Report (1st Day)

Part of European Union Bill – in the House of Lords at 7:15 pm on 8th June 2011.

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Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (International Energy Policy) 7:15 pm, 8th June 2011

My Lords, I begin by dissociating myself entirely from the statement of the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, that somehow the Bill gives encouragement to referenda and public votes "on anything and everything". That was his phrase, but it could not be further from the truth. It would be impossible to think of a proposition that is more remote from what the Bill is intended to do. The Bill is about transfers of power and sovereignty-over a wide range of issues, I concede-from the United Kingdom and this Parliament to the European Union. I am left almost speechless; what is unimportant or trivial about that? These are issues that we have dealt with again and again-the famous red lines that successive Governments have found to be of extreme importance to Britain. The argument is not that we should not be involved with the European Union in all these areas, but that we should retain a veto power if we are pressed too far; that all the powers that are needed have been conceded under the Lisbon treaty; and that those that were left out-the remaining issues where unanimity must prevail, where the veto must be kept in place and where no further treaty competences should be transferred-are all the important remaining ones, which many of the 27 countries insisted on preserving.

These are the important issues: defence and security, national security, military issues, national tax, fiscal and energy policy, provisions under the EU budget, financial management of the EU, citizenship and elections, foreign policy and social security. These are not trivial issues that can be dismissed. What prevails in these comments is a devastating lack of understanding of the importance of the remaining issues that are not within the competence and power of the EU because the nation states do not feel that it is necessary for them to be there-and, on the contrary, think that they should remain under national and sovereign control. Therefore, the starting point of many of these comments is so far removed from what is in the Bill and what the Bill is concerned with that I find it very hard to find a bridge of words to link the two, but I will try my best.

Under these amendments, decisions on whether a referendum on treaty change or a decision-these are big issues-should be held would be made by a special committee of both Houses. This is similar, though not identical, to the debate we had on amendments in Committee. They were limited to Clause 6 decisions, and seem to have widened the scope of the so-called European referendum scrutiny committee to cover treaties and Article 48(6) decisions. This is a big assignment of discretion to this parliamentary committee. How this committee would come about, I am not too sure. I have to say in the best of spirits to the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, that if he thinks that this committee would be free of interference from the Government or party-political pressures of various sorts, then his innocence is not entirely lost.

I am at least pleased that this amendment recognises that consideration should be given to the need for a referendum when treaties or Article 48 decisions are to be made. This is a clear step forward from the status quo, where it was entirely down to Ministers to decide whether a referendum was to be held and where, as we have sadly seen, Ministers and Governments can and do change their minds-hence many of our problems. The amendment appears to have retained the provisions in the Bill-which is good-that all treaties and Article 48 decisions must in future be ratified through an Act of Parliament. At least it retains a greatly increased role for Parliament, which this Bill stretches for and seeks to provide. This is a definite advance.

Moving from ministerial discretion over whether a referendum should be held, to parliamentary discretion over whether a referendum should be held, really is not sufficient. What we would have is an extra step in the process of deciding whether to have a referendum, which I suspect would merely diminish further rather than increase the confidence and trust of the British people when compared to the current provisions in the Bill and to what the Bill is trying to do. It would cut right across, and therefore potentially diminish, the work done by the European scrutiny committees of both Houses, which-despite the overrides, which one must concede have been too frequent-has been valuable in giving some impression to the general public and to the electorate of this country that there are some brakes on the system.

Why would the arrangements for the proposed European referendum scrutiny committee diminish public trust? The answer is that because whereas the Bill is, with the exception of the narrowly defined significance test, very specific about which transfers of power and competence would lead to a referendum-that is what this whole Bill is about-these amendments would do away with the certainty. In agreeing the Bill as drafted, Parliament would be giving a clear signal to the public as to when a referendum would be held. If the amendment were agreed, the whole process would be lost in a whirlpool of subjective political judgments and, I have no doubt, of manoeuvres as well, and of all the pressures that operate through our political system-perfectly properly, because that is the way that a democratic system works. The idea that they would be absent and that an isolated, divinely independent judgment could be reached by this committee is absurd and naive.

These amendments require the committee to assess all treaties and Article 48 decisions against significance, urgency and the national interest. These are highly subjective terms which are capable of a far wider range of interpretation than the criteria in Clause 4, which have been carefully analysed and crafted. This amendment moves the whole debate away from an objective consideration of whether power or competence has been transferred from the UK to the EU. It moves it away from objectivity to subjectivity of precisely the kind which works against trust and against confidence, and against support for the whole European Union project which I thought so many noble Lords wanted to see reinforced.

Government and Parliament will of course take into consideration issues of urgency, importance and certainly the national interest when negotiating a treaty change, and in passing Acts to ratify treaty change. These are centrally important issues, but they are not the right criteria on which to decide whether a referendum is needed before a treaty change or an Article 48 decision is ratified.

The other problem with these amendments is that the decisions on these highly subjective issues will be made, frankly, by a small number of parliamentarians. I have said that we are not quite sure how they would come to be on this committee. The way this committee is set up means that it could only ever deny the public a referendum, which is what is promised under this Bill. I do not like to say it, but when my noble friend Lord Hamilton points it out, it is a fact that the British people's trust in the institution of Parliament and the political parties within it has, in this area, been eroded over the years, particularly on issues of Europe; I sometimes think that on other issues it is grossly exaggerated. One always marvels at how many people are generally critical of the political class, but when they start talking about individuals-the hard-working Members of Parliament-they say, "Oh no, our person is splendid. It is just the general lot we do not like". It can be overdone. However, on the issue of Europe, it is quite clear, by every measure that we have seen of the public's support and the general tenor of the public debate, that a lack of trust is noticeable. People have been promised a referendum on a treaty change, only to see it taken away again. This is reflected in the number of people who do not value the EU, who do not trust it or who simply do not seem to grasp its work, aims or purposes. There is a sense of apathy, because people feel powerless to influence decisions which affect their daily lives. To deny this really is to shut our minds to the good and valuable side of the EU's work, which I believe is enormous and often underestimated.

The coalition Government intend to address this cynicism, apathy and lack of trust. The aim is to reconnect the British people directly to the key decisions on the EU and assure them that, while there are now vast powers and competences in the EU's hands, any further expansion of these would have to be very carefully argued and in many cases put to the British people for their approval. It remains a mystery to me why the Opposition still somehow argue that there should be these extra powers-that we are going to need these future treaty changes-but what for? One is left groping the air, trying to understand the mystery of it all. It is a sort of apophatic doctrine, that somehow there are issues ahead so complicated that the people cannot put them into words or understand them, and that these require the flexibility which the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, keeps returning to.

We know that the British people want a say. The June 2009 survey by the European Parliament found that eight out of 10 people in this country agreed that future EU treaty changes should be decided by referendums. Fewer than one in 10 disagreed. These amendments do not represent the modern reality about transparency and openness that we in the coalition Government want, and which reflects a modern attitude to participatory democracy. They are a step back in time which may be nostalgic and romantic, but they take us away from reality and away from the future.

I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Waddington, who is not in his place at the moment, for what he said about these proposals in Committee. He said that,

"you are moving even further away from a situation where the general public has any confidence at all that its views are considered when vital decisions are made".-[Hansard, 16/5/11; col. 1230.]

However well intentioned these amendments, they cannot serve to enhance this Bill or its underlying virtues and purpose. The Bill is deliberately designed to set out as clearly as possible which treaty changes would require a referendum, while avoiding the need for trivial referendums. That seems to me to be a scare story which I hope we are not going to hear repeated because it is not connected with the reality, the intention or the possibilities which arise from this Bill. Leaving it to the discretion of a committee of parliamentarians to decide whether a referendum is needed will do nothing whatever to reconnect, re-engage and regain the trust of the British people. I believe this is an amendment that we could do without and that does not help the Bill or the underlying purposes, which I believe most noble Lords in all political parties and in none basically want reinforced. I think these amendments go the other way and take away from us the purposes and goals that we should be pursuing, so I ask the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.