Report (1st Day)

Part of European Union Bill – in the House of Lords at 6:37 pm on 8th June 2011.

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Photo of Lord Liddle Lord Liddle Opposition Whip (Lords) 6:37 pm, 8th June 2011

My Lords, after that great victory for Parliament-let us thank the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, for moving the amendment and being the moving spirit behind it, with other Cross-Benchers-I now speak to the amendments in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Triesman, which are also about the role of Parliament, about strengthening Parliament and substituting the discretion of Parliament for the automaticity of the referendum locks that the Bill contains.

The amendments do not drive a coach and horses through the basic principle of the Bill, which is a requirement for referendums on the big issues affecting Europe's future, but they set up a special Joint Committee of Parliament: the European Referendum Scrutiny Committee. In cases where Parliament had passed an Act under this legislation, that committee would be there to consider whether it was necessary to have a referendum on that Act. In making those judgments it would take account of the criteria in subsection (4) of Amendment 5B. Those criteria include whether the matter was significant, whether it was urgent and where the national interest would lie. It would come to a judgment on whether it felt that a referendum was justified. If a referendum was justified, it would be up to each House, in a Motion, to approve that recommendation. It is important to emphasise-because this is a change in the amendment that we moved in Committee, perhaps to make it more acceptable to sceptics in the House-that if there was not to be a referendum, it would require both Houses to say no to the recommendation of the Joint Committee that there should not be a referendum. In other words, it would meet the point that the noble Lord, Lord Howell, makes that with executive control over the Commons, it would be possible for a whipped vote to defeat the idea of a referendum, because they would have to go against the recommendation of the committee and win that position in our Chamber as well.

What is the point of putting in place this proposal? It is to inject proportionality into the Bill. The Bill contains no proportionality whatever. It is a "thus far and no further" Bill as far as the European Union is concerned. It assumes-and it is an extraordinary assumption-that a Government can today foresee all the circumstances in which change in the European Union might be necessary over the coming years. The noble Lord, Lord Howell, keeps telling us that he sees very little prospect of a referendum occurring in the near future. However, within two years of the approval of the Lisbon treaty we have already had a proposal for a revision of that treaty, under the simplified revision procedure, to create a European stability mechanism, which is necessary to deal with the crisis in the euro area. That is not the result of an attempt to deceive people after it was thought that there would be no treaty changes immediately after Lisbon. That is not the reason. The reason is that, due to the crisis in the euro, circumstances have occurred which no one foresaw and it is necessary to make this minor amendment to the treaty.

As it happens, that does not affect us. However, if there was a change which in a similar set of circumstances did affect us, it would require a referendum. Yet it is hardly the kind of major issue about the nation's destiny that would justify having a referendum. It would therefore be up to the Joint Committee that we would establish to decide on the proportionality of these questions as to whether a referendum was necessary. It is a strengthening-an affirmation-of the rights of Parliament, just as we have voted for a few moments ago, and an important one to make.

I make three main broad political arguments for this. First, if you are seriously committed to Britain's participation in the European Union, you want a British Government to be able to respond flexibly to events and to be a good partner to our partners in the Union. We cannot completely tie our hands in advance when we do not know the future-as the example of the European stability mechanism shows.

The second political argument is that there is no reason why the Liberal Democrats could not support this amendment. As I pointed out before, the coalition agreement in its text drew a very clear distinction between major treaties where referenda would be necessary and minor changes which would require primary legislation in Parliament. This Bill does not represent what the Liberal Democrats signed up for in the coalition agreement. I do not see why they have to besmirch their pro-European reputation by signing up to something that is simply there in order to appeal to the Eurosceptics on the Conservative Benches in the House of Commons. It is very clear-I could read it out but I will not delay the House by so doing-that under the coalition agreement, they could quite happily support this kind of proposal. Within the coalition agreement there is precisely the judgment about proportionality that this Bill does not contain.

The third point is defending the great cause of democracy. The Government argue that there is a great crisis of legitimacy in the European Union. Indeed, there is. But when you look at British politics, there is also a great crisis of legitimacy. When you look at opinion polls and who people trust, you will see that the European Parliament probably has a higher level of trust than many British institutions. In fact, trust in our political parties is, if anything, rather lower than trust in European institutions. I am not saying that because I like that situation. What I am saying is: be very careful if, in the Europe case, you think that the remedy for this lack of trust is to move to a referendum-type democracy-to move to the people being able to vote on anything and everything, which is what this Bill proposes on Europe. There would be absolutely no reason why people should not make the same argument about Westminster and move to referenda on anything and everything. What we would end up with is a situation like California, where propositions are voted through which make the task of running an efficient government wholly impossible. It ends up with contradictory propositions being carried in popular referenda and you cannot have an effective system of government. For all these arguments, we need to keep first and foremost in our mind the need to strengthen the role of Parliament in this Bill.

That is what the amendment does. It does not stop referenda; it does not drive a coach and horses through the Bill; but it introduces that vital element of proportionality by proposing a special committee of both Houses to examine the case for a referendum and gives Parliament the right to decide in which cases referenda should take place. That is in accordance with the principles of the Constitution Committee of the House. I thought that it was a bit rich of the Minister to quote the Constitution Committee on thresholds but to ignore completely its major point that it believes that referenda should be confined to fundamental issues of constitutional importance. This is a mechanism for confining referenda to issues of constitutional importance. For that reason I commend the amendment to the House.