New European Constitution

– in the House of Lords at 2:36 pm on 5th March 2003.

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Photo of Lord Blackwell Lord Blackwell Conservative 2:36 pm, 5th March 2003

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will make a commitment to holding a referendum as part of the ratification process for any treaty which gives effect to a new European constitution.

Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Minister of State (Middle East), Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Trade), Department of Trade and Industry, Minister for Trade and Investment and Deputy Leader of the House of Lords (also Department of Trade and Industry), Minister of State (Trade and Investment) Deputy Leader of the House of Lords (also FCO), Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, a new constitutional treaty would need to be ratified according to the individual constitutional arrangements in each of the member states. This Government are committed to the existing system in the United Kingdom of parliamentary democracy rather than public referendums. Any new treaty would have to stand up to rigorous scrutiny by Parliament before the United Kingdom would ratify it.

Photo of Lord Blackwell Lord Blackwell Conservative

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her Answer. Can she confirm that the Prime Minister has already accepted a number of significant constitutional proposals put forward by this convention, including the recognition of a European legal entity with its own constitution and with significant additional powers that amount, in the words of the Prime Minister, to a transfer of sovereignty to Europe? Does she recognise that there is a case to be made that such constitutional issues are at least as important as a number of other matters on which the Government have chosen to hold a referendum, including devolution to the English regions and the question of the euro? If not, can she explain to the House how they differ? Finally, does she accept, as part of parliamentary scrutiny, that this House has a right and, indeed, an obligation at the right time to take a view on whether it is appropriate to insist on a referendum before any treaty is ratified?

Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Minister of State (Middle East), Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Trade), Department of Trade and Industry, Minister for Trade and Investment and Deputy Leader of the House of Lords (also Department of Trade and Industry), Minister of State (Trade and Investment) Deputy Leader of the House of Lords (also FCO), Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Blackwell, has had a good run for his money. I counted about five questions. A number of those issues are being considered, not only by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister but also by Mr Hain, who is leading the government side in the discussions on the Convention of Europe. The noble Lord is right in so far as a number of the constitutional issues under discussion are significant, but no more so than those dealt with under the treaties of Maastricht, Amsterdam and Nice and the Single European Act. There is no fundamental shift in the nature of the relationship that is being contemplated that Her Majesty's Government believe would be of such an order of magnitude as to merit a referendum. I have been responsible for taking a number of Bills of this nature through your Lordships' House. There is no shortage in this House of either enthusiasm or, indeed, expertise on these issues. I am sure that we shall see that exercised on this Bill.

Photo of Lord Lamont of Lerwick Lord Lamont of Lerwick Conservative

My Lords, why, then, is a referendum justified for the single currency?

Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Minister of State (Middle East), Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Trade), Department of Trade and Industry, Minister for Trade and Investment and Deputy Leader of the House of Lords (also Department of Trade and Industry), Minister of State (Trade and Investment) Deputy Leader of the House of Lords (also FCO), Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, the single currency is a once-in-a-lifetime decision. Noble Lords on the other side of the House cannot have it all ways. If the noble Lord felt that what may come forward under any new treaty is of such importance, he has to explain why when he was in government he did not advocate holding a referendum on the Maastricht Treaty.

Photo of Lord Rees-Mogg Lord Rees-Mogg Crossbench

My Lords, can the Minister explain to the House why, if the Government disapprove of referendums as being contrary to parliamentary democracy, they hold so many of them?

Photo of Lord Goodhart Lord Goodhart Liberal Democrat

My Lords, in view of the fact that the convention is very much in draft form at present and it is far from clear how fundamental the changes will be when it is finally agreed, does the Minister agree that it is premature to consider at this stage whether there should be a referendum?

Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Minister of State (Middle East), Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Trade), Department of Trade and Industry, Minister for Trade and Investment and Deputy Leader of the House of Lords (also Department of Trade and Industry), Minister of State (Trade and Investment) Deputy Leader of the House of Lords (also FCO), Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

Yes, my Lords. I believe that is a point. Indeed, that was the judgment reached in judicial review held on this matter in the past few days. As matters stand, Her Majesty's Government do not believe that these matters significantly change the shift in a constitutional position in the way in which Europe organises itself to the extent that they merit a referendum on this issue. That is entirely different from what I described a moment or two ago as the once-in-a-lifetime decision on the euro.

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

My Lords, is the noble Baroness correct that merging our sovereign constitution with a higher constitution is no different from past treaty arrangements? Surely, this is a completely different order of treaty, which cries out for a referendum. Is she right in saying that these matters are only being considered when the communique from the Prime Minister's meeting with Mr Aznar last week agreed that there should be a new constitution for Europe? It is not being considered; it has been decided. Finally, does she not consider it extraordinary that your Lordships' House, which is supposed to be the guardian of the constitution, has had no full opportunity to debate this matter? Can she quickly send a message to her right so that we can have a debate in government time?

Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Minister of State (Middle East), Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Trade), Department of Trade and Industry, Minister for Trade and Investment and Deputy Leader of the House of Lords (also Department of Trade and Industry), Minister of State (Trade and Investment) Deputy Leader of the House of Lords (also FCO), Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, in his usual skilful way, the noble Lord has also managed to ask a great number of questions. There has never been any doubt that we were looking at what the noble Lord has described as a constitution for Europe. The Government made that clear from the beginning. However, in such a constitution we are looking to simplify and clarify what is already in the treaties. We have discussed that as well. The noble Lord says that the issue is of such an order of magnitude that it merits consideration in a referendum. I do not think that it is of any greater order of magnitude than what was discussed in the Maastricht Treaty, which included the laying down of the stages for progress towards economic and monetary union, to come back to the point about the euro raised by the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, citizenship of the Union, and extending Community action in at least eight different fields. If that was not a matter for a referendum, when the Conservative Party had the ability to decide whether to hold one, I do not see why it is so keen when it is out of office to urge one on us.

Photo of Lord Barnett Lord Barnett Labour

My Lords, given how few people inside or outside the House will have the faintest understanding of the five economic tests, would it not be sensible to cancel that referendum?

Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Minister of State (Middle East), Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Trade), Department of Trade and Industry, Minister for Trade and Investment and Deputy Leader of the House of Lords (also Department of Trade and Industry), Minister of State (Trade and Investment) Deputy Leader of the House of Lords (also FCO), Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, we are committed to a referendum on the euro. I am very pleased that my noble friend has raised the five economic tests. My right honourable friend the Chancellor will give us the benefit of his considerable expertise on those five tests: on convergence, on the effect on investment in the UK, on flexibility of the economy, on the position of the City and on employment. Those are all very important issues that people will have to take into consideration if and when there is a referendum on the euro.

Photo of Lord Elton Lord Elton Conservative

My Lords, in the light of what the Minister has said about orders of magnitude, does she not find it at least a little strange that the Government should require a referendum to decide whether there should be regional government for one of the English regions but not to decide whether the whole of the United Kingdom should be locked into Europe in a constitution that is a different expression from what has been put in the treaty?

Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Minister of State (Middle East), Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Trade), Department of Trade and Industry, Minister for Trade and Investment and Deputy Leader of the House of Lords (also Department of Trade and Industry), Minister of State (Trade and Investment) Deputy Leader of the House of Lords (also FCO), Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, the noble Lord poses his question in terms that I would not use about Europe. We have been considering a whole new tier of government for the regions. It is right that those directly affected, who would be able to vote for that new tier of government, should be consulted.