Report (1st Day)

Part of European Union Bill – in the House of Lords at 4:30 pm on 8th June 2011.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Williamson of Horton Lord Williamson of Horton Crossbench 4:30 pm, 8th June 2011

My Lords, Amendment 5, and the similar Amendment 8 that is grouped with it, are both in my name. Although these amendments are relevant to the European Union Bill, they are not about European Union policy. They are about the way in which we deal with referendums in this country and the role of Parliament, if any, in relation to referendums. Perhaps this might have the unique result that, when we continue the discussion on this amendment, we might find that Europhiles, Europhobes and Eurosceptics are all on the same side, which would be rather unusual. The amendments have a good-indeed, a noble-parentage, since they are in substance the same as the much discussed amendment by the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, to the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill.

The effect of Amendment 5 is quite simple. The Government have proposed that, if, as a consequence of the referendum lock set up in the Bill, a national referendum were to be held on any of the about 50 cases covered by the Bill, that referendum result would be mandatory and Parliament would have no role. This amendment would not change that situation if at least 40 per cent of the persons entitled to vote had voted in the referendum. However, if there were a poor turnout and a smaller percentage of the electorate voted, the result would remain valid but would have to be confirmed by a Motion in each House of Parliament. This will give Parliament its proper representative role if there were, for example, a derisory turnout.

This amendment is particularly relevant to the Bill because all the potential decisions or transfers of power or competence to the European Union covered by the Bill are already subject to our veto and the Government have stated that they do not intend to make any of these decisions or transfers in the current Parliament. Unless, therefore, a sunset clause is inserted-the subject of later amendments-or, if it becomes an Act, a future Parliament repeals the Bill, the legislation has the potential to require national referendums for many years ahead.

What would be the circumstances of these potential referendums? First, they would be about issues where the UK Government had concluded that it would be in the national interest to act. If not, the Government would simply veto the proposal under existing powers. Secondly, a referendum might be about a change to qualified majority voting. There are 40 different cases listed in Schedule 1 on subjects which voters might find of little interest or importance. An example might be a change in the method of voting for the appointment of advocates-general of the European Court of Justice. Such a bizarre national referendum would probably attract a miserable turnout. This amendment would give Parliament an opportunity to take stock. Alternatively, a future referendum might be about a serious treaty change or a group of changes. In Committee, the Minister speculated that in the future this might be the case, although I personally consider it improbable, but in any event there would clearly be a significant turnout in such circumstances. This amendment does not affect the mandatory nature of such a referendum decision.

To conclude, this amendment would bring back a role for Parliament in those cases, and only in those cases, where the British public had demonstrated their lack of interest by a very low turnout in a referendum. I beg to move Amendment 5.