Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.Donate to our crowdfunder
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Lords amendment 6, and amendment (a) thereto.
Lords amendments 2 to 4 and 7 to 12.
Lords amendment 13, and amendment (a) thereto.
Lords amendments 14 to 46.
I tabled amendment (a) to Lords amendment 5 because amendments were moved in the House of Lords, not the House of Commons, and accepted by the Government in respect of, in Lords amendment 5, a duty to publish information on the outcome of negotiations between member states and, in Lords amendment 6, a duty to publish information about membership of the European Union. That might sound all very well and good, but the problem is that they contain a whole raft of question marks that I want to raise today.
I will just give a brief outline of Lords amendment 5. On the outcome of negotiations, the Secretary of State will be under an obligation to publish a report,
“alone or with other material”— we do not know what “other material” would involve—containing:
“a statement setting out what has been agreed by member States following negotiations”.
We have just seen the letter from Mr Tusk on the current state of the EU’s assessment of the negotiations and I do not think it makes for very pretty reading for the Government. In fact, I would go further than that. I find this quite astonishing, but the apparent point of the letter was to satisfy, and provide a solution for, the Prime Minister. I thought the real objective here was to satisfy the United Kingdom, in particular its voters. That, after all, is what the referendum is all about. It is not about what the Government think. Parliament is handing over the entire exercise to the voter, which is only proper and that for which I have campaigned for 25 years.
In addition, Lords amendment 5 imposes a duty to publish,
“the opinion of the Government of the United Kingdom on what has been agreed”.
From what we can gather, the Government’s opinion will be that we should remain in, so, not unnaturally, those of us with a different position—I say candidly that I am campaigning to leave the EU, but I need to be impartial and fair in my assessments—are deeply concerned about what the “other material” might contain and what the Government’s opinion in the report will be.
The second amendment (a) is to Lords amendment 6, which places the Secretary of State under a legal obligation to publish a report—again with other material of which we know nothing—relating to,
“information about rights, and obligations, that arise under European Union law as a result of the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union”.
I have been a member of the European Scrutiny Committee, or its predecessor, for 30 years. There is such a vast accumulation of rights and obligations that I wonder whether it is conceivable that the information could ever be made available in the concise form that such a report would presuppose. In fact, it includes everything arising under sections 2 and 3 of the European Communities Act 1972, which has a massive effect on voters’ daily lives.
The report must also include,
“examples of countries that do not have membership of the European Union but do have other arrangements with the European Union (describing, in the case of each country given as an example, those arrangements).”
This brings to mind the question of Norway, which the Prime Minister raised in EU negotiations and his speech the other day. For me and most of my colleagues, the Norway option has never been on the table because we do not approve of the EEA arrangements. There are other permutations, certainly, but I do not intend to go into them today.
The amendments place on the Government an obligation to deliver reports. The essence of both my amendments is simple. The Electoral Commission, which has important duties relating to all referendum and election matters, has made clear its view of what happened in the House of Lords. We would have loved to debate this properly in the House of Commons, but we now have limited time, so I will keep my remarks brief. The fact is, however, that these massive reports are bound to have a huge effect on public opinion, so it is essential that they be impartial and accurate. The commission has stated, and has repeated to me in an email today:
“However, any provision in legislation for this should ensure that voters can have confidence in the accuracy and impartiality of the information. There should also be sufficient balance given to the consequences of both a majority vote to remain a member of the European Union and a majority vote to leave the European Union”.
I could not agree more. It is clear there has to be a balance. The problem is that everything emanating from the Government—all the speeches and arguments—inclines towards the notion that EU reform would satisfy the requirements set out. The European Scrutiny Committee has taken expert evidence and will publish a report very soon on the outcome of the negotiations thus far. I will not give anything away if I say there are some big question marks over what has been achieved under the renegotiations. There is time to go, however, and I realise that the reports would have to be published,
“before the beginning of…the period of 10 weeks ending with the date of the referendum”.
We will have 10 weeks to evaluate reports that will have enormous persuasive significance.
I am confident that the European Scrutiny Committee will be looking at this carefully. During our examination of the renegotiations, we have been exercised by the desire to ensure that the Government do not just come forward with a final offer. The Minister knows what I mean. We do not want to be bounced by a final offer; we want to assess the negotiations as they progress. That is what we are doing, and what we will continue to do, because that is what our Standing Orders require us to do on behalf of the House of Commons. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her intervention because it is important that the House not be bounced.
I spoke to, and received a note from, the Electoral Commission today. It regards the provision of the impartiality we would expect as beyond its own functions, which is extremely regrettable because it should have an opportunity to comment. My Committee will consider this matter carefully—the Minister knows what that means—and it is my clear assessment that any such report, if he could not guarantee it met the highest standards of impartiality and accuracy, would effectively mislead the British people. That is the test. If he tells me something along those lines, I will be prepared—
I am happy to give way to my right hon. Friend, as soon as I have finished my point.
It is important, if the voter is to make a balanced choice, that due accuracy and impartiality be implicit in any such report.
I am slightly puzzled. My hon. Friend is rightly demanding accuracy in the Government’s analysis, but he is also demanding impartiality. Does he mean, and is it the purport of his amendments, that the Government should not express an opinion on the most important issue facing the country for perhaps the next 40 years? I assume not, as that would clearly be absurd. Is he saying, therefore, that if the Government produce an accurate report and then reach a conclusion with which he disagrees, it could not, in itself, be impartial? There is a difference between accuracy and impartiality.
I will leave aside my own opinions on this point. As my right hon. Friend knows, I have strong views, which I will develop during the campaign, about why we should leave, but we already know from speeches made by the Prime Minister and other Ministers that there is a presupposition that a reformed Union is the way to go. The test to be applied is whether the reforms amount to much, which I do not think they will, and meet the test of changing our relationship with the EU, which is also relevant. On these questions there will be much debate, but anybody with a fraction of judgment, in respect of this huge landscape and the trust to be placed in the voter to make the right decision, will have to consider whether there is any significant bias in the reports. We have already been through the whole of the purdah debate, which was about using the civil service machinery. If I may say so, I think we won that one. There should not be a back door to achieving the same objectives relating to a report of this kind.
On that note, I give notice that I propose to withdraw my amendment. I want to know from the Minister whether or not he is prepared to accept my point about impartiality and accuracy. He knows perfectly well what I mean, and he is more than capable of giving us a decent answer.
Lords amendments 5 and 6 quite closely reflect amendments that Opposition Members tabled in Committee and on Report. Amendment 5 calls for information and a report on the Government’s renegotiation process, while amendment 6 calls for a report on the rights and obligations entailed in membership of the European Union and invites the Government to outline the rights and obligations of certain countries that have relationships with the EU, perhaps through the EEA agreement, but are not members of it.
I refer Members to the recent Policy Network pamphlet on these issues, entitled “What does ‘out’ look like?”, which I think would make a great Christmas present for the Minister and for anyone considering these issues. I have some copies available if the Minister would like to see them. This is not the same as the purdah issue. We are talking about something that is 10 weeks out and we are not in the absolute heat of the campaign. We are not talking about a leaflet that is to be distributed to every household in the country or anything like that. What we are calling for is for the Government to publish information on both aspects—the renegotiation and what “out” might look like. That should give the public the best information possible on a very important decision.
The Government and the Prime Minister have placed great emphasis on the renegotiation itself, and we have seen the exchange of letters between the Prime Minister and the President of the European Council, who published his initial reply yesterday. We know there will be some discussion of these issues at the European Council next week, but probably not a conclusion until the European Council in February next year.
It remains to be seen what the outcome of these renegotiations is going to be. We had some indication in the letter from the President of the European Council yesterday. Many Opposition Members do not place the same weight on this renegotiation as the Prime Minister does, because we think there is a broader case for membership beyond the four points that the Prime Minister outlined in his letter of last month to the President of the European Council. It is obviously also the case that many Government Back Benchers place no weight at all on the renegotiation, because there is nothing in it that could get them to change their minds about the outcome of the referendum. I believe it was Mr Jenkin who asked during questions on a statement after he had seen the contents of the Prime Minister’s letter, “Is that it?”
I understand that last point, but it is all part of the debate. What is being asked and the response to what is being asked are all part of the calculations being made by many people who may be considering what “in” looks like, as well as what “out” looks like. If the negotiations are not treated with the respect and gravity they deserve, even though they may be quite modest, that sends a big message to those of us who have concerns about our ongoing membership.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention, but different people will look at the renegotiation in different ways. The point I am making is that there is a broader case about membership of the EU that goes well beyond the four items listed in the Prime Minister’s letter and the four cases in President Tusk’s reply. If, for the hon. Lady and for some voters, it is all about those four points, that is a fair judgment for them to make, but what I am saying is that for most Opposition Members there is a broader case for membership outwith the renegotiations. I would venture to suggest that when it comes to the referendum and voters actually casting their vote on whether we should remain the EU or leave it, it will not in the end be the finer points of the renegotiation that are in their minds. It will be the broader case either for in or out. That is what people will vote on.
Amendment 5 deals with the report that we would like to see published on these negotiations, and amendment 6 deals with the broader issues on what being “in” and
“out” might look like. This cannot be a complete exercise. If the country votes to leave the EU, there would be a process of extracting ourselves from it, and no one can say with absolute certainty what the outcome would be like. However, we have examples of countries that trade with the single market, but are not members of the EU—one thinks of Norway and Switzerland. I do not want to go into the detail on those today, but those examples are out there and we can already see what the obligations on those states are, even though they are not members of the EU and do not have representation in the European Council, the European Parliament or indeed in other decision-making bodies.
It seems to me that the Opposition are yet again falling into the trap of thinking that it is possible to trade with the EU only if we have a special arrangement with it, like Norway or Switzerland. Yet all the world’s countries trade with the EU, and the very badly drafted Lords amendment invites comment on all those different arrangements, many of which have no special deal at all.
I am not saying that the Norway example is the only one out there. There are others, but Norway is a real live example, which I think is relevant to our debate. Moreover, some in the campaign to leave the EU have drawn attention to it as a model, while others have drawn attention to Switzerland as a model. It would be good to understand from the Leave campaign exactly what model they seek to support. It is right that in advance of the referendum, the Government should publish as much information as possible so that the voters are clear about what is involved.
The amendment proposed by the hon. Member for Stone calls on the Electoral Commission to be the marker, as it were, of the Government’s homework, but the Electoral Commission has said clearly that it does not want to do that. It accepts that there is an appetite for more detailed information, but it states that
“we would not have the capabilities to do so…nor the required expertise to judge a report to Parliament”.
That is very clear.
I want to give the right hon. Gentleman another chance to plug his pamphlet. In it, he sets out the various options that would be available to this country. In the context of the Government providing information, this is quite a difficult ask. It is inevitably hypothetical; nobody can know what the divorce settlement would be. The Government would certainly not know. What the amendments are effectively asking the Government to do is to stick a finger in the air and see which way the wind is blowing. It is quite difficult to call that “information”.
I respect the right hon. Gentleman’s views on this matter, but I am afraid I disagree with him. The amendments are not asking the Government to stick a finger in the air and speculate on what the UK’s arrangements would be after withdrawal. Amendment 6(b) shows that this is about
“examples of countries that do not have membership of the European Union but do have other arrangements with the European Union”.
That is not speculation; those examples already exist. We can study the obligations on countries subject to these arrangements. They have been there for some time, and those countries have negotiated specific details with the European Union. That is not a matter for speculation; it is out there for us all to see.
I am pleased that the Government have, in effect, accepted requests that we made in Committee and on Report in the House of Commons. It is important for voters to be clear about the renegotiation, clear about the results of that renegotiation, clear about what being in the European Union is like and what it requires, and as clear as possible about what being out might look like. A referendum is a choice between two futures, not an opinion poll on only one future, and that is why the amendments are important. It is right for us to have access to reports of this kind, and it is right for the maximum amount of information to be made available to the public on what will be a crucial choice for the country.
I put my name to the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend Sir William Cash because I thought that Lords amendments 5 and 6 were ill considered and unwise, and that we needed to debate them for that reason.
Lords amendment 5 is easy to deal with and I have no particular problem with it, because it states the obvious—namely that, when the negotiations have been completed, the British Government should share their view of the outcome of those negotiations with Parliament and the people. Well, of course they will: it will happen naturally. There will be a statement, and I dare say there will be a written text as well. I therefore think that the amendment is an unnecessary addition to what was a simpler Bill before their lordships got hold of it.
Lords amendment 6 is far more worrying, because it is so sloppily drafted and because it leads to all sorts of arguments that are properly arguments for a referendum campaign rather than for good legislation to set up the referendum. The first part of the amendment says that the Government must publish information about the
“rights, and obligations, that arise under European Union law” from our current membership. As has already been remarked, if that were done properly it would result in a very long book, given that we are now subject to so many legal restrictions and obligations as a result of an extremely voluminous consolidated treaty and thousands of directives. I think that to fulfil that remit properly, the Government would have to set out all the directives, and explain to the British people why there are now very large areas of law and public practice that we in the House of Commons are not free to determine as we see fit and as the people wish. While that might be a useful thing to do, I fear that the Government might fall short because they might not wish to give a comprehensive list of our obligations, and it is not good law to invite people to do things that they do not really intend to do.
I look forward to hearing the Minister clarify whether he will be publishing a full list of the thousands of legal restraints that now operate on this Parliament in preventing us from carrying out the wish of the British people, and also on the British people, who must obey these laws as they are translated into British law, or else obey the directly acting laws. Of course, all these laws, and our own laws, can be construed by European justice through the European Court of Justice, which, rather than this court of Parliament, is now the true sovereign in our country because we have submitted ourselves to the ultimate judgment of the European Court.
Does my right hon. Friend attach the importance that I attach—and the Electoral Commission itself has attached—to the fact that the reports proposed by Lords amendments 5 and 6 should be produced on the basis of both impartiality and accuracy? We remember the review of competences: it was a whitewash. If these reports were anything like that, we would be significantly misleading the public, would we not?
Indeed. That is why I share my hon. Friend’s concern about Lords amendment 6, and fear that the Government might fall short of the full remit. Will they spell it out to people that we cannot control our own borders, our own welfare system, our own energy system and energy pricing, our own market regulations, our own corporation tax or our own value added tax, because all those matters have been transferred to the superior power of the European Union? That should be the very substance of the referendum debate about whether we wish to restore the full sovereignty of Parliament for the British people, or whether we wish to continue on the wild ride to political union that the EU has in mind, which will mean that even more powers are taken away.
The second part of Lords amendment 6 states that the Government must set out
“examples of countries that do not have membership of the European Union but do have other arrangements with the European Union (describing, in the case of each country given as an example, those arrangements).”
I have not read or heard anything so woolly for a long time. The amendment refers to all the countries that are not in the European Union but have some kind of arrangement with the European Union without even specifying a trade arrangement, although the Opposition seem to think that it relates to trade.
The Opposition try to perpetuate the myth that our businesses and people would be able to trade with the rest of the European Union only if we resubmitted ourselves to some of the powers of that Union through some kind of arrangement like those entered into by Norway and Switzerland. Have they not heard that America is a mighty trading partner of the European Union that does not have one of these special trading arrangements, and certainly does not pay a contribution to the European Union in order to sell goods and services to it—nor does China, nor does India, nor does Canada, and nor does Australia— and have they not heard that some individual countries have free trade agreements with the European Union which are arguably better than the arrangement that we have as members of the EU, because they do not have to pay anything like the very large levies and contributions that we must pay for the privilege of trading from within the internal market?
My right hon. Friend is making a powerful point. On the basis of what he has said, the debate will be about how “arrangements” will be defined in the report, and, indeed, that could potentially be open to challenge.
That is another reason why I am very worried for the Government. I do not wish them to get into legal trouble over this sloppy drafting.
Those of us who have decided that we wish to leave the European Union have been invited to predict what the Leave campaign will announce when it is finally recognised and officially up and running. I think it would be pretty safe to say that we will not want to recommend either the Norwegian or the Swiss model, because, in our view, the United Kingdom is a far bigger country with a different set of relationships around the world, and one that will have senior membership of the world’s main bodies including the World Trade Organisation. We therefore think that there will be a British solution to our relationship with the European Union, which will not, for example, include paying any contributions to that Union in the way that we currently have to.
The right hon. Gentleman has given examples of a number of countries that he would not want Britain to be like in the event of an EU exit. Will he give an indication of the countries that he would like us to resemble more? That might help the Government to decide which countries we should be compared to in the information that they publish. It is easy to say who we are not going to be like; will the right hon. Gentleman tell us who he thinks we should be like?
I have already done that. When the hon. Gentleman studies the report of the debate—if he is still interested—he will see that I have dealt with exactly that point with great clarity.
There will be a British answer, but it will be closer to the answer of those countries that trade very successfully with the European Union without accepting the need to pay money into the EU by way of special contribution, and without having to accept great legal impositions. Of course, anyone who trades with the European Union must meet its standards in respect of the goods and services that it wishes to buy, just as when we trade with the United States of America, we must accept its standards for the goods that we wish to sell to it. However, that does not mean having to enter into a common Government arrangement of any kind, and it does not mean having to pay special taxes in order to trade, because most of the world trades perfectly successfully with the European Union countries without having to do any such thing.
I hope that the Minister will appreciate that those of us who are on the Leave side have read the words that the Lords have actually written, rather than the words that the Opposition wish the Lords had written, and have noted their vagueness. It would, I think, be extremely foolish to specify the Norwegian example—which is not an example that anyone I know wishes to copy— rather than considering some of the larger countries, Commonwealth countries and others that have perfectly good trading arrangements. It would also be wrong of the Government, in answering this exam question, to confine themselves to the issue of trade, given that trade is mentioned nowhere in the draft law that is before us. We do need to consider the political arrangements that we have with EU countries, through NATO and so forth; we need to consider such matters as pipeline agreements, aviation agreements, and all those other arrangements that are clearly covered by this sloppily drafted piece of law.
My final worry with this clause is its asymmetry. The Opposition have shown us how they wish it to be asymmetric. They wish the leave side in the referendum to hypothesise about what our relationship with the EU will look like in two or three years’ time, whereas they do not seem to think it is incumbent upon the “stay in” side to similarly hypothesise. I would not mind betting that there will be even more change if we stay in, because if we vote to stay in, the rest of the EU will take that as an excuse to demand that the UK conform to many more parts of the Union than we are currently prepared to.
We know from the Five Presidents’ Report of the EU published this summer that as soon as our referendum is out of the way by 2017, they wish to press on with their move to capital markets union, full banking union and, above all, political union. We on the Leave side will be asking those who want to stay in to describe to us how Britain would relate to the political union and the very much stronger union generally which the euro members envisage. We should be in no doubt that the euro members wish to use the institutions of the EU as a whole for their own purposes, and it would be very difficult for Britain to be alongside but only half in—in the EU but not in the euro.
I would therefore like to see a symmetrical request. It is important to spell out what staying in looks like, as I believe that staying in is a wild ride to political union. That may not be possible or to the Minister’s liking when dealing with this clause and whether we leave it as it is, but I can assure him that it will be a very important part of the referendum campaign from the leave side.
I welcome the fact that Sir William Cash is inclined not to press at least one of his amendments. It seems to me that there is, and will be, a need for information about the likely consequences of an in vote and of an out vote. I do not think it is right that that should be left entirely to individual campaigns, because we already know that there are arguments about who runs the campaigns and how they are going to be funded, and by definition they will tell at best one half of the story. It is perfectly in order for the UK Government to publish appropriate information that sets out the background to the referendum. A survey done about a month ago indicated that the EU member state whose citizens are worst informed about what the EU actually means is the EU member state whose citizens are going to have a vote as to whether or not they are going to leave. We cannot allow that to continue; we cannot allow the referendum to come upon us with a significant number of our citizens not really understanding what they are voting for, not because they cannot predict what the future might be if we leave, and not because they cannot predict what the future might be if we stay, but because they do not actually know what the present is. Too many people do not understand what the EU does for good or for bad right now. If we simply leave this to partisan partial campaigns, people are going to end up confused rather than better informed. Incidentally, it is one reason why this might be the time to extend the franchise, because we think that 16 and 17-year-olds do not understand it, but that their lack of understanding probably puts them less far behind adults than in most other election campaigns. That vote has been and gone, however, so we will leave it at that.
I do find it a bit surprising and ironic—I will not go as far as to say hypocritical—that, as we saw when the Bill went through its earlier stages, so many Conservatives express the concern that during a referendum campaign a Government might publish information that was a wee bit one-sided. Most Members would not have received what a number of SNP Members received shortly before the referendum last year, which was a glossy full-colour booklet published by Her Majesty’s Government making sure that we understood the wonderful benefits that accrued to us from membership of the United Kingdom. The UK Government recently advertised for a post, in the Department for International Development of all places, whose main job was going to be to persuade the Scots how lucky we were to be part of the Union. As long as that kind of stuff goes on, I do not think that we need to take any lessons from anybody on the Government Benches about the dangers of letting Governments get involved in a partial way in a referendum campaign.
The Committee I chaired in the last Parliament, the Public Administration Committee, conducted an inquiry into civil service impartiality in referendums in respect of the Scottish referendum. It is one thing if there is a Government in Edinburgh on one side of the argument and a Government in London on the other, each publishing arguments for and against a particular proposition, but where is the balance going to be in this referendum, given that there is only one United Kingdom Government who are only going to be on one side of the argument?
It is perfectly in order for the UK Government to take an impartial, neutral stance once we get closer to the referendum. We do not know what stance they are going to take. There is a question as to whether it was appropriate for somebody else’s Government to interfere in our referendum, but I know that that is not an argument we are going to win just now. However, I can say that that degree of interference probably contributed to the fact that on most days these Benches are significantly more crowded than they were before. The point I am making is that if the Government do not produce information, as opposed to campaigning opinion, about how the EU works now, who do we think is going to produce it? If we are happy for the two opposing camps to produce the information, then they can go ahead and do it, but we know before we start that all that is going to happen is that people will be drawn to believing statements of fact because of their opinion of the politician or TV personality who has associated their name with them, rather than being presented with a factual, well-researched document that sets out how things are just now.
I rise to intervene on a member of my Committee simply to say that we know that the broadcasts and the information that will be delivered and published by the designated organisations on either side will provide that information. We saw it in Ireland, and there are many other examples in other referendums in the EU. But the idea that the Government are not going to try and organise the view that they want, which is to stay in a so-called reformed union, is, I think, for the birds.
I wish I could share the hon. Gentleman’s absolute faith in the impartiality of broadcasters during important referendums, but that might be one of the very small number of issues on which we disagree.
The point about broadcasters is that if they are found to be in breach of the requirement of impartiality, a sanction is available and there are ways in which they can be held to account—and certainly the BBC feels as if it is being very severely held to account by any number of Committees in this place just now.
I was not referring to the impartiality of broadcasters in this context; I was referring to the fact that under the designated arrangements each side will have the right to issue broadcasts and provide information by way of literature. That is what I was concentrating on.
I apologise for misunderstanding the hon. Gentleman’s comments.
My essential point is that I do not think it is enough to leave it to campaign groups to provide information. The purpose of campaign groups is to persuade people to vote for the cause that they are promoting. They will provide information that supports their cause. They will choose not to provide or emphasise information that does not support it. That is what we all did in order to get elected, and as long as it does not involve deliberately making untrue statements or trying to mislead people, that is part of the democratic process; it is part of politics. It is up to the electorate to judge whose arguments they believe, but if the electorate are starting from a position of significant ignorance, or in some cases significant misperception and misunderstanding of what the EU is all about, there is a danger that they will not be in a position to exercise that judgment at a critical time.
There is another issue when we talk about broadcasting and information being put in the public domain: how it is funded and whether there will be a balance in funding. That has been a big issue in past referendums, particularly the one in 1975.
My own personal views about how political campaigns and parties are funded probably would not get a huge amount of support here, but that might be something for a ten-minute rule Bill some time over the next four and a half years. The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. It is important that nobody has the opportunity to buy a referendum any more than anyone should be given the right to buy electoral success. I certainly would not want to see us going the way of America where people need billions of dollars behind them before they can even stand for election.
We are still not addressing the fundamental problem that, no matter how well or badly funded the individual campaigns are, if we are starting from the position of having the least well-informed electorate in Europe on this important issue, someone is going to have to provide the necessary information to bring people up to a better level of understanding of, for example, what “ever closer union” means and does not mean—because it does not mean what it keeps being presented as meaning, even by the Prime Minister.
People need to understand which aspects of immigration to the UK the European Union is involved in and which aspects it is not involved in. They need to understand which aspects of our welcoming of refugees, or our failure to welcome them, involve a European Union decision, and which aspects come under the auspices of the United Nations, for example. These are massively important issues, and the debate in this Chamber over the last months has not always helped to increase public understanding and appreciation of what the European Union does and does not do.
If there are concerns that the Government might not be impartial, or that they might be over-enthusiastic towards one side or the other, I would be quite happy for the Electoral Commission to publish guidance and to require the Government and everyone else to comply with it. It would be inappropriate to ask the Electoral Commission to scrutinise, veto or censor Government documents in the first place, but it would be perfectly in order for it to issue guidance on the conduct of the referendum, including on the kind of information that could and should be funded and published by the Government.
I find myself in the strange position of almost telling Government Back Benchers that they are wrong because the amendment seems to be based on an unwillingness to trust Her Majesty’s Government. I am not the biggest fan of this Government, and I am not the biggest believer that we can trust them, but if they cannot be trusted to present a fair case to the public in this matter, we are in trouble. The media will not present such a case; the print media absolutely will not do so. The political campaigns will not do so because it is not their job to be impartial. It is their job to be partisan, although perhaps not in a party political sense, on the issues that they are campaigning on.
I welcome the fact, if it is confirmed, that the hon. Member for Stone is to withdraw his amendment (a) to Lords amendment 5. I hope that he will not press his amendment to Lords amendment 6 as well. There is a crying need for reliable, well-researched information to be put into the public domain. Let us not forget that, a few yards from here, we have one of the most highly regarded research facilities anywhere in the world. It is highly regarded not only for the quality of its research and the speed with which it is done but, most importantly, for its impartiality. If we cannot rely on the research facilities within this House to provide reliable, well-documented information, who can we rely on?
I point out to Peter Grant that, whether he thinks it an irony, an accident or something more sinister, it is the people who are in favour of Britain remaining in the European Union who are championing Lords amendment 6, while those who support the leave campaign regard it as a bit of a Trojan horse that would enable the publication of a lot of subjective judgments loaded in favour of one side and not the other.
I referred to the report published at the end of the last Parliament by the Public Administration Committee entitled “Lessons for Civil Service impartiality from the Scottish independence referendum.” The reason that we produced the report was to look at the question of impartiality. There is a rather modern, corrosive view that the concept of impartiality, when applied to civil servants, means simply that they should be prepared to work for whichever party happens to be in office, that by so doing they are therefore impartial and that their conduct can then be quite partial and loaded under the Armstrong doctrine, which states that they have to support the Government of the day. Actually, I think most people in this country regard impartiality as a rather more imprecise quality, with a higher moral tone. They see it as having something to do with objectivity, with balance and with not being compromised into becoming a mere cheerleader for one point of view or another.
I should like to address the amendments to Lords amendments 5 and 6, tabled by my hon. Friend Sir William Cash, to which I have added my name. I do not regard the proposed duty
“to publish information on the outcome of negotiations” to be at all unreasonable. In fact, it would be rather odd if the Government did not publish such information. The advantage of having this obligation in the Bill is that the Government will have to publish it 10 weeks before the date of the referendum. That will mean that it will be properly scrutinised, rather than bounced on to the electorate at the last minute. I would say in response to my right hon. Friend Damian Green that it is perfectly reasonable for the Government to express their own opinion in such a document on the outcome of their own negotiations, as they would in any White Paper. It would be a good thing to have this provision in the Bill.
My hon. Friend should bear in mind that the White Paper that led to the European Communities Act 1972, which went through by only six votes in this House, contained a very precise promise that the use of the veto in our national interest would never be abandoned, because to abandon it would be to endanger the very fabric of the European Community itself. Is that not an example of how unreliable White Papers and other Government reports can be?
Indeed, but it is unavoidable that the Government are going to produce information of this kind.
The second duty, in Lords amendment 6, is not something that I expected to see. The Lords amendment asks the Government to produce judgments and opinions on a vast topic, using examples that, by their very nature, will be subjective. I am not at all surprised that the Electoral Commission has decided that it would be far beyond its competence to make a judgment about what such a document might be. The Government have accepted this amendment, but if they are to justify retaining it—as I expect them to do—they will have to answer some questions about it.
What do the Government mean by the word “publish” in the amendment? It would be one thing to place a learned, detailed and technical paper in the Library of the House of Commons in order to present the depth of analysis that the hon. Member for Glenrothes believes would be justified, but would the Government produce such a subjective document in a form that could be circulated to every household? How would we feel about that, 10 weeks before a referendum? It is reasonable for the Government to explain the outcome of their negotiations, but it would not be reasonable for them to use public money to present their entire world view on European Union membership as part of a campaign to remain in the EU.
Is my hon. Friend clear about what is meant by the Government’s response? Does it refer to a response achieved through collective responsibility? What would happen if there were dissenting members of the Government who did not agree with that response?
That is a good question. We all expect that, before long, there will be agreement among Ministers that some will not be toeing the Government line on this question. It is too big a question for it to be otherwise. The reason that we have referendums is that the questions split parties. We could not have a general election on a question that split the parties on both sides of the House. It would be impossible to decide on the issue in that way.
It would be absurd to have a referendum and then try to corral all the Ministers into one point of view. The precedent in 1975 was that collective responsibility was abandoned, although that does not mean there is not still a Government view—there is a Government view and a dissenting view. That is how it will work in this case, assuming that a vast number of Ministers do not leave the Government’s view too isolated to be any longer credible as being that of a Government.
Does my hon. Friend not agree that the country at large still has trust in “the Government”—in the governance of this country— whether or not we think it is right to hold that view? Our electorate would therefore find it strange if, during a referendum campaign, they could not point to what the Government’s view was. The Government of the day would continue after the referendum, and people will want to know what the Government, whether collective or otherwise, think about the issue.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. I have already said that the first publication is perfectly justified, as the Government are entitled to explain what they have negotiated and to give their opinion on that. If he would like to do so, he might explain how they are going to give
“information about rights, and obligations, that arise under European Union law as a result of the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union” in a concise and simple fashion which is not loaded. Perhaps he could tell us which countries should be used as
“examples of countries that do not have membership of the European Union” in order to explain the consequences of leaving the European Union. We are talking about very subjective judgments, and of course that is what the debate between the yes and the no campaigns will be about.
My hon. Friend is right to say that people trust what the Government say, which is exactly why what they say should be curtailed and limited: it has a disproportionate effect on the voters. There is absolutely no doubt about that. If a leader of a party says something, that has less of an effect than if the Prime Minister says something. That is why we have a purdah period, and the House has forced the Government to accept that there will be a proper purdah period. Otherwise, if we have what we had in 1975, whereby the Government can carry on regardless, being the Government and yet expressing partisan views on one side of the argument and not the other, an unfair referendum would be created. That is why all referendums throughout the world have systems to try to contain what Governments do during the final phases of the referendum, in order to try to create some fairness.
I wonder whether my hon. Friend has seen, as I have, the poster produced by the pro-EU BSE—Britain Stronger in Europe—campaign which co-opts the Governor of the Bank of England under the headline “Think UK’s economy is stronger in Europe”. BSE has also co-opted the President of the United States and the Prime Minister of India. Does my hon. Friend share my concern that it appears that the campaign to remain in is willing to co-opt public officials, who ought not to be dragged into one side of such a campaign?
I have to be mindful about whether that is taking us beyond the scope of what we are discussing, but it reminds me of a very controversial element of the Government’s conduct of the Scottish referendum, and I have some sympathy with arguments that have been made on this point. I refer to the use of a permanent secretary to give a speech on behalf of the Government’s view while this was purporting to be the publication of advice to Ministers. Such advice should never be published. On any orthodox analysis, the opinions of civil servants in the form of advice to Ministers should never be published, but this was used as part of the propaganda. Many Scottish National party Members would regard that as a gross misuse of civil servants during a referendum period, and we need to try to avoid that.
I leave two questions for the Minister as he responds to this debate on Lords amendments 5 and 6. First, what does “publish” actually mean? What do the Government intend to do by way of the publication of these two reports? Are they just to be White Papers or are they to be propaganda circulated by the Government in some way much more widely? Secondly, how will he ensure that this is done in the highest spirit of impartiality, using that word in the way most people would expect it to be used? How is he going to ensure that these publications are genuinely objective and not just a means of advancing one side of the argument against the other?
Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that the Governor of the Bank of England giving advice, for example, with the Monetary Policy Committee on interest rates, is in a very different position from other public officials, because his advice is often made public? It is perfectly clear that if he has any advice on this, it should be a matter of public interest.
The Governor of the Bank of England is a different case. He is not a civil servant, so he is not bound by the civil service code and he does not advise Ministers as a private civil servant—he gives his advice very publicly. Although I was prompted by that example, I think it is reasonable for the Governor, judiciously, soberly and carefully to proffer his advice. I think his advice on the currency question in the Scottish referendum was very germane, but I do not think it was necessary for the permanent secretary at the Treasury to give similar advice. On the speech that the Governor made on the European Union, the remarkable thing about it was how little he was prepared to say which supported the Government’s view. He did not put himself out on a limb. It was an incredible damp squib of a speech as far as the remain campaign was concerned, and it had extraordinarily little impact, because he was very careful about what he said. That might be because he sees that both business and the country are divided on whether we should remain in the EU and that the arguments are much more finely divided than on the currency question in the Scottish referendum.
I wish to deal with Lords amendment 13 and amendment (a) proposed thereto, which stands in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Stone and other colleagues. This relates to another startling change made in the other place on the designation of organisations to campaign for or against the particular proposition. I should declare an interest here—it is not a remunerated interest. I am a director of the company Vote Leave, which will be applying for designation
The Lords amendment added a provision that suggests that it is perfectly okay for the Electoral Commission to designate one campaign supporting one proposition but not another campaign supporting the opposite proposition. The reason why that has been put into the Bill is perfectly understandable; in the 2011 referendum in Wales there was no application from a no campaign and therefore it was impossible for the Electoral Commission to designate a yes campaign, even though there was a very respectable yes campaign. It was suspected that there was an element of sabotage by the no campaign, because it wanted to prevent the yes campaign from getting designation as the no campaign was going to be incredibly weak, whether or not it was designated.
The result of this provision, which was included in the Scottish legislation passed by the Scottish Parliament in order to prevent the same thing from recurring, is extraordinary. It offers the possibility that the Electoral Commission “may” designate one campaign and not another without any restraining factors. In good faith, I do not think we should question the bona fides of the Electoral Commission as to whether it would ever do such a thing, but this is what the Lords amendment actually contemplates. It would be unconscionable, in this of all referendums, for there to be only one designated campaign. It would be intolerable if Parliament let this go on to the statute book without even a discussion about what the consequence would be. It would completely invalidate the result, it would destroy the purpose of having a referendum and it would mean that this issue was not settled in a fair manner at all. We have framed an amendment to the new clause, which I hope will at least draw the Minister out to explain how everything might work.
Let me thank my hon. Friend for giving way, and say that I am enjoying listening to his observations. Does he agree that, if the Electoral Commission was to take the bizarre decision to designate only one campaign when there was clearly a coherent and legitimate campaign for the other side, it would be clearly open to judicial review on that point?
“no permitted participant makes an application to be designated under section 109 as representing those campaigning for that outcome except for a permitted participant whose application the Commission states is, in its opinion, vexatious or frivolous.”
That would mean that, provided there are two legitimate applications for designation, the obligation would be clear in the Bill that the commission has to designate two campaigns. That is not clear in the Bill at the moment. If one such campaign was “vexatious or frivolous” and was clearly just there to spoil in some respects, the Electoral Commission would have to justify its action. I hope the Minister will tell us that he can accept our amendment. If he cannot do so, I hope that he will make it clear that the substance of the amendment should be understood, and that it would be unconscionable to have only one campaign designated in this referendum. If an application is made in such a way as to be construed as vexatious or frivolous, such an application would have to be considered. We should be in no doubt that there will be an application in respect of both sides of this campaign.
I endorse what my hon. Friend has just said. Let me repeat for the sake of clarity that these amendments are the result of ping-pong between the Commons and the Lords, which is not the best way for them to be considered. We have not had enough time to have a really good look at this matter, and I hope that the Minister will take that into account when he gives us the very full explanation on amendments 5, 6 and 13.
In closing, let me add that in all three amendments we have been discussing the potential role of the Electoral Commission. In respect of amendments 5 and 6, the Electoral Commission has shrunk from the possibility of being given an obligation for which it is not fit. It is worth reminding ourselves that we have already developed one new role for the commission during the passage of this Bill, which is that it will give its advice about possible new regulations on the restriction of section 125 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 in respect of purdah. It did not want that obligation, but we gave it to it. Electoral commissions in countries such as Ireland or Denmark have a very much more active policing role in respect of fair referendums, and that is a role that we, in this country, have not set up the Electoral Commission to undertake.
With both amendments 5 and 6, we need to bear in mind that a duty would be imposed. That duty would imply and carry with it the potential for judicial review. If there were any failure in carrying out that duty in the manner that was expected under all the precepts of administrative law, the Minister should accept that there is more than a high probability of a challenge in the courts. That challenge could arise not only because of the manner in which a report arose, but if any of the information were misleading in any way.
I agree with my hon. Friend, and will add that, where the Electoral Commission clearly has a duty, its decision can be judiciously reviewed. In respect of the designation of only one campaign, I have absolutely no doubt that there would instantly be a judicial review, and I speak with knowledge aforethought.
In the absence of the duties on the Electoral Commission —for example, to provide for impartial and objective information from the Government—it is a moral imperative on Ministers to ensure that they undertake their obligations in the spirit of a fair referendum, and not to abuse the trust that this legislation places on them with regard to the publication of that information.
Deciding on whether we should continue to be a member of the European Union is one of the most important issues of our generation. We should be thankful about some elements of our relationship, particularly our access to the single market, and our non-involvement in Schengen and in the euro. There are other areas in which we are not getting a good deal, and the Prime Minister is right to renegotiate our relationship to request a better deal. He and the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, along with other Members, have said that we should not be afraid to leave if we find that the deal is not good enough for our country and our future.
As the country makes its decision, and as the referendum period begins, I am mindful that the public will need information about the offer on the table. They will need factual and speculative information about what “in” and “out” mean, and about what our future might be under a different arrangement. The public will also need legal, political, financial and economic information. Above all, they will need a well-run and well-administered referendum, and therein lies a key role for the Electoral Commission. The public will also need information on what the Swiss and Norwegian models look like to see which would be a good fit for this country, and whether we are better off staying in a reformed European Union.
My hon. Friend makes a fantastic point. I certainly agree that there are a number of alternatives. I look forward to referendum debates in the media, in this House and in many other forums.
I wish to return now to the central role of the Electoral Commission. My view is that the Electoral Commission should not be drawn into playing any sort of quasi-judicial or quasi-campaigning role. It should play a central role in the good functioning and administration of the referendum. We should always be mindful of the commission’s own views, which have been set out in a letter that has been distributed to Members across the House, and to which we should pay heed.
I am also heartened about the vibrancy of our democracy. Even though we are still in the early stages of our debate, it has already produced a number of campaigning groups. I am very pleased to see some senior Members from across the House participating in today’s debate. The campaign groups that have been set up include: Vote Leave, Take Control; Leave.EU; and Conservatives for Britain, which has been skilfully organised by my hon. Friend Mr Baker. I can see my hon. Friend Mr Jenkin and my right hon. Friend John Redwood who have played leading roles in the campaign. On the Opposition benches, we have Labour in for Britain, which is led by Alan Johnson; and Britain Stronger in Europe, for which my right hon. Friend Damian Green plays a leading role. Even before the referendum gets under way, there is a vibrancy of debate across the House and also in the country, which is very positive.
My hon. Friend is right to set out the span of organisations. I do not know whether my inbox in my constituency of North Dorset is at odds with those of the rest of the House. I get lots of emails about lots of things—hundreds about bees over the weekend—but I cannot think of the last time I received an email about the EU. We in the House are inclined to obsess about it, and we forget that outside, people are trying to live their lives and all they want to know is that the Government are on their side. We should not focus down to what is happening here.
I thank my hon. Friend for his characteristically cogent intervention. He is right that, beyond the walls of this place, men and women, families and businesses and community organisations play their day-to-day role, focus on other priorities and are not necessarily concentrating on the EU referendum or those issues on which this House concentrates.
I refer vicariously to the most recent opinion poll, which showed that 52% of the United Kingdom electorate thought that they should leave and only 48% thought that they should stay in; 60% of those in the south-west said that they wanted to leave.
Surely the point that the British people fully understand, which is why they now wish to leave the EU, is that concerns about migration, jobs, taxation, the £10 billion that we have to pay to the rest of the EU, which we cannot have as tax cuts or extra spending, and our inability to form our own welfare laws are vital concerns, and they are all European issues.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his characteristically passionate intervention. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset, those issues are certainly important, and I welcome more emails over the next year or so—maybe that is not necessarily the best message for my constituents in Havant! I know that hon. Members across the House will be receiving representations from their constituents arguing on all sides of the debate, whether in letters, emails or petitions. That is an important part of our increasingly vibrant democracy.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. We debate many issues in this Chamber, Westminster Hall and other forums on the parliamentary estate, and Europe makes an important intervention in those issues, which we should be mindful of.
I want to talk about the role of the referendum and Lords amendments 5, 6 and 13. I want to remind the House of the text and intention of Lords amendment 5, which introduces a new clause that will create a duty for the Secretary of State to publish a report setting out what has been agreed by the member states following the renegotiation of the UK’s membership of the EU that has been requested by the UK Government. The report, as my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex said, will also require the UK Government to set out an opinion about what has been agreed, and it will have to be published at least 10 weeks before the date of the referendum. The Secretary of State would also be required to place a copy before Parliament.
Lords amendment 6 introduces a new clause that creates a duty on the Secretary of State—probably the Foreign Secretary—to publish a report setting out information about the rights and obligations that arise under EU law as a result of the UK’s membership of the EU. The rights in this case refer to the rights that the UK has as a member state and rights that are granted to individuals and organisations under EU law. Those could include rights of access to the single market. The obligations arise under EU law and apply to the UK as a member state and to organisations or individuals. Those could include the obligation on the UK as a member state to amend national law to bring it in line with EU law in a particular area.
The duty in Lords amendment 6 would also require the Secretary of State to include a report about examples of arrangements that other countries have with the EU, whether that is Switzerland or Norway or other countries that have a relationship with but are not members of the EU. Again, the report would have to be published at least 10 weeks before the referendum date and the Secretary of State would be required to lay a copy before Parliament.
My hon. Friend Sir William Cash has tabled a number of amendments. He is not currently in his place. He said that he might well withdraw them, but it may be useful if I elucidate my views on them, depending on how other Members feel. My view is that the Electoral Commission should not be drawn into the fray, or the debate, in the way that my hon. Friend suggests in his amendment. The Electoral Commission has written to hon. Members across the House, and my hon. Friend acknowledged that it would consider any increase in its adjudication powers or role as ultra vires. I agree with that view. To put the Electoral Commission into the politically sensitive position of arbitrating or adjudicating on the accuracy and cogency of the Government’s report would probably be a step too far. That strays into the realm of a quasi-judicial, quasi-campaigning role.
My hon. Friend is going over the impact of making the Electoral Commission quasi-judicial, but Secretaries of State and Ministers are answerable to this Parliament and in particular to this House. It would put the commission in the role of partly taking on the job of Parliament.
My hon. Friend makes an outstanding point. To give the Electoral Commission a role beyond its current role would be to tread on the feet of hon. Members and encroach on the democratic freedoms and roles of this Parliament. My hon. Friend is right that the Electoral Commission does not agree with the intention of my hon. Friend Kevin Foster says, there are better sources of information—such as literature from the various campaign groups that I mentioned and information from public bodies such as the Office for Budget Responsibility or the Bank of England. I would encourage members of the public to read Hansard,where the speeches of many distinguished hon. Members can be found, including from this very debate.
It would be useful, if people really wanted to hear how the debate was progressing, for them to follow the transcripts of European Scrutiny Committee, Treasury Committee and Foreign Affairs Committee proceedings. That will tell them an enormous amount about what is going on and what questions are being asked of Ministers.
My hon. Friend makes a cogent point. The proceedings in this Chamber are available not only in Hansard but on parliamentlive.tv as well as BBC Parliament. I encourage all members of the public and all those who are interested in the proceedings of the House to tune in, particularly to my hon. Friend’s Committee, the European Scrutiny Committee, which he has led with distinction for many years, and other Select Committees, including my own, the Procedure Committee, which has been involved in numerous deliberations. I am delighted to see two of my distinguished Committee colleagues in the Chamber today.
The Electoral Commission undertook research as part of its statutory assessment of the type of information that the public would want to know as the referendum process began. As my hon. Friend Peter Grant said, it found that members of the public were not necessarily clear about what the consequences of the referendum would be. There was no real understanding among large sections of the public about what leaving would entail. There was not enough information about what staying in would entail. There was certainly some confusion about the very many campaign groups that have sprung up, which I mentioned as I opened my speech.
What the Electoral Commission did say, which I found heartening, was that there was a strong appetite for more information about the implications of leaving, as well as an appetite for information about the implications of remaining and, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham said, information about other models of engagement, including Switzerland, Norway, other members of the European economic area and, indeed, countries in Asia, Africa, Latin and South America. He is absolutely right: there are a number of models that can be invoked and, according to the Electoral Commission, the public are keen to have more information. As the hon. Member for Glenrothes said, there is an appetite for more information.
The Electoral Commission found that the public do not simply want dry facts. They would like contextual information, including worked examples, explanations and case studies, giving the views of right hon. and hon. Members. The Electoral Commission recommended that campaign groups, which I mentioned at the beginning of my speech, include on their websites and in their literature worked examples and real-life case studies, along with testimonies from Members of Parliament, Members of the other place and members of the public who wish to share their experience. That would help a great deal to educate the public about the choices to be made.
The Electoral Commission said in its letter that it would be reluctant to adopt the extra powers that some hon. Members believe that it should have, as it has no powers to police information that is put into the public domain alongside Government reports. It has no legislative powers to regulate such information. Finally, the Electoral Commission made a good, cogent point with which I agree. It does not have the capabilities to undertake an extension of its role, which some Members of the House of Lords and of the House of Commons have proposed that it should have. It said in its letter, referring to the extension of its powers regarding the referendum and the Government report, that
“it is also the case that we would not have the capabilities to do so”.
It also said:
“We will have no insider knowledge of the negotiations, nor the required expertise to judge a report to Parliament about the UK’s membership of the EU.”
I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting the Electoral Commission’s extensive assessment of the amendment. Does he agree that the fatal blow for the amendment is the fact that the commission has opined that it does not have the capabilities or insider knowledge to carry out the duty that it would impose on it?
My hon. Friend will have heard that the Electoral Commission has had duties imposed on it by Parliament, but what the amendment is driving at above all else, with respect to him and to my hon. Friend Suella Fernandes, is that there should be proper impartiality and accuracy in the information. If the commission cannot do that, the Government can. If they do not do it, the courts will ensure that they do.
I thank my hon. Friend for his explanation. My interpretation of the letter is that the commission did not want to take on more powers, as it already has core duties, including the good administration of elections and of the referendum. It conceded that it was not an expert in constitutional law, politics or negotiations about the UK’s continued membership of the EU; it was merely a good administrator, and that is the role that Parliament centrally wants it to fulfil. It is certainly the role that I want to fulfil as the referendum process continues. The commission was saying, frankly and openly, that it lacked the expertise to make any determination about the Government report.
Next year, as many right hon. and hon. Members will know, we will have local, county and mayoral elections, as well as police and crime commissioner elections, which will increase the workload of the commission in its current guise, whether it is arbitrating on voter rolls, interpreting various aspects of election law or undertaking other statutory duties, which are all a drain on its resources. The Electoral Commission lacks the necessary expertise, as my hon. Friend Suella Fernandes said, and will be burdened with a heavy workload next year, given the frequency and geographic spread of elections in which it will be involved, particularly from an administrative perspective. There is therefore no role for the commission as proposed by the amendment, so the Government’s view should prevail.
May I turn briefly to Lords amendment 13, which was tabled by Baroness Anelay of St Johns and has some support in this House? I should like to elucidate what it does and to share my views on its place in this House. As hon. Members will know, section 108 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 allows the Electoral Commission to designate permitted participants—that is likely to be the campaign groups that I mentioned earlier—as organisations to which assistance is available under section 110 of that Act. Such assistance could be logistical or financial, and in some cases there would be media opportunities. Where a referendum has only two outcomes, which is the case for the EU referendum, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham and others have said, under section 108, the Electoral Commission can exercise the power to designate one organisation for each of the outcomes or not designate any at all.
Lords amendment 13 would enable the Electoral Commission to designate a lead campaigner for one side of the argument, whether that is to remain in the EU or to leave it, at the referendum without designating a lead campaigner for the other side. That would apply only where for a particular outcome, whether to leave or to remain, there were no applications on the other side or the Electoral Commission was not satisfied that there was an applicant who adequately represented those campaigning for that outcome. For example, vexatious or clearly inadequate groups would be disregarded by the commission.
In the event that only one campaigner was designated, that campaigner would be entitled to a higher spending limit, a free mail-out to voters and access to meeting rooms—for example, in council or other municipal buildings—which is a positive. However, it is important for the House to note that that campaigner would not be entitled to a grant from the Electoral Commission of up to £600,000 under section 110 of the 2000 Act, nor would they be allowed to make a referendum broadcast to the people of this country under section 127 of that Act.
Having reviewed the amendments in this place and the other place, and having read representations from the Electoral Commission and from broadcasters, my view is that that is a fair compromise. The amendment implements recommendations that the Electoral Commission made following the 2011 referendum on the voting system. As I said at the start of my remarks, we must pay heed to what the Electoral Commission says, while also taking into account hon. Members’ views. Based on the experiences of 2011, the Electoral Commission recommended that steps should be taken to reduce the potential advantages under the 2000 Act designation model for a prospective lead campaigner to decide against applying for the designation. The Electoral Commission had identified an example where a campaigner might have a tactical advantage in not seeking designation with a view to frustrating the other side’s access to additional benefits. I find that a cogent observation on the part of the Electoral Commission.
I said that I would touch briefly on Lords amendment 13. The Government’s position on all the amendments deserves the support of the House.
I thank right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House who have taken part in the debate this afternoon. Mr McFadden was even so generous as to offer an additional filler for my Christmas stocking. I am sure the pamphlet that he proffered to me will take an honoured place on my shelves, alongside the collected works of my hon. Friend Sir William Cash.
The House will be aware that this Bill received detailed scrutiny in the Lords. The amendments in this group are part of a wide range of changes that the other House imported into the Bill. Many of those amendment were technical and procedural and were designed to strengthen the fairness and robustness of the campaign framework. The Lords also made technical amendments that ensure that the Bill works appropriately for Gibraltar and responds to recommendations from the House of Lords Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. Finally—these are the subjects that have preoccupied the House most this afternoon—in response to concerns from Members of the House of Lords that the British people might not have access to the information they needed to take an informed decision, the Lords added to the Bill the duty to report on three topics: the results of the renegotiations; what membership of the European Union entails in terms of our current rights and obligations; and examples of already existing alternatives to EU membership. In the time that remains I shall address these areas of change in turn.
Amendments 5 and 6 deal with the provision of public information. As my right hon. Friend Damian Green and my hon. Friend Mr Jenkin both acknowledged, at the end of the negotiating process the Government will express their view and their recommendation to the British people for when the electorate vote at the promised referendum.
What we now have are obligations written on the face of statute for the Government to publish particular items of information. There was a clear appetite in the Lords for such statutory provision. The Lords tabled and debated a series of amendments calling for the Government to set out in very prescriptive detail the potential consequences of remaining in the European Union and also what the consequences of withdrawal would be in a number of areas of national life. Noble Lords called on the Government to set out what their—that is, the Government’s—envisaged relationship with the European Union would be in the event of a vote to leave.
For our part, we did not agree that the Government should speculate on potential consequences in this way and in the detail prescribed by the Lords amendments. In our view, it is for the designated lead organisations to lead the debate on the two sides of the argument. However, the Electoral Commission, in its research into the question, did identify that there is an appetite among the general public for information both on what remaining in the EU would mean and on what leaving could mean. Given the strongly held views that were expressed in the other place, we accepted the principle that the Government should be obliged to play a limited role in ensuring that the public are able to make an informed decision. In our view, the most useful role for the Government is to give information on the renegotiation deal that is achieved, and on the factual nature of membership, to try to aid understanding and to inform the public. Then it will be for the designated lead campaigners to interpret that information and provide their own arguments on both sides.
Amendment 5 is based on an amendment tabled in the Lords by my noble Friend Lord Forsyth, who I think everyone in the House would accept is not someone usually regarded as an unqualified admirer of the European Union. The amendment set a requirement for the Government to report on the outcome of the renegotiation. Building on this, the version of Lords amendment 5 that we now have before us would require the Government to report on what had been agreed by EU member states as a result of the renegotiation and to give their view on this.
Amendment 6 takes us further by requiring the Government to publish a report that would set out
“information about rights, and obligations, that arise under European Union law as a result of the UK’s membership of the European Union”.
This would enable us to describe what membership of the EU entails for this country.
Amendment 6, as it currently stands, was tabled by my noble Friend Baroness Anelay, following debate in the Lords, as a way to try to build consensus in that House to enable it to give passage to the Bill.
Perhaps it would be useful for me to explain, in response to comments made in this debate, how the Government interpret the obligation imposed on us by the amendments and how we would propose to see those obligations implemented. By “rights”, as set out in amendment 6, we mean rights that the United Kingdom has as a member state of the European Union, and also the rights granted to individuals and businesses as a result of our membership, such as access to the single market. By “obligations”, we mean the things that our membership of the European Union commits us or obliges us to do. Most obviously, this is at member state level, but there would also be implications for businesses or individuals. An obvious example is our obligation as a member state to transpose EU law in particular areas and to accept the primacy of the EU so long as we are a member of the European Union. The duty written into amendment 6 does not require the Government to set out information about every single right and obligation. Such a report would not be meaningful, and the purpose of the duties is to provide useful and relevant factual information to allow for greater public understanding.
Amendment 6 requires the Government to describe some of the existing arrangements that other countries that are not EU members already have with the EU.
I do not understand how the Minister can say that only some of the obligations are mentioned. Surely the Bill as drafted says “the obligations”, which must include all the legal requirements on individuals, companies and the state, as well as the massive contributions and legal supremacy involved. I hope that he is going to mention that nothing is said about trade. He must not limit himself to the trade arrangements but must also look at the defence arrangements, the political arrangements, and all sorts of other arrangements.
The amendment refers to “rights, and obligations”, not to “the rights and obligations”. It gives the Government the discretion to select for presentation the rights and obligations that we think will best aid public understanding. I want to make it clear that our purpose in recommending acceptance of these amendments is that they should enable us to provide for greater public understanding. I completely agree with my right hon. Friend that membership of the EU touches on matters other than trade or economic policy. I am sure that the relative balance of advantages and disadvantages that arises out of EU membership on all those issues will be a matter of vigorous debate during the referendum campaign, but we do not envisage that debate taking place in the context of the obligation placed on us by amendment 6.
Lords amendment 6 is about providing factual information on the basis of which the public can take an informed decision. It is also about describing some of the existing arrangements that non-member countries already have with the European Union. We think that that is a better course of action than for the Government to attempt to hypothesise about what the United Kingdom’s future relationship with the EU would be in the event of a vote to withdraw, because that depends on assumptions made about not only the future intentions of the British Government, but the likely response of other European countries.
On rights and obligations, the Minister is already beginning to move the argument into the arena of the question of impartiality and accuracy. If the Government pick and choose, the public will not have a clue whether what is chosen suits the Government or them, and it is the voters who will have to make the final choice.
To follow my hon. Friend’s logic, the implications of a requirement to provide an exhaustive list would mean going through the entire corpus of EU law—not just the particular areas of competence, as specified in general terms in the treaties—and trying to draw out from that what would be a voluminous list of both the rights and the obligations that derive from each of the measures. I simply do not think that that would aid public understanding. Actually, I think it would act as a formidable deterrent for many members of the public to read the document at all.
My hon. Friend Mr Jenkin asked about the form of publication. No decision has been taken yet, but I envisage it being comparable to a White Paper, if not an actual White Paper. As is normal these days, such a publication would be available online, so it would be widely accessible. The reports would have to be published at least 10 weeks before the referendum, which would give the campaigners clear time to lead the public debate. I emphasise that neither Lords amendment 5 nor 6 in any way affects the section 125 restrictions on Government publications during the final 28 days of the campaign. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Stone, in view of what I have said and of the Electoral Commission’s express view that it does not agree with his amendment, will agree to withdraw it.
Before I declare whether I am going to withdraw my amendment, I have asked my right hon. Friend several times to make it absolutely clear, on behalf of the Government, that when they give information under Lords amendments 5 and 6 they will do so with due accuracy and impartiality. Is he going to do that or not?
Certainly, that is the case, because it would probably have a perverse impact on the Government’s recommendation if they were to be seen to be acting in an excessively partisan manner. I say again to my hon. Friend that, at the end of the negotiation, the Government will express their view, their recommendation and their reasoning, but we see the statutory provisions laid out in the Lords amendments as being about the provision of actual and factual information.
Lords amendment 13 has also been debated in detail. It would allow the Electoral Commission to designate a lead campaigner for only one side of the argument in the event that either there were no applications for a particular outcome or the Electoral Commission was not satisfied that any applicant met the statutory test of adequately representing those campaigning for that outcome. Given the vigour we already see in opposing campaigns, it is very unlikely that we will end up in such territory. I hope that the House will accept Lords amendment 13 to prevent gaming by one side of the campaign to the disadvantage of the other.
I simply say that in the light of the clear assurance that there will be due impartiality and accuracy, I will not press my amendments to Lords amendments 5, 6 and 13. I beg to ask leave to withdraw amendment (a) to Lords amendment 5.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Lords amendment 5 agreed to.
Three hours having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on consideration of Lords amendments, the proceedings were interrupted (Programme Order, this day).
The Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Question necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (
Lords amendments 6, 2 to 4 and 7 to 46 agreed to.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (
That Mr David Lidington be the Chair of the Committee;
That three be the quorum of the Committee;
That the Committee do withdraw immediately.—(George Hollingbery.)
Question agreed to.
Committee to withdraw immediately; reason to be reported and communicated to the Lords.