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

My Lords, the argument for 50 per cent plus has been widely canvassed recently among the people of the United Kingdom, who formed a very clear view of it, which I agree with. I make this point because it goes to the heart of the difference that we are discussing. The difference seems to be that Parliament will have taken a decision to put the matter to the electorate. The question is: what size or degree of opposition should there be before Parliament is overridden and its decision-the decision that has been advocated by the Government of the day-set aside? The decision that forms the fundamental proposition being put to the people will have been argued for from government Benches, and may well have been argued for from opposition Benches as well, before it ever gets to the point where it is put to the people. The constitutional innovation is that people are being asked to set aside whatever Parliament, and indeed whatever the Government that they have elected, have said. This is a very profound difference from any arrangement that we have seen at any time in the United Kingdom.

On major issues there can be little question but that there should be a proper referendum. The euro has been mentioned. The view of the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, commands great respect from me. I agree with him that borders, taxation, law and order and the examples that he gave are significant issues. This is why, in Committee, a number of noble Lords-myself included-have said that, were they in Government, they would have the confidence to just say no and spare everybody the problem of going through any kind of referendum. Why would we change our law and order? Why would we relax what we regarded as a proper defence of our borders? What Government who took genuine responsibility would do that? Just say no. The respect of the people of the United Kingdom, seeing a Government who said no in these areas, would be profoundly greater than any other kind of mechanism designed to achieve the same result.

Parliament is the proper representative place. Should there be an unconvincingly small turnout, which does not have what I have described as authority, Parliament should, and people will expect Parliament to, fulfil its proper role. If the result of the election were below 40 per cent, Parliament might very well conclude that the decision was still in the best interests of the people of the United Kingdom and use the authority it was elected to use. It might on the other hand conclude that it should not do so. This is the nature of a parliamentary debate and a decision taken on the balance of all the issues concerned.

The noble Lord, Lord Kerr, also described this as a constitutional innovation. I have tried to describe why I believe that is the right description. It is a constitutional innovation of a very profound and difficult kind, and one born of the fear of taking responsibility for taking difficult decisions ourselves as parliamentarians. Of course there are the issues that should be put before the people of the Untied Kingdom; I hope that I have illustrated what those might be. Alongside this are those instances where it is quite right that Parliament and the Government of the day should say no. In light of this Bill, this amendment stands as the optimum extent to which it is possible to defend the historic role of Parliament and to ensure that the responsibility of Parliament is not given away in needless circumstances.