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 Lord Triesman Lord Triesman Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 5:45 pm, 8th June 2011

It has been a long debate and I suspect that there has been a very full review of most of the issues. I am very pleased to be associated with the noble Lords, Lord Williamson and Lord Dykes, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe, in this amendment. I also find myself in very strong agreement with the noble Lords, Lord Deben and Lord Forsyth. I too have been thinking about Burke. It may completely destroy any prospect of my ever sitting successfully on these Benches again, but the reality is that those are the key arguments.

There was such strong support for my noble friend Lord Rooker's original concept of thresholds and the feed-through to the parliamentary system-there are some differences here that I shall explore in a moment-because it was felt strongly that when there were to be significant changes to our constitution or the arrangements under which we are governed, there ought to be a demonstrable degree of legitimacy. Goodness knows, 40 per cent is a pretty modest figure when looking at a level of legitimacy for changes that profound. None the less, it was an attempt to say that there should be some authority for the decision, and that the figure gave at least that degree of authority. One of the arguments adduced at the time was that in the commentary on the turnout in local elections, in particular, dipping below 40 per cent, as it often did, people made very severe criticisms of the quality of our democratic life. When it was higher than that, people tended to think it was healthy. I do not want to say that that seems to be the key reason. I just make the point that on turnouts of less than 40 per cent, results were routinely disparaged. Anybody looking back over the press and other commentary at the time would come to same conclusion.

The constitutional debates in this House were interesting. Many of your Lordships said that once the decision is taken in a referendum we should not try to second-guess the electorate. They will have spoken, however small the turnout and however profound the issue. None the less, they will have spoken. That was never a convincing reason not to look at the prospect of some threshold. That is why I agree so strongly with the noble Lord, Lord Deben. Unfortunately, we look at it from where we are now, with this legislation in front of us.

The reason why I assert that we may be in a slightly different position now is that most of the arguments that my noble friend Lord Rooker produced are still very good. However, the argument today has a slightly different salience. It has been argued that, in relation to Europe, the people of this country have felt disenfranchised. That may well be true; I do not particularly choose to argue that it is not the case. They may well resent having had less say than they believed they should. What is needed in these circumstances may be the indelible mark of people's approval for changes that might have a significant effect on their lives. I can see that. If it is true that we need that new kind of indelible mark, let us make sure that it is a credible mark, which has some authority and dignity and has not gone through on very small figures.

The reason why I believe that this is significantly different from the arguments about, for example, local elections, and different-with the greatest respect to former Members of the European Parliament-from European parliamentary elections, is this.