European Union (Amendment) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:45 pm on 19th May 2008.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Owen Lord Owen Crossbench 8:45 pm, 19th May 2008

My Lords, this is an extremely important amendment. I refer particularly to Amendment No. 136A, which I imagine is the amendment on which we may or may not vote. I cannot imagine a more important amendment among those on which we will vote. This will last for at least a decade. It is unlikely that we will get such major European Union legislation short of that.

It seems that there is a real problem for Members of this House and, particularly, for Members of the House of Commons. We consistently move forward with greater European integration against the will of the British people. We can argue about particular opinion polls at particular times, but there is a steady opposition to what we are doing in Parliament, which has been going on, I would say, since the early 1980s, which is a long time for Parliament to be in opposition to sustained public opinion. Probably, there is no other issue on which Parliament has chosen to be against public opinion apart from the death penalty.

As this legislation goes through, we need to be very careful. I note that the leader of the Opposition said in a speech the other day that these European questions were sixth or seventh in lists of priorities. That may be true in a straight question to people, but opinion polls often do not gauge the deeper issues. In my view, many people in this country judged that the present Prime Minister had a good instinct on the European question—he demonstrated that over the euro, when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer—but he is in grave danger of losing that. I believe that is an important, deep issue on which people assess both individuals and political parties.

We are discussing something here that the noble Lord who just spoke may not fully appreciate, although he was a distinguished civil servant. Yet if I took him back to his early days of membership of the Civil Service, I suspect that he, at least in another place, spent some time in the Box late at night while listening to debates. It is a fact of parliamentary experience that the power of delay—the powers to keep Ministers up into the small hours of the morning, and to use every legitimate purpose to delay legislation—has been, over the centuries, a crucial power of the House of Commons. It also does not require a great constitutional expert to look at the present House of Commons and watch what has happened when its so-called reforms have taken place. Night after night, I pass by and look up instinctively to Big Ben to see whether the light is there and the House is still sitting. Night after night, I notice that it is no longer sitting. I listen to all of those speeches about parliamentary reform and the value of Select Committees, and I ask myself: what is happening in Parliament? I look at the legislation: a factory of it goes through, day after day. Nobody has seen more legislation than the Home Office, it appears, and what is the end result of that process?

I sat in Parliament within a large majority. In 1966 to 1970 we had a majority of over 90, and we could get most of the legislation that we wanted through. Even then, however, there were great debates about using the guillotine. When that was introduced, it was considered something that one used rarely—knowing full well that there would be a sustained public row and that the newspapers would almost always be against it. You would hesitate before you did it. Now, we see Bills timetabled from the start, with no need for rows about the guillotine. That factory down the Corridor continues to spout out legislation after legislation, which also contributes to the public mood of disillusion with politics. There are many factors behind that; I do not claim that Europe is No. 1, or even that the legislative factory down the Corridor is No. 2. There are other reasons, with which we are clearly familiar, including those connected with corruption.

What that all means is that this Committee has an opportunity tonight to try and restore the normal way of holding a Government to account, which is through primary legislation. It is not as if that is without precedent. I have mentioned this before: I do so again. On the statute book, in the European Assembly Elections Act 1978, which has since been absorbed into other legislation, there is a provision that no increase in the powers of the European Parliament can be made or agreed to in Europe by any Minister at any time without their coming back and having primary legislation in this House. With respect to the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, many Foreign Office officials argued that it was impossible to put that parliamentary brake in process; it was considered impossible to do.

The noble Lord may well remember the arguments that took place about that legislation. It was largely due to the spirit of a female lawyer in the Foreign Office, who insisted that we did have the right to do this, that we proposed to do it. It was a crucial element in the letter of the then Prime Minister to the Labour Party aimed at getting people behind the decision of the referendum and to carry through a more positive attitude. I refer to the 1977 Labour Party annual meeting and the letter of Jim Callaghan to the chairman of the party on the eve of the conference. It was an indication that, despite the commitment in the 1972 legislation, we could use parliamentary procedure as a brake if both Houses of Parliament decided to do so.

It is a welcome change that the Prime Minister has suggested that the passerelle clauses should have to go before both Houses of Parliament. I accept the valuable interjection of the noble Lord who explained that initially it was not the intention for them to go through this House. It is certainly right that they should go through both Houses of Parliament but this is not enough. I know the noble Lord very well—he was Chief Whip under my leadership for a while—and he knows the procedures of the other place better than anyone. He knows that one vote held on one occasion in the House of Commons is as nothing compared with a series of votes held on primary legislation.