Committee (2nd Day)

Part of European Union Bill – in the House of Lords at 6:00 pm on 26th April 2011.

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Photo of Lord Liddle Lord Liddle Opposition Whip (Lords) 6:00 pm, 26th April 2011

We can all trade our Winston Churchill quotes, but certainly the thrust of his intervention was greatly to promote the cause of European union. Was it a betrayal when Lord Cockfield pursued the White Paper on the single market? Was it a betrayal when the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe, fought for the Single European Act in order to bring that White Paper into legislative effect? Was it a betrayal when the noble Lord, Lord Brittan, as a Commissioner, fought tooth and nail to extend the single market? And was it a betrayal when John Major and the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, agreed to the Maastricht treaty, which has led to a more effective Europe on issues such as cross-border crime, freedom of movement, an effective presence in the world and progress towards co-operation in defence? The trouble for the noble Lord, Lord Howell, is that although he is right to say that the leaders of Europe can take Europe forward largely by using the existing powers granted to the European Union, most of those sitting behind him seem to think that those existing powers are a great betrayal. I do not understand the logic of their position.

The noble Lord, Lord Risby, argued that referenda are now part of our political culture. Let us be clear: Members on this side of the Committee believe in referenda on big issues. Were we to join the euro, there should be a referendum. Were there to be some equivalent of the European constitutional treaty, there should be a referendum. But the point of this Bill is not major referenda of that kind, but proposals for, I think, 56 different issues on which referenda could be held. Next week, we will have the first national referendum in Britain for 36 years. This is not a coherent policy. The fact is, as my noble friend Lord Richard brilliantly outlined, that many of the topics which are to be subject to a referendum would just be the subjects of ridicule if we ever got to the point of having such a contest. Indeed, as the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, pointed out, there are grave dangers to our democracy in multiple referenda, which give power to big money because it is big money that wins. That, of course, may be the position in the referendum next week.

I would say that, yes, Europe should largely work within its existing powers and we should not be arguing for big transfers of powers. That is not the purpose of these amendments. Their purpose is to give Ministers pragmatic flexibility to deal with situations in the real world as they arise. I was not at all satisfied by what the Minister had to say about crises. What would Britain do if there was a major banking crisis which affected cross-border banks and something needed to be done at the European level in order to rescue the banking system? This is a hypothetical case, but what would Britain do? How can a Government credibly sign up to measures to tackle the problem if they know that they have to go to the country in a referendum? That is the basic argument for the amendment, which would allow Ministers to sign up to things in cases of urgency.

Listening to the Minister, one might think that there is a lot of pragmatic flexibility in the Bill to decide whether matters are significant. But that is not what the Bill says. The significance test is presently limited to Clause 4(1)(i) and (j). Its application is therefore very limited.

We are not arguing for massive transfers of powers; we are arguing for pragmatic flexibility within the structure of the Bill, and that is why we have put forward these amendments. Doubtless we will come back to these issues on Report. In the mean time, I am happy not to press Amendments 16A and 16B.

Amendment 16A withdrawn.

Amendment 16B not moved.

House resumed.