Constitution for Europe (Referendum) Bill [HL]

– in the House of Lords at 11:00 am on 10 September 2004.

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Photo of Lord Blackwell Lord Blackwell Conservative 11:00, 10 September 2004

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

I am grateful for the time of the House this morning and I would like to thank in advance all those who are participating. I look forward in particular to the maiden speeches of the noble Lord, Lord Laidlaw, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury.

The purpose of this Bill is to be helpful to the Government in fulfilling one of their most important commitments. I was delighted that, after long debates in this House and outside, the Government and the Minister accepted the case earlier this year for a referendum on the European constitution and committed to hold a referendum before the UK ratified the necessary treaty. That decision properly reflected the crucial importance of this decision to the country. In many ways, a decision on the European constitution represents a crossroads for both the European Union and the United Kingdom.

Following the meeting of the heads of government in June, we now have an agreed proposal for the constitution, with a date for formal signing and publication of the final text on 29 October. As yet, however, we have had no firm proposal from the Government on how they intend to proceed with seeking UK ratification, including the process and timetable for the promised referendum. This Bill is therefore intended to help the Government by providing a mechanism for translating their commitment into an appropriate Act of Parliament and by setting out what I hope is a reasonable proposal for the timing, wording and other arrangements for that referendum.

Of course, I recognise that there may be differing views around your Lordship's House on some of those aspects and I am very open to suggestions that may improve what I have proposed. I hope that the Government themselves will also take this opportunity to set out any alternative proposals that they may favour. However, given the huge constitutional importance of signing up to the proposed European constitution, it is vital that these issues are properly considered and that there is no question after the event that the referendum process was managed in a contentious way or that the procedure was rushed through without proper consultation. The Bill, it is to be hoped, provides an opportunity to engage in that debate, and to set out amendments in Committee that will allow Parliament to come to a settled view on the best way forward. So, in that spirit, let me now turn to the substance of the Bill.

The first point, in Clause 1, is the proposal that a referendum should be held within four months of the publication of the final text—in other words, four months from the end of October on the current schedule. My argument for this timescale is to provide a sensible balance that takes account of both the need for proper public debate and the desirability of the UK reaching a firm view as early as it can. I believe that an early resolution of the UK's position would be advantageous, which ever way your Lordships believe that decision should go.

For those of your Lordships who will be advocating in the referendum that the UK agrees to this treaty, there must be a strong case for getting the UK's membership confirmed—and current uncertainties removed—as soon as possible in order to allow the UK to exercise its full weight in shaping the institutions, processes and agenda that will follow the formation of the new Union. With Germany, Spain and other major countries now moving to commit to going through their own ratification processes as early as possible in 2005, the worst of all worlds would be for the UK to eventually sign up at the last moment after a prolonged period of uncertainty when we had once again let others make the running. But I suspect others of your Lordships may be able to make that case better than I can.

For those like me who will be advocating that the UK rejects this treaty, however, the arguments are equally strong that we are better off reaching that conclusion sooner rather than later. For the sooner we can start negotiating a preferred outcome—a preferred treaty—the more chance I believe we have of reshaping the proposals in a way that suits us.

Let me take a minute to explain what that alternative might be. I start with a presumption that, however much the UK population—and indeed much of the continental population—may dislike the drive under this proposed constitution to integrate the countries of Europe into a single European state, the momentum among the political elites of many of our neighbours is such that, unless they are stopped in their own referendums, they will not settle for rolling back Europe to the kind of alliance of nation states that might suit us. If the UK says no, they will, as they have made clear, continue to seek some way by which the core group of EU states can continue down the road to the political integration that they seek without us. Our bargaining power comes from the fact that, as the treaties currently stand, they cannot use the institutions and processes of the European Union as the basis for their more integrated union without our consent; and to contemplate replicating those institutions and the body of laws, case law and acquis that support them in some completely new legal structure would be almost unthinkable in terms of the cost, delay and the loss of the current Community momentum. We therefore hold the trump card if we reject this treaty and seek to amend in it ways that better suit us.

Our opportunity, and one I believe we should grasp, is therefore to have a referendum as soon as possible that settles once and for all, I hope, that the UK population will not agree to be part of a single European state, and with that clarity then engage with our partners to negotiate a new settlement for the UK as our price for allowing them to continue with the closer integration they seek. I suspect that many other members, particularly some of the new ones, would join us eventually in that position.

At minimum this new settlement would be a whole array of opt-outs from the political and constitutional provisions of the new treaty. In shorthand, it would be a position where we were part of the common market, but outside the common political and legal structure, and only engaged in other initiatives across Europe when we had agreed to participate on an intergovernmental basis. And I believe that we are more likely to use our bargaining power to achieve that if we seek to bring that renegotiation about early on than if we delay until most countries have gone through the ratification process and have invested huge legal and political capital in treaties that we then want to revise.

Of course, some will argue that we should simply sit back and wait for some other country to vote against the constitution, and avoid the need to take any decision ourselves. I do not think we can rely on that as solution, nor do I think it would resolve our own situation, since we would still be left unclear as a country as to whether we should be putting our weight and effort behind those seeking to put the proposal back together, or using the situation to renegotiate the kind of alternative that I have described. So it is in our interests to resolve the issue earlier.

Why, then, four months? The answer is that it seems to me to be both the minimum and maximum reasonable time period after the final treaty is published. I am assuming—and I would welcome the Minister's confirmation of this—that the first step will be for the Government, if they wish to recommend the new treaty, to put that in front of Parliament to take a view. However, given that the agreed text has been available since early summer, and has changed only on the margins from draft texts that have been debated and discussed in Parliament and the press for over a year, it seems entirely reasonable to me that the Bill to ratify the treaty should be presented as soon as the new Session of Parliament is sitting—presumably at the end of November or December this year.

While the Government may like to gratify all of us today by announcing a very generous timetable for further debate when that Bill comes before us, it also seems likely that, since the substance of the constitution cannot be amended, the passage through Parliament could be fairly rapid. If that were the case, then I believe it would be sensible and desirable to take advantage of the public and press attention that would have focused around the parliamentary debate by putting the issue to the country fairly soon afterwards. I have allowed for potentially one or two additional months of campaigning after the parliamentary vote, by which time I would suggest that most people will have had about as much of the arguments as they can absorb.

The danger of allowing the debate to go on much longer is that the public will start to lose interest, and we will be in danger of a vote determined by relative levels of apathy rather than by informed public discussion. As I have said, however, I would welcome the views of the Government and others in this House on whether these arguments and timescales are reasonable, or whether we should seek at Committee stage to consider alternative proposals on their merits.

The second clause sets out the proposed question, and the context in which it should be set. I have suggested what I believe is the simplest and least contentious question; namely,

"Should the United Kingdom ratify the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe?"

This is, I believe, also the most factually accurate form of the question, since the issue is not just about whether the United Kingdom should sign up to the constitution for itself, but also whether it should agree to the constitution in its current form replacing the current treaties across the whole of Europe.

The appropriate wording of this question is of course a vital matter and one on which the independent Electoral Commission is required to have an independent voice. Indeed, my understanding is that the presentation of this Bill to Parliament should have already initiated that process, and I should be grateful for the Minister's confirmation of that. However, I believe it important that the final wording should be agreed in Parliament through this Bill, incorporating whatever amendments to my proposed wording as are generally agreed to be fair improvements. Again, it would be interesting to hear the Government's view at this stage on both the wording proposed and the process for agreeing it.

The third clause then links this Bill back to the provisions of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, and acknowledges that the general provisions of that Act will govern the conduct of the referendum unless otherwise amended. For clarity, the Bill makes it explicit that no local or general elections should be held within two months of the date of the referendum. I would not expect that to cause any particular difficulties for the Government, since the four-month timing I have proposed would mean a referendum has to be held before the end of February 2005, which would still make a general election possible at any time after the end of April. However, I would of course be fascinated to learn from the Minister if that constraint was seen as cutting across any current election plans.

There was, of course, extensive debate about some of the provisions of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act when it passed through Parliament four years ago, particularly as it affected the levels of funding available to different campaign groups. I have not sought to readdress those issues here, but it is of course open to any noble Lord to take the opportunity, in the light of experience since then, to propose amendments to this Bill at Committee stage that would address any particular areas of remaining concern.

So there we have it, my Lords. I believe that this Bill sets out a very reasonable set of proposals to give effect to the Government's commitment to a referendum, and that it provides a timely opportunity for these proposals to be debated, amended and approved in good order, so as to ensure that we have an agreed process on the statute book through which this major constitutional development can be addressed.

Given the Government's somewhat chequered record in consulting on and gaining consent for constitutional change, I believe that it is particularly important that the process for this constitutional change should be transparent, and that there can be no charge after the event that the timing or handling had been manipulated to affect the result. It seems to me that a Private Members' Bill such as this, which can attract all-party support, is a good route to avoid that charge. I hope therefore, that it will be welcomed by the Government as an opportunity for them to set out their own views on how this process should be handled, and for Parliament to debate and agree the best amendments to what I have proposed, taking into account the views of the Government, other noble Lords and Members of another place during the passage of the Bill. I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Blackwell.)

Photo of Lord Tomlinson Lord Tomlinson Labour

My Lords, I say at the outset (I am sure that I devastate the noble Lord, Lord Blackwell, by telling him this) that I am not impressed by the content of his Bill.

Today is not the day or the time to argue for or against a referendum. That principle has already been conceded and I have already made my view on that concession, and the fact that I do not entirely approve of it, quite clear. However, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister changed his mind. I have already regretted his change of mind. We are now all going to have a referendum with or without the assistance of the noble Lord, Lord Blackwell. What does his Private Member's Bill seek to do? It seeks to take over some of the fundamental roles of government in relation to the referendum. It seeks to fix the date, to prescribe the question and to determine another statement that will be placed on the ballot paper preceding the question.

I was very impressed by the noble Lord's profession that he was helping the Government: helping the Government quite clearly from the standpoint of rejecting the treaty, as he himself went on to say. I am sure that is the kind of help that the Government will value. I could say to the noble Lord that with this Bill he is being opportunistic, a mischief maker and arrogant in seeking to usurp to himself the role that is properly that of the Electoral Commission in fixing the question and the way that it is put. However, I would not dream of saying that to the noble Lord. I merely say to him that this morning he has shown that he is suffering from an excess of zeal in his ambition to help the Government, albeit from the negative perspective to which he has already confessed.

One of the questions that the noble Lord has not properly addressed in trying to help the Government is how some of his proposals will damage the process of achieving an informed public debate. If we are going to have a referendum, the essential prerequisite of trusting that decision to the people is that we have a full, wide and informed debate. I look forward to hearing from my noble friend the Minister today of the progress that is being made in the Foreign Office on proposals made to ensure that we have an informed debate. What progress is being made on a neutral but clear statement of the fundamental principles in the treaty that can be widely disseminated across the United Kingdom? What progress is being made on my request, made when we last discussed the outcome of the intergovernmental conference, for a single text annotated at the margin? With the merging of four treaties into one, we can then see how the bulk of that new treaty is totally unchanged from the present wording, with cross-reference to original treaties, and the public can see exactly where any changes have occurred. Those are essential prerequisites of having an informed debate.

However, the noble Lord has decided that more important than an informed debate is the process which he commends to us takes place in four months from the publication of the final words of the treaty; that is, four months from 29 October. So we have the prospect of campaigning in November, December, January and February as an alternative to looking to Christmas and an alternative to considering the Queen's Speech, in order to entertain the public and make them fully committed to reaching a decision in relation to the convention. I say to the noble Lord that parties of all political persuasions have largely sought to avoid that time of the year for determining more important questions such as the outcome of a general election, and certainly simpler questions such as who people might vote for in a general election, because of the difficulty of campaigning during dark nights and cold weather. To prescribe that period to campaigning for a referendum strikes me as absurd.

The other point that I would make to the noble Lord very clearly is that in his speech he asserted the constitutional importance of the new treaty without arguing the matter. Those who are saying that there is something of such significant constitutional importance (particularly opposition Members speaking as supporters of past Conservative governments) should tell us why it is important to have a referendum now and why they resisted it so strongly at the time of the Single European Act and the Maastricht Treaty when there was similarly badly argued pressure for it and as many transfers of what they would call sovereignty; that is, moves towards qualified majority voting, in even more significant areas than the present constitutional treaty covers.

During the debate on the constitution, all kinds of people have told me that it gives Europe control of our common, foreign and security policy. However, as I read the text, the language on which the British people will be invited to vote in the referendum is exactly the same language as that which was incorporated in former treaties by the noble Lord's noble friend Lady Thatcher when she was Prime Minister. Therefore, I hope that when he comes to conclude the debate he will not just speak in terms of asserting constitutional importance but will argue specifically where it lies.

In my opinion, what the noble Lord is doing in this process is underestimating the importance in the constitution of what has been done to return power to both national parliaments and national governments through their representatives in the Council of Ministers. If you examine the balance of power in decision-making institutionally and do your league table of winners and losers—that is not necessarily something of which I totally approve—quite clearly, the winners are the Council of Ministers: the people who are directly accountable to national parliaments. Clearly, there is an increase in the power of national parliaments and at the same time there is a decrease in the centralising power of the Commission. I believe we have a balanced constitution which, properly explained to the British public, is both capable and worthy of being supported by them. But at the moment, even well respected neutral bodies such as the Royal Institute of International Affairs have attempted to give us an overview of the treaty. It has now distilled that overview to 29 pages of very close type. The responsibility of the Government, not of Private Members—not of Back-Bench legislation—is to get the distilled wisdom of the treaty agreed in neutral form, capable of being widely disseminated, together with the annotated copy of the treaty so that we can see precisely where changes take place. I hope that we will hear from the Minister on that later.

The noble Lord told us that if we got a quick decision—one that he hopes is "No"—we would be holding a trump card. That is the most optimistic definition of the Nice Treaty that I have ever heard, because that is precisely what we will have. We will have rejected the new constitutional treaty and will be left with the Treaty of Nice. In holding that trump card, he then holds up the spectre of what he described as the single European state, something that appears nowhere from the constitutional treaty. If that is the tendentious nonsense that he wants to peddle over the dark months of the winter to the public, in the hope of sneaking a result through when most people do not want to go out and campaign, it is an additional reason why that should be rejected.

The noble Lord referred to central and eastern European countries. Eight former communist countries of central and eastern Europe did not valiantly overthrow the centralised tyranny of communism in order to surrender power to the European Union in Brussels. They were our key allies all the way through the convention. They were very close collaborators with the views put forward by British parliamentarians and the British Government—the views that finally prevailed in the treaty. If the noble Lord follows that course, in his indecent haste to get a "No" vote by trying to sneak it through in the months of winter, he will be ill serving the interests of those eight central and eastern European countries, which are some of our closest allies in the European Union.

Photo of Lord Laidlaw Lord Laidlaw Conservative

My Lords, becoming a Member of this House is very like becoming a new boy at school. There are lots of written rules—as a diligent new boy I have tried to read all of them—but, as your Lordships know, there are an equal number of unwritten rules. Some of those rules must be obeyed, and some may be safely ignored. The difficulty is deciding which are which. Life would have been even more difficult if I had not been helped in my first few weeks in the House by noble Lords from all sides. Indeed, I would probably still be standing at the Peers' Entrance, wondering which way to turn, if it had not been for their kind assistance. I would particularly like to express my appreciation to the staff of the House, who have been immensely helpful at all times.

I shall say a few words about my background. I have spent most of my life starting up, building and acquiring small and medium-sized businesses in 45 countries around the world. That has involved travelling continuously and, regrettably in some ways, living the past 22 years outside the UK. The companies that I have founded have all been service businesses, largely in business training, information and education. That has led me to believe that education—whether at schools, universities or in lifelong learning—is vital to the lifeblood of a country, and that no country can remain successful without extensive education, particularly lifelong education.

The future success of the UK will be based on knowledge, technical skills, research and being at the forefront of new developments. To accomplish that, we need a highly educated and highly skilled workforce; that is the responsibility of both the Government and employers.

I have to declare my interest as a provider of business training. However, that financial interest coincides with my deep belief in the need for continuing education. Lifelong learning is essential in enhancing and maintaining skills, as well as giving us the skills on new technologies that we all—even Members of this House—need today.

I also hope to show noble Lords in future that, contrary to what some people believe, the broadening experience of living and working in the Americas, Europe, the Far East and Australia, as well as in the UK, can bring a different and valuable perspective to issues before the House.

Turning to the Bill before us today, I must commend my noble friend Lord Blackwell on bringing forward such a timely Bill. I also commend the Government on agreeing to have a referendum on this hugely important issue. The constitution not only affects how Brussels runs, but will also change the very fabric of UK society. Romano Prodi said:

"The Constitution is a big change from the concept of national states. It is a change of centuries of history".

Lamberto Dini, another authority, stated:

"The Constitution is not just an intellectual exercise. It will quickly change people's lives".

Hence it is absolutely vital that we have a referendum on the issue, which will affect more people to a greater depth than any other recent treaty—and that we hold it promptly.

It is not enough to announce a referendum at some distant point in the future. We must, as soon as practical and sensible, ask the voters their opinion on the subject. A long delay in having the referendum will result in the matter being considered less important. That will result in fewer people voting. Whichever side one takes on the question, surely noble Lords believe that a high turnout of voters is critical.

We are the most populous country, with the most registered voters, to be holding a referendum. It is therefore important that we are either the first or among the earliest to vote. Doing so allows the people of the UK to make their decision independently, without the inevitable influence of earlier results from member states. The UK should give direction in Europe, rather than being led by smaller groups of voters.

The Prime Minister has said that Britain should be in the centre of Europe. I agree with him. Surely scheduling an early referendum would provide tangible evidence of providing that leadership in Europe. The Prime Minister has also said that we will still have a referendum even if another country does not ratify the constitution. I hope that the Government stick with that statement. However, how much better it would be to hold our referendum within four months of the final treaty being published and show the will of the British electorate regardless of how other countries vote.

I am not at all convinced that the constitution as presently written is highly desirable. But that is not the matter before us today. I join my noble friend, Lord Blackwell, in encouraging democracy through a timely referendum while the matter is still active in the minds of the voters.

Photo of Lord Rees-Mogg Lord Rees-Mogg Crossbench

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Blackwell, for introducing the Bill, which has led to what can only be a useful debate in moving forward the referendum that the Government have promised. It is thoroughly helpful.

I should also like to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Laidlaw, on an excellent maiden speech. It was thoughtful, informed and thoroughly valuable. The House will look forward very much to hearing him in future.

Perhaps I may add a comment from my own knowledge—a knowledge more of the noble Lord's business than of him. For some years in the 1990s I was the chairman of a company now called Informa, which was and is the main British competitor with IIR, the company that the noble Lord created and runs. You get to know the real quality of a company that is your main competitor, better than in any other way—just as the Opposition Front Bench have a shrewd knowledge of the excellent quality of the Government Front Bench.

Not only was the noble Lord's business well run, as one would expect, and very profitable—it was usually more profitable than we were—but the work his business was doing was consistently of real social value and of advantage to this country and to the many other countries in which he was operating. I am glad that we should have someone with his international business experience, at the relatively small-business scale, coming to this House to add to our knowledge.

I am not supposed to congratulate the next maiden speaker on her speech before she makes it. However, to find myself speaking before a maiden speech by the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury, has brought back for me the happiest memories of the last Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury to speak to this House. Lady Violet was a person for whom I had the greatest fondness, for her intelligence and her loyalty to her party. If those noble Lords are sitting on those Benches with a party that to all appearances is now thriving in the country, they owe their position to those who kept the Liberal faith during the dark years of the emergence of the Labour Party and the dominance of the Conservative Party in the middle of the previous century. Therefore, the name Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury is a name which I hold in the highest regard and respect.

It is an appropriate moment for us to be discussing this issue. A major change is taking place in the politics of this country, and the referendum project is one which has to be considered in the light of a shift of ideas that is fundamental to our politics. In Somerset we have a number of village celebrations next month to record the anniversary of the death of the great liberal philosopher John Locke in 1704. What seems to be happening is that in all the parties a new spirit which could be described as "neo-liberalism" is rapidly spreading.

I should like to use today's issue of the Financial Times as a document to illustrate the point. It starts with quotations from Mr Milburn, who is taking over responsibility for development of the policy of the governing party before the next general election and for the next Parliament. What he says is therefore of the utmost importance. I hope the House will allow me to read out some quotations at the head of the article.

Mr Milburn starts with what one could call a radical assertion. He states:

"We must not turn back. It is time to push forward".

Perhaps that does not mean much in itself, but he continues:

"A third New Labour term should be about moving power from the state and giving it to the public".

That is consistent with the Prime Minister's change of mind in favour of having a referendum, which some Euro-fanatics oppose. I am sure that the Prime Minister was right.

Although I am not sure whether Mr Milburn's comments are from one speech or are interesting extracts from several, he continues:

"Where it is feasible for users to exercise individual choice—as over elderly care or schools or hospital operations—that should be the norm".

Another extract says:

"The balance of power needs to move in favour of consumers over producers".

When one listens to those views as the central beliefs of the man who will decide the policy of the Government as they go into a general election and, if they are re-elected, the policy of the Government in the next Parliament, what is striking is not how controversial the ideas are but how they have spread through the parties. They have even spread to the figure whom the press, probably wrongly, build up as the great rival to Mr Milburn. I never pretend to understand the internal workings of any parties. A Cross-Bencher should not try.

However, in the same issue of the Financial Times the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who is certainly a powerful figure in determining the future of his party, takes a surprisingly similar line about Europe. He says:

"Europe has a special responsibility to rise to the challenge and, starting today, make new commitments on economic reform. This is no time for complacency or consolidation but for pushing forward boldly with liberalisation".

There we have what people might call the two wings of the Labour Party taking the same view. What about the Liberal Democrats over there? Here is an article by Sir Samuel Brittan, who is well known to many of us as the brother of a distinguished Member of this House and who is a leading liberal theoretician in the press. He says, in reference to a new Orange Book, which I regret that I have not yet had the opportunity to read, Reclaiming Liberalism:

"It has for some time been highly likely that some Lib Dems would conclude that the party had more to gain from going back to the free market roots of Liberalism".

As I understand it, the Orange Book advocates courses and policies of that kind. Indeed, the only thing that surprises me about that is that, in other articles that I read, it is clear to me that if I were a member of the party of the noble Lords in the other corner of the House, I should be regarded as a Young Turk and no doubt would regard them as obstacles to change and barnacles on the bottom of the liberal ship.

And what about the Conservative Party? I think that the reshuffle that the Conservative Party has carried out and the August policy statements all tend in the same neo-liberal direction. What, one might say after reading the papers, about the appointment of Mr Redwood back to the Front Bench on the shadow side? But Mr Redwood is not only a neo-liberal; he is an extremist neo-liberal.

So we have a situation in which our politics have changed in a neo-liberal and Lockean direction. What is the situation with the European constitution that is being proposed to us? It is not a neo-liberal document; it is not even a liberal document. It belongs, quite honestly, to the 1950s, when the first work on creating the new Europe was being carried out. It is a document derived from the constitutional ideas of 19th century Europe, some of which were held by well intentioned Popes, some of which were developed in the First and Third Empires by the two Napoleons and some of which were owing to Chancellor Bismarck. Indeed, many of the ideas about the power of bureaucracy to change society derive from the days of the Prussian empire. But it is not in any way a document which shows an underlying liberal ideology.

One can see that in the constitution very clearly. There is no proposed reform of the acquis communautaire. The acquis communautaire has developed over 50 years. Any institution which has developed over 50 years is ripe for reform. That is universally true in human history. And the fact that the acquis communautaire is not only taken totally for granted and is totally protected but has also been imposed without change—85,000 pages of it—on every new member of the European Union shows that this is an anti-radical document and we cannot afford to sterilise Europe at the point at which it is reached.

There is no return of powers to the independent elected national Parliaments—none. Nowhere does it say that powers which in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s or 1990s went to the centre should now be returned in order to get them nearer to the people. There is not a word on that. Therefore, this is a document which must be rejected. We have gone down a blind alley. We have gone backwards in history towards the 1950s and the 19th century and we have produced this absurd constitution, which is itself incapable of reform and an obstacle to reform.

Now we have—I very much welcome it—a Labour Party which is bursting out with all the leaves of spring. It has decided that it is going to be a liberal and democratic party—a decision that some people asked it to take some little while ago. We have a Liberal Democrat Party in which the brightest and best of young people are urging their elders—tugging at their coat-tails—to go back to the fundamental ideas of liberty on which the Liberal Party was founded. We have a Conservative Party which shares this magnificent consensus. And, sitting on the Cross Benches, I can say that there are quite a few neo-liberals on the Cross Benches as well.

We have a European document which is flatly contrary to all those ideas. Of course, it will be swept away. The only question is: when? And the answer is: the sooner, the better.

Photo of Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury Liberal Democrat

My Lords, it is with great pleasure that I address your Lordships for the first time. This sense of pleasure derives both from the honour that I feel in joining your Lordships in this beautiful House and from the generosity of the welcome extended to me by colleagues from around the House, and in particular by the kind words of the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg.

With the help of noble Lords and that of the excellent Attendants and other staff who serve this House and whom I sincerely thank, I am learning to find my way around the place. But since, as I am told by one of my aunts, I am "spatially dyslexic"—I mean that in the literal as well as the intellectual sense—I must confess sometimes to feeling a little like Theseus in the labyrinth and in need of a ball of wool to help me.

Today's debate gives me an opportunity to contribute to a topic close to my heart—an opportunity to support the holding of a referendum, although not this Bill, on the proposed constitution for Europe and, in so doing, to highlight what I believe to be the remarkable political achievement of the European Union in bringing about the extension of democracy, the rule of law, including civil rights and ethnic rights, and an era of peace across Europe as well as prosperity.

I have listened to the speeches already made today with admiration and interest and with varying degrees of agreement. It is clear that not every Member of this House shares my enthusiasm for Europe. I suspect, however, that my own sentiments will not come wholly as a surprise.

"The Liberal Party has always believed in breaking down the barriers that divide man from man and nation from nation".

That was written by my father in 1962 in a foreword to a pamphlet debating the future of Britain in Europe. Forty-two years later, the Liberal Democrats believe that. Forty-two years later, however, the debate, as we are hearing today, still goes on and consensus eludes this country. It is time that the crucial issue of the nature of the EU and our role in it is finally settled.

As a supporter of the Union, I acknowledge that it can appear distant and unaccountable, and that more reform is still necessary. But too little is heard about the successes of the European Union. In Britain, a largely Euro-sceptic press has meant that the positives have been buried. For 20 years, we have been exposed to the drip, drip, drip of shabby anti-European propaganda. A referendum, and the campaign that will accompany it, is an opportunity to redress that and to settle at last an issue that has bedevilled two generations of British politics.

The first half of the 20th century saw European conflagration. My grandmother's generation lost brothers, lovers and friends. Only 25 years or so later, it was happening again. My own first cousin never knew his father due to conflict within Europe—due to European fighting European. It is now unimaginable that member states would employ the use of force to settle disagreements among themselves. When I was growing up, Spain, Portugal and Greece were ruled by dictators. That can never happen again as long those countries are members of the EU.

Only 15 years ago, British soldiers stationed in Germany still faced anxiously east. With the recent historic enlargement of the European Union, countries that were behind that Iron Curtain can now look forward to peace, stability and democracy. Of the 10 accession states, eight were formally Communist. They had to make enormous strides to meet the democratic requirements for membership—and they did. Across Europe the EU is locking in democracy.

A united Europe also provides the power to tackle problems that cannot be tackled by nation states alone. Euro-sceptics talk of the surrender of sovereignty, but we already pool sovereignty. It was NATO that kept Britain secure during the Cold War. Only pooled sovereignty can deal with the challenges we face today: economic globalisation, pervasive environmental pollution, and the threats of international terrorism.

Pollution recognises no borders and terrorists do not respect national boundaries, as we witnessed again so appallingly in Beslan and yesterday in Jakarta. In this shrinking world, the European Union is of our time. Britain can achieve more when it acts in partnership with our neighbours.

Let us look to our own future, to the generation younger than me. They are at ease with Europe; it is their holiday destination; they work there; their heroes on the football pitch have names like Thierry Henry, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Patrick Vieira. And yet come Euro 2004, no-one was cheering harder than the Arsenal and Man U fans for an English victory. At the Athens Olympics we were for Team GB.

As my right honourable friend Charles Kennedy says, in the modern world he finds nothing inconsistent in being simultaneously a Highlander, a Scot, British and a citizen of Europe.

The proposed constitution for Europe modernises the EU; makes it more flexible, democratic, transparent and internationally effective. But it is, and will remain, a diverse European Union. It is a constitution for a union of nation states—absolutely not for a European superstate.

I believe a referendum is the best way to ensure that the new constitution is widely accepted and understood. So I personally am in favour of a referendum but not in favour of the Bill. In a maiden speech one cannot be partisan, so I will leave it to others to make the argument that the Bill is playing party politics. But it must be for the Government to judge the timing of the referendum in light of parliamentary scrutiny and developments in other member states. I look forward to the campaign.

Photo of Lord Radice Lord Radice Labour

My Lords, we have heard two excellent maiden speeches. The noble Lord, Lord Laidlaw, made an excellent speech and we look forward to hearing what he has to say, particularly about education. The noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury, has also made an excellent speech. She will not be surprised to learn that I agree with almost every word that she said.

The noble Baroness comes from a great Liberal family. Although I did not know her grandmother, I did know her father, who was a friend of mine. I worked closely with him in Europe and indeed in Poland and Hungary, which are now members of the European Union. I know he would have been delighted about that.

It is clear that the noble Baroness will make a considerable mark on this House. We look forward to hearing what she has to say in the future.

Before I turn to the Bill, I want to say that I was not in favour of having a referendum. I was influenced by my Commons experience of watching Conservative governments carry through Parliament the Single European Act and the Maastricht Treaty without a referendum and, indeed, resisting very strongly the case for a referendum in words with which I very much agree. As any fair commentator on European issues would accept, the Single European Act and the Maastricht Treaty were very much more important constitutionally than the European constitutional treaty on which we shall have a referendum.

In my view the treaty is useful and valuable. It sets out the powers, rights and duties of the Union in a single treaty, which we have not had before. Indeed, the first 18 or 20 paragraphs are rather clearly set out. It provides a simple and fair voting system for the Council; it acknowledges the predominant role of the nation states; and I say to the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg—I enjoyed his speech, as one always does—that I do not recognise the constitutional treaty that he described when I look through the text of the treaty that I have beside me.

Of course, for the first time it allows greater involvement for national parliaments. Frankly, it is far less significant than the Single European Act, which introduced a single market—a very revolutionary move—and it is far less important than the Maastricht Treaty, which introduced the euro and the European Central Bank.

After consideration, I think that there is merit in having a referendum—not just because my leader has announced that there will be one. We have not had a referendum on Europe since the membership referendum of 1975. A referendum on the constitutional treaty will give the British people a chance to vote on the treaty which contains the Single European Act, the Maastricht Treaty, all the other developments since 1975 and the new features, of which there are not very many, introduced in this constitutional treaty.

Here I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter, that as such it will be a test of where the British people stand on the European Union. I welcome that. In that sense it is an important crossroads.

I say to the noble Lord, Lord Blackwell, a very constructive member of Sub-Committee A, which I have the honour to chair, of the European Union Committee—I very much enjoy working with him—that I am against his Bill. I have always warned him that on this issue we would be arguing on opposite sides.

I am against his Bill for a number of reasons. A Bill that concerns a treaty and a referendum as important as these should be introduced by a government Minister and not by a Back-Bencher. I do not want to make too much of that, but that is the way in which we operate in our democracy.

My main argument is against the haste that would be introduced by the Bill if it were passed. The referendum would be held within four months after 29 October. I think that that would prevent proper and full parliamentary scrutiny and debate. If the noble Lord says that it is quite a small Bill, I say so was the Maastricht Treaty. As he will well remember, given the fact that he gave advice to the government of the day, it took a whole year to go through the House of Commons.

We need proper time for parliamentary scrutiny because we are a parliamentary democracy—not a democracy that is run by plebiscite. We would be introducing an element of that if we rushed to have a referendum straightaway. We need proper parliamentary input and, frankly, we cannot get that within four months.

The second point, which has already been alluded to by my noble friend, is that we need proper information. A fair and proper democratic referendum has to be based on full information about the treaty and the constitution. A recent MORI poll for the Foreign Policy Centre shows that there is considerable ignorance about the constitution. The noble Lord may say that that does not matter, but it also says that those polled would like to know more about it. So they are asking for more information.

It is proper that information should not be based on what people read in the Sun or the Daily Mail. That may suit the noble Lord, but we need to have the proper facts and to know what is not in the European constitution. We need to know, for example, that it will not abolish our seat on the UN Security Council, threaten control of our oil supplies and that our Army is not under threat; that it will not force us to join the euro against our will, raise our taxes or force us to have our foreign policy dictated from Brussels; and that it will not lead to a European superstate. That is not in the constitutional treaty.

So we need to ensure that people have their proper right to information and that it is simply set out. Indeed, I would urge the Government to publish a simple pamphlet setting out what is in the treaty and make that available across the country, perhaps in every post office—if there are enough post offices open for that to happen. I hope there are. I do not believe that a rush to a referendum can provide the proper informed debate that we need to have if we are to have a fair and proper referendum. That is my second point.

My third point is much more pragmatic: it would be wrong to mix up the referendum with the general election. Let us be honest and say where we are at the moment. The general election is likely to be held in the early summer of next year. When the party conference season is over we will already be in the run-up to the general election. I think that it would be quite wrong to mix up the referendum on the constitutional treaty with the general election.

In my view, the referendum should be held after the general election. I say that very clearly and not for partisan reasons but because I think that that is the fairest way to conduct a referendum on such an important topic for this country. So, for all those reasons, I would say to the noble Lord, whom I like very much, that his Bill is premature and that if passed it would not help an informed debate, nor lead to an informed decision. In that sense, it would weaken rather than strengthen democracy.

Photo of Lord Patten Lord Patten Conservative

My Lords, I am very glad to follow the noble Lord, Lord Radice, who is always very thoughtful in what he says. I have believed that in the years I have been in your Lordships' House and, indeed, in listening to him over many years in another place. But I do not agree with the noble Lord. I have always believed that the referendum was right. That guides me to think that my noble friend's Bill comes at a very apposite time.

I am no self-regarding constitutional expert, but I have a longstanding concern about the way in which our constitutional arrangements in this country are going. That is why my noble friend's Bill is so important. It is seeking to embed the principle that no government can ratify a European constitution without popular assent. Further, the Bill seeks to ensure that a referendum to measure popular opinion is held within a reasonable time, which is very important indeed and a point powerfully made by my noble friend, Lord Laidlaw, in his notable maiden speech.

I take the mildest of issue with my noble friend's Bill on one point, however. I think that three months is a quite reasonable length of time—a point we might explore in Committee—rather than the four months proposed in the Bill.

Equally, my noble friend's Bill will ensure that any referendum is held as soon as possible before a general election. That is not a political point. Rather, it is a constitutional point, for we have the present Prime Minister seeking to take a decision to bind the hand of a successor government who may be there after the next general election. That strikes me as profoundly constitutionally improper.

This decision to hold but delay a referendum, characteristically, was reportedly taken by the right honourable gentleman the Prime Minister on the spur of the moment during one of his holidays. I cannot remember which pop singer's mansion or media magnate's villa was the scene for this Pauline conversion from anti to pro referendum, but it was the scene that should be remembered by future constitutional historians as one of those little constitutional tipping points—trying to introduce a decision to hold a referendum when there may be another government in power, and yet expecting his decision to be binding. I believe that to be wrong. I do not think that our constitutional arrangements should be subject to the whim of any Prime Minister. That is exactly what my noble friend's Bill seeks to prevent. I congratulate him on that.

I also believe that this sort of Bill is vital to lend wind to a growing movement to seek to control the present Government's often ad hoc, lightweight and sometimes absolutely frivolous attitude to constitutional change. We need to try to re-establish, as one or two earlier speakers said, the principle of care and consideration in constitutional matters, in exactly the way that my noble friend's Bill seeks to do. Your Lordships will, I see, have a further opportunity to explore these issues, if you like and if you wish, on Wednesday, 15 September, during an Unstarred Question debate on the constitution.

We can see exactly these parallel pressures in other EU member states. In Germany, for example, there must be a two-thirds majority of both Houses to bring about constitutional change. There, the unloved—or so I am told—Social Democratic Government have said that if they can get the majorities in both Houses to allow a referendum to be called, there will be one early in 2005, not delayed into the middle distance as Mr Blair seeks to do.

The noble Lord, Lord Radice, referred to the recent findings of the Foreign Policy Centre and its MORI poll. His natural delicacy prevented him from fully reporting to the House all of the findings of that MORI poll commissioned by the Foreign Policy Centre, of which the Prime Minister is a patron. On 6 September, it reported that Mr Blair was a liability to any "yes" campaign over the EU constitution. It is no wonder he seeks to delay the referendum.

Photo of Lord Radice Lord Radice Labour

My Lords, as I had the honour of writing the foreword to that document, I may have the advantage over the noble Lord in that I have actually read it. It does not say that. It says that if a referendum is to be won, it will have to be based on an all-party coalition. It cannot be won by the Labour Party or the Prime Minister alone, or indeed by the Liberal Democrats or the pro-European Conservatives—of whom there are some—alone. It needs to be based on a coalition. That is what it actually said.

Photo of Lord Patten Lord Patten Conservative

My Lords, we can debate the issues during the referendum itself. As reported, however, the MORI poll said that the Prime Minister himself would be a liability if he was leading that campaign.

To wish to listen to people really must not be represented as being anti-European. I think that that is wrong, and I am conscious that the noble Lord, Lord Radice, has not done that. It certainly should not be represented as being xenophobic. Indeed, I took part in these debates in the 1970s as well. I well remember making my first ever political speech in the 1975 referendum. I can remember the place—one does remember these things. It was in the village hall at Wootton under Boars Hill near Oxford. There was an enthralled audience of four to listen to my words. There was the local Conservative Party agent checking up on my speaking ability, there was the caretaker, and there was the caretaker's dog. Little is known of the fourth person.

After thus demonstrating my European credentials, I really do not wish to be told that I am somehow anti-European, that there are the sounds of men in flapping white coats or that I am going to miss some mythical bus if I wish to pause and consider these important political and constitutional issues and bring them to a decision.

There is a world of difference between the extremes of the uglier forms of nationalism and wishing to balance the interests of our nation with those of any organisation to which we may become more and more treaty-bound. I was much struck in August by a story told me by an alarmed friend who is a senior political figure in one of the larger recent European accession states—exactly one of the countries to which the noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson, referred in his speech. He was very keen for his country to join the European Union but, on going to Brussels for the first time, was told by an equally leading figure there that it really was no longer "helpful"—a.k.a. politically correct—for my friend to talk of his country any more. It would be much more helpful to use the phrase, "the country that I know best".

It is no wonder to me, in the face of that sort of thing, that some people—completely wrongly, in my mind—have, if not actually become xenophobic, felt that their sense of place has become so threatened that they should flee to the United Kingdom Independence Party. I greatly regret that. There is no point in beating about the bush: some of the people who have gone to UKIP are ex-Conservatives. In some constituencies—again, there is no point in beating about the bush—those movements of people have lost us seats to other parties, paradoxically in so doing making some of the very constitutional and other policy changes that they do not want that much more likely in Europe. Self-inflicted wounds? I do not know, but certainly not the best judged party-political change.

So another reason that I support my noble friend's Bill is that it puts Tory thinking firmly back to where it used to be and always should be: back in to the constitutional driving seat. I hope that it may persuade some who have flirted with UKIP in the past to avoid doing so again in future and persuade them that the Conservative Party is now a party of constitutional protection, which it always was and always should be, and that we should have their vote, as the Bill has mine.

One last point. Sometimes, political issues that have been buried for years or generations ignite and take off. I think that the constitutional issue will be one of exactly those matters. People with strong constitutional interests have too often been thought to be the sort of people who inhabit seminar rooms, not bar rooms. I think that in future months and years, and especially during the referendum campaign that my noble friend's Bill is intended to promote, the constitutional issue will roar up the political agenda in a way that I predict will surprise the governing party very much indeed.

Photo of Lord Sewel Lord Sewel Labour 12:23, 10 September 2004

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Blackwell, in introducing the debate and presenting his Bill for Second Reading, made much of the point that he sought to be helpful to Her Majesty's Government. Frankly, pull the other one. If ever I have heard a declaration of political mischief-making, that was it.

I really want to focus my contribution on the four-month provision that the Bill would enshrine. If we look at the contributions that have been made so far, the noble Lord, Lord Blackwell, himself said that it was important that the issues are properly considered and not rushed through. The noble Lord, Lord Patten, has just said that it is important that we have care and consideration when we move forward on constitutional issues. I agree with both noble Lords. The only trouble is that one of them wants four months and the other one wants three months. How we can get care, consideration and due diligence about the issues to be presented before the electorate over a period that, I think, ends at the end of February is honestly beyond me. The point that has been continually made by my noble friends is the role of Parliament in the whole process. It is absolutely fundamental that we have a refined mechanism, a developed parliamentary democracy, where issues of great importance are subject to parliamentary scrutiny and debate, which teases out and informs the issues in the debate among the wider electorate.

The noble Lord, Lord Laidlaw, in an excellent maiden speech, made the point that he hoped that the referendum would be settled on the basis of a high turnout. So do I. The noble Lord said that he had been away from the United Kingdom and Scotland for so long. I must point out that a number of us in the Chamber today have connections with more Highland Scotland. January and February are not the best months to go around Highland Scotland arguing the case for or against, in all honesty. But let us go forward.

There are perhaps three dimensions that ought to be taken into account in considering the length of time for public debate in the lead-up to the referendum. They are: the importance of the issue—perhaps not the importance of the substantive issue, because I join many of my noble friends in saying that the treaty as such, in its substantial issues, is not as important as other treaties that have developed our European identity and relationship. But the outcome will be of fundamental importance because it will determine and be a test of the approach of the British people in their relationship to Europe. That is an issue of importance and needs to be developed over time.

There is also the issue of complexity. What concerns me in that area is that we have heard today some of the many myths that surround the treaty as such. Does it automatically mean membership of the euro? Do we lose our seat at the United Nations?—a question dealt with by my noble friend Lord Radice. In a way, the noble Lord, Lord Blackwell, let the cat out of the bag because he very much linked the treaty with the creation of a super-European state. That is fundamentally wrong and misconceived. So we will need time and scrutiny to enable some of the myths to be dispensed with before the actual issues within the treaty can be properly assessed.

The third element is the extent to which there is real division within the country. It ill-serves us to move quickly and precipitously to determine an issue where we know that there are real differences of view, deeply and sincerely held, on both sides of the question throughout the country. It would be an abuse of process if that division was not recognised through having a longish period of reflection before a final outcome is decided.

So on all these points, the argument is against something that would culminate in a decision being made on some winter's day in February. There is a process and a place for a referendum in this whole business. That comes at the end of the period of public debate following robust parliamentary scrutiny. I cannot support the Bill.

Photo of Lord Selsdon Lord Selsdon Conservative

My Lords, on Tuesday morning I was in a rush to get back to your Lordships' House to speak on Iraq, one of my favourite countries, when unwittingly I raised my head sharply and smashed it into a heavy object. Suffering a little from what I thought was amnesia or something, I staggered back to your Lordships' House to find that we were in hard-hat country and I had left mine behind. I wondered why we had been brought back, and tried to calculate what it might have cost: it was most interesting. Then, with my throbbing headache, when I saw the programme, I said "There is skulduggery about". I wondered what the plans were, because the first item of business was a debate on Iraq. I had thought that that debate had nothing to do with what we are talking about today, but then I realised that it did. During the debate the former Cabinet Secretaries said, "We no longer have a democracy; we have sofa politics. The Cabinet is never informed and only small ill-informed groups meet; therefore, we must look at it in a slightly different way".

As a senior non-executive of a public company I tried to equate the Cabinet with an executive management which also has an executive board. Your Lordships' House and Parliament are the non-executive directors, who have a duty to ensure that everything is all right. As the week progressed, I thought, "Wait a moment, we have this debate on Friday"—an excellent suggestion by my noble friend Lord Blackwell—"There is possibly a little Conservative skulduggery, but never mind, as it may flush a few people out into the open". If we had this great European business together and we put the issue of hunting to the new constitution, would our friends on the Continent propose that we keep it or ban it? To a man, they would propose to keep it. Let us suppose we put to them whether it was right for us to go into Iraq. They would all say, "No, you were wrong". If we get further down this line, we might have a few problems: democracy may be taken away from us by others who feel that they have a right to interfere.

Before my senile dementia and amnesia take over, I shall take noble Lords back to the glorious week of 21 to 28 October 1971, when Parliament debated whether we should join the EU. Some great speeches were made from the Liberal Benches, which are almost deserted today. The Liberals seem to move in phalanxes: they are all whipped together to come in one moment and at other times there are very few of them. The vote resulted in the biggest majority that the House of Lords had had since the abolition of hanging. Five hundred and nine people turned up to vote. I am the only one speaking today who voted at that time but 24 Members of your Lordships' House voted "Content". No one in your Lordships' House today voted "Not-Content".

Photo of Lord Monson Lord Monson Crossbench

My Lords, perhaps I may correct the noble Lord. I voted "Not-Content".

Photo of Lord Selsdon Lord Selsdon Conservative

My Lords, with the noble Lord's permission, I did not know he was speaking today. I was referring to the noble Lords speaking in the debate. Of those speaking today, the only person who voted "Content" was the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, very bravely on the other side. Only three or four of those who voted remain in your Lordships' House.

In the House of Commons there was a majority of 60 per cent to 40 per cent; in the House of Lords it was 89 per cent to 11 per cent. But that was only the start. The debate was strange: the Labour Party was totally anti-Europe, except for around four men, including George Brown, who said, "We mustn't miss, not the bus, but the plane". The noble Lords, Lord Callaghan and Lord Healey, and others were in favour of joining. When we came to passing the Bill, we had to send a delegation to the European Parliament. I was the treasurer of the Conservative Group for Europe because the Treasury could not provide any financial help to our delegation. The noble Lord, Lord MacGregor, and I had to raise money. We tried hard to persuade members of the Labour Party to join this great initiative but they were not prepared to do so. They said that it would be wrong for the nation. There was only one real honest man who is still in your Lordships' House: the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, who has stuck to his guidelines.

So what happened? Over a period, the Labour Party quite rightly said, "We do not believe in all of this. We will hold a referendum". But we did not believe in referendums in those days, as we thought that they were unconstitutional. They have only become necessary these days because Parliament is no longer democratic, as a result of the centralised control taken by the senior Executive. As the noble Lord, Lord Radice, said, the referendum was held on 5 April 1975. A great turnout was needed, and, to some extent, planning had been going on before. The noble Lord, Lord Dykes, whom I wish had spoken today, was very active at that time as a neo-liberal in favour of Europe. There was a 64.5 per cent turnout and coincidentally 64.5 per cent voted in favour. Only two groups said no: the Western Isles, where 76 per cent voted against, and Shetland, where 56 per cent voted against. When one considers that 29 million people turned out, when in the last election 19 million people did not vote, one realises that referendums or referenda may be becoming an essential ingredient of democracy as Parliament begins to fail—I know not.

I was in favour of going into the EU. Together we coined the phrase, "Britain in Europe: it's our business to be there". The object was trade and commerce; it was not politics, and never should it be. As a banker, for my sins, I was given the job of EEC adviser with the Midland Bank. I was handed a smart office in Brussels, beautifully furnished. We tried unsuccessfully to get duty-free drink, and our job was to infiltrate the Commission. We did very well: we had those cosy sofa chats, like current-day sofa government, and decided what was right. We tried to get UKRep involved, but the British had already been excluded and the die was cast.

The various French and Germans had their players in the right places. Our job was, not to make constructive suggestions, but to fight tooth and nail to stop restrictive legislation hurting the United Kingdom. This even included such issues as the export of our teddy bears. It became apparent that the only way in which we could get Customs clearance for British teddy bears, which were among the best in the world, was for them to be delivered to a small town in Bordeaux, where the Customs post was open from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on a Friday.

Many organisations were set up to try to push greater free trade, but we were being squeezed out, as we are today. The consensus of opinion on the Continent is, "We will trade this off against that, but the British are not involved so never mind. We want them to go on paying a large slug of funds to peasant farmers". I should declare that I am a peasant farmer in France and that occasionally I receive support.

The most current such situation arose when heavy hail hit the grapes. To get support, we had to complete an enormous form showing damages—it used to be A5 but is now A3 in triplicate. I was asked to give the name and address of the person who created the damage. That was difficult, but nil returns were required, although normally you would just put "XXX" and the computer would process it. The more exciting incident was when wild boar had savaged some of the crop. I was required to fill in the name and address of the wild boar, and when I did not fill it in, I was told that I could not receive the necessary subvention. I am being slightly light-hearted because it is Friday, but it is a serious issue.

Returning to other serious issues, I still do not believe in referendums if Parliament does its job properly, because Parliament represents the people. If we are to have a referendum, it should be as soon as possible and when the weather is right. We should stop this politicking about, because the government of the day know full well that the British people in general do not want this sort of thing from the Continent of Europe. They want free travel and not to have to use their passports but they are not interested in being restricted. Unfortunately, as the European Union is extended, more and more restrictions come in and we move to the lowest common multiple rather than the highest common factor.

Today we have had two remarkable maiden speeches. The noble Lord, Lord Laidlaw, and I are not far away from each other in the part of France where we have a house. He has made the sort of speech that I would have expected him to make: utterly professional and very competent. Above all, he followed one unwritten rule: he made it interesting, even to me, who has heard many of his views and have great regard for what he has achieved.

The family of the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter, had a great influence on my life. I used to deal with Poland. One day I was invited by Lord Bonham-Carter to go to Poland with Charles Kennedy, and a few people here, to sit with our friends, the Poles, to discuss the arrival of democracy. But when we arrived, there had been a little incident that had taken place in, I believe, Gibraltar, involving the SAS or someone. We found that there was a political contretemps and we all had to flee. Unfortunately, I did the dirty. I knew it was coming so I rushed off to a local bar, bought a drink or two and got a taxi to the airport while most of the delegation had to spend two nights in the embassy. That was Europe.

I now come to: will we have a referendum or will we not? Taking some of the words used by my noble friend Lord Blackwell, I would say, "Yes, the advice we should give to the Government is go ahead and have a referendum because I think you may be surprised"—as my noble friend Lord Patten said—"that the result may be not what you want or what you expect. Maybe you do not want to have a referendum after all and maybe you do not want this piece of new legislation".

Anyway, it is Friday. I wish everyone good luck with their ventures in the future. Since I am one of the few of your Lordships' House never to have had the right to vote for a Member of Parliament, I say to noble Lords, "You have the Government you deserve".

Photo of Lord Lea of Crondall Lord Lea of Crondall Labour

My Lords, I am very sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, banged his head and I hope that he soon recovers. Many noble Lords will be of an age to remember the refrain of Eartha Kitt—"the Englishman needs time". He certainly does, but I will not go into the circumstances that she had in mind.

However, it is true that the Englishman does need time. Certainly, that applies to all aspects of our relationship with the European Union. After all, we joined in 1973 when the European Economic Community kicked off in 1958. Of course, in those years between 1958 and 1973 the British political establishment and the Treasury, which has relentlessly been of this view from start to finish and even today, were predicting that the whole exercise would fall flat on its face. It did not. In the British psyche so soon after the end of empire, that was something of a shock.

But in our political culture we still have the problem that true as it is, as all my noble friends have pointed out, the document on the constitutional treaty is very substantially putting in a consolidated form what is already there. Nevertheless, the word "constitution" can easily frighten the horses in our political culture. That worries me, not because there is anything wrong with the word, but because it easily lends itself to populist misrepresentation. It perhaps needs time to be explained before it gradually becomes clear to people that it is rather a consolidation.

Also, of course, as has been pointed out very eloquently by the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter, in her particularly outstanding maiden speech, we are starting a new chapter—enlargement—inspired not by Brussels megalomaniacs but by history drawing a line under the Yalta agreement of 1945. An Estonian colleague said to me only the other day, "You know, May 1"—May 1 this year—"was for us the end of the Second World War".

It is also true that one cannot say that it is thanks to the European Union that we have got where we have, because clearly the American shield and NATO are very much part of that, whatever one wants to say is the nature of the Soviet Union and how far it was aggressive, how far it was defensive, and so on. We would not be where we are today without all of the developments, including the development of the first leaders of the European Union.

They knew—we today know—that we cannot bury our head under the pillow as regards the way in which the world is developing from China through to the rest of Asia, Africa, and so forth. But it is the job of politicians not just to pander to people's short-term anxieties. We all have anxieties about the future, particularly as we get older. We sometimes think that the country is going to the dogs. Apparently, that has been true of all periods of history. Surely, it is the job of politicians to give people an acceptable vision of their role in society and an honest assessment of where that society fits into the wider world. Going back to the 1930s, history also shows that politicians are not forgiven if they fail to look further than the end of their nose and give people a leadership and a vision.

Reference has been made to the 1975 referendum. I remember it quite well: I wrote the TUC pamphlet saying, "Vote No". Two-thirds of the electorate—and two-thirds of the exit polls of our membership—voted "Yes". I remember rather distinctly and uncomfortably one very senior member of the General Council, whose name today is a household name, saying to me after the referendum, "I thought I asked you to write a popular pamphlet saying 'Vote No'". I said, "I did". "Well, it was not very popular, was it?", he said. That is the sort of thing one tends to remember.

Of course, we also had in the annals the visit of Jacques Delors to Bournemouth in 1988, whose message was that in the modern world it is only if we can work together in Europe that we can have structural change and advance the welfare of ordinary working people in a social market economy through the means of adaptation through social partnership. That was a message, which, at the zenith of the decade in office of the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, people grasped rather readily for short-term political reasons.

However, that has been a message that has sustained itself through the experience of the Social Chapter, particularly since the Labour Party came into office in 1997. Its first act was Robin Cook going to Brussels to sign the Social Chapter. I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, that that is the part of Europe that many people in this country rather like. A massive "Yes" vote from trade unionists is what I predict in the referendum. As the explanation goes on, it will be clear that in the modern world it is only by doing things together in Europe that we can make progress in reconciling rapid structural change and sustain the standard of living of ordinary people.

We cannot flinch from addressing the fact that Britain is 1 per cent of the world's population—I repeat, 1 per cent. One might think that it was 51 per cent from the way that some people talk. We can join the United States: we seem to be half way there in some aspects of our policy. I take the point about young people going around Europe. I am not a young person. Noble Lords may be surprised to hear that I was singing in a Mozart festival in Salzburg last weekend. But people from all around Europe now do that sort of thing. They may not do it very well, but that is the new European culture. With cheap air fares, a massive range of people are doing that.

So where do we go in Britain? So far as I understand the political policy thrust of the noble Lord who has introduced the Bill, there is a proposal to be half in and half out—half way across the Rubicon. I do not remember any Roman general saying that that would be a good place to tarry for very long. I do not know, when giving it serious thought, whether there is such a place as half in and half out.

Harold Wilson did promise a renegotiation, but we all knew at the time—we decoded the message—that it would be something cosmetic at the margin, an adjustment at the margin of the Budget contribution. Perhaps it was a bit more than cosmetic, but it was not going to change the fundamentals, nor is there anything remotely on offer at the moment that could change the fundamentals of the structure. My noble friend Lord Tomlinson, the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan and others, did an excellent job in Brussels, but the range of forces has reached a point of pivot, and that is where we are and where we are going to be.

I turn to the point about voting in February. I certainly remember that the last time we held a vote in February, it was 28 February 1974, which might have been a leap year. I remember it well because I had to try to brush my teeth in the dark at the instigation of the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin. But I also remember that the result was not the one that the majority of the media had predicted.

In those days we had a much more sober media than is the case today. The Murdoch press of the time did not control 35 to 40 per cent of the readership of our newspapers. By the way, I hope that at some point the Electoral Commission will give some thought to the fact that in the United States it is not possible for a German, French or Swedish newspaper proprietor to control 35 to 40 per cent of the media because it is illegal. I do not know why we allow it to happen in this country when there is no degree of reciprocation. That is going to be relevant to the campaign. The Daily Mail headlined the constitution we are discussing today as, "A Blueprint for Tyranny". While some might say, "Do not use a word like 'xenophobic' to describe them", I ask, "Why not? What other word describes the sort of propaganda that is being put out and poisoning the debate?".

We need a sober debate, which will take time, and as my noble friends Lord Tomlinson and Lord Radice pointed out, we need a neutral and clear statement. I am neutral and on the side of voting "Yes", but before anyone develops that point, we know that the great majority of people who want to hold referendums are those who want to vote "No". Let us put our cards on the table. I want the result to be "Yes", while for the most part, noble Lords on the Conservative Benches want the result to be "No".

The Electoral Commission has a problem in that it has to make a judgment about whether something going into our Post Offices is to be allowed without being counted on one side of the ballots in the campaign. That should be directly addressed and it should be possible to produce such a neutral document. Indeed, the Government's own document, the White Paper on the treaty, published yesterday—which I welcome—is pretty nearly a neutral document itself. Its introduction by the Prime Minister states that this treaty is a good thing for Britain. Nevertheless—although we are damned if we do and damned if we don't—the body of the document sets out a very clear and objective statement that tries to explain the historically important decision we have to make. I hope that we can go down that line, but certainly not in the way set out in the Bill before us today.

Photo of Lord Kalms Lord Kalms Conservative

My Lords, perhaps I may state immediately my personal interest in this debate as a committed activist for the Vote No to the Referendum Campaign, a cross-party organisation which challenges the alleged benefits of the proposed constitution for Europe. From that starting point, I warmly welcome the proposed Bill introduced by my noble friend Lord Blackwell to establish now the timing for the great and definitive debate.

I intend however to offer some considered reflections on the decision-making process and the need for the serious analysis that the proposed constitutional changes demand; the timing and pace that are necessary to concentrate the arguments from all sides; and, above all, to recognise the critical importance of the proposed treaty to our nation.

Without over-elaborating, the new treaty is a life-threatening issue, using the word "life" in the sense of life as we know it and life as we want it, and something worth fighting for. Thanks to the "No" campaign and others, the Government have finally, albeit somewhat reluctantly, agreed to a referendum. Having made the concession, they must now be further persuaded not to toss the issue into the long grass, only to retrieve it when it is convenient. Without trying to be thespian, I urge that,

"if it were done, when 'tis done, t'were well it were done quickly".

The man with the ball has a strong responsibility to play fairly and equitably with his opponents. Whatever the outcome, the prime responsibility of the decision-makers is to be open, genuine and fair in the process of explanation of the realities of the proposed treaty. The word "transparency" comes to mind.

For a moment, I ask noble Lords to share with me one of the most important philosophies of my own long commercial career, a period which included many bids, mergers and takeovers that covered substantial sums. The process of due diligence was always thorough, but there were risks. It is inevitable that in any transaction, however seemingly attractive and however big the pot of gold seems to be, the one inviolable rule etched in my philosophy is that, if there is the slightest doubt, you never risk or bet the company. There is no reward worth targeting if there is a downside which puts at serious risk the careers and fortunes of those who have attached their stars to your wagon.

The process involves explaining the risks, getting people to understand your philosophy, and for them to be assured that there can be no outcome that spells disaster. It follows therefore that consultation must be as wide as possible. Moreover, within that process we should accept that at any time, our prerogative, after weighing the evidence, is our privilege to say "Yes" or, often harder, to say "No". However negative the implications, that is sometimes the only safe view to adopt, in particular when we are being asked to take a path which is irrevocable and irreversible, and where we might well be betting not merely a company, but the country: this country, our country.

It is certainly not a decision that has to be taken without the deepest reflection. Nor is it a scenario for calling in the Whips. It demands genuine and detailed discussion with the widest audiences everywhere, at every level, and of every political persuasion. Regrettably we have got off to a bad start. Already a Government Minister has dismissed the whole of the treaty as merely a tidying-up exercise. In the world of spin, that must go down as a new high in lows.

The whole of Europe meets in Nice in long, detailed discussion and fractious meetings. It produces nearly 700 pages of dense and complex details about the restructuring of power and responsibility. There is more debate and adjustment and, finally, the majority of the countries have decided to call for a referendum on the treaty.

Photo of Lord Tomlinson Lord Tomlinson Labour

My Lords, will the noble Lord reflect on what he has just said? The meeting in Nice was nothing to do with the constitutional treaty; it was the one before, surely.

Photo of Lord Kalms Lord Kalms Conservative

My Lords, it was quite a lot of effort for a tidying-up operation. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Laidlaw, who has pre-empted a quotation that I was going to use from a statement by President Prodi. However, it is a good enough statement for me to repeat. He said that it is,

"a big change from the basic concept of nation states. It's a change of centuries of history".

I do not have a sufficient range of words to express my rage at that attempt to trivialise the treaty, except to hope that it was a false start and that the Government will play it straight from now, and no better way would be to consent to the full text of this Bill. Let debate and argument fill the air, everywhere. Let all the risks be calculated so as to ensure that everyone knows what the referendum is about. We must all stop talking in platitudes. We must deal with the facts, listen to experts and learn the skills of genuine risk assessment.

It is certainly not enough to talk about being in the heart of Europe. In any case, I would rather be in the cerebral part of Europe, not the pump room.

Saying "No" is, in itself, not sufficient. We must show the treaty as a false start. The real challenge is to agree collectively as to the model of Europe we want and would be worth fighting for. A model that imbues democracy, rejects federation and enjoins the individuality of the participating state. A model that rejects a demanding, corrupt, central bureaucracy that has produced unworkable and financially disastrous formulae.

Regrettably, the headlong flight to an unsatisfactory treaty attracts uncomfortable bedfellows. The majority of the genuine European reformers—my natural habitat—are forced to cohabit with those who wish to exit Europe altogether, making a very unholy alliance. We would prefer a better coalition.

Whenever the referendum, I will clearly fight to persuade a "No" vote, but I will do so in a disciplined response to the treaty and argue that the kind of Europe we want and need would not be the outcome of this tortuous and inequitable treaty.

I want a fair battle—open and honest—and the sooner the better.

Photo of Lord Pearson of Rannoch Lord Pearson of Rannoch Conservative Independent

My Lords, I intervene briefly to highlight one point which has been mentioned today and which I feel will become very important in our forthcoming national debate about the proposed EU constitution. It was well put today by the noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson, when he said that the constitutional treaty contains not much new; therefore it must be acceptable if that is so.

But I would put to your Lordships that our relationship with Brussels has not featured much in any general election since 1983. So if some of their sovereignty has been surreptitiously removed, or if, for one reason or another, they did not know it was being taken from them, I believe the people are now entitled to wake up and say that they want it back. If Mr Giscard d'Estaing did us one favour, he has written the proposed constitution in very clear language; anyone can read it and understand it.

As a now independent Conservative—and therefore no longer controlled by the weighty considerations of the party whip—I very briefly will put on the record in your Lordships' House the process and apportion blame for where we are today. In 1972, of course, the Conservatives were responsible for Schedules 2 and 3 to the 1972 Act and for introducing the supremacy of European law over British law. Agriculture and fish went the way of all flesh as well. In 1985 the Conservatives were again responsible for putting all of our commerce and industry under the qualified majority vote in Brussels in the Single European Act.

Under the qualified majority vote it is, of course, true that the executive or the government of the day make decisions in Brussels. But the essential point is that the House of Commons itself becomes virtually a rubber stamp—and this place also—and we have to enact what has been agreed by the executive in Brussels.

That, I think, very briefly sums up the Conservative responsibility in this sorry saga. But Labour, of course, is responsible for putting all of our social and labour policies under the qualified majority vote in 1997. Now it is supporting the new constitution.

This is not the time to debate its details, save to say that it removes any pretence that our relationship with Brussels is a relationship between collaborating democracies. It gives the EU its new legal personality, superior to that of the nation states.

In this whole process we seem to have forgotten two fundamental pillars of our sovereignty, of our constitution, unwritten though it be, of our democracy or self-government, however you wish to put it. I shall remind your Lordships of those two fundamental pillars today. The first is the hard-won right of the British people to elect and dismiss those who make their laws. That process, that pillar, is abrogated by our relationship with Brussels. The second is that the British people have given Parliament the power to make all their laws for them, but they have not given Parliament permission to give that power away. I very much hope they will remember this when we come to debate the constitution and that they will throw it out whenever it is put to the vote.

Photo of Lord Maclennan of Rogart Lord Maclennan of Rogart Shadow Minister, Foreign & Commonwealth Affairs

My Lords, a speech without an intervention by the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, is rather like junket—the pudding which I so much disliked as a child—to which rennet has not been added. But I none the less welcome the initiative taken by the noble Lord, Lord Blackwell, in introducing this debate, which allows us to focus upon the issue of the timing of the referendum.

Before I turn to his arguments, I have the very pleasant opportunity of welcoming the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Laidlaw. His angle of vision is one drawn from many parts of the world. No doubt he will use future opportunities to draw our attention to matters he has learnt on his overseas sojourns, which will be greatly enlightening. I believe I heard him say that he has a residence in France. It will be interesting to hear his opinion of the French point of view about the developing European debate.

The maiden speech of my noble friend Lady Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury was a most distinguished introduction to the House. It was fortunate that we heard from her lips, as we might have expected, such a wide-ranging appreciation of the context of the debate on the future of Europe. As has been noted, she comes from a long and distinguished line of Liberals. Her presence here will greatly strengthen the ranks of my right honourable and honourable friends. We very much welcome what she has to say.

The timing of the referendum is clearly important, but I take issue with the suggestion that it is all over bar the shouting and that we ought to have a referendum— if not now, then as near to now as can be managed.

The noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson, deployed the democratic arguments based upon the appreciation of the historic difficulties of holding referenda and, indeed, elections in midwinter. On that I can only agree with everything that he said. It seems, however, that there are further reasons. They relate to the general lack of information about the content of the constitutional settlement which was agreed so recently. The White Paper, which has just come out, has not been read, I imagine, by very many people who have contributed to this debate, never mind its contents being spread around the country.

I do, as I have on previous occasions, congratulate the Government on the extent to which they have made Parliament the forum for an important part of this debate, both through the work of the Select Committees of this House and by frequent Statements and debates on the changing situation. It is no less important, now that the decision will lie with the public, to have a continuation of this parliamentary debate, as we must, if we are to seek to ratify the treaty in legislation. I hope that there will be further written material of the kind which has been suggested by more than one contributor; an annotated treaty pointing to the extent to which the treaty builds upon the existing principal constitutional treaties to which the Governments of successive Ministers and Prime Ministers have signed up. That will, if nothing else, put to rest the kind of canards which are in circulation about the new constitutional treaty, such as the idea that the supremacy of European law in our own courts is a novel departure.

The second difficulty on communication, which also underlines the need for a proper time for the debate, concerns the shortcomings of our own British press. It has not covered the development of the debate on the European constitution with anything like the detailed attention that was paid to it by newspapers in a number of other member countries of the Union, notably France. Le Monde, among other papers, frequently devoted two pages to detailed discussion of the particular issues that were being considered, how they were being decided and why they were being decided in that way. I do not think that we can overcome that historical gap in information overnight, but we must attempt to have a properly informed debate in the media to which people listen. That includes Parliament; it also includes the broadcasters and the written press.

The content of the debate to be decided will, of course, range more widely than on the actual nature and detail of the constitutional document itself. There is some risk that if there is a very short discussion, the public will be invited to accept characterisations of the constitutional treaty which bear very little resemblance to the actuality when it is looked at in close detail.

I listened with particular interest to the philosophical discourse from the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, this morning, in which he purported to suggest—indeed, he did suggest—that this document was running counter to the political philosophy, the spirit of our times, in rejecting what he sees as the neo-liberal consensus in this country and going for something that smacked more of what he described as the views of the well intentioned popes. With very great respect, I suggest that the well intentioned popes, who have informed the thinking of this constitutional treaty on the doctrine of subsidiarity, deserve a great deal of attention for what the treaty has done. As has been referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson, it underpinned the notion that power should be exercised as closely as possible to the people. The question is, what is possible? Those who suggest, as did the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, that the treaty was in some way defective in not seeking to transfer powers from the European Union to national or sub-national levels failed, as they always fail, to say which powers it is necessary so to transfer.

It has to be said that when that point was put firmly to the British Conservative representative on the Convention on the Future of Europe, he came back with a suggestion that education should be transferred wholly back to national level. That view was not accepted when it was understood that it would have ruled out the possibility of student exchanges being managed within the context of the European Union as a matter of European policy.

The fundamentalism of the approach that is embraced by those who think and speak like the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, smacks not of Lockean neo-liberalism but rather of anarchic Hobbeseanism, in which individualism is unbridled and there is no recognition that power has to be exercised and that effective power, in many matters European, in many matters which touch all member states of the European Union, can best be exercised by those countries acting in concert. That is what has been the actuality of the European Union's operations. That is why it seeks to embrace responsibilities for handling terrorism; why it seeks to concert its common foreign and security policy; and why it seeks to concert and bring together, in action, measures to deal with such sensitive issues as immigration. If we do not take cognisance of these developments since Bismarck—even since, if I may say it, Locke, who took refuge in the Netherlands from a British government who did not look with favour upon his writings—we are out of touch with our times and the demands of our times.

There is one risk in the way in which this argument is being presented. The Government, through misplaced machismo, might seek to persuade the British people that we can always get our way in Europe. There is just a slight flavour of that coming through the White Paper. The actuality is that what happened was done by consensus. Yes, the Government are right to claim that their principal negotiating objectives were achieved, but it is not a matter of them and us. The more that image is projected by Ministers—that we go there, we beat these so-and-sos round the head and we win—the more we sustain the impression that we are locked in a battle against our European partners.

Frankly, that would be counter-productive to the objectives of the Government themselves. Happily, it does not conform to the way in which negotiations tend to be conducted. It is essentially a matter of presentation, but presentation will become greatly important in the period during which we are seeking to persuade our fellow citizens—in Britain as in Europe—that what has been done is good for us and for them.

What will be the consequences of the outcome of this referendum? I cannot predict them, and at this stage it would be a foolish person who looked into a crystal ball and predicted the majority view of our country. However, I do not take the somewhat patronising view projected by those in favour of a speedy conclusion of the debate that this is all over bar the shouting and that the British public wish to live in a muddled post-Nice-Treaty sphere. Nor do I think that the British public will agree, when they see the consequences of our being excluded from so many debates. We should be in no doubt that whatever the outcome of the referendum in this country, the bulk of what is decided will be accepted throughout Europe. We shall be an offshore island not sure whether to tack ourselves to the White House and the Pentagon or whether to go as plaidoyer to Brussels asking for a special hearing. Neither is a posture or a role for a proud nation state.

The consequences of the referendum being won by those who favour the adoption of the constitution are highly positive not least because, to reflect what was said by my noble friend Lady Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury, it would help to put to rest, certainly for the long term, the issue of what our relationship should be with the European Union. That is the underlying core argument for having this debate. Too much uncertainty has now developed about this country's relationship due to too many people cavilling about too many aspects of the European Union's rule making. That these cavils may themselves be well founded sometimes blots out the wider recognition of the goals of the Union—the achievements such as peace and prosperity. Those were the powerful arguments that moved my noble friend Lady Bonham-Carter to speak as she did in her most distinguished speech.

Photo of Baroness Rawlings Baroness Rawlings Shadow Minister, International Affairs

My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan. I also congratulate my noble friend Lord Blackwell on introducing this timely Private Member's Bill, the main thrust of which concerns timing. Many of your Lordships will have noted that, yet again, it is not the Government but a Member of this House who has led the way on matters of significant national importance. That is particularly welcome as it has given us the opportunity to listen today to two outstanding maiden speeches. I hope that both the noble Lord, Lord Laidlaw, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury, will have the opportunity in the future to lead the way too in bringing important issues to your Lordships' attention. I am confident that, with their experience and expertise, that will certainly be the case.

I echo the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Radice, about the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury, whom I have known and respected for many years. We all recognise her qualities and look forward to the contribution she will make to the House, not least through her distinguished television career at the BBC and Channel 4 and her work for the rehabilitation of addicted prisoners. Her excellent maiden speech this morning underlines why she is held in such high regard.

I should like to reinforce totally what the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, so rightly said about the excellent speech of my noble friend Lord Laidlaw. We are all very much aware of his tremendous support for youth development, education and lifelong learning. He is a most distinguished new Member of your Lordships' House, with a remarkable career of accomplishments behind him. These achievements are all too evident from his outstanding maiden speech today and we all hope that he will play a prominent part in your Lordships' House and that we will hear a great deal more from him on this and many other subjects.

I turn now to the Bill, and I shall address only the Bill and not the constitutional treaty. It has been a fascinating debate. The contributions from all sides have reinforced that this is an issue of great significance. Strong opposing views have been expressed in equal measure from all Benches. These are genuinely held views and, as such, rightly deserve to be listened to and respected regardless of whether they might or might not accord with our own perspectives.

Clause 1 of the Bill calls for a referendum on the European constitutional treaty to be called within four months. Ten of our European neighbours are also set to hold one. Indeed, in July, when President Chirac called a referendum on the treaty, the Minister with responsibility for Europe, Denis MacShane, said that he was,

"delighted by the President's courage", and yet we are still awaiting the date to be set for our own referendum. The French vote will take place in the second part of next year, about a year before the British referendum is expected.

Noble Lords who have argued for that time scale suggest that it is the earliest practical opportunity. No doubt the Minister will argue that the treaty does not have to be ratified by all member states until the end of 2006, but that completely misses the point. As my right honourable friend the shadow Foreign Secretary said in another place:

"Now we know the nature of the full agreement, there is no reason to delay the referendum. The Prime Minister should stop avoiding the views of voters. There is no point in Parliament debating something it cannot change and which voters may well reject".

And as my noble friend Lord Kalms said in his eloquent speech, "It is not the moment to toss it into the long grass".

It is nonsense to suggest, as many noble Lords have said, that a referendum cannot be held until after the general election on the grounds that there is insufficient time to complete the formalities in Parliament. A general election can be called with only three weeks' notice. This Bill, with its four months' time scale, allows for five times that length of time—surely enough time, as the noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson, said, for a "full, wide and informed debate". Surely it is enough time, as the noble Lord, Lord Sewell, said, "For the role of Parliament in the whole mechanism". Many people believe that the only reason that the Prime Minister wants to delay this referendum is the hope that one of the nine other countries expected to hold referendums will vote the constitution down.

As with the Hunting Bill, which will possibly have a two-year delay between being passed and being enforced, the delay in calling the referendum on the constitutional treaty is a cynical attempt to avoid addressing a contentious issue this side of the general election. It is another example of the Government's shameful lack of courage and conviction to lead from the front. After seven years prevarication, we are now adding another two, and, as my noble friend Lord Patten says, it manifests the Government's frivolous attitude to constitutional change.

This Bill is brought to your Lordships' House with the best intentions of my noble friend Lord Blackwell. Many noble Lords on all sides of the debate clearly recognise the significance of the European constitutional treaty. The people of this country understand that they are being asked an essential question about their future and, above all, that of their children. That question should be put to the people at the earliest opportunity.

Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Minister of State (Middle East), Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Middle East), Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, I am very pleased to have the opportunity to set out the Government's position on this Bill. First, I thank all noble Lords here today for contributing to such an interesting and, I am bound to say at times, entertaining debate. Particularly I should like to thank those who actually dealt with the subject of the debate—that is to say, the Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Blackwell.

I thank the noble Lord for all his efforts to introduce his Bill. Of course, it has given us the opportunity to have two excellent maiden speeches. One was from the noble Lord, Lord Laidlaw, who with his wealth of knowledge gained in the private sector, both here and overseas, has demonstrated what an asset he will be on a wide spectrum of debates in your Lordships' House. I congratulate him and look forward very much to hearing from him again in future. The contribution of the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury, showed all the hallmarks of her impeccable parliamentary and party pedigree, one of which she is rightly proud. Today she demonstrated to us how rightly proud her illustrious predecessors would have been of her. I remind both maiden speakers, however, that not all our debates are quite as much fun as are these Friday debates.

The Government support the general principle behind the Bill but, unfortunately, we cannot support the way in which it is framed. Let me be clear that, as the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, said, we are here to debate this Bill and the provisions that it suggests for a referendum, not the treaty itself—nor, as the noble Lord, Lord Blackwell, argued, for an entirely different treaty. All those issues will be discussed on future occasions, very often and at considerable length.

We are looking forward on this side of the House to putting the EU constitution to the people. As the noble Lord, Lord Blackwell, said, I support the decision on a referendum and I do so wholeheartedly. That is not because the treaty would alter the fundamental nature of the relationship between member states and the European Union. It does not and it will not. Rather, the Government want to hold a referendum because it is time to face the EU debate head-on and to dispel the myths about the constitution. As the Prime Minister said in another place, the people should have the final say on whether Britain is,

"to be at the centre and heart of European decision making or not . . . whether our destiny lies as a leading partner and ally of Europe or on its margins".—[Hansard, Commons, 20/4/04; col. 157.]

A referendum will allow the people of this country to take that decision.

It is apparent that on the principle of holding a referendum on the EU constitution as set out in this Bill, the noble Lord, Lord Blackwell, and I can agree. I am glad about that, but, sadly, that is where our agreement ends. The noble Lord's Bill calls for the referendum to be held within four months of the publication of the final text of the treaty. Even those noble Lords who have done their best to support the Bill have done so by saying that a referendum is necessary within a reasonable time. The noble Lord, Lord Patten, made a valiant attempt to support the Bill on that basis.

We all want a referendum in a reasonable time-frame; the issue is, what is that reasonable time frame? As my noble friends Lord Sewel and Lord Lea of Crondall pointed out, it is not realistic to hold a referendum within such a short passage of time. Indeed, as my noble friend Lord Sewel said, this proposal is tantamount to calling for a pre-legislative referendum—a referendum held before Parliament, the cornerstone and very hallmark of our democracy, has had the chance to scrutinise the treaty, before there is a considered debate on the final text, and before both Houses have had the opportunity to offer their expertise and wisdom on the issues contained therein. That is the extraordinary proposition that the noble Lord's Bill puts forward.

As noble Lords are aware, the treaty must be ratified by the end of October 2006 if it is to come into force on 1 November, as the constitution envisages. As we have done throughout the convention and the IGC, we want to maximise the opportunities for parliamentary and public scrutiny of the final text. Why have a referendum without having that full and frank debate, and without being aware of all the facts or about the treaty's real implications for the United Kingdom?

The noble Lord, Lord Blackwell, was emphatic that he wanted a proper public debate, a point that was reiterated passionately by the noble Lord, Lord Kalms. But then the noble Lord, Lord Blackwell, went on to put forward proposals which in themselves would curtail the whole public debate. I put it to your Lordships that some on the Opposition Benches are very keen to hold a referendum quickly, within four months of the publication of the final text, because they fear the realities that time and proper debate will uncover. Holding an early referendum based on the myths and untruths currently peddled by some parts of the media would no doubt be a very attractive proposition to those who oppose the treaty. I do not know whether that is what the noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, described as "Conservative skulduggery" in his very entertaining contribution, but I thought that there might be just a hint of that.

The noble Lord, Lord Blackwell, asked for the Government's views on timings. He of course proceeded from the supposition that the Government might see any scintilla of merit in his four-month proposal. We do not, and I am afraid that his questions on timings start from a fundamentally mistaken premise. But even were this Parliament to lose its collective wisdom far enough to agree with the noble Lord's Bill on the four-month clause, it is a frankly extraordinary suggestion that we should hold a referendum in the winter months. As my noble friends Lord Tomlinson and Lord Sewel pointed out, a referendum in midwinter would do nothing to maximise the vote as the noble Lord, Lord Laidlaw, said was so important.

The noble Lord, Lord Kalms, and I have not had the pleasure of exchanging views on Europe before, but he will find that we go in for very detailed debate on these matters in this House. I look forward to what will no doubt be a very lengthy period of debate, if the period of incubation of the treaty is anything to go by. I hope that he has a great deal of stamina with which to face that.

The noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, was of course disarmingly frank—is he not always?—about his views. I was pleased to see, on this occasion, that he is now at liberty to be as critical of the Conservative Party as he is of the Government. I know that he will be as dogged and determined as he always is when telling us about his views on Europe.

When I am answering a debate, I always try to deal with the questions and points raised by all noble Lords, or at least to mention all noble Lords. But today I felt almost defeated by the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, in his very entertaining address—although it is true, of course, that he did not defeat the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan. The noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, having mentioned the Bill once in his opening remarks, spent the subsequent 10 minutes in what I can only describe as a "Blackwell Bill-free zone", although we did learn a great deal about today's Financial Times. I am bound to say that I am grateful to the noble Lord for keeping us so cheerful; at least I felt quite cheerful about what he said until I heard the apocalyptic views of the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, on those points.

It is, however, unfortunate for the poor noble Lord, Lord Blackwell, that his guns have already been so badly spiked by the leader of his own party who commented in another place, somewhat embarrassingly given the nature of this Bill, that pre-legislative referendums are,

"the hallmark of continental dictatorships between the wars".

He went on:

"European tyrants used the plebiscite to sideline their Parliaments; they used it to suppress the rights and liberties of their citizens".—[Hansard, Commons, 21/5/97; col. 736.]

To quote the Leader of the Opposition on the timing of referendums and when they should be held, he said that the electorate,

"should be asked for their opinion when all the questions have been answered, when all the details are known, when the legislation has been finally tempered and scrutinised in the House when Parliament has debated and decided".

Perhaps he needs to have a word not only with the noble Lord but possibly with Mr Ancram as well.

I heard what the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, said about the Government not having led the way on this debate. I hope that that reflects more of a parliamentary device than a real conviction because, as she knows, the Government have already allowed for unparalleled parliamentary scrutiny of the negotiations on this treaty even before it has been signed. Ministers and officials have attended a total of 15 sessions with committees in the Commons and the Lords on the Convention on the Future of Europe and the IGC, and responded to 17 Select Committee reports. We have discussed the IGC on more than 20 occasions in the past year on the Floors of both Houses and at three sittings of the Standing Committee on the IGC. Therefore, I am at a loss to know how the noble Lord, Lord Blackwell, can sensibly claim that the Government have what he called a "chequered record" on consultation.

The noble Lord, Lord Maclennan of Rogart, was kind enough to remind us that he said in this House on 20 November last year that it was hard to see what more the Government could have done to provide opportunities for scrutiny than the opportunities they provided during the IGC. He said that they were "unprecedented". He also asked:

"is it not almost unprecedented to have repeated sittings of joint committees of the two Houses during IGCs? The Government have introduced that novel procedure, which is welcome".—[Hansard, 20/11/03; col. 2049.]

We shall not reduce these essential levels of scrutiny in the light of the ill advised provisions of this Bill. I do not know whether the noble Lord, Lord Blackwell, availed himself of all those opportunities for consultation but I seem to recall that on his Benches it was only the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, who had an unchequered record in that respect.

We believe that people have a right to know Parliament's view on the EU constitutional treaty before they vote. After all, every Conservative government since 1972 in respect of every European treaty they signed up to have left Parliament to decide whether those treaties should be given effect in UK law. They were not put to the people. We believe in this parliamentary process; something which it appears this Bill is attempting to negate.

My noble friend Lord Radice emphasised the importance of clear information being available to people before a referendum and my noble friend Lord Tomlinson reminded us that the Government have made a number of commitments to set out the facts of this treaty to both Parliament and the people. These include a lay person's guide to the European Union and, as the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, requested, a comprehensive analysis of the existing treaties and of this treaty so that, as he said, the public can see for themselves where the treaty provisions come from. These will be published before the end of this year.

My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has also launched the Government's White Paper on the treaty. He launched it in another place yesterday, and copies are now available to your Lordships in the Printed Paper Office. I read my copy yesterday evening: it seemed to me that it was clear, concise, well set out and, like my noble friend Lord Lea, I commend it to your Lordships.

I need to comment on some other aspects of this Bill. As regards the question on which I hope the noble Lord has consulted the Electoral Commission—I do not know whether he has; perhaps he will enlighten us on that point—he has included a preface drafted in such a way as to persuade people to reject the treaty. Irrespective of your Lordships' varied opinions about the EU constitution, I am sure that you will agree that the question put to the people for a referendum should be a straight one; it should be a neutral one, and it should be agreed with the Electoral Commission. However, this Bill proposes a blatantly biased preamble to the question. It is a clear indication that the noble Lord believes that this is a tactic necessary to procure the No vote which he so passionately wants.

The Government's own Bill will do two things: provide for the treaty to have effect in UK law and include provision for a referendum. The referendum question will be drafted taking account of the independent Electoral Committee's guidelines designed to ensure that the question is intelligible. Ultimately, the question is a matter for the scrutiny and agreement of Parliament, again something which this Bill appears to be willing to bypass. The referendum question will be on a constitutional treaty but, of course, the implications go much wider than that. The fundamental issues were encapsulated by my noble friend Lord Radice. Are we to have a Britain at the heart of Europe able to play its full part in the European Union or do we take the Euro-sceptic line increasingly prevalent in the Conservative Party and fundamentally change the relationship between Britain and Europe?

The noble Lord, Lord Blackwell, concludes in a paper entitled, What if We Say No to the European Constitution?, written in his role as the chairman of the Centre for Policy Studies, that if the UK rejected this treaty, it could enter into what he described as a,

"range of co-operative programmes where Britain can argue for participation on an intergovernmental basis".

My noble friend Lord Lea of Crondall was quite right: this is like saying that the United Kingdom could choose on a scale of one to 10 how much involvement we really want with the EU. A country cannot be half a member of NATO or part of a member of the United Nations. Therefore, I am at a loss to know how the noble Lord conceives that some sort of associate membership of the EU would be in the interests of the people of the United Kingdom.

Our membership of the EU is not a vague notion or a set of laws. Europe matters. I do not want this country to end up on its margins, and the referendum and the debate that will lead up to it will give the people of this country the opportunity to form their own position on the EU constitution based on reality not myth.

I look forward to our debates here in this Parliament and to the referendum that will follow, as it should, after proper parliamentary debate and scrutiny.

Photo of Lord Blackwell Lord Blackwell Conservative

My Lords, I shall not detain your Lordships long but I would like to thank all those who have spoken in the Second Reading debate this morning and in particular, as others have done, congratulate the excellent maiden speakers, the noble Lord, Lord Laidlaw, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter.

I would also like to thank the Minister for her response and for being here on a Friday morning. I have to say, though, that I was slightly disappointed that her response was not slightly more informative of the Government's intentions on these matters, or, indeed, slightly more constructive given the spirit in which I introduced this Bill. The Minister's speech seemed to be based on the premise that I was arguing for a pre-legislative referendum. I think the Minister will find when she refers back that I went out of my way to ask the Government to confirm that their intention was that Parliament should address the Bill first and that a referendum should follow. I invited her to tell noble Lords whether, given the timing of the introduction of the Bill to Parliament and the expectation they had of how long it would take to go through Parliament, she considered four months adequate to allow two months after the expected time of the passage through Parliament. I have never argued for a pre-legislative referendum and I am afraid that the premise of her response based on that missed the point of my proposal.

The noble Baroness asked whether I had checked the wording of the referendum question with the Electoral Commission. I ask the noble Baroness to check Section 104 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. My reading of that at least is that it is the responsibility of the Electoral Commission, once a Bill has been introduced into Parliament with a suggested wording, for it to consider the Bill and come back. I would welcome the noble Baroness writing to me on whether they are now considering that issue.

Three issues have been raised to which I would like to respond very quickly. The first was the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson, about why the issue was so important. As the Minister said, I did not feel it right to spend time on that this morning, but those who listened to the speeches of some noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lord Laidlaw, Lord Rees-Mogg and Lord Kalms, will have no doubt on why it is important. We can come back to that another time.

A second point was raised around the practical issues. The purpose of the debate was really to talk about the practical issues around the timing that I propose. As I said, I was keen to hear views on it from around the House. Some, including my noble friend Lord Patten, argued that we should have a shorter time. Others argued for longer, for which there were a number of reasons. Some said that a pamphlet should be distributed to all houses. I certainly agree; that would be very helpful. I assume that the Foreign Office, apart from producing a White Paper, has not sat on its hands for the past few months, and that it would be possible to have some kind of pamphlet agreed relatively quickly; perhaps not.

Some noble Lords rightly raised questions about the Christmas period. Whether we need to raise four months to five or six months to allow the vote into the sunny months is an interesting consideration. That is exactly the kind of debate that we need to have in Committee. Other noble Lords asked how long the matter would take in Parliament, which goes back to the point that I raised in the Minister's reply. Again, perhaps we should allow for a longer debate in Parliament. If the Government committed to the time that the Bill was introduced in Parliament, we might be able to have a referendum conditional on when the Bill went through Parliament—that is, so many months after the conclusion of the Bill. All those are valid questions. They were exactly the type of issues it was helpful that our discussion covered.

I cannot help noticing that most of the voices arguing for a much longer time-scale were the voices of those who sought approval for the treaty. All those of us who were happy with a shorter period who were quite happy going to the country on the basis that the country knows what it wants. As others have observed, the fact that other countries are managing to have a referendum early next year in some cases, and in other cases have set dates, should encourage us to think that we ought to be able to set a date on a similar time-scale.

That is more than enough on the topic for today. There were some questions on whether the Bill should be a Private Member's Bill. I pointed out why I thought that there might be advantages for the Government in having it as one, but if the Government wish to take it over as a government Bill, I shall happily step aside. This very useful discussion has illustrated the importance of discussing the issues.

Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Minister of State (Middle East), Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Middle East), Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, I am sorry; I did not quite catch the noble Lord's point about the Electoral Commission. Can he clarify whether he consulted it on his Bill?

Photo of Lord Blackwell Lord Blackwell Conservative

My Lords, I did not consult the Electoral Commission. I may be wrong—I ask the noble Baroness for guidance on the matter—but my understanding of the relevant Act is that Section 104 states that when,

"a Bill is introduced into Parliament which . . . provides for the holding of a poll that would be a referendum . . . and . . . specifies the wording of the referendum question . . . The Commission shall consider the wording of the referendum question, and shall publish a statement of any views of the Commission".

That sounded as though it followed the introduction of a Bill into Parliament. I am happy to be corrected.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.