level of the 18th or 17th or 16th century, if they think they can get away with it. There is no future for Britain in the long term if we go back to having small boys climb chimneys. It is rules and regulations—and, indeed, red tape—that stop us having small boys climbing chimneys. Those Conservatives who say that the main drive behind renegotiating the EU treaties is to have a freer labour market have got to come clean and say whether they believe a search to the bottom is the way forward for Britain. I do not believe we should be seeking to compete by lowering working standards, and that is one of the points on which Len McCluskey and I would be as one.
If we accept the points that most of the Government Members, and many on our side, have been making, we would want to see three stages, and that is where I do agree with the Government. The first stage would be renegotiation and the second would be a referendum. I have an open mind on how I will vote at that time, because I recognise that the European Union has done many excellent things that I support, but, similarly, it has done many things that I do not support. How I vote in the referendum will depend on the balance reached in negotiations.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman does not mind me referring to an earlier point he made, because I was checking something online while he was giving his brilliant speech. It is worth pointing out that a number of trade unions are actively campaigning for a referendum. Indeed, the advisory board of The People’s Pledge, one of the great organisations calling for a referendum and which is running a successful campaign, was made up of at least three senior union representatives, including Bob Crow and Bill Greenshields, as well as a number of others—the list goes on. So to suggest that the trade unions are opposed to a referendum or in favour of continued membership or continued escalation of our union within the EU is not strictly true.
Sorry, I did not think I was actually saying that all unions were taking a particular position. I think that, most of the unions will take the view that they either want or do not want a referendum. I know that many of them do want a referendum, and they will decide on the basis of what they believe is offered to their members once the renegotiations are complete. I support renegotiations, and I have always been clear about that. I am glad to hear that Bob Crow appears to have greater support from those on the Government Benches than he has from those on the Opposition Benches in some cases. Ever since he declared that he would be biting the heads off only three babies a day his popularity has increased among many Government Members.
It was four babies a day, then.
This debate is not about what kind of trade union laws we should have; it is about who makes those laws. The hon. Gentleman referred to young boys going up chimneys, but that practice was ended not by the European Union but by this Parliament, just as slavery was abolished by this Parliament and as women were given the vote by this Parliament.
So now we have it: the hon. Gentleman wants this Parliament to have the power to put small boys up chimneys. I think he will find that there are rules in the European Union that prevent us from putting small boys up chimneys. I think that is a very valuable clarification, and members of Unite and elsewhere will take it into account.
The Labour party’s view on these matters is best described as being in a state of flux. It is a caterpillar, which, in a short time, will emerge as a butterfly. I believe that we will change our position in a relatively short time, as events change, because we are clearly heading for a crisis in the European Union. I do not believe that the euro is sustainable in its current form for much longer. As the euro degenerates, and as unemployment rises—it already affects 50% of young people in Spain—we will see more social unrest in Europe and there will be an inexorable drive among the members of the euro to change the relationship within that bloc and, in turn, within the European Union.
The Labour party’s policy will change with that. I am confident that in the years to come I will find myself capable of supporting Labour party policy with a greater degree of enthusiasm than I do at the moment. I remember opposing the euro before it was fashionable to do so. I can also remember when the policy changed and it was impossible to find any Labour Member in favour of the euro—indeed, it was almost impossible to find any Labour Member who had ever been in favour of joining the euro. So things will change, as they should.
The hon. Gentleman and several other Labour Members, including the hon. Members for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) and for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), were instrumental 10 years ago in launching Labour Against the Euro. They led a group of about 40 Labour MPs which finally finished off former Prime Minister Blair’s attempts to join the euro. We used to call that group LATE, for short, and some of us used to say, “Better late than never”, because it was an eleventh-hour arrival on the battlefield. I know that Mr Davidson wants to keep us in suspense, but will he tell us how late he intends to leave it before we get this large group of Labour MPs once again calling for a referendum?
There is no difficulty in identifying a substantial group of Labour MPs who are in favour of a referendum—the issue is about the timing and the terms of the referendum, and I want to discuss that point now. A strong case has been advanced for a referendum now, before the election, but I wish to make it clear that I am completely opposed to that. An in/out referendum now would give us two choices, neither of which I find acceptable. Staying in on the existing terms would give the green light to those who wish to continue their spendthrift ways and want to continue the process towards ever-closer union. Getting out is simply a retreat and a surrender to separatism. I am opposed to that in Scotland, so I am also opposed to it in the United Kingdom.
There is, however, a case for a referendum now on giving the Government the power to renegotiate the terms of membership. A referendum now on allowing the Government to renegotiate—or on demanding that they start renegotiating—would send a signal to our European colleagues that we are serious about this. They, like us, must be doubting how serious the Government are about driving this forward, given that the Prime Minister has already said that he intends to accept whatever terms are on offer.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government do not need a referendum decision by this House, because they can go ahead and start renegotiating tomorrow if they wished to do so, and come up with proposals? The problem is that the Government do not have a negotiating position and, as the Foreign Secretary made clear to the Foreign Affairs Committee when we asked him about this, they do not intend to do this until after the next general election.
To be fair, I covered some of those points earlier. I am conscious that others wish to speak, so may I just say that we do need to have an agenda for change, and I think we need to wait for a crisis? I do not understand—this is why I am not supportive of the proposed wording—the point of saying that this has to be done by
It may very well be next week. If it is next week, I would hope that the Government would seize on that opportunity—if only they had an agenda of items that they wanted to renegotiate—to seek allies in the European Union in order to renegotiate our terms of entry. I see no reason in those circumstances, if we renegotiate terms before the next election, why we should have to wait until after the election. The issue, for me, is a question of agreeing that we want renegotiation and agreeing that we want a referendum, but not binding ourselves to any particular time. That is why, on the advice of the Whips, I shall not vote for the motion.
First, I want to put on record my congratulations to my hon. Friend James Wharton on a brilliant, deft and extremely well-conducted speech in which he dealt with complex interventions in a very, very mature fashion. I congratulate him not only on his speech but on its content.
I am extremely glad that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, despite the fact that referendums were completely off the agenda for some time before the announcement was made in the Bloomberg speech, or in relation to the Bill, has said in the past, as I said in a short intervention, that he thought there should have been a referendum on the Maastricht treaty. Of course he was right, and I shall explain why in a moment. In 1996 I introduced a Bill, for which I was given what could be considered a bit of a going-over by the then Chief Whip and the Whips, one of whom is now a Minister. It was an entertaining experience, and all I can say is that it made no difference whatsoever to my attitude to the need for a referendum, as I shall explain.
My right hon. Friend was right: the most important principle of the Bloomberg speech is the fourth principle, which overrides all the others, as they all depend on it. He said that the root of our national democracy is our national Parliament, but the essence of that democracy is when it is decided by Parliament that we shall give the people the right to make the decision, which is the ultimate test of trust in the electorate.
I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman in a moment.
It is estimated that 35 million people—35 million voters—have effectively been disfranchised by the continuous evolution, since 1975, of giving away more and more powers as well as the right to determine the kind of policies and government that they want. That is completely unacceptable. I voted yes in 1975, because I believed then that there was a case for allowing a common market and that we should test whether or not it would work. I also voted for the Single European Act, but I tabled an amendment that nothing in that measure should derogate from the sovereignty of the United Kingdom Parliament. That is why, when it came to Maastricht, I was absolutely determined to fight it at all costs, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Sir Richard Shepherd.
My hon. Friend mentioned an important word: sovereignty. Is it not right that sovereignty belongs to the people? Even the greatest and wisest Members in the Chamber are merely here-today-and-gone-tomorrow politicians. Sovereignty belongs to the people and their heirs and successors. It is not ours to take away: we must have a referendum.
I could not agree more. People have fought and died. The only reason we live in the United Kingdom in peace and prosperity is because, in the second and first world wars, we stood up for that freedom and democracy. Churchill galvanised the British people to stand up for the very principles that are now at stake.
I know that the whole House is delighted that my hon. Friend saw the light. Some of us not only campaigned in the referendum in 1975 but voted against the Single European Act—only three colleagues who did so remain in the House and, unfortunately, they are all Opposition Members. This is terribly important. My hon. Friend voted for the measure at the time because he thought that he was voting for a common market in goods and services. That is what the British people thought, and we tried to persuade them that it was going to be more than that: it was going to be a united states of Europe. That is the direction of travel, and there is no indication that the direction of travel has changed, which is why we need a referendum.
Indeed; I note what my right hon. Friend has said. This issue is about political union. If we strip away all the arguments about repatriation and renegotiation, there is no doubt whatsoever for anyone—I go to COSAC, which is the meeting of the chairmen of national scrutiny committees on European affairs throughout Europe; 27, now 28, chairmen joined together—that this is about political union. We should be under no illusion about that. It is not about anything else now. We had Mr Barroso telling us recently in the blueprint paper that the European Parliament is the only Parliament for the European Union. It is categorical, and I will challenge any Member of Parliament to get up and suggest that this is not embedded in the Maastricht treaty. That is what it was all about—creating a new European Government, and it has grown exponentially ever since.
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is right. We said that we wanted to have a referendum on several of those treaties. Indeed, the Conservative party was united in voting for a referendum on the Lisbon treaty. However, we have now reached a different situation. That is why it is important for the House to bear in mind that it is not a question of what may happen between now and 2017; it is happening already. There is clear evidence of the development, endorsed by the other member states, of a two-tier Europe between the eurozone and the European Union itself. That is the fundamental change that is already taking place, without a treaty.
We know from the discussions that are going on in Europe that there is much talk of moving forward without another treaty. That is why we need to have a referendum. That is why the Government are right to promote the circumstances in which my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South, who came first in the ballot, has the opportunity to introduce his Bill. That is why the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have taken part in the debate, and that is why it is so essential that we get it right. This is about political and economic freedom.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. I think he is coming on to the point that there are not just political reasons, but clear-cut economic reasons why we need to have a referendum, not least of which are the fact that 70% of the regulations that are an unacceptable burden on our businesses and their employees emanate from Europe, and the fact that there is 55% youth unemployment in Spain and in Greece, which is blighting a generation. Does my hon. Friend agree that there are economic reasons for a referendum?
I totally agree. My hon. Friend and I, with other Members, have debated this in complete unity, for the same reason: freedom is about freedom of choice. In parliamentary and constitutional terms, freedom of choice depends upon freedom of choice at the ballot box and in the marketplace. If we get the first, the political choice, wrong, as has been going on with this European Government, we will end up with austerity, small and medium-sized businesses not being able to work properly, and massive unemployment among young people, which I know Opposition Members are worried about, as are we on the Government Benches.
When 65% of the young people in several countries in Europe—Spain, Greece and so on—are unemployed, that is unacceptable and it is a direct result of the way in which the European Union has been centralised. Opposition Members have been saying recently, “We do not like the centralisation”—people who are completely in favour of the European Union, until they suddenly realise that the centralisation is creating austerity, unemployment and misery for those young people. It is unacceptable.
Does my hon. Friend agree that those who perpetuate the myth of the single market, arguing that the UK will lose 3 million jobs if we come out, fail to take account of the fact that there is a £70 billion surplus, and no business in Europe will cease to trade with this country whether we are in the single market or not?
Furthermore, with respect to our trade deficit, as I have said on a number of occasions, in 2012, according to the Office for National Statistics, had a trade deficit of £70 billion with the other 27 member states. To give the point some substance, Germany, on the other hand—no wonder there are two Europes, which are increasingly becoming German-oriented—had a trade surplus with the other 27 member states in 2011 that has now gone up to £72 billion.
It is not really a European Union any more. It is so heavily dominated, wilfully or otherwise, by the circumstances that have created that imbalance, and that of course has its effect on the qualified majority voting. That is why we have to have a referendum, and we need to have it sooner rather than later, because the fundamental renegotiation itself is dependent on the fact that the circumstances have already arisen, and as I said just now, not necessarily with a new treaty.
So that we can be clear about the hon. Gentleman’s position, does he favour the United Kingdom having a relationship with the European Union similar to that of Norway and Switzerland, or does he think we should be entirely separate and have no relationship with the single market?
I have made my position entirely clear on a number of occasions. We need to have something in the nature of a European Free Trade Association arrangement. We need an association of nation states. I am off to Lithuania the day after tomorrow to discuss these matters with the other 27 chairmen. The main topic of conversation now is democratic legitimacy, and it is not just in this country, it is not just in this Chamber, it is not just in the opinion polls, it is not just in the Eurobarometer, which has shown that trust in Europe has completely evaporated all over Europe. Wake up, I say. This is the fact, and it is happening. That is why we need to have a renegotiation. This is about trust. It is about allowing people to have government of a kind that responds to their own wishes, as expressed in general elections. That is why we cannot have two Governments and two Parliaments covering the same subject matter. It is complete, incoherent, absurd nonsense.
My hon. Friend has been tempted on numerous occasions by Opposition Members to debate the merits of in and out, but that is not what today is about. They will not say whether or not they will have a referendum. Today is about whether we will debate that with the public—not in here among ourselves, but take it out to the public. The Opposition want to turn today’s debate into a debate about the merits. I caution my hon. Friend about being seduced by Opposition Members. Make them answer whether they will vote for a referendum.
I think my hon. Friend can be certain that I am not likely to be seduced, either by the Opposition or anybody else, for that matter. I simply say this: this is about the principle of a referendum.
I conclude with a simple statement: this is about trust. It is about trust in people. Because we are doing it through a Bill, as is required, we will give authority through Parliament to have a referendum. That is what this is all about. It is to give the British people their right to have their say. There is no question but that the Bill must pass, but it needs to be secured by a vote on both sides of the House. I am afraid that Opposition Members are neglecting their duty to their constituents if they continue to refuse to support the Bill.
Many hon. Members wish to speak so I will keep my remarks as brief as possible.
I am delighted and honoured to be a supporter of the Bill. I congratulate James Wharton on taking this subject for his private Member’s Bill and on bringing it before the House in the way that he did. I well remember that when I had a relatively high place in the ballot a number of years ago, I introduced a private Member’s Bill for a referendum on the Lisbon treaty. I had half an hour to deliver a speech in the House, thanks in no small way to the kind co-operation of Mr Chope, who often attends on Fridays on private Member’s Bills, but unfortunately there was not as much interest in it as there is on this occasion, and there certainly were not as many Members present to ensure that it got any further. However, I am proud of having introduced that private Member’s Bill, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Stockton South on this measure. I also congratulate the Prime Minister on his support for the initiative.
As has been said, it is 38 years since we have had a referendum on the UK’s relationship with Europe, and it is now time to give people their say. Therefore, representing as I do a party that believes in consulting the people, and has advocated referendums on a number of occasions in Northern Ireland on a range of constitutional issues, and has supported that consistently, particularly on Europe, we will be voting in favour of the Bill enthusiastically and without equivocation. I know that in so doing we will be representing the vast majority of the people of Northern Ireland, even those who support parties that are in favour of being part of the European Union. Whether they are for or against the United Kingdom’s continued membership of the European Union, on whatever terms, they believe that it is high time they had a say in this debate and that it should not longer be confined to this Chamber and the television studies.
If we can have referendums on regional assemblies, devolved government, police commissioners, local mayors and the alternative vote, how on earth can it be logical, sensible or defensible for any Member of this House or any party to take the position that on this issue of such fundamental importance to the United Kingdom’s democracy, as Sir Richard Shepherd so eloquently said, and as others have said, the British people will uniquely be denied their say? I think that we have now reached a point in our political debate and in the nation’s history where that position is simply untenable.
I have no doubt that, as Mr Davidson said, we will soon see a change in the stated positions of the other parties in this House. We now know where the Conservatives stand. The leader of the Liberal Democrats has now conceded that this is inevitable. Having been in favour of an in/out referendum, their current position is simply untenable. The Labour party is already debating how to get itself off the hook it is now on. I believe that it, too, will come to support a referendum, because the vast majority of its supporters want one.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman and his party for their support for this important Bill. We have heard about the rising dissatisfaction with the European Union across Europe, so does he agree that if this House was to vote wholeheartedly for a referendum, we could lead the way in Europe, because many other countries also want to renegotiate their relationship with the European Union?
It is important to make the point that this is not only a vote on something that is important to the people in all regions and parts of the United Kingdom and will be welcomed by them; it is also something that other countries are looking to us to give a lead on. The Foreign Secretary pointed out that there have been a number of national plebiscites and votes on European issues in many countries, sometimes two or three times on the same issue, but the fact is that people are crying out for a say. As Mr Cash said, this is the big issue of the day in Europe: political legitimacy, democracy and accountability.
Before my right hon. Friend moves on from his point about the Labour party’s approach to the issue, will he agree that the defence that we cannot have a referendum until there has been substantial constitutional change is really very thin, given that we have had Maastricht, the Single European Act and the Lisbon treaty? Surely there has been enough substantial change in our relationship with Europe to give people a say now.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I have talked on more than one occasion in this House about the disconnect that now exists between the people and the political class in Parliament. People feel that their concerns are not being given high enough priority and that, with regard to the EU, promises have been broken. On the Lisbon treaty, for example, they believe that the Labour party promised a referendum on the European constitution. I remember before a previous election Tony Blair, with the encouragement of Lord Mandelson, bringing the referendum rabbit out of the hat, but he reneged on that pledge when he got into office, claiming then that there were red lines that they would negotiate and that it was therefore no longer a constitution. The people simply do not believe that.
We have talked about the Lib Dems going back on their promise of an in/out referendum. Reference has been made to the cast-iron guarantee the Prime Minister gave on the Lisbon treaty. I understand the reasons that have been advanced on why that did not happen—for example, the fact that it had already been implemented. Nevertheless, I agree with the hon. Member for Glasgow South West that very many people believe that if we had wanted to have a referendum on Lisbon, even after it had been introduced, we could have done if the political will had existed. However, it did not exist, and that was the problem.
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that in fact fundamental change is going on already, and that that, even without a treaty, is the real reason for having a referendum?
Yes, I agree. That is why it is not enough merely to have it enshrined in law that there will be a referendum at some future point if there is some new treaty or whatever. There is a continuing erosion of sovereignty and it is therefore important that the matter is brought to a head sooner rather than later.
Is it not a fact that any referendum that was held would be on the treaty change, not on in or out? We have never had a promise of an in/out referendum, only a “no more change to a particular treaty” referendum. We need to make that point very clear. This is our one opportunity to do this.
The hon. Lady makes a very important and fundamental point. That is why this Bill is so significant and deserves the widespread support of Members of this House.
I will not give way any more because I want to make progress. I am conscious that others still wish to speak.
We are here on a Friday having to go through this process for all the reasons that we understand. One of the reasons is that the promises and pledges that have been made in the past by Front Benchers of the main parties have not been followed through on. Therefore, people are looking not just for a promise or a pledge but for some kind of guarantee enshrined in legislation. Of course we know that this Parliament cannot bind a successor Parliament, but that applies to every aspect of legislation—to every Act that is ever passed. However, a guarantee enshrined in legislation will make it a lot harder for any incoming Prime Minister of whatever party to have—I was going to say the courage—the audacity to come before the House and say, “We’re going to repeal the right of the people to have a referendum under the Act that was passed”, as I hope that it will be as a result of this initiative.
In 1975, 67% of voters in this country chose to remain within the Common Market—a union which we were told at that time was more about co-operation between European nations on trade. However, today we view an EU landscape that is vastly changed—so much so that, as a senior Labour peer recently noted, the mandate secured by the Government in 1975
“belongs to another time and another generation.”
Over the past three decades, there has been a steady transfer of powers from our sovereign Parliament here at Westminster to the corridors and back alleys of Brussels—a process that still continues on a weekly and monthly basis, inexorably and inevitably, in the pursuit of the goal of ever-closer political union.
This change has not been abstract. It is not detached from the day-to-day realities of everyday life; it has been hard felt by people living in every region of the United Kingdom. How often do business people come to us complaining about the red tape and regulations that emanate from the EU? How many times do we hear complaints about untrammelled immigration from EU countries as we no longer have the power effectively to control our own borders? I could mention a number of other policy areas.
As Chairman of the Northern Ireland Committee, I congratulate the Democratic Unionist party on taking a very clear stance on this issue. The right hon. Gentleman refers to the 1975 referendum. Does he remember that the brochure put out by the then Labour Government, “Britain’s New Deal in Europe”, contained a guarantee that a British Minister could veto anything that came from Europe at that time? What this is really all about is the erosion of that guarantee through qualified majority voting.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. He reminds the House and the public of the pledges and guarantees that have been given in the past. We need this Bill to enshrine in law a commitment to giving people their say, because they are fed up with broken promises. They have found that they cannot trust the political class generally on pledges on Europe, because whichever party is in power becomes sucked into the ever-increasing desire to have ever-closer union. That is simply unacceptable.
No. Having said that I would be brief, I want to conclude my remarks and not get sidetracked any further.
On the issue of austerity, at a time when this country is facing major cuts and when personal and household incomes are affected, it is absolutely scandalous that between 2007 and 2013 the UK will have contributed £29 billion on EU structural funds and received back only £8.7 billion to spend in this country,. That is simply unacceptable and it is damaging to communities and households right across this United Kingdom.
There was some hope that the negotiations for the 2014-20 multi-annual framework would lead to a sea change in EU spending, and I congratulate the Prime Minister on what he has managed to do. However, despite a Council agreement to reduce the budget, the trend of waste and inefficiency will continue. Spending on the unaccountable EU civil service will rise by 2%. The organisation already employs 3,000 unelected officials on salaries of more than €150,000 and gold-plated pensions.
The European External Action Service, which a Minister told us a year or two ago would not cost us any more and would be neutral in terms of expenditure, is in line to receive a spending increase of more than 3% for its role in undermining the foreign policy of countries across Europe. The EU’s 56 quangos will receive an increase of 4% under the new budget. That is not to mention specific examples, such as the House of European History, which, for those Members who have not heard about it, will cost—believe it or not—£136 million. British taxpayers are contributing £18 million to that project.
The European Parliament continues to split its activities over three locations—something that my party in the European Parliament is deeply opposed to and fighting to change—and it will cost €1 billion to have two places, Brussels and Strasbourg, as the seat of the European Parliament over the next seven years. That is why it is essential that the people have their say on these issues. They are examples of why the waste and inefficiency need to be exposed.
The fundamental point is that on these issues, whether they be expenditure or setting policy with regard to agriculture or foreign affairs, it should be for the British people, through their elected representatives in this House, to decide the policy of the United Kingdom. It is not for unelected people in Brussels to forge for the people of the United Kingdom an ever-closer political union that they do not want. This House will fail in its duty if we do not respond to supporters of all of our parties who want a say, a voice and a vote. I commend the hon. Member for Stockton South for proposing this Bill and urge all hon. and right hon. Members to support it in the Division later.
Order. May I again say to hon. Members that they just need to look around the Chamber to see how many of their colleagues want to speak in this debate? If we are to accommodate as many speakers as possible, Members must speak for less time than is currently the case. I cannot put a time limit on speeches, but I plead with Members to show each other mutual respect and do their best to leave enough time to get as many speakers in as possible.
I hope I will set an appropriate example, Madam Deputy Speaker, in my brief speech.
It is a pleasure to follow Mr Dodds. I agree with what he said and it is worth noting that he leads at Westminster a completely united party on matters relating to the European Union. I also commend and congratulate my hon. Friend James Wharton on coming first in the ballot and proposing this excellent Bill.
It is surprising how quickly things change in politics. Members will recall that less than two years ago, I moved a motion on holding a referendum on our membership of the European Union. On that day, all parties had a three-line Whip against my motion. Today, my party has a three-line Whip to support a referendum on the European Union and the official Opposition are so weak and divided that they cannot even make their minds up what to do.
The Bill will be welcomed warmly by my constituents in Bury, Ramsbottom and Tottington. It is nearly four decades since they have had a say on this country’s relationship with the European Union. That means that many of them have never had a say at all. Since that time, the nature of what was then the European Economic Community, which was widely called the Common Market, has changed out of all recognition. As the stated aim of the treaty of Rome of “ever-closer union” has gradually been achieved, the tentacles of what is now the European Union have been felt in a growing number of areas of life, in a way that was never envisaged by the British people when they voted to stay in the Common Market in 1975.
On a point of information, the question in 1975 was not about the European Economic Community, but the European Community. The words “Common Market” were inserted by Eurosceptics in Harold Wilson’s Government. A lot of that historical debate, which I have been looking at over the past couple of days, was about the political, social and international aspects of the European Community. Those aspects were in Harold Wilson’s official leaflet that went out.
I did say that it was widely referred to as the Common Market. It was called the European Economic Community, then the word “Economic” was dropped and it became the European Community, as the hon. Gentleman rightly says. It then changed from the European Community to the European Union as ever-closer union began to take effect.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point.
My point is simply that we have seen a gradual extension of the powers of the European Union. That is just one of the many reasons why an increasing number of people are reaching the conclusion that I have reached: our country would be better off out of the European Union.
I want us to trade with our European neighbours, but I do not see why we should have to pay billions of pounds every year for the privilege of doing so, particularly when we buy more goods from them than they buy from us.
The hon. Gentleman says that he wants out. Does he accept that Norway, which has not joined the European Union, has to pay billions of pounds to get access to the European Union’s single market?
That is an interesting point, but I do not want to get drawn down the road of talking about the merits of our membership of the European Union. The Bill is not about the merits of our membership of the European Union, but about whether our constituents should have a say. It is because the Bill will give the people of Bury, Ramsbottom and Tottington in my constituency the historic opportunity to vote for their freedom from the European Union that it has my wholehearted support. I wish it a speedy passage through this House.
To save time and divert interventions, let me say that I am a lifelong European. I campaigned for and voted yes in the referendum 30 years ago, and I will abstain in the vote on this Bill because it is much more about party management than the essential higher purpose of our national interest. Those who claim that people are being denied a choice on Europe should listen to the wisdom on the doorstep. We must, of course, take seriously the rise of UKIP, and understand why millions of people—including former supporters of my party as well as of the Government—are voting against the major parties. This initiative is being driven by UKIP. It is opening up old divisions and fails to recognise that even for UKIP supporters, Europe is not the greatest concern. We should attend to that if we are serious about hearing the voice of the British people.
I am sure the hon. Gentleman will have a chance to speak; I will not take an intervention because I want to make my speech as quickly as I can. We must understand that the momentum behind this debate comes principally from a sense of suffering felt by families up and down the country—anxiety about whether their children will get jobs; fears about long-term security and the sustainability of their pensions. Under such circumstances, the EU has become a proxy for the public’s wider anger about good services and housing, and in doing so it has provided fertile territory for a lot of myths about the EU. I do not for one moment doubt the anger—indeed, I have confronted it—in some parts of our country about the impact of too much migration too quickly, and the sense of broader insecurity. People feel that their living standards are falling. They are falling, but that is a result of decisions by this UK Government, not decisions by Europe.
The Bill is principally about managing the Conservative party, and evidence suggests that for the majority of right hon. and hon. Members in that party it is about exit, not renegotiation in Europe. The real tragedy is that renegotiation is possible, is needed, and is always to be achieved, but that is not done by saying one thing at home and a different thing in the Council of Ministers. If the Prime Minister is serious about renegotiation, he must spend time going round the capitals of Europe and visiting his counterparts, building trust and securing the support of other European leaders for his case for change. That is what will achieve change in Europe.
There is, of course, an agenda for reform, which Labour would support wholeheartedly and—I hope—on a cross-party basis, if only the Conservative party would demonstrate that it is serious about reform rather than exit. Reform of the EU budget, the appointment of an EU commissioner for growth, reforming transitional arrangements to address issues such as too much migration too quickly, more powers delegated to national Parliaments—those are all parts of an agenda for reform that I am sure we could share.
For those of us among my right hon. and hon. colleagues who represent constituencies in London, there is also particular concern about the impact on London of the growing uncertainty, which risks unseating us as the economy that is top of the league among beneficiaries of foreign direct investment. Underpinning and essential to that continued primacy is stability and certainty. The way in which this debate is being conducted, in the interests of the Conservative party, is putting that at risk.
In conclusion, I think this captures very well the position on the Opposition Benches:
“the problem with an in/out referendum is it actually only gives people those two choices: you can either stay in with all the status quo, or you…get out. Most people in Britain, I think, want a government that stands up and fights for them in Europe, and gets the things we want in Europe, that changes some of the relationship”.
Thank you for calling me, Madam Deputy Speaker; I will be brief.
I thank my hon. Friend James Wharton for proposing this Bill and I strongly support him. I was interested when he said that he was barely a twinkle in his mother’s eye when the original votes were cast on our relationship with the EU, because I am probably about his mother’s age. We therefore have two generations of voters represented in this House who have never had a say on our relationship with the EU, and it is about time the British people had one.
Does my hon. Friend agree that when we had the referendum in 1975, it was about a common market? Now we have a European political union. Brussels has seized power. The last Labour Government gave away our rebate and got nothing for it, so the people should have a say.
Absolutely right. There is a growing frustration on the part of the people, which is borne out of years of them not being adequately communicated with or informed about the implications of what was happening in the EU institutions. That has resulted in our public wanting this say.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South was quite right that the British people want a say, but I believe that they also want an informed say. Many of them feel they have a gut instinct of how they would vote, but they know that this is such a serious issue and such a major constitutional decision that they must have an opportunity to deliberate, debate and discuss the complex issues around it. Those of us who are today putting forward this proposal for a referendum are saying that we trust the British people to discuss such complex issues and then come to the right decision. Anyone who opposes this referendum is saying, “We don’t trust the British public to discuss issues of this complexity and detail.”
If letting the people have their say is so important, why is it that of all the Conservative Governments who have ever existed, only one—this one, forced by the Liberals to offer a referendum on the alternative vote—have ever given the people of Britain a referendum on anything? Devolution, regional government, the Mayor of London—all were from a Labour Government. The Tories have never given anybody a referendum on anything; now they are suddenly enthusiasts.
Does the hon. Lady not find it strange that the last Labour Government had 13 years to renegotiate, if they believed in that renegotiation, and present it to the British people, yet did not do so? Labour has constantly, and to this day, denied, the British people a say in their future in Europe.
The hon. Gentleman is right. If passed, the Bill will trigger a debate throughout the nation and give the British public an opportunity to make that informed decision. The debate has already started in this Chamber today. Millions of people across the country will be watching and listening, and will have heard valuable and critical contributions, such as the speech from Mr Dodds.
On the subject of giving people choice, the fishing industry has felt the brunt of EU legislation and red tape—more so than other sectors. As European bureaucracy continues to strangle and choke the fishing industry, my constituents in Strangford, particularly in the fishing port of Portavogie, will want the chance to say no in a referendum—this is what we want to see.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Labour party, which continually complains about uncertainty, should support a referendum, and should be asking for it to be brought even further forward so that that uncertainty can be removed quickly?
Another valid point, but I can also see the merit of the British people having the time, up to 2017, to digest and discuss these issues.
Other hon. Members want to speak, so I will close my remarks. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Mr Baron, who is chair of the all-party group for a European referendum. I am a long-standing member, as is my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South. My hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay has done tremendous and sterling work in this House and beyond in pressing and making the case for an EU referendum, which the British people deserve.
May I begin by joining other right hon. and hon. Members in congratulating James Wharton on the terrific achievement of being first in the ballot to propose a private Member’s Bill on the Floor of the House and on filling the Chamber? This has been a remarkable week for him. Not only has he introduced the Bill, but his local restaurant, Raj Bari, came third in the Tiffin cup final. That is a terrific achievement, one that I am sure he will celebrate with them tonight when he gets back to Stockton.
This has been a remarkable debate in which we have heard some interesting facts. Martin Horwood was outed as a member of Unite by my hon. Friend Mr Davidson, and then managed to resign within moments of being outed. Fiona Bruce told us that she is old enough to be the mother of the hon. Member for Stockton South. I am surprised that she did not offer to be his mother, bearing in mind his current popularity.
I hope to make a short contribution. Many right hon. and hon. Members wish to speak, and some of us would like to get back to our constituencies some time today. Friday mornings will never be the same again for me. I want to say how much I support the idea, and have supported the idea for some time, of the British people being allowed to have their say on membership of the European Union. I agree with the many hon. Members who have said that this is an issue of trust. I do not think that political parties should feel they cannot trust the British people on this important issue, which has been the dominant issue of the past 30 to 40 years. The constant debates in the House and in the country, and the fact that the issue has seized the consciousness of the British people, mean that at some stage we have to put it to the British people. I believe that this should be done sooner rather than later. We should do it now, if we can; if not now, then certainly at the time of the next general election.
Absolutely not. I am merely a humble Back Bencher. We need to do our best to persuade those on the Front Bench that this is in the interests not only of the Labour party but, primarily, of the country. The shadow Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend Mr Alexander, spoke very well this morning, but we still need to convince him that we need to go one step further. After all, progress has been made. Labour voted for a reduction in the EU budget and against the amendment to the Queen’s Speech, and we are going to abstain today, so we are on the way; we are moving in the direction that the hon. Gentleman wants us to move in, and I hope that we will get there in the end.
Does the right hon. Gentleman not agree that this goes to the heart of democracy, when so many people are crying out for a referendum and there is a great disconnect between politics and the electorate that needs healing? Giving the electorate a referendum, as we want to do, will help that process.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. The fact is that we need to reconnect by allowing people to have their say.
I am very surprised that the Liberal Democrats have changed their view—[Hon. Members: “Why?”] Well, I am. I learned most of my community politics from the Liberal Democrats when I stood in Richmond many years ago, and I know that they are committed to allowing people to have their say in places like Richmond and Kingston. I am therefore surprised that they have changed their mind on this matter.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. We have a great deal in common, as he has just said. Does he agree that this is not just a matter of this House trusting the people with a decision on this issue, and that it is even more a case of providing the people with a reason to trust the House? It works both ways, and there could not be a more important time to demonstrate both aspects of that than now.
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. We must give the whole debate over from this House. We all have an important role to play in discussing and scrutinising the European Union, but at the end of the day, the matter must go to the British people.
My second point is on the need for reform. I hope that the hon. Member for Stockton South will be willing to consider any amendments that I hope Labour will table in Committee, and that he will look at the whole issue of reform. I do not believe that the timetable the Prime Minister has set out is achievable. I agree with what my right hon. Friend Dame Tessa Jowell said about this. The reform process will take a long time. Should the Prime Minister get re-elected and become Prime Minister again, his timetable of two years between 2015 and 2017 will, frankly, not be long enough.
The issues in the European Union exist at the moment, and there is a need for reform of a whole range of policies. We could start that process now. There is no reason why British Ministers going to summit meetings and having discussions with their European Union counterparts—the Minister for Europe goes to General Affairs Council meetings every month to discuss these matters with his counterpart Ministers for Europe, for example—should not start the reform agenda immediately, rather than waiting until after the next general election.
The hon. Gentleman is making an interesting point. I knew that those were his opinions because I have read them on many occasions. Does he agree that, if we have a referendum and if we are going to engage properly with the people, we must know what the position is? There must be a reformed European Union, or we withdraw. If we had the referendum much earlier, people would simply be in the dark.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Actually, I think the British people know the issues now. They understand the issues that confront Europe, and I am not sure that a public education campaign is what they need, as long as we are committed to reform, and to changing the way in which the European Union operates. There is much that we need to change on the justice and home affairs agenda, for example, including measures on the European arrest warrant and on the way in which countries such as Greece have to deal with illegal migration. There are so many other areas that we need to look at. We can be part of that process as we go along within the European Union; we do not need to have a separate set of negotiations. The only way, in my view, that we can do this is to put the matter to the EU now.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman and I praise him for the candour of his approach to this debate. We all agree that reform is needed, but the British public need to be sure that sufficient reform is going to take place if we are to stay within the EU. Does he agree that having a referendum after the renegotiation has happened will absolutely crystallise in the minds of the rest of the EU member states the fact that we are absolutely serious that the current position is just unsustainable?
I think the member states know that the current situation is unsustainable and that they understand that we want change. The Prime Minister has made that clear every time he goes to a summit meeting of the European Union. I do not know whether the Minister for Europe has a row with his colleagues every time he goes to the General Affairs meetings, but the fact is that the Prime Minister always comes back to this House to make his statement after a European summit and says that he has confronted colleagues so that they know where Britain stands.
I think that the major political parties should be publishing their manifestos for reform. Frankly, we do not know what they are. I think we should be very clear about what we want to change about the European Union—and we can put that into operation now rather than having to wait.
My final point is that I hope nobody votes against this private Member’s Bill. I hope that it will go through unanimously and that nobody will seek to divide the House. That would send a powerful message that all parties believe that there is a case for the British people to make a decision. If we do that, it will mean that people will trust us even more than they do at the moment.
This has been a thought-provoking debate—and, in some places, just provoking! I would say to Mr Davidson that I am afraid my Unite membership card has suffered irreparable damage during the course of this debate, but I thank him for his graphic advice on what I should now do with it. After recent events in Falkirk, I suspect there might be a few other people taking very similar advice.
It is good to see the House so full on a Friday. I gather that it has something to do with the provision of hog roast by the Prime Minister last night. One participant told me that burgers were being served by him, but they were a little bit rare. Perhaps that explains why so many left the Chamber so fast after the Foreign Secretary’s speech!
As a Liberal Democrat, I like referendums—and we have been consistent supporters of them. We supported all the referendums on Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. We were quite happy with the referendum on the European Community in 1975, and we even went along with the referendum on AV—the alternative vote system—although we obviously cannot win them all. At the time of the Lisbon treaty, we alone supported an in/out referendum for this country—not at four years’ remove, not for some future Parliament, but at that time. We got absolutely no support from the Conservative party at that stage.
I am afraid that that was the completely consistent position through to the general election of 2010, and it is more or less our position now. The Deputy Prime Minister has set out our position, the only difference being that in the meantime we have passed the European Union Act 2011, which rather watered down the Liberal Democrat commitment to an in/out referendum and adopted—[Interruption.] Conservative Members may laugh, but they have obviously not read their own manifesto of 2010. What is in the European Union Act 2011 is precisely the basis on which Conservative Members fought the last general election, which was the idea that there should be a trigger relating to the transfer of power. The Conservative manifesto stated that in the event of a transfer of power from the British level to the European level, a referendum on that transfer would be held. That is exactly what went into the European Union Act in 2011. We will quite happily use that to trigger—that is fine—but we are still committed to an in/out referendum, and I am still going to argue for one.