Referendums

– in the House of Lords on 17th October 2007.

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Photo of Lord Naseby Lord Naseby Conservative

asked Her Majesty's Government:

How many government referendums have been held in the United Kingdom since May 1997 and on what subjects.

Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, three national referendums have been held since May 1997. These were: on 22 May 1998 in Northern Ireland on ratifying the Good Friday agreement; on 18 September 1997 in Wales on the establishment of a Welsh Assembly; and on 11 September 1997 in Scotland on whether to establish a Scottish Parliament and whether it should have tax-varying powers.

Photo of Lord Naseby Lord Naseby Conservative

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for that Answer. Clearly, it demonstrates that this Government believe in referendums on constitutional matters, and that is further underlined by the fact that the Labour manifesto stated that there was to be a referendum on the new European reform treaty. So one must ask why the Prime Minister refuses to hold a referendum. Initially, we were told that it was unnecessary because it was no different from the Maastricht treaty. I chaired the committee on the Bill relating to that in another place and it is totally different. Then we were told that the difference—

Noble Lords:

Question!

Photo of Lord Naseby Lord Naseby Conservative

My Lords, I have asked a question already. Then we were told that it was very different from the previous treaty, but Germany, France, Italy, Spain and the others say that it is almost identical. Now, we are told that it is unnecessary because of the red line opt-outs. So what is the exact reason for not having a referendum, not least when the Prime Minister said in May 2004 that we were to have one?

Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, I shall be brief. The reform treaty now being discussed is not the same as the defunct constitutional treaty. The reform treaty guarantees the red lines that the Government have set out. It is now an amending treaty, rather than a whole new treaty and, on that basis, the Government consider that Parliament is the best place to make a decision.

Photo of Lord Tomlinson Lord Tomlinson Labour

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that people who say that there is no difference between the two treaties prove that they have not read either? Does he also agree that, in relation to those who quote overseas leaders, there is no major difference for countries that accept the whole of the new treaty but that for those such as the United Kingdom which have fundamental opt-outs and opt-ins, it is an extremely different treaty, and that there is no incompatibility in our saying that it is different and in other national leaders saying that it is the same?

Photo of Lord Waddington Lord Waddington Conservative

My Lords, are not Members of Parliament elected for four or five years to take part in running the country? They are not elected for four or five years to hand over the running of the country to others. Is that not in itself a very good argument for having a referendum? We often hear about Maastricht. Is not the difference between Maastricht and the present situation that Sir John Major never promised a referendum? However, he might have done himself a good turn if he had had one, as it would have saved a load of trouble if he had had a referendum and lost it.

Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, the issue of holding a referendum related to the original constitutional treaty. That treaty is defunct and we are now talking about a wholly different reform treaty. It is very different because it ensures that the red lines set by the Government will be preserved.

Photo of Lord Kilclooney Lord Kilclooney Crossbench

My Lords, which of the three devolved institutions in the United Kingdom have so far debated the desirability of a referendum and what was the decision in each case?

Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, I do not have that information—I assume that the noble Lord is referring to the devolved Administrations. I am not aware of the debates that those assemblies have had on the reform treaty. If they have such debates, appropriate consideration will no doubt be given to it.

Photo of Lord Campbell of Alloway Lord Campbell of Alloway Conservative

My Lords, does the Minister agree that apart from a referendum, a question arises as to whether we shall ratify either treaty in this House, having regard to the powers extended to the European Court of Justice which have a supranational effect on this country?

Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, I do not accept the noble Lord's second point in the light of what is being discussed in relation to the reform treaty. On his substantive question, Parliament will of course have the final say on the treaty that is brought forward.

Photo of Lord Richard Lord Richard Labour

My Lords, I wonder whether my noble friend can confirm something for me. When the last treaty was about, various countries had a referendum, including France and including Holland. Am I right in thinking that on this occasion the only country proposing to have a referendum on this reform treaty is Ireland, because it is enshrined in its constitution that it has to have one, and that otherwise none of the countries of the EU proposes having one?

Photo of Lord Dykes Lord Dykes Spokesperson in the Lords (Europe), Foreign & Commonwealth Affairs, Spokesperson in the Lords (Cap Reform), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

My Lords, that is most gracious—characteristically, too. Does the Minister agree that 19 sacred, sovereign countries have already ratified the original text let alone those that are now enthusiastically ratifying this one? Do the anti-Europeans in this country not have any regard for sovereignty? It is an important matter for all these countries, including ours, and their parliaments.

Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, I am sure that all sides on this ongoing and exciting debate will have regard to the decisions made in all the countries of the European Union. I can assure the House that, at the end of the process, Parliament will have an opportunity to make the final decision.

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Shadow Minister, Foreign Affairs, Deputy Shadow Leader, Parliament, Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, we are obviously not going to agree on these opt-outs to which the Government are clinging as their reason for the treaty being different. However, the European Scrutiny Committee in another place has said that the two treaties are "substantially equivalent"—those are its precise words, which I have with me—and it further pointed out that the opt-outs "leak like a sieve". Is that not at least a reason for careful consideration before stating unequivocally that this is a different treaty? It turns out that everyone else thinks that it is very much the same.

Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, the Select Committee report requires careful attention, and we do not agree with the interpretation that the noble Lord has placed on it. The Select Committee actually said that the new treaty produces an effect that is "substantially equivalent" to the constitutional treaty for the countries that have not requested derogations or opt-outs. We have requested them, and we have secured our red lines.