Amendment proposed (
‘(1A) Before the appointment of the day on which the referendum is to be held, the Secretary of State shall consult the bodies listed in the Schedule (Organisations to be consulted before a referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union) on the merits or otherwise of the United Kingdom remaining a member of the European Union and shall lay before Parliament a report of the consultation.’.—(Mr Bain.)
Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.
I remind the House that with this we are discussing the following: Amendment 76, page 1, line 4, leave out subsection 2.
Amendment 21, page 1, line 4, leave out from ‘held’ to end of line 6 and insert ‘on
Amendment 25, page 1, line 4, leave out ‘
Amendment 22, page 1, line 4, leave out ‘2017’ and insert ‘2014’.
Amendment 23, page 1, line 4, leave out ‘2017’ and insert ‘2015’.
Amendment 24, page 1, line 4, leave out ‘2017’ and insert ‘2016’.
Amendment 26, page 1, line 4, leave out ‘2017’ and insert ‘2018’.
Amendment 27, page 1, line 4, leave out ‘2017’ and insert ‘2019’.
Amendment 77, page 1, line 4, after ‘2017’, insert
‘and not between
Amendment 4, page 1, line 5, leave out subsection (3).
Amendment 58, page 1, line 5, leave out subsection (3) and insert—
‘(3) The Secretary of State shall establish a European Union Referendum Commission to consider the date or dates on which the referendum is to be held.
(3B) The Secretary of State shall by order provide for the date or dates to be implemented as recommended by the Commission.’.
Amendment 59, page 1, line 5, leave out subsection (3) and insert—
‘(3A) The Commission shall consult with and seek to secure agreement from the devolved administrations on the date or dates to be appointed for the referendum.’.
Amendment 62, page 1, line 5, leave out subsection (3) and insert—
‘(3) The date shall be appointed in accordance with the conclusions of the Speaker’s Committee for the Referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union, as established under Schedule (Speaker’s Committee for the Referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union).’.
Amendment 28, page 1, line 5, leave out ‘
Amendment 31, page 1, line 5, leave out ‘
Amendment 29, page 1, line 5, leave out ‘2016’ and insert ‘2014’.
Amendment 30, page 1, line 5, leave out ‘2016’ and insert ‘2015’.
Amendment 32, page 1, line 5, leave out ‘2016’ and insert ‘2017’.
Amendment 33, page 1, line 5, leave out ‘2016’ and insert ‘2018’.
Amendment 12, page 1, line 6, at end insert—
‘(3A) Before appointing the day on which the referendum is to be held under subsection (3) above, the Secretary of State shall consult leaders of the principal faiths represented in the United Kingdom so as to identify days which it would be inappropriate for him to appoint for holding the referendum, and he shall pay due regard to the outcome of those consultations in appointing the day.’.
Amendment 13, page 1, line 6, at end insert—
‘(7) The day on which the referendum is to be held shall not be the same day as—
(b) elections to the European Parliament;
(c) a Scottish parliamentary general election;
(d) a Welsh Assembly general election;
(e) a general election for members of the Northern Ireland Assembly;
(f) any local government election;
(g) a mayoral election in London; and the terms above shall be defined as in section 4 of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011.’.
Amendment 70, page 1, line 6, at end insert ‘, subject to subsection (3A) below.
‘(3A) The Secretary of State may not appoint a day on which the referendum is to be held until he has published a detailed analysis of the consequences of the United Kingdom—
(a) remaining, or
(b) not remaining a member of the European Union, including—
(i) the economic and social consequences of withdrawal from the European Union for the people of the United Kingdom,
(ii) the consequences for the United Kingdom’s overseas territories,
(iii) the consequences for prevention of crime and terrorism in the United Kingdom,
(iv) the consequences for climate change and the environment of the United Kingdom, and
(v) the consequences for the effectiveness of the foreign policy of the United Kingdom.’.
Amendment 78, page 1, line 6, at end insert—
‘(3A) The date appointed under subsection 1(3) must not be less than 28 weeks in advance of the proposed polling day.’.
Amendment 9, page 1, line 14, at end add—
‘(7) The referendum shall be held on Thursday.’.
Amendment 10, page 1, line 14, at end add—
‘(7) The referendum shall be held over two days on a Saturday and Sunday.’.
Amendment 11, page 1, line 14, at end add—
‘(7) The referendum shall be held over three days on a Thursday, Friday and Saturday.’.
New schedule 1—‘Speaker’s Committee for the referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union—
( ) There is to be a committee known as the Speaker’s Committee for the Referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union (“the Committee”) to consider the day to be appointed for the referendum.
( ) The Speaker’s Committee shall consist of the Speaker of the House of Commons, who shall be the chair of the Committee, and the following other members, namely—
(a) the Member of the House of Commons who is for the time being the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee of the House of Commons;
(b) the Lord President of the Council;
(c) a Member of the House of Commons who is a Minister of the Crown with responsibilities in relation to foreign affairs; and
( ) The member of the Committee specified in subsection (2)(c) shall be appointed to membership of the Committee by the Prime Minister.
( ) The members of the Committee specified in subsection (2)(d) shall be appointed to membership of the Committee by the Speaker of the House of Commons.
( ) The Speaker’s Committee shall make a report to the House of Commons on the exercise by the Committee of their functions.’.
New schedule 2—“Organisations to be consulted before a referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union—
(a) the Confederation for British Industry,
(b) the National Farmers Union,
(c) the Trades Union Congress,
(e) the Association of Chief Police Officers,
(f) Universities UK,
(g) the National Council of Voluntary Organisations,
(h) Friends of the Earth,
(i) the Local Government Association, and
(j) other organisations as the Secretary of State shall see fit.’.
That is not a point of order; it is not a matter for the Chair.
I think the answer to the intervention is closely related to comments I want to make about the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend Adam Afriyie, and by Opposition Members, which seeks to bring the date of the referendum forward from 2017, at the latest, to a date in 2014. In responding to those amendments, and accepting the good faith in which they were tabled—
I beg the hon. Gentleman’s pardon. He was hiding at the back. His question to the Minister for Europe two weeks ago was extremely pertinent. He asked when the Prime Minister—or perhaps the Minister—would reveal which powers and competences the Prime Minister wants to repatriate to the UK as a result of the treaty change that is coming. Two weeks ago the Minister would not answer his hon. Friend, so perhaps he will give us an answer today.
Oh dear, dear, Mr Speaker. Labour Members cannot think of something new today, so they just put on the old record and try to repeat it again. I am tempted simply to refer the hon. Gentleman to remarks I made last time we debated this Bill. I pointed out to him achievements that the Government already have to their credit in terms of significant reform of the European Union, from the first ever budget cut, to reform of the fisheries policy of a kind that Labour said it wanted during 13 years in office but was never capable of achieving.
Yet again, the hon. Gentleman has failed this morning to spell out whether his party and leader are prepared to commit themselves to giving the British people a final say over the terms of our membership of the European Union. [Hon. Members: “Give way!] I am giving the hon. Gentleman the answer I believe he deserves. He may believe that the right approach would be for the Government to spell out in 2013 precisely what terms Ministers in a future Conservative Government would hope to put to the European Union after the 2015 general election. I say only that if that is the sort of naive approach to negotiation he currently endorses, it shows why the Labour party so signally failed to achieve much while in office.
Let me return to the points I was addressing to my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor, and others who want to bring the referendum forward to 2014. First, I ask them to consider British circumstances in 2014. We will already have an important referendum on the future of Scotland in the UK. I believe it would be an unnecessary complication to that debate to have a European referendum as well next year. Secondly, I suggest to the House that we should bear in mind the European timetable. Next year there will be elections to the European Parliament and the appointment of a new European Commission. That period will entail a break from normal European business, during which it would simply not be possible to engage in the serious work of reform and renegotiation that so many people on both sides of the House and millions of our fellow citizens want to see.
The choice that the British people deserve is a choice between membership of the European Union on reformed and renegotiated terms or leaving. That is the right choice. I do not believe it would be possible to come to an informed view about that choice as early as next year. It is that understanding of the European context that has led the Government to propose a 2017 date.
It is a genuine point of order, because I did not want the House to be inadvertently misled in any way. I simply want to put on record the fact that common fisheries negotiations were well advanced under the previous Labour Government. [Interruption.] I had to make the point.
The hon. Gentleman has made his point. It was not a point of order, as I rather feared it would not be.
I welcome the opportunity to speak to a number of amendments in this group standing in my name. [Interruption.] Given that you ruled on this matter previously, Mr Speaker, I should also make it clear to the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, Anna Soubry, who is shouting at me from a sedentary position, that these are not frivolous amendments. They are serious amendments. Some are intended to probe the Government’s position; some are amendments that I will wish to put to a vote. In the last few days I have also added my name to two other amendments—amendment 77, in the name of my right hon. Friend Mr Hain and amendment 3, in the name of Adam Afriyie—because it is important that the House should make clear its views about those matters as well as the others.
I have tabled a number of the amendments in this group: amendments 9 to 13, 21 to 33, and 58 and 59. They cover different aspects of this important debate about the timing of the referendum—if it is to be held—as well as related matters, such as the number of days on which the referendum would be held. The Minister—who I assume was speaking for the Conservative party and not the Government—made it clear previously that he believes there are problems with holding a referendum in 2014. One of his arguments is that the choice should simply be between a hypothetical and at this stage undefined renegotiated position and total withdrawal. However, we do not yet know what that renegotiated position will be.
I have received representations, including from people who disagree with my pro-European approach, arguing that the choice should be between the status quo and complete withdrawal. Rather than buying a pig in a poke, we would at least know what the status quo was. That would mean that those who are hostile to the European Union can vote to leave, while those who support it as it is, but with a commitment to work to change it—there are always changes; it is not constant—will know that what they are voting for is something like what we have today.
It might be, but we do not necessarily need to have a referendum. We could say that those who wish to vote to leave the European Union on
I am listening carefully to what the hon. Gentleman is saying. On the status quo, given the urgent question that I had to raise about the charter of fundamental rights, for example, as well as many other things, does he agree that we need fundamental change in the relationship and not necessarily nibbling at the treaties? In fact, we do not want nibbling at the treaties at all.
I disagree with the hon. Gentleman, just as other Members, including his predecessor as Chair of the European Scrutiny Committee, disagreed with his argument the other day. However, I do not think I would be in order if I went down that route, because that is not the subject before us.
Let me come to the detail of my amendments. As my hon. Friend Kevin Brennan said in his intervention, amendment 21 proposes that the referendum be on the same day as the next general election. One argument for that is that it would save a great deal of money, because the polling stations would already be there, and the publicity and the campaign could be part of the general campaign. There is also a second argument. Moving the referendum to that date would clarify the debate and resolve the issue at the beginning of the next Government, rather than allowing their first 18 months in office to be dominated by this so-called renegotiation, which would divert attention from their priorities for health, education and housing.
I understand the point my hon. Friend is making, but in practice would it not be confusing for hon. Members to be campaigning on behalf of their political parties one moment, but in another moment having to form alliances with colleagues from other political parties on the issue of Europe? Is that not a proposition that would simply not work in practice?
I understand my hon. Friend’s sympathy for those Conservative Members of Parliament who might find themselves having to campaign alongside UKIP, but we know that many Conservative MPs are already trying to reach local arrangements with UKIP so that they will be unopposed at the next general election. My proposal would be a fulfilment, in practice and openly, of what is already happening under the radar.
My hon. Friend’s amendment would not only mean some or most Conservative Members of Parliament campaigning with UKIP; it would also raise the difficulty of some—albeit a few—Conservative Members of Parliament having to campaign with us to remain within the European Union. There would also be the problem that if changes were made to the treaty a couple of years later, then whichever Government were in power would be forced to hold another referendum in the UK, two or three years after already holding one, because of our commitment under the European Union Act 2011.
I accept that; it is another valid argument.
The second amendment I want to comment on is amendment 3, which was tabled by the hon. Member for Windsor. His position is that the referendum should be held in October 2014, five weeks after the referendum on Scottish separatism. I believe that there are problems with that date, because of the proximity to the other date, but I also believe that he is making the same point that I am making about the futility of having a hypothetical renegotiation. The Government have ruled out renegotiating now—the Foreign Secretary told the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs that there was no intention of starting any renegotiation in advance of a general election. This is therefore a status quo “as we are” alternative to a complete withdrawal. It is similar to the argument I have just made about holding the referendum a few months later, on the same day as the general election.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the amendment tabled by Adam Afriyie is more politically honest than what has been put forward by the Conservative party and the Prime Minister in that it would allow people to vote on whether we should be in or out of the EU and might force the Prime Minister to concede to saying which way he would vote in such a referendum.
The hon. Gentleman is perfectly entitled to use parliamentary tactics to pepper this Bill with different dates for referendums, but I would like to know his real view. If there were a Labour Government, does he think there should be a referendum on whether we should stay in or out?
The hon. Gentleman is a great expert on Friday debates. I am prepared to listen carefully to him if he wishes to make further interventions, but at this stage of my contribution, I want to concentrate on the specifics of my amendments, not on hypothetical questions—[Interruption.] I will answer the hon. Gentleman’s question, but in my own time, a time of my choosing. As the hon. Gentleman knows, I do not have to disrupt the flow and the eloquence of debate on all the different amendments or the order in which I want to discuss them. I will come to his point later. As an expert on what happens on Fridays with private Members’ Bills, the hon. Gentleman will know that his intervention allows me to give more thought and more consideration to my contribution, perhaps making it a little lengthier than would otherwise be the case.
Does my hon. Friend see a real problem with the situation in Scotland, whereby votes will be given to 16 and 17-year-olds for the separatist referendum, as he calls it, yet those same individuals would not be able to vote on the European referendum that could be held on the same day? Is that not a recipe for conflict and confusion?
Yes. The previous set of amendments, on which we have not yet voted, included amendments proposed by a number of hon. Members and were spoken to by many Members, including my hon. Friend Seema Malhotra. They were about the importance of considering votes for 16 and 17-year-olds in any referendum on the European Union. Surely if the young people of Scotland, with the consent and agreement of the UK Government—it would not have been possible to do it otherwise—are able to vote in September 2014, they will probably feel a little bit miffed, to put it mildly, if they are not then allowed to vote a few weeks, months or years later in another referendum. That will not encourage the participation of young people, who will feel that they have been given a democratic right on the one hand, and had it taken away from them on the other.
My hon. Friend, as always, makes an excellent speech. Does he agree with me that to offer 16 and 17-year-olds a vote in one referendum and not in another sends out a confusing message about how mature we believe those 16 and 17-year-olds are to make a decision that is really going to affect their future?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, but I would not wish to stray back into the debates on the earlier group of amendments. We are now talking about other matters.
I was commenting on the possibility of holding the referendum by the end of 2014, as suggested in my amendment 22. To meet people’s concerns about that issue and about whether to hold the referendum on the same day as the general election in May 2015, I have tabled an amendment to allow for greater flexibility. My amendment 23 would allow the referendum to be held by the end of 2015. That would mean, of course, that the Government would have to give some thought rapidly to how their renegotiation strategy could be developed prior to the general election. I am sure that the Liberal Democrats would, as usual, be very accommodating and helpful to their Conservative partners, as they always are on all matters.
This amendment would at least reduce the period of uncertainty. One of my big fears is that a referendum held a long way away will lead to potential delays or even cancellations of suggestions for inward investment into this country from countries such as Korea, Japan, China or the United States that have other European Union potential host countries such as the Netherlands, the Irish Republic and elsewhere. They might choose to go there rather than here if they thought that, four years down the line, the UK might be exiting from the single market and the European Union.
On that very issue, is my hon. Friend aware of what Nissan said a couple of weeks ago? It said that it would reconsider its investment in the UK if Britain leaves the European Union—and there are 6,500 people employed by Nissan in the north-east. Does not my hon. Friend find that to be an extremely worrying scenario?
Absolutely—and it is not just Nissan; it is any major international company that wishes to locate within the European Union to get access to the single market population of 500 million and wishes to be based in a country with a high level of education where large numbers of people speak the English language. Because there is an excellent education system in the Netherlands, that counts as one such country; the Irish Republic would also provide an easy alternative for location if, because of the uncertainty created by a potential referendum and renegotiation leading up to 2017, they chose not to invest in the United Kingdom.
I was dealing with amendment 23, but amendment 24 would allow a little bit more time for the renegotiation. It is not as good as holding it earlier because of the uncertainty and the issues to which I have just referred. Nevertheless, this would allow less uncertainty—one year less uncertainty—than this private Member’s Bill, supported by elements of the Government, would allow.
Given the questions over whether this issue should be properly considered and some doubts about how long the renegotiation might take, I have also tabled amendments to provide an alternative date after the next general election, going beyond 2017. I have suggested—although I shall not press amendments 26 and 27 to the vote—2018 and 2019 as alternatives to allow more time. With 27 other EU states, this renegotiation, if it were to happen, would be extremely difficult. If, of course, the renegotiation is going to be a modest figleaf-type negotiation, it could be done quite quickly. If, however, it is fundamental and has to meet all the demands of the people who want to leave behind all the aspects of the present European Union and go back to being a free trade area or a common market, it would involve a complete disintegration and disentanglement of the UK relationship, requiring an à la carte approach that the other 27 countries are not likely to—I would say, will not—agree to. That would be a problem, so we would need a long time to persuade those other countries of our case.
Does my hon. Friend believe that we would be better informed and able to make a more informed decision on his amendments if the Prime Minister and the Government told us and the British people exactly what type of renegotiation they have in mind—whether it be the all-day breakfast, the à la carte or simply a cheap snack?
Of course we would. However, as the Foreign Secretary made clear in giving evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee, the Government do not propose that. They have this balance of competences review, which is being denounced on some websites, and by some of the more Europhobic commentators, as a put-up job by the Europhiles who run the FCO. [Interruption.] I am not making it up; that is what is being said.
The Prime Minister’s interesting speech to Bloomberg in January was going to happen in 2012, but was delivered in 2013; according to the Foreign Secretary, he made parts of it on behalf of the Conservative party and parts as Prime Minister of a coalition Government. It would greatly benefit this country’s future if the Prime Minister followed that up with another speech in January 2014, in which he set out in great detail his vision—if he has one—of the kind of green-friendly, environmentalist, European Union that he wished to put forward for the future.
I do not want to pre-empt a discussion that we will have later, but it is noticeable that the Electoral Commission has said during its comments on the suggested question that there is a lack of understanding among the population of the United Kingdom about what the European Union does and is. Does my hon. Friend agree that a slightly longer time scale would give the Government the opportunity to put objective arguments, both for and against, to the British people, so that they were better informed about the European Union?
That could happen if the Government were prepared to start putting those arguments. However, as things stand, because the tail is wagging the dog and because the Government are running scared of a party that is polling only 10% or 12%, they are prepared to put this country’s interests at risk and not make the case for European co-operation and the European Union in a positive, regular and consistent manner. Unfortunately, I do not think the issue will be resolved until there is a change of Administration and we have a Government with a commitment to take these issues seriously and put them forward in a positive manner.
I totally agree, although I would have said that the cart was being put before the horse rather than that the tail was wagging the dog. Clearly, the Government are talking about a referendum before deciding what particular competences they want to repatriate.
My hon. Friend has tabled amendments restricting possible later dates for a referendum. I can understand dates earlier than 2017 being up for discussion, but later dates would totally bring into question the likelihood of a new treaty—2019 is six years from now. Given the pressures in the eurozone, a new treaty would be much more likely to happen sooner; it would be fanciful to think that the other 28 members of the European Union could wait until 2019.
As I said, I did not table these amendments to push all of them to a vote. However, I would be interested in the Government’s response to my hon. Friend’s points and my previous remarks.
I want to make progress. I have been generous in taking interventions, but I need to allow time for others to speak. I have added my name to amendment 77, tabled by my right hon. Friend Mr Hain. It is an important amendment because, as the Minister well knows, there is a difficulty. Under the rotating six-month timetable, the United Kingdom is due to hold the presidency of the Council of Ministers between
There will be a period in which the Government—I am sorry; I mean the Conservative part of the Government. I must get that right, but it is very difficult. The Minister, speaking on behalf of the Conservative party from the Front Bench, has said that the preferred date for the referendum is before the end of 2017. Frankly, that could cause all kinds of difficulties and confusions for the United Kingdom presidency. If we had to have a referendum in 2017, it would be logical and sensible to hold it before
If we voted to stay in, the Government would no doubt say, “The British people have supported the European Union. Now we are great Europhiles and go forward in co-operation and friendship, harmony, peace, love and apple pie. Everything is fine.” If, however, there was the question of a referendum in August, September, October or November, we would be in the heat of a referendum campaign in the middle of the British presidency. How could Ministers behave in a governmental role, attending Council of Ministers meetings, chairing meetings and taking part in negotiations and discussions, without taking off the party political hats that they were wearing in their fight in that campaign?
We do not know the terms of the referendum: what, if anything, will have been renegotiated. It is possible that some Ministers will be arguing to leave the European Union, while others—in the same Department or even the same party—will be arguing to stay. What an absurd prospect for a British presidency of the European Union. The best solution is to support amendment 77, on which I hope we can divide the House, through which we can make it clear that the referendum should not be held during the six-month period of the British presidency. It would be absurd to hold it then.
My hon. Friend has made an extremely important point. If there were that element of confusion about where the United Kingdom stood, that would obviously be bad news for the UK and our national interest. Furthermore, it would be debilitating for the European Union as a whole.
The hon. Gentleman is making a good point about how absurd it would be for the referendum—or even the campaign—to take place during the British presidency. The best of his amendments is amendment 58, which would appoint a commission to look into the date and arrangements of the referendum. If that amendment were accepted, could we not do away with most of his other amendments, which one might be tempted to think were rather spinning out the debate?
The hon. Gentleman makes my arguments for me on amendment 58, so I will not repeat them. There are strong arguments to get the correct date through consultation, rather than there being an arbitrary decision put forward by elements within the Government. Better for there to be a commission and, as my amendment 12 says, for there to be consultation with faith organisations to make sure that the dates do not clash with religious festivals and holidays. We are a multicultural, multi-faith country now, so the Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Jews, Zoroastrians, Muslims and Christians will all need to be consulted.
I do not want to give way any more, as I want to make progress. I want to conclude my remarks soon.
We need to avoid the prospect of the date clashing with other elections. Amendment 13 deals with that issue because there are regional, local and national elections, by-elections and other elections. It is important for there to be clarity about the date.
Finally, in amendments 9, 10 and 11, I make the case for us to get into the 21st century. Gone are the days when we should vote on only one day—Thursdays. We no longer live in a world in which there is no flexitime or different hours, and in which most people live and work very close to the same place. Those days have gone. Like other countries, we should get into the modern world and allow voting on more than one day—Thursday, Friday and Saturday, or Saturday and Sunday. We need to be more flexible, more open and more democratic. It is crucial that we take account of the modern age. If we are to have this epoch-making referendum, we should at least consider it reflecting the situation in the 21st century.
I have introduced my amendments. I do not wish to delay the House any longer, but I would like to have votes on amendments 3 and 77.
I stand to speak briefly against any amendments, no matter how well intentioned, designed to bring forward the referendum date from 2017. Having campaigned hard with many other colleagues for a referendum in the next Parliament and legislation in this one to make sure that those outside this place really do believe our intent, I very much welcome this referendum Bill and congratulate my hon. Friend James Wharton on bringing it to the Floor of the House.
Only a few years ago, the word “referendum” had hardly passed the Government’s lips, and certainly not the Prime Minister’s, yet here we are today pushing for legislation. I have already sent my thanks to all colleagues on these Benches who supported that campaign. It involved a number of letters signed by 100 colleagues, and also an amendment to the Queen’s Speech, which was well supported on the Conservative Benches and by principled Members on the Labour Benches. Many Members on both sides of the House and, in particular, people outside this place have campaigned on this issue long and hard over many years. It has been a long journey. Indeed, the British people have waited too long to have their say on our continued membership of an organisation that has fundamentally changed since we first joined. As chairman of the all-party group on European Union referendum, I can say that it is a shame that the Labour and the Liberal Democrat parties still do not support the idea of a referendum. I suggest to Members on the Front Benches that they should trust the electorate.
The hon. Gentleman must not keep repeating this idea that the Liberal Democrats are against referendums. We supported a referendum at the time of the Lisbon treaty. We made it quite clear at our party conference that we support the concept of an in/out referendum, and we want the British people to have their say at the right time.
I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman made that intervention, because it is clear to everyone, both inside and outside this place, that the Liberals are very good at promising referendums when it comes to a general election, but do not deliver the goods when the time comes. I am afraid that they talk the talk, but do not walk the walk.
Briefly, let me address the central point of the date of the referendum; I am conscious that other Members wish to speak. Pulling the date forward from 2017 would not make for a fair referendum. There would be less time to marshal the facts and to have a true consideration of them. The Prime Minister could rightly say that he has not had time fully to repatriate any powers. If the referendum was held next year, the political establishment would close ranks and push the case for an “in” vote—to remain in the EU—in addition to which we do not have a full explanation of the merits and otherwise of our membership. We need time to nail the lie that leaving the EU would cost 3 million jobs. We need time to allow small businesses, which tend to be more sceptical of EU regulations than big businesses, to find their voice. We need time for the eurozone crisis to play out. We do not know what sort of Europe or European structures we are dealing with in the EU.
I will not give way. If the hon. Gentleman does not mind, I will continue. We need time for the Prime Minister to try to repatriate those powers to the UK. Success will influence the outcome; failure—if no powers are repatriated—will be plain for all to see. I suggest that a referendum any earlier than 2017 would unfairly stack the odds in favour of staying in.
Obviously, the hon. Gentleman does not want to delay the House for too long, but could he define which powers he wants repatriating? He could even give us a sample.
From my point of view, there are no shortages of powers that need repatriating. Let us be clear—[Interruption.] Let me answer the question. If the Prime Minister fails to repatriate any powers, it will plain for the country to see and it can adjudicate on that. I urge those Members who have tabled amendments to speak to them, but not press them to a Division. The British electorate deserves this Bill; it has waited too long, and, having reached this point, we must not now allow these amendments to scupper our chances.
I want to speak to amendments 68 and 70 and new schedule 2. Before we have a referendum on whether to stay in or come out of the EU, it is important that we consult bodies and organisations. James Wharton should have undertaken such a consultation before assembling a Bill that was designed more to keep his own party together than to better the prospects of his Stockton South constituents in the north-east of England. Let me explain why consultation is so important.
I know that James Wharton has spoken a great deal in the north-east on television and to the newspapers. Does my hon. Friend not find it odd that, despite championing a Bill around the newsrooms and the newspapers of the north-east, he has been completely silent throughout this entire debate?
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman intends to speak later. I know how vocal he has been in the region on this issue, but not in the Chamber.
One area that we could consult on is foreign direct investment in the north-east, which is important to the region. Let me explain why we should consult those organisations that promote such investment. Since 1992, inward foreign direct investment flows to the EU have doubled and the UK has become an attractive investment, with the second largest stock of foreign direct investment in the world, although it has fallen since 2010. I will come on to that later and explain why this Bill undermines future investment.
Nissan and Hitachi Rail Europe are two cases in point. On
“If anything has to change, we would need to reconsider our strategy and our investments for the future.”
Nissan employs 6,500 people in Sunderland, and supports 40,000 more jobs in the supply chain. Who in their right minds would jeopardise any further investment in Nissan’s Sunderland plant, especially when the person threatening to cause the uncertainty with this Bill is a north-east MP who lives just 20 miles down the A19 from Nissan itself?
My hon. Friend is making a powerful point. The automotive sector is now a world-class success story. Key to that success has been inward investment. Key to inward investment has been membership of the European Union. Does my hon. Friend agree with the warnings not just from Nissan, but from Ford, BMW and Jaguar Land Rover that were there to be prolonged uncertainty or were we to leave the European Union, great damage would be done to the employers of hundreds of thousands of British workers?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right and that is why I believe that we should have some consultation with people who bring investment into this country and with other organisations that want to promote jobs not just in the north-east of England but throughout the UK.
My hon. Friend, like me, has visited the Nissan plant in Sunderland and as a Sunderland MP I know just how important Nissan is to the regional economy. In the north-east at the moment, with high levels of unemployment and of long-term youth unemployment, is not this risk and uncertainty the last thing we need hanging over jobs and investment?
I agree with my hon. Friend. In a moment, I shall come on to the importance of Nissan. It is not just important to the north-east: 81% of Nissan’s cars are exported and 56%, or 279,000 vehicles, are exported to Europe. Nissan’s exports are worth £4.3 billion. It spends £1.4 billion on local suppliers and its wage bill is £331 million, money that goes into the north-east economy.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful point about the impact on the automotive industry. Did he see “Channel 4 News” last night? It is not just the automotive industry that would be affected by the decision and is being affected by the debate. A senior representative from Goldman Sachs—from the banking industry in which the Conservative party places so much faith—talked about the prospect of that company pulling out of London altogether if there is a referendum to exit the EU.
None of the issues being raised by my hon. Friends should be considered lightly. They are important issues for the future of the economy and over the next four years, if the Bill is passed, it will create nothing but uncertainty for those people who want to see jobs for their constituents.
My hon. Friend referred to amendment 70. Is not one of the problems with that amendment the fact that the Secretary of State would be responsible for producing the report? Given that when my hon. Friend remarked on the dangers of investors withdrawing from Britain, Conservative Members shouted “Rubbish”, could we trust a Conservative Secretary of State to produce an independent report? Would it not be better for the report to be produced by an independent body?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. We need an independent report to prove why staying in Europe is vital.
Let me finish my comments on Nissan by giving some other statistics. Nissan has said that if the UK leaves the EU its export potential to Europe would be hit by 10% tariffs on exports of vehicles and 5% on components. That is a company worth consulting before embarking on a Bill, the contents of which will cause four years of uncertainty for the UK and the north-east economy.
Nissan might be 20 miles away from Stockton South, but the Hitachi Rail Europe factory is even closer. It started its construction phase this month in Newton Aycliffe in my constituency, which is adjacent to Stockton South. The president of Hitachi, Hiroaki Nakanishi, said on
“any exit…could lead to less investment”.
He also said:
“The UK should be a member of the European Union from the standpoint of our operations”,
and went on to say:
“For Japanese businesses, the UK and the Continent are very complementary”.
Rather worryingly for my constituents and, I should have thought, for those of the hon. Member for Stockton South, Mr Nakanishi also said Hitachi
“would have to reconsider how to manage our total railways business”.
Alistair Dormer, the chief executive officer of Hitachi Rail Europe, was reported in The Northern Echo on
“We regard Europe as potentially our biggest market and we should not want anything to happen that would damage the relationship and put up barriers, we should stay in”.
Hitachi’s investment will bring train building back to the north-east of England, initially creating 730 jobs with 3,000 more potentially in the supply chain. As I said, the construction phase of the factory started this month. The Secretaries of State for Transport and Business, Innovation and Skills were at the launch on
Obviously, the hon. Gentleman wants Britain to stay in the European Union. That is perfectly okay and he can make those arguments in a referendum. Is he in favour of a referendum, and if so, when?
I do not agree with a referendum in four years’ time given that nobody knows what the question will be. That will create a lot of uncertainty which will threaten jobs not just in my constituency but everywhere else in the country. Those are the issues that I believe the hon. Gentleman should recognise.
“Mr Wharton is the Conservative MP for Stockton South, whose private member’s Bill will see MPs vote this Friday on whether to hold a referendum on the UK’s membership with the EU.”
The report went on:
“It’s ironic that the Tory backbencher was happy to celebrate the investment Hitachi is making in the North-East, while championing a cause that jeopardises the region’s chances of securing similar job boosts in the future.”
I could not agree more.
I thank my hon. Friend for reminding the House of what The Northern Echo said. Would it not be greatly advantageous not only to the House but to his constituents, the people of the north-east and The Northern Echo if James Wharton at least made a contribution to the debate? This is yet another occasion on which he has remained silent.
I have been as disciplined as I can, Mr Speaker, as I do not wish to drag out the debate. However, I am tempted to remind the hon. Gentleman, who has taken such an interest in investment and job creation in the north-east, that it was Margaret Thatcher who brought Nissan, it was under this Government that we got Hitachi and that it was this Government who returned steelmaking to Teesside after it closed under Labour. A referendum will end uncertainty by giving people a clear choice. He might want to use the arguments he has put forward to argue that we stay in, and that will be his choice when the time comes. The fact remains that if we want to end uncertainty we need to give people a say and bring the debate to an end.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should make a speech on these issues. Let us not forget that I am pleased about the investment Nissan brought to this country in the 1980s. I also remember that for every job it created five other jobs were lost. Also, let us not forget that a Conservative Government brought in the Single European Act in the first place.
I agree with my hon. Friend.
The next time the hon. Member for Stockton South wants to turn up to a Hitachi event in my constituency to try to get his photograph in the paper, he should not be surprised if my constituents ask him, “What are you doing here? Aren’t you the man whose private Member’s Bill is threatening our jobs?” They know that the investment from Hitachi was the result of a Labour initiative, not a Conservative initiative. The intercity express programme was nearly stopped by this Government but was put back on track by a north-east-led campaign, which did not include the hon. Gentleman. We know the importance of foreign direct investment.
It is not only major companies that need to be consulted, as tens of thousands of other jobs are reliant on the EU, whether they are with exporters or suppliers.
I want to make some progress, if my hon. Friend does not mind.
More than 140,000 jobs in the north-east will be affected if we left the EU. That is 33,000 in County Durham, 25,000 in Teesside, 19,000 in Northumbria and 30,000-odd in Tyneside. Jobs would also be lost in Cumbria. In Stockton South, 5,200 jobs would be affected or are reliant in some way on the EU. In Sedgefield, the figure is 6,500.
Of those north-east firms that export, 89% do so with EU customers. Three of the north-east’s top five export markets are in the EU: the Netherlands, France and Spain. If the hon. Member for Stockton South had consulted the North East chamber of commerce, he would have heard the organisation’s head of policy, Ross Smith, say:
“For a Region so successful in exports, the EU…remains crucial. Our…studies clearly demonstrate that our businesses want to remain part of the single market.”
I would like to make some progress.
Total exports from the north-east to the EU last year were worth £6.5 billion, which was nearly half the region’s total. In a survey for Business for Britain, 6% of businesses said that they would close if we left the EU. That would mean the loss of 1.5 million jobs in Britain, including 40,000 in the north-east, at an average of 1,300 per north-east constituency. I am pleased that I am not jeopardising those jobs by supporting the Bill.
Foreign direct investment is important to the UK economy and the north-east. FDI has fallen in the north-east since 2010, but let me explain why the Bill, given the lack of consultation on its creation, would make matters worse. A recent Ernst and Young report on FDI called “No room for complacency” said:
“The number of FDI projects secured by most English regions, excluding London, declined in 2012. Investments in England outside of London were 24% below their level in 2010—a decline that has coincided with the closure of the Regional Development
Agencies…and the switch to Local Enterprise Partnerships…If it continues, the weakness of the English regions could damage the UK’s overall ability to attract FDI in comparison to countries such as France and Germany”.
“56% of investors in Western Europe feel that if the UK were less integrated into the EU it would become less attractive for FDI”.
It also says:
“the position of London is now so pronounced that if the UK were to be considered without London, it would be placed joint third alongside Spain in attracting new investment.”
All that underlines my basic point that at a time of difficulties in attracting foreign investment, it is absolutely ridiculous to create even more uncertainty by proceeding with the Bill.
Perhaps there are other people whom the hon. Member for Stockton South should have heard from, because if he had consulted more widely than just the various factions of the Conservative party for whom coming out of Europe is an anecdote for the loss of empire, he would not have touched this Bill with a bargepole. He should have spoken to people such as Paul Everitt, the chief executive of the ADS group, who says:
“UK exports are crucial to rebalancing the economy and last year alone, aerospace sales to Europe were worth £7.5 billion. But the EU is more than just a large market for ADS’s sectors. It’s also a significant source of additional funding for R&D investment in the UK and plays an integral role in shaping the regulatory environment for the sector’s key customers and suppliers...The priority must be to maintain these opportunities for exports, investment and influence in Europe in order to support the UK’s growth and global competitiveness.”
Does my hon. Friend agree that one European success story has been Airbus? This week’s announcement by the Emirates airline of its order of 50 A380 aircraft is a good sign that Britain benefits from EU membership, but such benefits could be jeopardised if we were not part of a single market.
Despite everything the hon. Gentleman is saying, does he agree that it is essential that we have a referendum before the end of 2014, because we are already in a process of constitutional and fundamental change? Renegotiating the treaties will do no more than nibble at things, so it is absolutely essential that we have a referendum in the interests of the British people.
I thought that the hon. Gentleman would make an intervention during my speech, so I looked at the number of jobs in Stone that are reliant on Europe. The number is nearly 6,000, so he should think carefully about supporting the Bill.
The hon. Member for Stockton South should also have consulted Steve Elliott, the chief executive of the Chemical Industries Association. That industry is very important in Teesside, and Mr Elliott said:
“With 50% of our exports destined for continental Europe, the UK’s largest manufacturing exporter—the chemical industry—has every reason for the country to remain as part of the European
Union. It is earlier and smarter engagement at all levels—member state, the Commission and the Parliament—that will address our sector’s chief concerns around energy and regulation and strengthen Britain’s chances when competing globally for sustained economic growth and jobs.”
I shall finish by saying this—[Hon. Members: “Hooray!”] Conservative Members obviously do not want to hear the facts of how the Bill would impact on the north-east of England and the UK economy. I honestly do not know how the hon. Gentleman will be able to explain to his constituents the need to extend the age of uncertainty that he intends to thrust on them through the Bill, but I believe that they will pay him back at the ballot box in 2015 by returning a Labour MP for Stockton South.
I rise to speak to amendment 62 and new schedule 1, which I tabled, and to support a range of other measures, including new schedule 2. As has been clear from the debate so far, this contentious matter is dividing the House and, to an extent, the country at large, so getting the date of a referendum right is crucial, which was why I tabled my amendment and new schedule. I am worried about the uncertainty that is being generated by the Conservative party as a result of this debate, yet that uncertainty is added to by the question of the date. If there is to be a referendum, it is crucial that it is held on a date whereby it will cause the minimum amount of disruption and difficulty, and the least uncertainty for the business community on which many millions of people rely for their livelihoods and on which the strength of the British economy depends.
I therefore propose establishing a Speaker’s Committee, because there could be no better way of providing reassurance than for such a Committee to determine the referendum date. That process would offer some comfort to those who are alarmed by the current debate, because they would understand that there would not be an arbitrary date, with all the ramifications that flow from that. A Speaker’s Committee would be able to consider the matter in the cold, calm light of day, instead of it being determined in the cockpit that is the Floor of the House.
It might be helpful if I illustrate my point by quoting George Cowcher, the chief executive of the Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire chamber of commence, who says:
“As the world’s largest single market, Europe will always be a key trading partner for the UK. Being successful there remains central to the future growth and development of a significant majority of companies in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. Business hates uncertainty and that’s what will be caused by this.”
There is no justification for adding to that uncertainty, so surely it would be better to minimise it by establishing a Speaker’s Committee to address that real concern.
There is a lot of merit in my hon. Friend’s suggestion because there are a number of precedents of the Speaker taking the lead by establishing a forum, Committee or conference to discuss complex constitutional matters. Does he agree that such precedents enormously reinforce his argument?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that point, which I was going to incorporate in my speech. I agree that there are such precedents, so it would be sensible to consider establishing a Speaker’s
Committee on one of the most important—if not the most important—issues that we have ever had to face, certainly in modern times.
The British public and British business want to ensure that the date is set in the national interest, not in the partisan interest of the Conservative party. Business knows and we all know—I would like to think that anyone here with a modicum of common sense knows—that the single market is absolutely key. In his comments, my hon. Friend Phil Wilson referred to Nissan, a massive investment in the north-east of England which is put in jeopardy as a consequence of the uncertainties created by this debate. Those uncertainties are added to by the uncertainty as to whether the date of the referendum is in the national interest.
My hon. Friend was speaking about the potential negative economic consequences of the proposal to delay the referendum as long as possible. Does he believe that this economic uncertainty and the damage that it causes is one of the things that was in the mind of Mr Cameron when he said in 2010 that he was against an in/out EU referendum?
Indeed, but the problem for the Prime Minister is that he has been taken prisoner by extremists in his own party who are determined, irrespective of the national interest—their little Englander mentality has captured the Prime Minister. He is being held hostage by the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative party and he has done a volte-face on the date of the referendum.
We are offered a choice between a Speaker’s Committee made up of elected Members in amendment 62 and a kind of quango in amendment 58 to which my hon. Friend Mike Gapes spoke earlier. Does my hon. Friend Chris Williamson agree that it would be better if such a body comprised elected politicians, rather than it being some worthy appointed quango, as in amendment 58?
As my amendment 58 has been mentioned, I thought I should make a brief intervention. I have considered carefully what my hon. Friend has been saying and I think there is merit in his position. I was not aware of the amendment that he had tabled when I tabled mine, but I can see that on balance it would be better to have a committee of the kind that he proposes, so if we get the opportunity to vote on it, I shall support his amendment.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I was in no way seeking to be critical of him. His amendment was a big improvement on what was available in the Bill. There is a very real concern across the country and in the business community, which has been articulated by senior business leaders, that the referendum and the date on which it is held could jeopardise a huge benefit to the country, because the single market is worth between £62 billion and £78 billion to this nation. That is £3,000 per household, so if we are to have a referendum, getting the date right is crucial. We do not want to put in further jeopardy that huge benefit to the British economy and all those millions of British workers who rely on the European Union for their livelihood.
When the hon. Gentleman refers to extremists, is he aware that France, Ireland, Holland and Denmark have all had referendums? There is nothing extreme about that. Furthermore, to hold a referendum before the end of 2014 has enormous attractions and I will vote for it. I raised the issue in my debate against Nigel Farage in the party conference this year, and I also made a speech and put out a press release the previous year, calling for the same position.
Mr Cash refers to referendums in Ireland and Denmark. He is well aware, because he is very experienced in these matters, that they were not in/out European Union referendums. They were referendums on aspects of treaty change, similar to what might happen if there were another European convention or treaty change in a few years, which is the existing Government policy. His argument is therefore not valid.
My hon. Friend is right and makes the point that I was about to make in response to Mr Cash.
We need a much more measured approach. That is why I have proposed my amendments. This is a vitally important constitutional issue. Consideration must be undertaken calmly, not in the cockpit which is the Floor of the House of Commons. What could be better than a committee chaired by the Speaker, whose membership included the Lord President of the Council—the Deputy Prime Minister—the Minister responsible for foreign affairs and five Members who are not Ministers, to deliberate on the issue? That would be far better than a knee-jerk primary legislative approach, which is what is available to us under the Bill.
The question of a referendum is such a divisive issue, so it would to some extent be legitimised by the establishment of a Speaker’s Committee. For that reason I hope Members on the Government Benches will have heard the points that I have made, will reflect calmly on their position, and if they insist on going forward with a referendum, will at least accede to this reasonable request for a Speaker’s Committee, which would enable a measure of consensus to be brought to bear on the issue.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Chris Williamson and the contributions from my hon. Friend Mr Bain, my right hon. Friend Mr Hain, and my hon. Friends the Members for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) and for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson), and to have had the chance to listen to the contributions from Adam Afriyie and more recently Mr Baron.
I shall come to amendment 68, the lead amendment, in due course, but I begin with amendment 3 in the name of the hon. Member for Windsor. I pay tribute to him. Despite considerable pressure to present a façade of party unity, he has stuck to his guns and followed through on his determination to press for a referendum next year. I can immediately see three tempting reasons why the House might want to support the hon. Gentleman’s amendment. First, as the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay reminded us, the whole House knows that the Prime Minister and many in the Conservative party are obviously on different pages with regard to Europe. Amendment 3 therefore offers us the chance to underline once again just how divided the Conservative party is on that great European obsession of theirs.
The second tempting reason to support the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Windsor is that if one believed that the Prime Minister will not or cannot repatriate sufficient powers and competences from the European Union to Britain, which I think is the view of Mr Cash, through the treaty change that he believes is coming, and by the entirely arbitrary deadline that the Bill establishes, one might be tempted to think, “Well, let’s just crack on with a referendum next year.” The third tempting reason is that the pragmatist in all of us in the House today can recognise that the British and the European calendars are likely to be so busy in the run-up to the end of 2017 that the best time for a referendum might be next year.
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman attended the Second Reading debate. My right hon. Friend Mr Alexander, the shadow Foreign Secretary, clearly set out our position on the question of a referendum. Let me restate it for the benefit of the House. If there has been a significant transfer of powers to the European Union, of course we are committed to the principle of a referendum.
Indeed, that was the position of every one of the main parties in this House. The only party that has changed its position since is the Conservative party, and we all know that that is because Sir Edward Leigh and other Conservative Back Benchers have bullied the Prime Minister into bringing forward this commitment now.
Let me go into a little more detail on the three tempting reasons to support the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Windsor. All of us remember that the Bill and its 2017 end date is the Prime Minister’s best effort to bridge the chasm within the Conservative party on Europe. It is the product of the unprecedented Back-Bench rebellion against the Queen’s Speech earlier this year. I suspect that the hon. Gentleman and many of those who want to vote for his amendment either simply want to leave the EU or are quite frightened of UKIP. They know that the Prime Minister’s pledge is a stunt to keep them on board. Conservative councillors in the constituency of James Wharton certainly know it is a stunt. We have seen a three-line Whip, photos on College green, and Michael Green getting involved. It is just Lynton Crosby weaving away at the emperor’s new clothes so that the Prime Minister can put on the pretence of a united party.
With the greatest respect, I do not accept that. Both sides of the House, if they are being honest, recognise that the Bill, in the words of one of the Conservative councillors in the constituency of the hon. Member for Stockton South, is nothing more than a cynical political stunt.
I wonder whether the hon. Member for Windsor really thinks that the 2017 referendum will actually happen. I think that the Foreign Secretary possibly, but the Minister for Europe certainly, has already contemplated circumstances in which the commitment could be overturned. Perhaps it was that very fear that led the hon. Gentleman, like me, to read the Committee stage reports. Pressed by Martin Horwood during the Committee’s second sitting on
“I think that having a deadline in legislation usually focuses minds on the notion that negotiations cannot and should not be open-ended.”
That is a line that the Foreign Secretary would not be embarrassed by. It is a line of which Lynton Crosby would have approved.
So far, the Minister for Europe was sticking to the Conservative party line. But then the edifice began to crumble. He went on:
“Clearly, no Parliament can bind its successors”,
so why on earth do I have to be here on a Friday when I could be in Harrow helping my constituents if this is nothing more than a party political stunt? The Minister for Europe did not stop there, but went on:
“It is always open for new primary legislation to be introduced in a crisis”.––[Official Report, European Union (Referendum) Bill Public Bill Committee,
What we have there is the Minister for Europe quietly saying, “We might need to change this legislation”; quietly saying that the 2017 deadline is not an absolute after all; that legislation could be introduced to change it, or even, presumably, to scrap it. So yes, I am drawn to the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Windsor, and want to reject the cynicism of the Prime Minister’s supposed pledge.
I come to the second tempting reason why I and other Labour Members may want to vote for the hon. Gentleman’s amendment. I share his scepticism that the Prime Minister will be able to deliver what the hon. Gentleman wants. The truth is that none of us knows what powers and competences the Prime Minister wants to bring back, because he has kicked that question into the deepest of long grass, called the balance of competences review.
And my right hon. Friend rightly points out that the Minister would not answer the question today.
I have searched high and low for a hint of what the Leader of the Conservative party might want to do on that question. As my right hon. Friend said, the Minister for Europe has been asked directly a number of times, and has not given a straight answer. The hon. Member for Gainsborough asked him directly, and did not get a straight answer either.
One hopes that the Prime Minister might listen to the warnings of the former Deputy Prime Minister, and that he will listen to other business leaders who have warned about the uncertainty of a referendum.
But I come back to this search to understand what powers and competences the Prime Minister might want to bring back to the UK. The Minister for Europe will not give us an answer, so I read the Hansard reports of the Committee stage at great length, but there is no sign there either of what powers and competences the Prime Minister wants to bring back. In desperation, I faced up to the challenge of reading the speeches of the Minister for Europe. During all that time that I will never get back I fought the urge to sleep, and I am sure that, being the excellent boss he is, the shadow Foreign Secretary will now want to make sure that I get more than just a Christmas card in the post at the end of the year.
Having waded through the Minister’s speeches, I reached two conclusions: first, his civil servants are just finding him things to do. The speeches were not that different, although they were in lots of different places. Secondly, and much more serious, I do not think he has a clue what powers and competences the Prime Minister wants to bring back to the UK.
I cannot speak for the Minister, only for myself, but some of us want something very simple. We want to be able to control our own borders, fishing, agriculture and courts, and we want to stop small businesses being hit by ever more regulation. That is very clear and very simple, and that is the renegotiation that we want.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and it is one of the reasons why I have always supported the campaign to get him on to his party’s Front Bench. I hope that the Minister for Europe has listened to the call for clarity from his Back Benches, and even at this point will intervene on me to tell the House what powers and competences he wants to get back.
I apologise to the hon. Gentleman, but I want to make a bit more progress on something in which I think he will be very interested.
The hon. Member for Windsor tabled his amendment before the European Scrutiny Committee had completed its task of reviewing the significance of the justice and home affairs opt-out decision, and all those responsibilities that the Government want to opt back into. At paragraph 552 on page 148 of its report, it said that the Home Secretary had made it clear that the block opt-out was
“first and foremost about bringing powers back home.”
That is a view apparently shared by the Justice Secretary, who is also quoted in the report as saying that he regarded it as
“part of a process of bringing powers back to this country.”
But, sadly, the European Scrutiny Committee reached a very different conclusion. After examining a series of witnesses, it said:
“We see little evidence of a genuine and significant repatriation of powers.”
Given that the balance of competences review has dragged on and on, and will no doubt drag on some more, if the Minister for Europe cannot tell the House soon what powers and competences the Prime Minister wants to repatriate, the scepticism in his own party’s ranks, never mind throughout the country, will just grow and grow.
What we really want is to bring the government of the United Kingdom back to the United Kingdom, which will require fundamental constitutional change, so nibbling at the treaties will make no difference to that.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for intervening on me to tell the Minister for Europe what he wants, but the Minister shows no signs of getting up to intervene and tell the House what powers and competences the Prime Minister wants to get back and whether they will meet the Gentleman’s ambitions.
Thirdly, I suspect that the hon. Member for Windsor can make common cause with other Members who have tabled similar amendments to change the date of any referendum. My right hon. Friend the Member for Neath and my hon. Friends the Members for Ilford South, for Glasgow North East and for Derby North have suggested in amendment 77 that the period from July to December 2017, when Britain holds the presidency of the European Union, should be avoided. Surely that will be this country’s moment of maximum influence in Europe, when the Prime Minister of the day chairs the European Council and can set the agenda and force the rest of the European Union to consider Britain’s priorities. At that moment the Conservative party would have all the machinery and influence of Government focused not on fighting Britain’s corner but on fighting Tory Eurosceptics. It is diplomatic nonsense. It is not worthy of a Foreign Secretary supposedly serious about fighting for our national interest.
As the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South, amendments 21 to 27, and his speech underlined, the complete lack of flexibility in the Bill over dates for a referendum is surprising. In Committee the hon. Member for Cheltenham set out the perfectly plausible possibility that negotiations on treaty change might be ongoing as the Bill’s arbitrary deadline approached. Indeed, in Committee the Minister half accepted that such negotiations, involving many countries and considerable complexity, could still be taking place, but he was not prepared to allow any flexibility in the legislation. Ministers could be in the middle of crucial negotiations, but rather than concentrating on completing them just when they are in their most sensitive stage, they would have to switch all their attention from fighting Britain’s corner to fighting a referendum campaign. How on earth could such a situation be in the national interest? Is not the truth that the fruitcakes are not in UKIP; they have just been gobbled up by Ministers.
Despite my sympathy for what I think are the motivations of the hon. Member for Windsor, I cannot recommend support for his amendment. Given that for 40 of the past 41 months since the Conservative party took power prices have risen faster than wages, as a country we should be spending the next year concentrating on improving living standards, increasing the number of well paid jobs and tackling energy bills. A referendum next year, or indeed in four years’ time, would make that task harder as a result of all the uncertainty it would bring.
Consultation with a wider field of national bodies and local government, as amendment 68, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East, suggests, might have enabled the Prime Minister to withstand the pressure from the Tory right over timing. Why was a referendum later in the next Parliament ruled out? There does not appear to have been any input in that decision by any recognised national or local grouping, yet the Bill rules out such flexibility. Is not the truth that too many Conservative Members, because they do not trust the Prime Minister on matters European, are unwilling to trust him on the issue of a referendum beyond the halfway point of the next Parliament?
Let us consider the merits of amendment 68. When the Prime Minister decided to take the risk of allowing Britain to leave the European Union, at a potential average cost of £3,000 to the living standards of the British people, there was probably no one in the room who was not a member of the Conservative party, apart from Lynton Crosby. There was no one else to give the Prime Minister a view on whether a referendum might be in the national interest, or indeed, if a referendum were in the national interest, how it should be conducted and what information should be available when it took place.
On the amendment tabled by our hon. Friend Mr Bain, does my hon. Friend not agree that this consultation is extremely important and necessary, given that the Bill has not been treated, as it should have been, as a constitutional Bill, with pre-legislative scrutiny and an opportunity for evidence-taking? We must have the amendment; otherwise, we will never know what enormously important stakeholders in this country believe.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point, as indeed has our hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East. She points to the consultation deficit that is implicit in the way the referendum has been brought forward.
Nobody seriously doubts that a referendum will inject uncertainty into British economic life, putting at risk our constituents’ jobs and opportunities for higher living standards. The amendment offers the prospect of serious voices from outside the narrow confines of the Conservative party contributing to the debate on whether a referendum might be held and, if so, when and how. They would be calmer voices than those of Conservative Members terrified of losing their seats. When there is increasing talk about the possibility of interest rates rising, it is hard to believe that the Prime Minister is willing to risk such a huge cut in the living standards of the British people—£3,000 a year per household, according to the CBI—simply to try to maintain the fiction of unity over Europe among Conservative Members.
New schedule 2, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East, specifically suggests that the CBI should be consulted. I would welcome that, because a dose of realism about the stakes involved in a decision to leave the European Union is sorely needed. Any debate on whether, when and in what circumstances a national referendum should be held should surely be informed by contributions from those recognised as representing some of the major interests and communities in the UK.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. Does he agree that a strength of amendment 70, also tabled by our hon. Friend Mr Bain, is that it would flush out hidden agendas, because it is apparent that behind the notion of repatriation lies a desire to move down the path towards Beecroft Britain? Our country cannot succeed on the basis of a race to the bottom on pay and conditions.
My hon. Friend makes a good point on the case for amendment 70 and the real motivations behind the Conservative campaign to get us out of Europe.
A formal consultation with the organisations listed in new schedule 2 could certainly help the whole House, and Conservative Members in particular, reach a more rounded consideration of the circumstances in which a referendum would be in the national interest. It is far from clear that on matters European the Conservatives are able to reach a rational judgment on what is in the national interest, so consultation with a range of organisations beyond the 1922 committee may help us all.
We have heard from some Conservative Members about their dislike of the idea that business should be consulted formally. That is extraordinary: Conservatives turning away from business voices in this debate. Perhaps it is because one part of the business community, TheCityUK, last month published research into the views and mindset of captains of the financial services industry on the issues we are discussing in these amendments. It revealed that over 40% of those surveyed agreed that the prospect of a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union in 2017 has created an uncertainty that is affecting decisions in their business. Over a third said that it was likely that their firm would relocate at least some of its headcount from the UK to a location within the single market if Britain left the European Union. That is just one part of the business community.
I am not going to give way.
That is just one part of a critical national interest that should be consulted on whether a referendum should be held and, if so, when, underlining the risk the Prime Minister is creating of British jobs being lost to France, Germany or some other country in the single market as a result of his wanting to sleepwalk out of the European Union.
I have given way to Government Members a number of times and I want to conclude my remarks.
My hon. Friend’s amendment lists a whole series of sensible organisations that have a view on the arrangements for the referendum. He has excluded one group, but his catch-all line on other bodies that the Secretary of State might see fit to consult would perhaps allow for ex-Prime Ministers. Both recent Labour Prime Ministers could offer sound advice to the Conservative party on Europe, and it would appear that the most recent previous Conservative Prime Minister could offer it sound advice too.
My hon. Friend’s amendment ought not to have been even remotely necessary. I welcome the fact that he tabled it and look forward to his winding up the debate, but I say gently to the Minister for Europe that he really needs to give this House some clarity soon about what powers and competences the Prime Minister wants to bring back to the UK as a result of the treaty change he believes is coming.
This has been a very interesting and timely debate. Sadly, nothing we have heard from James Wharton—the promoter of the Bill—or from the Minister who speaks for the Conservative party but perhaps not for the Government has dissuaded me from my view that we need to test the opinion of the House and ensure that this debate is not simply an issue for different factions of the Conservative party but involves the proper consultation of wider interests in this country before the date for a referendum is set.
As the debate has continued, we have seen increasingly clearly the number of jobs and the amount of prosperity that would be put at risk if the voices of businesses, trade unions, farmers, environmentalists, universities, the voluntary sector, local government and other institutions throughout our society are not listened to. These bodies have a strong interest in remaining part of the European Union and in seeing the benefits of the single market continue for decades to come.
We heard short speeches from the hon. Members for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) and for Windsor (Adam Afriyie)—
I ask the Serjeant at Arms to investigate the delay in the No Lobby.
The House having divided:
Division number 132
I ask the Serjeant at Arms to investigate the delay in the Aye Lobby.
The House having divided:
Division number 133
I ask the Serjeant at Arms to investigate the delay in the Aye Lobby.
The House having divided:
Division number 134
I ask the Serjeant at Arms to investigate the delay in both the Aye and No Lobbies.
The House having divided:
Division number 135
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I wonder whether you could ask the House authorities to investigate the Division bell. Before amendment 3 was moved, the Division bell outside the Chamber started ringing at least 10 or 20 seconds before you put the Question. There is clearly a disconnect between the people observing the House and those setting off the bell. Could that be investigated?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for drawing the matter to my attention. I will immediately ask for an investigation into the workings of the Division bell.
I beg to move amendment 72, page 1, line 7, leave out subsection (4) and insert—
‘(4) Before making an order under subsection (3) the Secretary of State shall conduct a consultation lasting not less than six months on what question should appear on the ballot paper, and shall by order set out the question to be asked.’.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 35, page 1, leave out lines 8 and 9 and insert
‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?’.
Amendment 36, page 1, leave out lines 8 and 9 and insert
‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?’.
Amendment 37, page 1, line 10 , leave out ‘version’ and insert ‘translation’.
Amendment 38, page 1, line 11, after ‘order’, insert
Amendment 39, page 1, line 11, at end insert—
‘(5A) In Scotland, a Gaelic translation of the question is also to appear on the ballot papers, as provided by order, after consultation with the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government.’.
Amendment 40, page 1, line 11, at end insert—
‘( ) In Northern Ireland, a Gaelic translation of the question is also to appear on the ballot papers, as provided by order, after consultation with the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Northern Ireland Executive.’.
Amendment 71, page 1, line 12, leave out subsection (6) and insert—
‘(6) An order under this section shall be made by statutory instrument.
(7) An order under subsection (3) may not be made unless each House of Parliament has passed a resolution that the referendum shall take place on a day specified in the resolution and the day specified in the resolution is the same as in the order.
(8) An order under subsection (5) may not be made unless a draft of the order has been laid before, and approved by, a resolution of each House of Parliament.’.
I am grateful to the Speaker and to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for selecting amendment 72, which concerns the crucial issue of the wording of the proposed referendum question, as do amendments 35 to 40, tabled by my hon. Friend Mike Gapes. I also hope to speak to amendment 71, tabled by my hon. Friend Mr Bain. My amendment 72 seeks to ensure a consultation about what the question appearing on the ballot paper will actually say.
If there were any doubt about whether this Bill was anything other than a party political stunt, we had the spectacle of the Conservative party chairman attacking the Electoral Commission when its statement about the question came out. He attacked it for raising concerns about the wording of the question to be put in any referendum. As I understand it, the Conservative party backed the establishment of the Electoral Commission as an independent force in British politics to help to enforce proper standards in the way that elections and, crucially, referendums take place. Now, because the Electoral Commission’s work produces some inconvenient truths, the Conservatives seek to rubbish it.
One would have thought that the whole House would recognise that if we are to have a referendum, we need to present a clear, impartial question that favours neither one side of an argument nor the other, in order to allow the British people a genuine choice. The great deficiency of this Bill is the lack of consultation with anybody before it emerged from Lynton Crosby’s office. The problems that the Electoral Commission has identified could have been ironed out before now if there had been a proper consultation. It is clear from the Electoral Commission’s work so far that we do not have clarity about what, in its view, the question should be, that the wording in the Bill as it stands is not appropriate and that further work by the commission to test the most appropriate options is necessary.
Given my hon. Friend’s background, I am sure that he, too, will have thought of this, but given the equal status of the Welsh language in Wales, is it not also important in any consultation that this matter be considered before the question is decided, because of the possibility of confusion in the translation of the question?
The way in which this Bill emerged meant that the people of Gibraltar and, I suspect, the Welsh speakers of Wales and elsewhere in the UK were forgotten about. Given that context, my hon. Friend’s point is extremely well made.
Just to be clear, I was not talking about Welsh speakers elsewhere in the UK, because the Welsh Language Act 1993 would not apply there and the question would therefore be in English only. However, where the Welsh language has equal legal status, surely the question should be considered in both languages before it is decided on.
My hon. Friend makes an accurate point. My point was simply that all Welsh speakers, wherever they reside, would want to ensure that the translation of the question into Welsh in Wales was properly thought through and consulted on—a point he makes extremely well.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South has done the House a service in tabling the other amendments in this group.
I did not intend to intervene, but given that my name was taken, I feel I have to—[Interruption.] No, not in vain—and not in Welsh, either. What my hon. Friend Mr Thomasmentioned was the purpose of my amendments, which relate not just to Wales, but to the Gaelic language with regard to Scotland and to the need for consultation. If I have the opportunity, I will introduce my amendments later today or perhaps next week.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I have more knowledge and a higher comfort level when it comes to speaking about the concerns of Welsh speakers than of those who speak Gaelic, but I recognise that my hon. Friend, in drawing the House’s attention to the issue of Gaelic translation, is making an extremely important point. Both my hon. Friends, the Members for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) and for Ilford South who have intervened thus far have, through their specific points—including one I have raised a number of times—essentially made the broader point that there has been a huge consultation deficit with this Bill. That is most unlike the way in which referendums usually take place. It is sad, if I may put it this way, that my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South has had to seek to address particular aspects of that consultation deficit by forcing the Minister for Europe and, indeed, the Bill’s sponsor, to consider the issue of Welsh translation and of Gaelic translation, too.
Let me come back to the broader point I was making about the need for proper consultation with the Electoral Commission and the need for sufficient time to allow that commission to do the thoughtful work that all who have an interest in this referendum want it to do. My concern is that the further work that the Electoral Commission has said in its statement is necessary would not be available to the House of Commons to discuss.
It is true that the further work of the Electoral Commission might be available for the deliberations in the other place. It is possible that the other place might amend the Bill, in which case it could come back to this place, but there is absolutely no guarantee that the other place would pass an amendment to this particular part of the Bill, allowing this House, the primary Chamber, to consider the Electoral Commission’s further work. It would be some irony, would it not, if the other place were left to make the key decisions on a Bill that is being presented as the chance to win back powers for the House of Commons?
We know how important it is to get potential referendum questions right. There was protracted and lengthy debate in Scotland about the wording of the question for the referendum that is due to take place next year. After proper consultation had taken place there, the First Minister was forced to back a new form of words. Hon. Members will also recall the debate surrounding the wording of the most recent referendum to take place across the whole of the UK—the alternative vote referendum, which asked the electorate whether they preferred the alternative vote system over the traditional first-past-the-post electoral system.
I suspect that some of us will find it less comfortable than others to recall the result of that referendum. However, as Martin Horwood noted in Committee, referendums are sometimes nothing like as clear-cut as the EU referendum was and can instead be decided by “minute percentages”. The referendum on whether Quebec should stay part of Canada, for example, was decided by less than 1% back in 1995. It is absolutely vital to consider carefully the wording of the question. It is also vital to ensure that we have a fair process to determine what the question should be and that we think through the psychological impact that a particular form of words might have on the question.
My hon. Friend makes an important point about the situation in Quebec. Does he also recognise that a significant degree of debate and concern was expressed before, during and after that referendum about the very wording of the question, which resulted in the Canadian House of Commons having to pass a clarity Bill about referendum questions and how they should be considered by Parliament?
My hon. Friend has studied his Canadian history, and the House is better informed as a result. I suspect that we need some form of clarity Act to try to encourage the Minister for Europe—or, indeed, the Foreign Secretary—to set out what powers and competences they want the Prime Minister to repatriate back to the UK after the treaty change that they say is coming. We are in the dark because neither the Minister for Europe nor the Foreign Secretary will tell the House—nor will the Prime Minister. Hopefully, a clarity Act is not needed in the context of the referendum question, but I hope that my hon. Friend’s point about the Canadian clarity Act might finally jog the Minister for Europe into some action and clarity about the broader issues before us.
The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 set out a number of important changes to how we do politics in our country—in particular, the regulation of referendums. Under the 2000 Act, the Electoral Commission, that much respected independent body responsible for supervising and implementing the regulatory framework of our electoral system, has a statutory responsibility to report on the intelligibility of a question included in a referendum Bill. [Interruption.] I see that the Minister for Europe is getting advice from the Whips in the form of the former Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Prime Minister. One hopes that the Minister is being passed information about the Prime Minister’s intentions on powers and competences.
I suspect that my hon. Friend is right.
The Electoral Commission has a statutory responsibility to report on the intelligibility—
As the hon. Gentleman knows, that is not a point of order. I expect that the hon. Gentleman in question meant to be sitting and will do so from now on.
For the avoidance of doubt, I should say that I took no offence. Anything that can be done to enlighten the Minister for Europe about what the Prime Minister’s question might be on the crucial issue of the powers and competences that he wants to repatriate to the UK can only be helpful.
I was focusing on the work of the Electoral Commission, which was established by the 2000 Act. It has the crucial statutory responsibility to report on the intelligibility of a question included in a referendum Bill, as soon as is practicable, once it has been laid before Parliament. What we are discussing is the Electoral Commission’s ninth such referendum question assessment report; it has done sterling work on a series of other referendums. It is worth our reflecting on those.
The Electoral Commission was asked to assess the intelligibility of questions for the 2011 referendum on the powers of the National Assembly for Wales; for the 2011 UK-wide referendum on the parliamentary voting system, on which I would rather not dwell; for a range of local government referendums that have been held in England since 2008; and, of course, for the forthcoming referendum on independence for Scotland. This is the first time the Electoral Commission has undertaken an assessment exercise for a question included in a private Member’s Bill. However, there can be no doubting the experience of the commission in judging accurately what the referendum question should be, given its extensive previous involvement in eight other referendums.
The provisions for the holding of a referendum to be included in a private Member’s Bill are extremely unusual.
The Electoral Commission is probably not the only organisation looking on in confusion at the strange road down which the Prime Minister and James Wharton have decided to travel.
The task facing the Electoral Commission began as soon as the Bill received its Second Reading on
The Electoral Commission’s report sets out in detail the standard question assessment process that it undertook. It has followed such a process eight times before. Part of the process included evidence gathering from the general public—focus groups, interviews and so on—on the intelligibility of the proposed referendum question. The market research company, GfK National Opinion Polls, was commissioned to carry out some of the research. On the whole, the report, of which the House should be rightly appreciative, found that the question passed muster on some critical tests, but not on others. The question was deemed to be sufficiently brief, straightforward and easy to understand. None the less, there are two key issues that my amendment addresses which are not addressed in the wording as it stands.
Amendment 35, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South, responds to the concerns of the Electoral Commission about the Bill’s question:
“Do you think that the United Kingdom should be a member of the European Union?”
It suggests removing the opening phrase “Do you think”. That would result in the question beginning with “Should”, and the remainder of the words being reordered appropriately.
The Electoral Commission’s research found that some people felt the phrase, “Do you think” was too informal for a referendum question. Others felt that the phrase sounded less concrete, and suggested, without prompting from the interviewers or being given the alternative option, that the question should be changed to begin with the word “Should” , as my hon. Friend has proposed. Some of the interviewees felt that a change to the wording would make the question on the referendum ballot paper shorter, more direct and, importantly, to the point.
Does my hon. Friend also agree that there is some concern about the amendment, because the question would read:
“Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?”?
We tabled an amendment last week to include Gibraltar. Does he think that there should be some reference to Gibraltar on the Gibraltar ballot paper?
I will give way in a second.
My hon. Friend Mr Jones makes a good point. Although I will listen with particular care to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South about amendment 35, I suggest that my amendment is more appropriate. We should not be second-guessing the Electoral Commission. We should ask it to complete its work and give us a clear sense of what the question could be. The Electoral Commission found that changing the wording in the way suggested could also reinforce the importance and significance of the referendum as a formal mechanism for seeking consent from the electorate. Apparently, the Electoral Commission felt that there was a risk that some people would not understand that the referendum was a formal exercise taken seriously by the Government. Quite why so many members of the public should feel that the Prime Minister’s referendum proposal is not a matter to be taken seriously is beyond me. Perhaps my hon. Friend Wayne David wants to share some information on that.
I hope that that scenario is not presented to us, but we would clearly need to ensure that the appropriate consultation took place about any necessary changes to the referendum proposal. We know from the comments from the Minister for Europe, provoked by the hon. Member for Cheltenham, that he is not wedded to the 2017 date and can imagine situations in which the legislation might have to be scrapped or amended. Perhaps the scene that my hon. Friend has just painted is a further example that the Minister for Europe had in mind.
Perhaps those questioned by the commission could sense the more than slight disparity in the views of Government Members and the less than steadfast commitment to a referendum from the Government parties’ Minister for Europe. The Electoral Commission’s research shows that some people felt that “Do you think” sounded more like an opinion poll than a binding vote. It is for others to say whether it was with opinion polls in mind that this whole exercise was initiated by the hon. Member for Stockton South, Lynton Crosby and the Prime Minister.
The Electoral Commission recommended that the opening phrase “Do you think” should be replaced with the word “Should”. The commission has considerable expertise in this area, as I have already set out. Indeed, the commission has a range of other duties on referendums under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, including registering organisations or individuals that want to campaign in a referendum, monitoring spending on referendum campaigning in line with referendum spending limits, and acting as the chief counting officer for the referendum. As it has such duties, the commission is clearly the go-to organisation for all things referendum. The Opposition take its guidance extremely seriously. When the Minister responds to the debate, I would be interested to hear whether he is likewise prepared to stand up to the chairman of the Conservative party and take the considered views of the Electoral Commission on board.
The other key amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South deals with another problem identified by the Electoral Commission, concerning making the question clearer and improving understanding. The Electoral Commission’s research found
“low levels of contextual understanding of the European Union, with some participants having no knowledge of the European Union, or the status of UK membership of the EU, at all.”
Importantly, the issue about which we should be concerned is the fact that many participants in the Electoral Commission’s research felt that the question
“was misleading because it does not make clear that the United Kingdom is currently a member of the European Union.”
We know that that is an issue of great concern to the Conservative party. An article in The Mail on Sunday during the summer told us that frantic negotiations occurred behind closed doors as the Prime Minister bowed to Eurosceptic pressure—again, one might say—and revised the question so that voters would be asked whether the UK should “be” in the EU rather than “remain”, as in the original wording. Apparently, Conservative Eurosceptics, desperate to give their position on the referendum an edge, wanted the question to be less clear—an extraordinary ambition. I have absolutely no idea whether the piece in
The Mail on Sunday is accurate, although the journalist who wrote it is not known for being wrong too often. I gently suggest to Government Members that the
’s piece underlines the fact that if they want to present this proposition as less of a stunt in future they must take seriously independent advice about how the question should be drafted. The 1922 committee or Lynton Crosby’s office are not the places to be doing such drafting.
While the Prime Minister may be getting bullied again by his noisy and impatient Back Benchers, Labour Members believe that we should listen to the Electoral Commission’s recommendation that the final question on the ballot paper should clearly reflect the UK’s current position within the European Union. If we are to have a referendum, the question should make it clear that the UK is already a member. We see no benefit of shrouding the issue or being purposefully unclear to the electorate. The Electoral Commission identifies a risk of there being ambiguity in the question, with the consequence that it might be misleading to some voters. Labour Members take that considerable concern seriously.
A question to the electorate that would be less ambiguous would be whether the UK should “remain” a member of the EU. The Electoral Commission found that many people felt that the question was asking them whether the United Kingdom should become a member, rather than remain a member, and thought that they were being asked to vote on the UK joining the European Union. Importantly, even those who were aware of the UK’s status as a member of the European Union agreed that the question in the Bill might be misleading. We have already had a referendum on whether the UK should join the European Union. It was proposed not in the manifesto of the Conservative party, nor in that of the Liberal Democrats, but in a Labour manifesto. The referendum was set out in a Labour White Paper and put to the electorate by a Labour Government. By tabling amendment 35, my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South is trying to avoid causing some voters to think that they are back in the 1970s. He wants to ensure that the question in any referendum that we might have is not misleading in any way.
“Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”,
but it is almost impossible to answer that on a ballot paper in a referendum.
Parliament decided to go with a proposal that was not a yes-or-no question, the most neutral question would be the one that he thinks is misleading:
“Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”
Does my hon. Friend Mr Thomas have a view about that?
My view is reflected in amendment 72. I hope that my hon. Friend will understand if I do not dwell on his point, because I want to accelerate through the remaining points in my speech.
Through amendment 36, my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South proposes a question that gives an accurate position of the UK’s status in the EU and allows voters clearly to see the options open to them. It reflects the recommendation of the Electoral Commission, should Parliament wish to look beyond a yes-or-no question. The commission’s research highlighted the view that that question would provide equal weighting to the words “remain” and “leave”, which was thought to improve the neutrality of the question. Indeed, the commission found that question to be the “most balanced and neutral” of the options it tested, so we should take that clear recommendation on board. Its report said of the question:
“All participants understood what they were being asked and were able to answer it in the way they had intended.”
One might wonder whether that is not precisely what we want to achieve.
Given the limited time the Electoral Commission had to compile its report, there is a need for further consultation on and testing of the wording of the referendum question. The commission noted that
“it was not possible in the time available to fully explore and user test the impact of any variations to the wording”.
It would like further time for research and, especially, to consult potential referendum campaigners. Amendment 72 would build on the provisions of the 2000 Act, which led to this first useful report from the commission, by allowing further consultation to uncover any further problems in the wording of possible questions and to suggest what the wording should be.
My hon. Friend has made the point that the Electoral Commission has said that the wording in amendment 36 provides that balance. However, does he agree that, using the approach that was tried in the Welsh referendum on devolution in 1997, the problem could be overcome by means of wording such as, “I agree that the United Kingdom should remain a member of the European Union” or “I do not agree that the United Kingdom should remain a member of the European Union”? The questions would be clearly set out and voters could tick a box, whereas it would be difficult to tick a box to answer the question as stated in the amendment.
I hear the concerns of my hon. Friend. I do not have a particularly strong view at this stage on the point that he makes. My argument is that there needs to be further consultation by the experts, the
Electoral Commission. That is the most sensible way forward. That seems to us on the Opposition Front Bench the minimum that should be required to get the question right. We should hear further from the Electoral Commission, and I would welcome the Minister’s views on that.
Let me underline our view that it should be a matter of concern to the whole House that there might not be time for the House of Commons to consider further the consultation work that the Electoral Commission plans to undertake. Again, I have a high regard for the other place, but it is this Chamber which is subject to the will of the people, and it is this Chamber which might be excluded from debating the Electoral Commission’s further conclusions. We should have more consultation.
Lastly, amendment 71, in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East, would force a referendum to be confirmed by all Members of the House instead of that decision being delegated to a Committee. That is surely a sensible suggestion. It would be useful to hear the Minister’s views on it. All Members should take responsibility for a decision of such magnitude. It is a decision about the living standards of the British people, after all.
Unless the Minister for Europe performs oratorical feats that he is not yet known for on European matters, I intend to press amendment 72 to a Division, but before that I look forward to the contributions of other hon. Members and of the Minister.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. In relation to the Electoral Commission’s advice to Parliament, can you clarify whether the Bill’s sponsors have made any late attempt to amend the question contained in the Bill, in view of the clear recommendation from the commission that they should do so?
They have not, but I am sure the promoter of the Bill will have heard the point made by Chris Williamson, and he will have plenty of time to deal with it in the usual course of the debate.
The amendments in the second group fall into four broad categories. First, there is the amendment that would provide for an additional consultation process on the referendum question, going beyond what is set out and what has already been undertaken. The key point that I want to make is that it has been normal practice under successive Governments for a referendum question to be spelled out very clearly on the face of the Bill that authorises that referendum, and the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend James Wharton therefore follows that established practice.
Secondly, amendment 71 in the name of Mr Bain seeks to add to the requirements for when the power to set the date of the referendum is used. The amendment specifies that the Secretary of State could appoint only the day for the referendum that was specified in a resolution of each House. I draw the attention of the House to the fact that under clause 1(6) the Bill already requires the order to be approved in draft by a resolution of each House, and that draft would include the date of the referendum.
The third category of amendments deals with the languages in which the question should be posed. We have amendments before us dealing with both the Welsh language and Scots Gaelic. Amendment 37, which seeks to substitute the phrase “Welsh translation” for the phrase “Welsh version”, would have no substantive legal effect. It would not serve any particular purpose. It would not change anything. I draw the attention of Mike Gapes to the fact that the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011, which authorised the referendum on the alternative vote system for the House of Commons, used the term “Welsh version” rather than “Welsh translation”. Again, we are going by established precedent.
I will speak to the amendment if I am called later, but the Minister makes an interesting point. When I tabled the amendment, I was not sure whether Mr Speaker would select it for debate. In fact he has done so on the basis that it is a serious amendment, so I assume that there is a substantive question that needs to be explored, which is why it is on the amendment paper.
It is orderly. I am sure that no one will want to challenge Mr Speaker’s decision. I am correct on that I take it, Mr Gapes.
With regard to the amendments on the Welsh language, we have already had legislation on referendums that uses the terminology set out in this Bill.
I will leave that to my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South, if he wishes to respond as the promoter of the Bill. We have a clear example within the past two years of a referendum that has been conducted in the UK, including within Wales. I do not recall any instance in that context when people in Wales protested that the wording in the Welsh language was in any way misleading. That question was based on the use of the term “Welsh version” in the parent legislation.
With regard to Scots Gaelic, we are dealing here with a UK-wide referendum. We have, under specific legislation, provision for UK elections and UK referendums to include a Welsh language version of the questions or party names on the relevant ballot papers. There is no equivalent in UK legislation for Scots Gaelic, Irish Gaelic or any other language to be used in that way, so, again, the provisions in the Bill are completely in line with normal precedent as regards UK practice in legislation.
Finally, there is the important category of amendments on the wording of the question, which draw upon the Electoral Commission’s recent report. It is important to bear in mind how the commission went about its work and the tone with which it presented its report. It carried out 103 interviews with individuals and received representations from 19 individuals and organisations. On the basis of those consultations and its own analysis, it concluded that the Bill met most of the tests that it would normally expect any referendum question to meet. It did not put forward an alternative wording but, rather usually, suggested—I use the term deliberately—two possible alternative wordings. There was no suggestion anywhere in its findings that the question drafted by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South was misleading or in any way designed to be unfair, but it suggested that Parliament might like to consider some alternative forms of words.
With all due respect to the Minister, the Electoral Commission’s view is crystal clear. It stated:
“We recommend that the wording of the proposed referendum question included in the European Union (Referendum) Bill should be amended to make it more direct and to the point, and to improve clarity and understanding.”
Surely he read that sentence.
If the hon. Gentleman goes back to the report, he will see that the commission stated very clearly that it believed that the question drafted by my hon. Friend met pretty much all the tests it would expect. There was a debate on the degree of clarity, and the commission drew attention to the fact that there were different views among the people they consulted and from whom they received representations about both my hon. Friend’s wording and the various options that the commission invited Parliament to consider.
Surely the whole point of having an Electoral Commission is that we do not settle for referendum questions that are just about satisfactory and that we certainly go for those that it decides are the best and clearest. On a matter of such critical importance, surely the Minister should accept that.
An interesting feature of the report is that the commission did not come up with a firm alternative recommendation. Rather, it posed a number of questions and stated that it thought it should be for Parliament to consider whether those recommendations would meet the desire, which I think everyone shares, for maximum clarity and fairness.
The commission first suggested that Parliament should reflect on whether to use the word “remain” in place of the phrase “be a member of”. As it acknowledged in its report, the judgment about that wording boiled down to an assessment of whether one believed that either form of wording would tilt the electorate unfairly towards supporting one or other camp in the referendum campaign. The problem with trying to make that assessment is that it requires making an assumption about how other members of the electorate will be affected by the wording. My own view is that if we look not just at the theory of how people might react but at the practical context of a referendum campaign, the outcome of which will certainly be a subject of very vigorous public political debate, it is hard to see how the form of words proposed by my hon. Friend is likely to tilt the playing field one way or the other.
The second alternative put forward by the Electoral Commission is that we should abandon the traditional distinction we have made in referendums in this country between a yes and no choice and instead offer the public the alternatives, “remain a member of the European Union”, or, “leave the European Union”. While the commission was careful not to express a definite preference for one or other of the alternatives it proposed, implicit within its report, certainly as I read it, was a tendency towards looking to the second option, which it felt would more closely meet the optimum standards of transparency, clarity and fairness. However, the commission acknowledged in its report that to move away from the traditional choice between yes and no would be a major step and an important decision for Parliament to take. My preference is to retain the clarity of that choice between yes and no.
Looking at what is likely to happen in the context of a referendum campaign on our membership of the European Union, we have to recognise that such a campaign would, first, follow a general election campaign in which the public would be invited to make a choice, among other things, between prospective Governments who were offering the British people a clear choice on whether to remain a member of the EU, and prospective Governments who were not prepared to offer such a choice. Secondly, people would know that a process of reform and renegotiation was taking place, which would itself be subject to questions and statements in this House and in the media. Thirdly, during the campaign itself we would have a vigorous debate led by the umbrella organisations designated by the Electoral Commission. There could therefore be no doubt about the decision that people were being asked to take. The words proposed by my hon. Friend meet the demands of the House and of the Electoral Commission entirely properly and fairly.
It is a pleasure to be able to speak to amendments in this group, which is the most important of the three groups, because the question used in the referendum is a fundamental issue. My amendments relate principally to the question, and there are subsidiary amendments that relate to the Welsh, Northern Irish and Scottish situations.
My hon. Friend Mr Thomas eloquently explained why amendments 35 and 36 have been tabled. The original wording of the question in the draft Bill published on
“Do you think the United Kingdom should remain a member of the European Union?”
That original proposal was subsequently changed, according to the Daily Mail, as a result of lobbying by Eurosceptics. The newspaper said that
“anti-Brussels MPs privately protested that the word ‘remain’ would prompt voters to stay in” and so
“the wording has been changed”.
The question has therefore been changed at the behest of Eurosceptics, contrary to the original intention and to the very strong advice of the Electoral Commission.
We face a dilemma. We could go for the alternative suggested by amendment 36, which puts both sides of the case. Presumably, the ballot paper could have two boxes and people could tick one to remain in or another to leave. In my opinion, however, the wording of the original proposal in the original draft Bill is preferable and I would like the House to have the opportunity to vote on it, because I think it is consistent with the original intention and clear. As my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West has said, it would deal with the small number of people—the polling evidence clearly shows that there are some—who are not even aware that this country is in the European Union.
Does my hon. Friend agree that this situation underlines why we need the Electoral Commission to provide guidance and expert advice to the public and to arbitrate the process neutrally, and why the comments made by the chairman of the Conservative party were so disappointing and quite sinister?
“the Electoral Commission has a duty to assess the intelligibility of the question”,
that it has published guidance on that, and that it uses
“focus groups and similar techniques to ensure that the electorate understand the question.”
That may not be convenient for those people quoted by the Daily Mail as having lobbied for a particular outcome in the drafting of the question, but the fact is that the Electoral Commission is the expert. It has carried out thorough research and its report is critical of the question proposed and suggests that we at least go back to the original question, as set out in my amendment 35. Incidentally, that was also the subject of an amendment tabled by Martin Horwood, which, although it was not selected for debate, I think shows that there is cross-party concern about this matter.
It is important that we have clarity, because a referendum on leaving the European Union will have enormous economic and political consequences for our country and its international relationships and for British citizens, including the 1.4 million living in other EU countries, a large number of whom will, according to the Government, be deprived of being able to vote in the referendum. It will also have implications for new Europeans and for British people who have married citizens of new EU countries. Those new Europeans may be living and working in this country and they may have children at school here. They are contributing to our country, but they might not be able to have a say in the referendum. The question must be clear and not leave any room for ambiguity or doubt about the outcome. People should not be able to say afterwards that the referendum was rigged and unfair and that the result should therefore not be accepted.
This is a pertinent and material amendment, because there is a world of difference between the words “be” and “remain”. I would like to be in the Wales versus Tonga rugby match tonight, but that is an aspiration. The word “remain” would allow me to make an argument to my constituents on the basis of the historical facts of the benefits that Wales gets from being a member of the EU. I would not be saying that we may be a member at some time in the future; I would be saying, “We are a member and here’s what we have gained.”
I absolutely agree. I do not want to comment on Welsh rugby, on which I am not an expert. [Interruption.] I will certainly not talk about English cricket either, or even the fortunes of my football team, West Ham United, although I hope we do better against Chelsea on Saturday.
We are in an important part of the debate, because we must get the question absolutely right.
My hon. Friend is perfectly correct that we must get the question absolutely right. One thing that over the years has struck me, and I am sure many other hon. Members, is that when I knock on people’s doors, I find that they are confused about whether we are in Europe, the European Union or the euro. Several years ago, there was a big debate about whether we would join the single currency. Any doubt people might have about our being in the European Union would be put right if the question was whether we should “remain” in the European Union, rather than “be a member” of it. Many people need to be reminded of the fact that we are already a member of the European Union, and that retaining that status is not the end of the world.
I agree. Some people get very confused about judgments of the European Court of Human Rights, believing that that is something to do with the European Union, rather than the Council of Europe. Indeed, even some Members of the House have made that error, even recently.
We have to recognise that the question is fundamental. If there is a dispute about the question and there is narrow result in the referendum, the issue will not be resolved, as the Government intend, and there will be no cathartic moment. That would simply cause a wound that people will pick at and pick at for years and perhaps decades to come. If we have a referendum, the consequences and the interpretation of the outcome of the vote have to be absolutely clear and certain. There are also other issues relating to thresholds and turnout, but they are not relevant to this debate.
I believe that the choice before us is clear: do we go for the Government’s politically influenced fudge and ambiguity? Sorry, I do not mean the Government, but the Conservative part of the Government. I apologise to the hon. Member for Cheltenham. It is difficult, seeing the Minister in his place, to remember that we are dealing with a private Member’s Bill, but it is important that we do so.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I think that Mr Speaker stated that if someone speaks from the Treasury Bench as a Minister they are speaking as a Minister, but that does not necessarily mean that they are representing Government policy, and the Minister is certainly not doing so on this occasion.
Clearly, a novel interpretation of ministerial responsibility applies in this debate.
To return to the amendments, amendment 37 concerns having a “version” or a “translation” of the question, about which I intervened on the Minister earlier. There are important implications, because a version is not the same as a translation. A translation would be much closer to the meaning of the words in the original question, whereas a version might be looser and more roundabout or “good enough”. But that is not good enough, because the question has legal and constitutional implications.
Let us say, for the sake of argument, that the people of Wales vote differently from the people of the rest of the United Kingdom and there is a narrow result that is influenced by the Welsh speakers. Would we not face potential legal challenges to the outcome if the people of Wales said, “We wish to remain in the European Union, even though the rest of the UK has left”? That could happen if the votes of Welsh speakers swing the result.
My hon. Friend is making extremely important points. Does he recall that the Government wasted £350,000 on printing English-only versions of the ballot papers for the police and crime commissioner elections? Their record on bilingual ballot papers is not good and they should give the matter much more serious consideration.
I agree absolutely. I hope that the Government will give the matter further consideration and realise that amendment 37 is not a frivolous amendment, but a serious one that relates to important issues of concern. It needs to be considered on that basis.
Amendment 38 states that there should be consultation with the National Assembly for Wales and the Welsh Assembly Government. That consultation would be helpful in ensuring that the question in the Welsh language was correct and accurate, and that it was not simply a version, but a translation of the wording being voted on in other parts of the United Kingdom.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. If he had not, I would have raised this matter on a point of order. Further to my previous point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker—
Order. I think that Mr Gapes gave way to an intervention, rather than to a point of order.
In that case, further to my previous intervention on my hon. Friend, at 10.30 am on
“Is it not the case that anyone speaking from the Dispatch Box on the Government side of the Chamber is speaking on behalf of the Government?”
Mr Speaker replied:
“The right hon. Gentleman is correct. That is the situation—a Minister who speaks from the Treasury Bench is speaking for the Government.”
Interestingly, the hon. Member for Cheltenham then said:
“That raises an interesting issue that perhaps the Government—both sides of the coalition—should reflect on. I stand corrected for the second time in the space of an hour”.—[Hansard, 8 November 2013; Vol. 570, c. 548.]
The point has been aired. I am sure that Mike Gapes will get back on track and speak to the amendments.
Of course, Mr Deputy Speaker; I would never wish to be off track when discussing these matters.
Amendment 38 requires consultation with the National Assembly for Wales and the Welsh Assembly Government on these matters. Amendment 39 relates to Scotland, where there will be similar issues. It would require a consultation with the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government. It is important to remember that the United Kingdom has a devolution settlement, so we cannot simply magic up the wording of questions for political convenience and to suit those who lobby the Daily Mail. We have to consult the different parts of our United Kingdom.
Political Development in the Northern Ireland Office between 1997 and 1999. I took part in the negotiations in Castle buildings that resulted in the Good Friday agreement. I understand well from that experience the importance of language and identity in Irish politics and within the two communities and faith traditions in Northern Ireland.
Does my hon. Friend agree that amendments 38, 39 and 40, when taken in conjunction with the discussion on amendment 35 on whether the word “be” or “remain” should be used, are vital because we do not know whether the Northern Ireland Executive, the Scottish Government and the Welsh Government have expressed their views on the expert opinion of the Electoral Commission on the correct wording? Because I was unable to intervene on the Minister earlier, I do not know whether the Government have had those discussions.
The issues of consultation and identity are important. Given that the referendum could have different outcomes in different places, it is possible, for example, that England might vote to leave but Northern Ireland might vote to stay in. Given the economic, personal and family links north and south of the border, Northern Ireland might prefer co-operation to leaving. If that were the case, there would clearly be implications if the question were disputed.
We should ensure that we see the potential difficulties coming over the horizon and remove them in advance rather than come across them because of a badly worded question, a lack of proper consultation, or a lack of translated versions or translations, whichever we decide on. If we remove those difficulties, it will make political or legal challenges and difficulties at a later stage less likely. As the democratic Chamber, this House has a responsibility to do that, although I suspect that if we do not, the other place will examine the issue in some detail.
I hope that the Scottish Government and Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and Welsh Assembly Government and the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive will make clear representations on those matters. They have a right to be heard on behalf of the people of those nations and regions of the United Kingdom.
I will end my remarks there because I know that many other Members wish to contribute. The amendments cover vital issues that need proper consideration, and I think we need to vote on the wording of the question.
There are a number of interesting amendments in this group, although mercifully, rather fewer than in the last group.
Amendment 72, tabled by Mr Thomas, is interesting and highlights one of the extraordinary omissions from the Bill. It is extraordinary that there is no reference to Gibraltar, to the only referendum Bill that the coalition has passed—the European Union Act 2011—or to the Electoral Commission and the Political Parties and Referendums Act 2000. In a small way, the amendment is an antidote to the last of those omissions.
However, it seems to me that the amendment makes rather a meal of the problem by asking for a six-month consultation. I am not convinced that it is necessary to specify in the Bill a broad consultation, let alone for six months, simply about what the question should be. The crucial omission from the Bill, which we need to remedy, is any reference to the Electoral Commission and its role, as properly set out in the 2000 Act, as the body that should advise Parliament on the wording of referendums.
I am not sure that anyone will be under any illusion about what is really at stake in a referendum, should one come to pass. There certainly seems already to be a great deal of public interest in the matter. Not long ago, 1,000 people packed an event at the Cheltenham literature festival at which I took the platform opposite—I would not say alongside—Nigel Farage of the UK Independence party. I was pleased that, after a heated debate, the majority of the people at that event, as far as I could see, voted for Britain to remain in the European Union.
I do not think we need a six-month consultation on the question for the CBI and other opinion-formers to make clear what they think is at stake in a referendum campaign. After all, the CBI has just produced a report that makes its position clear—it understands what is at stake. It says that, after the second world war,
“it seemed clear that the main opportunities for UK trade and growth were with our nearest neighbours” but that the
“current circumstances have thrown that conclusion into doubt to the point that some in the UK are questioning the value of our membership of the EU, and some are even advocating withdrawal…For British business, large and small, the response to this is unequivocal: we should remain in”.
Without dwelling on the precise nature of the question, which is addressed in the amendments, it reinforced that point, stating:
“The European Union supports UK business in realising its global ambitions by providing significant influence over the rules, policies and priorities that allow British based firms to seize opportunities across the globe. It anchors UK trade around the world through the signing of high-quality, ambitious Free Trade Agreements and the creation of globally recognised standards that open markets. And in a world of competing ideas and ideals – where international action is increasingly the avenue for addressing problems across the globe – UK membership of the EU amplifies Britain’s voice internationally.”
The CBI is not alone. Environmental organisations increasingly understand what is at stake. While being suitably tactful as a registered charity in not coming down on a political side in the debate, the World Wide Fund for Nature has described the importance of the EU to the environment. A recent WWF leaflet, “What has Europe ever done for the environment?”, states:
“EU environmental legislation and policies have raised the bar in Europe and beyond to improve management and protection of landscapes, natural habitats and wildlife…EU legislation includes the world’s most comprehensive set of environmental measures. It accounts for more than 80% of environmental law in Europe…But it hasn’t been a one-way street, with ‘diktats’ from Europe that must be obeyed. The UK has played a leading role in shaping the EU standards that protect the environment”.
It did not need a six-month consultation to reach that conclusion. Thirteen former police chiefs and a former head of MI5 did not need such a consultation to write to the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister emphasising the importance of European Union measures on justice and home affairs, including the European arrest warrant and Europol. Whatever the precise wording of the question, more opinion formers are clear on what will be at stake in that referendum. What is at stake is Europe’s and Britain’s ability to fight crime and protect the environment. Above all, British jobs, jobs and more jobs will be at stake. I am not sure whether we need the device of a six-month consultation on the question for people to understand what is at stake.
Having said that, the hon. Member for Harrow West made important points on the role of the Electoral Commission. As I said in an intervention on the Minister, the whole point of the commission is that we have not only an adequate question or one that meets most of the requirements of a referendum question, but the best possible and clearest question. Even if we do not have the six-month consultation imagined in amendment 72, there is a good argument for amending the Bill to allow the Electoral Commission’s preferred question to be the one that is put to the British people.
Mike Gapes has tabled two amendments—amendments 35 and 36—that address the two possible phraseologies of the question from the commission’s initial report. The possible answers to the first question—
“Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?”— are yes and no. My reading of the report is that the commission’s clear preference is for another question—
“Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”— to which the possible answers would be “remain in the EU” or “leave the EU”. Although the Minister has said that the commission had not reached a firm conclusion on whether that was the best possible question, it was clear in the report that it is a better option than the one in the Bill. For exactly the reasons set out in detail by the hon. Member for Harrow West, which I will not repeat, the commission gave a clear direction on that front.
Of course, the commission could not reach an absolutely firm conclusion because it believed that it had not had time fully to consider it, and that there was room to take more evidence and further refine and improve the question.
I am following the flow of the hon. Gentleman’s argument, but does he think that a yes/no referendum would be better than an either/or referendum, purely and simply because there is clear polarity between the arguments?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point that I think was raised in evidence to the Electoral Commission by the Plain English Campaign. It pointed out that in response to a yes/no question, as is traditional, there would be a yes campaign and a no campaign. In response to what appears to be the Electoral Commission’s preferred question, we would have to have a remain campaign, and a leave campaign—I do not particularly fancy carrying placards stating, “Remain”. There are some problems with the preferred wording in the commission’s report, and the hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly good point that underlines the fact that the issue requires more consideration. I would like that consideration to be led by the Electoral Commission and to inform the wording of the Bill. If the Minister is unhappy with the wording from the Electoral Commission, and thinks we are being rushed into a decision on that—just as the Bill appears to be rushing us towards even less adequate wording—the solution is in his hands and those of the Conservative party and James Wharton. They could pause the Bill and wait for the Electoral Commission to consider the question more fully, and satisfy itself that it has the best possible question to put to the British people.
It is rather extraordinary that only one Conservative Back-Bencher and one Liberal Democrat are in the Chamber at the moment. Perhaps Members are following the Prime Minister’s injunction not to bang on about Europe—at least at the moment, if not generally.
Amendment 37, tabled by the hon. Member for Ilford South, would replace a Welsh “version” with a “translation”. I think that is a little superfluous; I am not really sure of the precise difference between a version and a translation, and even after listening to the hon. Gentleman I did not quite pick up the nuanced difference. I think the Minister made a reasonable response to the amendment, which is that we are following precedent by using “version”.
There is more of a problem with amendments 39 and 40 which mention Gaelic translations, and a bit of a linguistic pickle is going on. As I understand it, Gaelic covers a family of languages that include Manx and Irish, and not just Scottish Gaelic, which is the normal term used to describe the Celtic language in Scotland. The Scottish Government are promoting the status of Scottish Gaelic on the basis that it should have equal respect with English, and that there should be language rights for its tens of thousands of native speakers, but not that it is based on a perceived lack of understanding of English. No one is really expected not to understand a question in English—for instance, there is no requirement to have a Scottish Gaelic version of the independence question in the independence referendum, and that appears to be the intention of both the Scottish and UK Governments. Amendment 39 is a wee bit superfluous.
The hon. Member for Ilford South gets into even more of a linguistic pickle with amendment 40. It mentions Gaelic, although I think the accepted terminology in Ireland is Irish, not Gaelic. This is becoming a bit of an attempt to find various things to talk about, which obviously I am not sure we in this place would entertain.
Amendment 38 has slightly more weight because the hon. Gentleman is clearly trying to include in the Bill the requirement to consult
There is much more precedent for using the Welsh language, but then the Welsh language is already mentioned in the Bill, and I am not sure whether we need that sensible requirement for consultation in the Bill too. Such a consultation is something that the Government would seem to be perfectly capable of doing, and if the Electoral Commission is looking at the wording of the question, it should be the body that leads on our Welsh version of the question, as well as the English language version.
That leaves amendment 71, which was tabled by Mr Bain. His amendment is an attempt to tackle a fundamental problem with the Bill, namely its curious approach to the timing and the curiously delayed nature of the referendum question that it would put to the British people. Amendment 71 provides a small antidote to that by emphasising that we are not binding our successors. [Interruption.]
People are allowed to come and speak. I think everything is in order. If it was not, we would have stopped it.
As I was saying, in amendment 71 the hon. Member for Glasgow North East is attempting to remedy the strange issue with the timing and the attempt by this Parliament to bind its successor through this referendum Bill. Of course, we pass legislation all the time that carries forward into future Parliaments, but when it comes to referendums, we normally want to take the decision at the time that we want to hold a referendum. That was the debate we had about the Lisbon treaty—whether it was a proposed constitution and whether we should have at that stage a referendum on the treaty or a referendum on membership, which is what Liberals Democrats supported at that time. We were quite happy to hold a referendum on the question of membership—not in four or five years’ time, but right then and there—because of the clear statement about what the Lisbon treaty contained and what our relationship with Europe would be. We are not in that situation now. The future relationship between the UK and Europe and the rest of the European Union is now less clear because of the economic crisis, the need to restructure the eurozone and the potential treaty changes that are in the offing because of that crisis. It is therefore odd to be discussing a Bill that talks about a referendum four years in advance. Amendment 71, which would provide for an order to be made under the affirmative resolution procedure in a future Parliament, is perhaps one way of tackling that issue.
“Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.”
Of course, the Prime Minister has an interest in creating paper unity in the Conservative party on the matter of a referendum, but it would be a political disaster for the
Conservatives if they got the referendum, because they would be split absolutely down the middle. The Prime Minister made some impressively pro-European statements in his Bloomberg speech. I do not have them at my fingertips, but he talked about the European Union delivering peace in Europe and about it being essential for prosperity and jobs. Indeed, he made a speech of which, in some respects, any Liberal Democrat would be proud, with its explanation of the value of the European Union to both Europe and the UK. However, it is clear from today’s debate and the debate a few weeks ago that many Members from his own party would be campaigning on the opposite side in that referendum.
In a funny way, there is a sort of sub-Orwellian process going on in the Conservative party, in that the Conservatives would rather have a constant campaign for a referendum, which allows them to create some kind of unity, yet they would be rather shocked and disappointed if they got it—indeed, they would be in a bit of a crisis—because then they would be split down the middle. However, although many speakers from the Labour Benches today have answered the big question by arguing in favour of Britain’s continued membership of the European Union, Kelvin Hopkins popped up briefly, and there are certainly Labour Members who are far from clear about what their answer to the big question in this debate would be.
This referendum Bill is, at heart, a device to dodge the big question. I suppose there are two parties that are absolutely clear on the answer to that big question of whether Britain should remain in or out of the European Union: UKIP is pretty clear that we should be outside the EU, while the Liberal Democrats are clear that we should be in it, because it enables us to fight cross-border crime more effectively, to protect the environment more effectively and, above all, to protect British jobs and support a sustainable economy in this country. There is confusion among the other two parties. The Conservative party is split down the middle, and the Labour party is, if not split right down the middle, at least split a little down the left-hand side. We need to move on from the minutiae of referendum questions and arcane debates about the precise wording of the question to the big issue of whether Britain should remain in or out. That is what many opinion formers, such as the CBI, are starting to do.
Amendment 71 makes a reasonable attempt to tackle the rather peculiar issue of timing in a quite imaginative way. I am not sure that it resolves the issue, but I would be happy to support it in the meantime.
I am pleased to speak to amendment 71, which stands in my name, and to other amendments in the group.
An unusual aspect of this Bill is that it purports to hold a referendum on the question of whether to remain part of the European Union, without specifying the date on which such a referendum would be held. That is most unlike the practice that we have seen when this House has passed similar legislation to create the opportunity for referendums to take place in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—and, indeed, for the referendum held two years ago on the alternative vote. It is also unlike what is happening in the process for a referendum in Scotland. The great danger that the Bill in its current form presents is that it gives the Executive too much power in the setting of the referendum date. The Bill gives the Government a blank cheque for the setting of that date, and who knows what sort of factors will be considered when the Government come to set it.
Indeed; my hon. Friend makes a powerful point.
Given that this referendum is being pursued through a private Member’s Bill, it is perplexing why James Wharton seeks to give such discretion to the Executive. Amendment 71 would limit that discretion quite substantially. If we look at the wording of clause 1, we see that it is technically possible for this House and the other place to pass a resolution, setting a particular date for a referendum, and there could be general election in the interim. In the increasingly—by the day—unlikely event of this Government being returned to office at that election, they could come forward with an order in the next Parliament with a different date for the holding of the referendum.
The purpose of the amendment is to ensure that, if this Bill were passed, any date specified in a resolution passed by this House and the other place for the holding of a referendum would be the same as the date in the final order. In so doing, it would reassert the sovereignty of this House and the other place and restrict the ability of the Executive to play the sorts of games in respect of this referendum that, sadly, those of us who represent constituencies in Scotland know that the Scottish Government have been guilty of playing in respect of the Scottish referendum. I will be testing the House’s opinion on the amendment, which is important in providing safeguards, to the House and those we represent, against the Government’s playing fast and loose with any timetable for setting a date.
Given my hon. Friend’s expertise in this area, he is enormously well placed to make that point in such a powerful way. It is bizarre that many of those who support the Bill are the very same people who oppose the idea of Parliament being bound by its successors. One reason why they want to withdraw from the European Union, and would encourage people to vote no to staying in in any such referendum, is that they do not believe that sovereignty should be affected.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful point. Would it not be better if the promoter of the Bill, instead of taking a vow of silence that would be the envy of any monastery in the land, actually answered some of the questions about why he has put it forward in such a way?
My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head. Throughout the entire passage of the Bill, neither the hon. Member for Stockton South nor the Minister representing the Government or the Conservative party—hon. Members are not sure about his status—have been able to answer the important questions about the implications of a yes or a no vote. Neither has there been any indication of the precise date on which the Government propose to hold the referendum.
As I said, from my experience in Scotland, that issue is critical. It is not simply a matter of process; it will come into the heart of the entire debate. I do not believe that leaving the Bill in its current form, and letting it give the Executive the powers that it does, does this country or Parliament any service. It is important that we improve the Bill, putting in clearer safeguards for Parliament and the country.
My apologies; it is important to be able to distinguish between east and west.
The wording of the question is critical. In the 1975 referendum, specific reference was made to the UK staying in the EEC, as it was. There was a further clarification by means of the insertion of the words “Common Market” after “the European Community” in the referendum question. The Electoral Commission has identified that the question under consideration, in its current form, could create an ambiguity in the minds of an important group of voters, who might believe that the European Union was completely different from Europe or from what we are engaged in at the moment. The Electoral Commission’s advice should be taken carefully by the hon. Member for Stockton South and the Government.
As has been mentioned, the wording of the question is critical. In the Quebec referendum of 1995, when the proposers of separatism argued that a question could be framed around the word “sovereignty”, that generated an outcome of less than 1% in favour of those who wished to remain part of Canada. In Scotland, we saw a politically motivated process with the question as drafted being corrected by the Electoral Commission and other political opinion, which held the Executive to account. If the hon. Gentleman is to make any kind of persuasive case for a referendum, he simply must engage with the arguments that the Electoral Commission has made. The commission has said that there is a danger that his question, which is endorsed by the Conservative part of the Government, is too ambiguous, and that needs to be resolved by this House and potentially by the other place in future proceedings on the Bill.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the rewording in amendment 35 not only abides by the Electoral Commission’s suggestion but states a fact, as we would “remain” within the EU? Does he also agree that, in concurrence with my hon. Friend Mike Gapes, who has said that he is minded to press his amendment to a Division, the House should pass the amendment so that there is clarity for the voters of the UK should we have a referendum?
My hon. Friend is entirely correct. The worst thing that this House and the other place could do is to put in place a referendum that leaves doubt in the minds of voters over what they are voting for. There is even doubt about the implications of a yes or a no vote in the minds of Members on the Government Benches. Quite simply, there should not be such doubt among the voters if a referendum were to take place. For that reason, it is essential that the strong arguments of the Electoral Commission are given due credence by the Bill’s promoter.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South has tabled an interesting group of amendments. It is fair for him to raise the point in relation to Wales and Scotland. It would be appropriate to consult those devolved legislatures and to speak to the Scottish Government and the Welsh Assembly Government about the arrangements for translating the question into the appropriate language. The promoter should take such arguments on board.
I will seek to test the opinion of the House on amendment 71. I emphasise to both the Government and the Bill’s promoter that language is absolutely critical in referendums. As the question stands in this Bill, the hon. Member for Stockton South simply has not got it right.
I rise to speak in support of amendment 35 and to oppose amendment 36. I, like my hon. Friend Mike Gapes, hold strong views about amendment 35, and it is important that the House expresses its view on the amendment, too. The wording should make specific reference to our remaining in the European Union. It should not give the impression to the public when they come to make their decision that we are not already in the European Union.
The past has shown us that the wording of the referendum question is important in that it not only frames the debate but affects voter understanding. If the wording of the question for a referendum in 2017 is left solely to the Government, and the Government have not taken sufficient notice of an independent body such as the Electoral Commission, the question could be misleading, deliberately vague or confusing, or reflect a bias leaning one way or another. In short, the wording of the question in a particularly close referendum could affect whether voters choose to remain in the EU or to leave it.
As my hon. Friend Mr Bain pointed out, we need only cast our minds back to the 1995 independence referendum in Quebec. After a failed independence referendum in 1980, the Parti Québécois was brought back into power in 1994 and quickly called for a fresh referendum. It asked the people of Quebec:
“Do you agree that Quebec should become sovereign, after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership, within the scope of the Bill respecting the future of Quebec and the agreement signed on June 12, 1995?”
That is a long referendum question, which caused a great deal of confusion, to the extent that the referendum was taken again. Led by Federal Prime Minister Jean Chrétien of the Liberal party, the no campaign complained that the yes campaign’s approach of offering sovereignty and association with Canada was not clear enough, and federalists said that the word “country”, as in “sovereign country”, had been left out intentionally to confuse voters. It also complained that the wording of the question, particularly the phrase
“the agreement signed on June 12, 1995”,
might imply that the new economic and political partnership had somehow already been secured, in the same way as the question proposed by the Government gives the impression that the UK might not already be a member of the EU by omitting to mention that we are.
My hon. Friend again mentions Quebec, which is an important issue that the Government and the promoter of the Bill need to consider. Another issue was that the period of uncertainty lasted for many years afterwards. The Clarity Act was not passed until 1999, so the debate about whether the question was clear was wrangled over for four or five years. Many argued that the uncertainty created by the referendum and the question contributed to Canada’s poor economic performance in the 1990s. It had wider implications, not only legal and constitutional ones.
I totally agree. Opinion research tended to bear out the federalists’ claim about the wording of the question. A poll conducted three weeks before the vote found that 28% of voters who had not yet made up their minds believed that a yes vote would simply mean negotiating a better deal within the federal system.
There were many other indications of the importance of the wording. Polls suggested that some 53% of those who supported sovereignty thought that it did not mean separating from the rest of Canada. Even more striking differences were shown: if the polling question was reversed and respondents were asked whether they wished to stay in Canada, 59% said yes; and a poll in 1994 suggested that 71% of sovereigntists wanted to remain part of the federation.
An in/out referendum is a huge issue as far as the UK’s membership of the EU is concerned. We need to make distinctions purely and simply by making it plain at the start that we are a member of the European Union and by asking the public whether they wish to remain as a member.
On the question of the alternative to EU membership, the Democracy Movement testified to Parliament:
“The danger of bias with ballot paper preambles not only relates to what is actually included in them but also to what is left out”.
I feel that any referendum on leaving Europe should allude to what being outside Europe would mean. The Government need to be clear on the choice offered. If it is a choice between being a member of the EU or a member of the European economic area or the European Free Trade Association, like Norway and Switzerland, that choice should be expressed if not in the question in the literature given out with the ballot paper or before the referendum takes place.
Signed in 1992 and operational from 1994, the EEA agreement extends the EU single market and free movement of goods, services, people and capital, together with laws in areas such as employment, consumer protection, environmental policy and competition. It includes Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein, but not Switzerland. In practice, that means that the vast majority of the EU regulations that are identified as the most burdensome to business, including the working time directive, would still apply if the UK left the EU but remained a member of the European economic area. The UK would also be bound by future EU law in those areas, but would arguably have less influence over their content. Any question on European membership should therefore state clearly what the alternative to that membership should be.
Something other than a simple yes or no question was an option—it is not my preferred option—mentioned by the Electoral Commission that might achieve that. Such a question was used in referendums in New Zealand in 1992 and 1993 on electoral reform. We must acknowledge that a sizeable portion of the British public would prefer reform or a renegotiation, rather than simply continuing as we are or leaving the European Union.
The Government’s question—
“Do you think that the United Kingdom should be a member of the European Union?”— clearly gives the impression that the United Kingdom might not be an EU member at present. As I said in an intervention, when we knock on doors and speak to people about Europe, they are not sure whether we are talking about being in Europe as a continent, as a member of the EU, as a signatory to the European convention on human rights, or as a member of the European single currency. There is therefore a great deal of confusion, but rephrasing the question and providing additional information could make things clearer. The Electoral Commission argues that its research shows that a few people do not know whether the UK is currently a member of the EU and that that presented the risk of misunderstanding. Professor Dunleavy argued in his testimony to Parliament that the question in the Bill
“is highly misleading in two dimensions. First, it implicitly suggests to voters…either that the UK is not already a member…or that our membership is up for renewal in some kind of routine, regular or unprompted way…Either way the question actively contributes to misinforming voters.”
The Electoral Commission tested six versions of a possible referendum question in its report. The first—the question in the Bill—was
“Do you think that the United Kingdom should be a member of the European Union?”
The second question, which is my preference—it is proposed in amendment 35—was:
“Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?”
The third question—
“Should the United Kingdom continue to be a member of the European Union?”— obviously leads the electorate in a specific direction. The fourth question was
“Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”
That is the either/or option, with the voters choosing between the options of “Remain a member” and “Leave the European Union”. The fifth alternative was:
“The United Kingdom is a member of the European Union. Do you think that the United Kingdom should be a member of the European Union?”
The final question was:
“Should the United Kingdom leave the European Union?”
There were therefore various considerations of how the question could be posed, how each question might lead the electorate, and whether the electorate would understand their options. The commission’s research argued that a simple yes or no question might present
“difficulties with some element of perceived bias”,
but I think that such a question represents the best way forward.
If Scotland votes yes in 2014, will the words “United Kingdom” have to be amended within the question? Will the question refer to the “remainder of the United Kingdom”? I invite the Minister to tell us his preferred wording, should Scotland choose to leave. Would “rump UK” or “remainder of the UK” appear on a ballot paper?
The Government need to take account of the commission’s findings about the range of people’s knowledge and understanding of the EU. Some said that they had no knowledge, while others stated they had a moderate level of knowledge. However, regardless of participants’ knowledge of the EU as a form of political and economic union, the majority stated that their personal understanding of how the EU worked was particularly low. The report considered that many were under-informed about the EU as an institution, as well as about the arguments for and against the UK remaining a member.
The Foreign Affairs Committee report on the future UK relationship with Europe pointed out that Europe’s current institutional architecture means that any UK decision about whether the country should remain in the EU would to a significant extent be a decision about whether it should remain in the European single market. How many people in the UK recognise that fact? Do they realise that voting no to Britain remaining in the EU could seriously affect the economy, their job prospects and their likelihood of remaining in a job in the future? That is why the economic side of the argument is so important. Any referendum question on membership of the European Union should be closely associated with literature which refers to the single market, the likelihood of people still being in a job and of their local firm still trading with Europe, and related matters.
Some participants in the commission’s research expressed concern about the effect of including the word “leave” on the neutrality of the question. Leaving is not as straightforward as some might think. As Herman Van Rompuy pointed out in a speech on
“leaving the club altogether, as a few advocate, is legally possible—we have an ‘exit clause’—but it’s not a matter of just walking out. It would be legally and politically a most complicated and unpractical affair. Just think of a divorce after forty years of marriage… Leaving is an act of free will, and perfectly legitimate, but it doesn’t come for free” and it would not be that easy.
Under article 50 the UK would have to negotiate its withdrawal with the rest of the European Union. The terms of such an agreement would have to be supported through qualified majority voting in the European Council and would require the support of the European Parliament. If no agreement were reached, the UK’s exit would take effect two years after notice had been issued, unless the Council voted unanimously to extend this period.
Article 50 of the amended treaty on the European Union allows a member state unilaterally to leave the EU in accordance with its own constitutional requirements. It states:
“A Member State which decides to withdraw shall notify the European Council of its intention. In the light of the guidelines provided by the European Council, the Union shall negotiate and conclude an agreement with that State, setting out the arrangements for its withdrawal, taking account of the framework for its future relationship with the Union. That agreement shall be negotiated in accordance with Article 218(3) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. It shall be concluded by the Council, acting by a qualified majority, after obtaining the consent of the European Parliament.”
My hon. Friend is making a very good speech, using all his European and referendum experience. Can he remember any other referendum situation in the UK where the Government proposed, as the Minister for Europe did in his speech, to ignore the Electoral Commission’s clear advice that the question needs amending?
No. By the standards of the Conservative party, we have a moderate, reasonable Europe Minister in his place on the Front Bench, who has over the years given serious consideration to most people’s point of view on issues related to Europe. It surprises me that a man of his calibre is doing not only the work of being a very good Europe Minister, which he is, but the dirty work of the Conservative party, giving the impression that as a reasonable man he is disregarding the important qualifications set out by the Electoral Commission.
Finally, any question of leaving the European Union should point out that such an exit would have to be negotiated. Perhaps the question should be, “Should the UK negotiate its exit from the European Union under article 50 of the Lisbon treaty?” Any such question should make clear reference to the fact that we are already in the European Union, and the question should be whether or not we remain in the European Union.
Will the Serjeant at Arms investigate the delay in the No Lobby? We seem to be suffering some type of blockage.
The House having divided:
Division number 136