Report (1st Day)

Part of European Union Bill – in the House of Lords at 5:45 pm on 8th June 2011.

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Photo of Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne Liberal Democrat 5:45 pm, 8th June 2011

This amendment is not in fact about the absolute underpinnings of this Bill, although it is a very tempting set of red herrings that have been laid in front of your Lordships' House. This set of amendments is about whether or not there should be a 40 per cent threshold and, with your Lordships' permission, I would like to comment purely on that point.

The 40 per cent threshold seems to me, as a former Member of Parliament and of the European Parliament, to be a rather odd thing for noble Lords to be considering today. We do not have a 40 per cent threshold in the general election or in the European election, for example. We are perfectly comfortable with assuming that 50 per cent of those who come out to vote is the threshold on which the electorate are exercising their wisdom. I find it extremely difficult to see why, just for this Bill, some noble Lords are so adamantine in their perception that a 40 per cent threshold-and no less-is the absolute minimum they will accept if a referendum is to give a valid answer from the British people.

All noble Lords who have commented on the imperative of parliamentary democracy and Parliament's primacy are, of course, absolutely right. I think that it is Clause 18 of the Bill that, for the first time ever in many generations in Parliament, absolutely clearly defines that it is only through the primacy of Parliament that EU legislation can be accepted at all. It is our responsibility. The noble Lord, Lord Waddington, made the point in his very thoughtful intervention-and I fully support this-that we have been far too fast in ceding power from this Parliament to the European Union. However, I would perhaps remind him that that is our responsibility, certainly in the House of Commons and Government but also, to a much lesser extent, here. The noble Lord, Lord Roper, is in his place, representing the several generations of outstanding work by EU sub-committees in your Lordships' House. That has not been the case in the House of Commons, which has let slip piece after piece of legislation pouring in from Brussels. Indeed, it is the Ministers of the day, from every single Government-from the previous Government and the ones before that-that have fed the House of Commons so little material that somehow it has unwittingly, or in some other mode, let through all of this legislation and the growing burden of all these regulations which are, I believe, oppressing the peoples of the European Union and particularly the peoples of the United Kingdom.

This modest Bill, although it is relatively lightweight, does contain two or three very important points, the first of which I believe is the primacy of Parliament over EU legislation and therefore surely over the outcome of any referendum. It also gives the wonderful possibility of a downhill-driven knowledge base to the British people and some small modicum of authority over what will happen. I very much support the Bill because of those two points.

Coming back to Burke, to the point that was raised in the context of representative parliament, I cannot help but comment, because the flavour comes through so strongly, that some of the arguments that noble Lords are putting forward tend to resonate with those of us whose female forebears fought for the vote for women. In other words, somehow some elements of the population are not fit to bring their judgment to bear on important matters affecting the United Kingdom. It is difficult. Burke, of course, was wonderful, but before him and at his day women did not have the vote. Academics had more than their current bundle of votes per person, so did the landed gentry, so did the aristocracy; well, wonderful, but today is different.

One of the key differences is that today we have modern technology. Only the day before yesterday I had five e-mails, no less, from the great Steve Jobs himself urging me to discard my newly purchased iPhone and my iPad of the week before last in favour of iCloud, where all my data are going to be parked for ever and a day. Modern people, men, women and children of all backgrounds, all income brackets, all of us-I leave aside prisoners because I do not want to interfere with the debate between two prominent powerful members of the Conservative Party on that one-all those people have knowledge now, absolute knowledge, just as much as we do, and they have time, they have energy, they get involved.

My noble friend Lord Dykes commented that-despite the absence of cricket in his tremendous tour de force of commenting on what the British public are interested in-the British people trust their political representatives to make political judgments on their behalf. Noble Lords know full well that the British public have no trust in any politician at all at the moment, although I believe that they have greater trust in your Lordships' House than in the other place. What they do have confidence in is the knowledge that they take, albeit false knowledge, from Wikipedia, from iCloud and from other data that are now so readily available 24 hours a day and which people take, commandeer and use. Therefore, they want to be involved; they are able to be involved; they are knowledgeable about being involved and that is why the heart of the Bill is a good idea.

The 40 per cent threshold is a very odd idea, unless we are going to carry it right forward into the European Parliament, into the general election, into local elections, presumably-we can have a dismal turnout, yet we respect the council that is elected none the less and the mayors that are elected, if they are. I expect that there will be a pretty low turnout if we have elected police, for example. So we do accept that low turnout and we take just over a 50 per cent threshold as a majority. That is the way in which our parliamentary system works, that is the way in which our electoral system works. I can see no rationale, no reasonable argument that has been laid in front of your Lordships' House so far this afternoon, which tells me that I should support this set of amendments. These referenda will be few and far between-probably once every 10 years if the European Union actually proposes a further transfer of sovereign power, which at the moment is highly unlikely. It is busy with the euro, it is busy with the superabundance of enlargement; it is not going to propose anything very important for the moment on these grounds. Maybe once every 10 or 15 years there will be a referendum. Is this of such profound significance that it outweighs the normal way in which we vote in general elections? I think not. The logic is against it because the Bill says that the primacy of the British Parliament overrides everything coming from Brussels in any case. I oppose the amendments.