Report (1st Day)

Part of European Union Bill – in the House of Lords at 7:00 pm on 8th June 2011.

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Photo of Lord Empey Lord Empey UUP 7:00 pm, 8th June 2011

My Lords, I have listened carefully to this debate and there is one thing that we can say about ourselves: we are at least consistent in our inconsistency. We were talking earlier about 40 per cent thresholds and yesterday we were talking about 5 per cent thresholds, and some of us have been subjected to referendums over the years whether we like them or not. Therefore, the important argument about parliamentary democracy which was put forward eloquently by the noble Lord, Lord Deben, and others does not quite register. I fear that this amendment suffers from the same weakness that it is the purpose of the Bill to try and resolve-that, effectively, Parliament is making these decisions. We hide behind the words "major constitutional significance"-some people may say they are weasel words-because what is major to me might not be major to the noble Baroness. We then take away from the Government of the day any significant role unless they rely on their party positions to whip people into particular positions.

The noble Lord, Lord Liddle, referred to the fact that the Government had to be able to respond and be a good partner to our European colleagues. I believe that the United Kingdom has been an exceptionally good partner over the years. However, simply because we have particular constitutional architecture concerning how we take decisions that affect us in no way invalidates us as a good partner nor does it invalidate a Government's ability to respond. There are many decisions that require an urgent response. I see no reason why that cannot continue.

It is only when there is actually a change of substance that time will be taken to ratify that. Even when we have been talking about the current economic position in Europe we have been looking at the stability arrangements and others, and we know that these are going to take 18 months to 24 months to get through on existing arrangements. Therefore, I do not believe that this country would be unable to respond and act as a good partner. Nor am I frightened by the prospect that if we enhance our constitutional arrangements our European partners will take the huff and stop dealing with us. I do not believe that for one moment. It is our business. I believe that the Commission accepts that it is our business to decide whatever structures should be put in place. That is the way of the world. Other countries do it. Other countries have referenda; other countries have a variety of constitutional locks. As the European Union grows, I suspect we will enhance the variety of different decision-making processes that come in. Why should we be worried about that?

I do not think that people on the street are running around saying, "I wonder if we are a good partner with our colleagues in Paris or Bonn". I do not think this is something that registers with the people. What does register is if they are told one thing and then something happens that is the opposite of what they were told or promised. That comes back to why there is a need for such a Bill. Whatever its inelegancies-and I can see that there are many-it is there because we have broken a trust. There is a huge gap between what we as politicians think and what the public think of us. It has only been the recent financial crisis and the situation with bankers that we now have somebody we can look down upon. Until then, we were really at the bottom of the pile.

The truth is that we are, and have been, inconsistent. We have chopped and changed on referenda. Burke was quoted extensively-I am no scholar on Burke-but he was operating in the 18th century.