Clause 1: Referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union
Moved by Lord Armstrong of Ilminster
1: Clause 1, page 1, line 2, leave out subsection (1) and insert—
“(1) A referendum is to be held with the question—
“Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”
appearing on the ballot papers.”
My Lords, I hope that I can be reasonably brief in moving the amendment. We have a long day ahead of us.
The amendment does not bear on the issue of whether a referendum on United Kingdom membership of the European Union should be held. Nor does it bear on the date at which or by which such a referendum should be held. Thus it does not call into question the principal purposes of the Bill. It is intended to ensure that when a referendum is held, the right question is put to the electorate.
I and other noble Lords who have put their names to the amendment consider that the question proposed in Clause 1(4) of the Bill is inappropriate, confusing and potentially misleading. The wording might be appropriate if the United Kingdom was not a member of the Union but was now proposing to apply for membership, or if we had applied for membership and the Government and Parliament wanted to ascertain whether the electorate would support a proposal to join the Union on terms that would have been negotiated with the existing membership. Then the question for the electorate would be whether they thought that we should forgo whatever might be the advantages and disadvantages of not being members of the Union in order to enjoy whatever might be the benefits and privileges of membership, and incur whatever might be the liabilities and obligations of becoming members.
However, that is not the situation. We are, and have been for more than 40 years, members of the European Union. Therefore, when a referendum is called, the question we should be asking the electorate to consider is whether we should forgo the benefits and privileges we now enjoy, and be relieved of the liabilities and obligations we now incur as members of the European Union, in order to enjoy whatever might be the benefits and advantages and incur whatever might be the costs and liabilities of ceasing to be members. The question put to the electorate should be clear beyond a peradventure that that is the choice on which they are being asked to vote. The question proposed in Clause 1(4) of the Bill as drafted fails to make clear the nature of the choice. It could thus be confusing, and potentially misleading, to some voters.
The question proposed in the amendment is not designed by me or by other noble Lords who have put their names to it. It has been designed by the Electoral Commission, the business of which is to advise the Government and Parliament on such matters. I cannot see why it should be thought to be necessary or right to second-guess the Electoral Commission on this matter. Only that it might sound disrespectful of the commission, which I do not wish to be, I remind your Lordships of the old adage that a man who keeps a dog does not need to bark himself.
The form of words which the Electoral Commission has recommended, and which is proposed in the amendment, provides a question which defines correctly, clearly and unambiguously the nature of the choice which the voters will be asked to make in the referendum proposed in the Bill. I beg to move.
I remind your Lordships that, if the amendment is agreed to, I cannot call Amendments 2 to 7 by reason of pre-emption.
As some commentators have noted, I have tabled one or two amendments, and one or two are included in the first grouping. However, I say first of all that, like the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, I intend to be brief. This Bill is a disgrace; it is not fit for purpose. A senior official of the Law Society of Scotland told me that he had never seen such a badly drafted Bill. It has been hastily got together, and it shows. For example, it has none of the schedules necessary for such a major constitutional Bill. That is why it is only three pages long. We have been accused of having tabled lots of amendments for what is only a three-page Bill, but a normal constitutional Bill would have schedules outlining how the referendum would be conducted and the rules of the referendum. None of that is included in this Bill. It is a government Bill trying to patch over divisions in the Tory party and trying to outflank the UK Independence Party—which deserves to be outflanked, by the way.
Presumably they thought that there was a greater intellect here to be able to examine it in more detail, with such people as the noble Lords, Lord Armstrong and Lord Kerr, and a whole range of people like that. I am sure that they will welcome all the suggestions from this House, as well as the wisdom that we are about to receive.
I am grateful, but the noble Lord knows only too well that the other place had neither the stamina to talk the Bill out nor the courage to go into the Lobbies in any numbers from either his party or the Liberal Democrats. All the Divisions had huge majorities, where the negative vote was derisory. He knows full well that the question asked by my noble friend Lord Forsyth comes to the heart of the matter. We are being used.
Everyone knows that this is a Tory party Bill masquerading as a Private Member’s Bill. Today it is also a disgrace that we are discussing it because the coalition government Chief Whip, the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, has used her position, I think improperly, to put it ahead of all other Private Members’ Bills. There are 23 Private Members’ Bills waiting to be discussed—
The noble Lord is inviting others to intervene. I know that when he impugns my integrity I need to come to the Dispatch Box to explain that I have followed precisely the same procedure in all these matters as my predecessors in a Labour Government. I am aware that the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, has exchanged with the Telegraph online the contents of a private letter that I sent to him in the usual channels. I will give the noble Lord the opportunity to respond, but may I just complete saying that I have absolutely followed every rule? If the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, says that he did not discuss the terms of that letter and that the Telegraph obtained it by other means, I will welcome his assurance on that matter.
The noble Baroness, for whom I have the greatest respect, makes a number of allegations, which are completely unfounded. Nobody could have been more surprised than I to receive a telephone call from the Telegraph, which I referred to our communications adviser, yesterday afternoon. I was extraordinarily disappointed to hear about what I had assumed was confidential correspondence, seeking simply two things—a clarification of the Chief Whip’s role in the business of the House today but, more importantly, some idea of when the business of the House might conclude. I had hoped that we would have a reasonable time put before your Lordships’ House this morning for business to be conducted within. I am appalled that that correspondence was leaked; it is not my practice to leak correspondence. I genuinely believed when I wrote that letter that it was a letter written in confidence and I would appreciate an apology on this point.
My Lords, I am very glad to hear that the noble Lord did not leak that. I certainly could come to only one conclusion. I am very disappointed that anybody should leak private information, because I always value my exchanges with the noble Lord, Lord Bassam. We have worked together well and we will continue to do so. All I can say is that anybody who has revealed that information has acted improperly. I know that this House wishes to proceed in a proper manner and I assure the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, that I have followed every single procedure of every previous government Chief Whip.
The apology should be from those who leaked the information. I am saying that I am deeply sorry that I saw the information online and that somebody has leaked it. I am deeply grateful that the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, has made it clear to the House that it was not he.
My Lords, I have made it clear that there would be an apology from me if I had uttered an untruth. I have not uttered an untruth. What I have said is that I am deeply disappointed that anybody should have leaked that letter. The noble Lord, Lord Bassam, has been able to make it clear that it was not he. I am grateful for that because our relationship has been a proper one in the usual channels and will continue to be so.
My Lords, we began today with the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, making it clear that he wishes a proper process on this Bill. I know from Peers who have come to see me who are against the Bill that they want to proceed. I suggest that we do so in the normal manner, but I would be grateful if the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, did not impugn my motives or actions as government Chief Whip. I answered all those matters to the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, in that private letter, which will clearly remain private as far as the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, and I are concerned.
My Lords, this is important because the Chief Whip said that she acted in accordance with the actions of previous Chief Whips. However, this situation is unprecedented as only one part of the Government is imposing business on us in this way. She is not acting in accordance with the actions of previous Chief Whips because she acting only as part of the Government and not the whole Government. That is a very big difference from what has happened before.
I am grateful for those interesting interventions, which clarified quite a lot. As my noble friend Lady Quin rightly said, it is unprecedented for a Tory Chief Whip to use her position as a government Whip to put Tory party Bills high up the agenda. Perhaps she can give me an example of where a particular Private Member’s Bill has been given precedence over every other Private Member’s Bill. All the others have been kicked to the sidelines. I understand that she is making promises to promoters of Private Members’ Bills that their Bills will be given priority next year because they have been kicked out in the current Session.
The other outrageous matter is that because of the procedure here and in the other place, and because this is a Private Member’s Bill, not a government Bill, we are told that we cannot discuss it in the detail that we should discuss it in and we cannot scrutinise it in the way that we should scrutinise it. An artificial deadline has been imposed on us that we have to finish it by a particular time. This is no way to treat a major constitutional issue.
That brings me to the first group of amendments. My amendments, like others, say that the key issue of the question on the ballot paper should be based on the impartial advice of the Electoral Commission. We have set up the Electoral Commission to give advice on these questions. The Scottish Government have accepted the Electoral Commission’s advice regarding the question in the Scottish referendum. This Government should do the same and accept the advice of the impartial Electoral Commission.
I say to the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, who is today a proxy for the Government—that is what he is; he is a government stooge—that if he refuses to accept this amendment, it will be clear confirmation that this Bill is a party political ploy and not a serious attempt to legitimise and legislate for a fair and genuine referendum.
My Lords, I have put down my name to two of the amendments in this group but I shall be brief—pedantic, but brief. Our verb “to be” is highly irregular, drawing strands of form and meaning from four different roots. They are represented in today’s English by, for example, “is”, “are”, “was” and “be” itself. I put this list before the House because “be” is, as your Lordships know, always tinged with the future. Indeed, as your Lordships will also know, “be” is actually cognate with the word “future” itself. When somebody calls out, “Please remain seated”, we know that she accepts that we are all seated. By contrast, the injunction, “Please be seated”, acknowledges that most of us are not. So it was that when, as the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, has just reminded us, the Electoral Commission was advising on this year’s referendum in Scotland, it did not suggest that Scotland should remain an independent country because, of course, it is not. Instead, it recommended the wording, “Should Scotland be an independent country?”. The Scottish Government sensibly accepted this advice.
When this same Electoral Commission advised the promoters of the Bill before us today, it saw, of course, that the boot was on the other foot. In this case, it favoured the wording, “Should the UK remain in the European Union?”, because we already are, and stoutly rejected the wording, “Should the UK be a member?” because this might imply to voters that we were not. It may seem absurd to suggest that, after 40 years, any
British voter might not know that we were a member of the European Union. However, let us remember that we have a hostile press and that successive semi-hostile, or at least semi-detached, Governments have belittled, demonised or at any rate done their best to ignore the EU and its relevance to British lives. It is not just the EU itself, of course. Think how much better our school system would have been if Governments over the past 40 or 50 years had bothered to notice how much better they do things on the other side of the North Sea.
But back to the present: at Second Reading, the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington of Ribbleton, supplied telling examples of public ignorance of trans-Channel institutions. For example, she referred to people confusing the EU with the Council of Europe. She might well have added that since 2000 there has been an even more dangerous source of confusion—the existence of the eurozone. How many British voters faced with the question in this Bill might interpret it as asking, “Should the UK be a member of the eurozone?”.
It beggars belief that one with such a command of subtle nuance as the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, could possibly be unaware of all this. But he is a busy man. Now that he most certainly has had dispelled for him any cloud of unknowing that has interposed, I have no doubt that he will be on his feet and, through grateful tears, hasten to accept these amendments.
My Lords, I regret that I was not able to participate in the Second Reading of this Bill, but I want to make one very short preliminary point, coming to what I hope is a speech of substance. I hope that all the speeches we will hear today will be speeches of substance because we are not about some political game here. We have a piece of legislation before us. It is our duty as a House to scrutinise it and, if possible, improve it, and that is what we are doing. We are not trying to overrule the House of Commons. Of course, it can restore its Bill in its original format, as its procedures allow. We are going through a process of scrutiny.
I want to make the preliminary point that I do not do so as a Euroenthusiast or Eurofanatic, as some of us have been branded in the press. As a matter of fact, I voted no in the 1975 referendum and I would expect—although I do not make that final judgment now—to vote no in the referendum proposed under either this Bill or more sensible legislation. I may well change my mind and, in any case, it is unlikely to affect the result because Renwick’s rule, named after Dr Alan Renwick of Reading University, shows clearly that during a referendum campaign opinion in virtually every country in the world and in virtually every case moves towards a no vote. The fact that polls now suggest that people will vote to get out is no indication of the likely result. So I would expect a no vote, but I may be in the minority. I hope that noble Lords will feel that it is acceptable to say that because I do not want us to be characterised in a way that does not fit.
My concern is with the substance of the Bill and the substance of the question. First, questions really matter. I say that from a certain basis of experience:
I was adviser to a Prime Minister on polls; I used to commission polls for the
; I was on the advisory committee of the National Centre for Social Research, which is the outstanding opinion research body in the country; and I chair the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Statistics. Results matter. I could give all sorts of examples: polls on Europe are all over the place and polls on the future of this House differ quite considerably. It is difficult to follow exactly what the people of Scotland are saying in polls on Scottish independence because different questions elicit different answers. However, I want to give just one example.
Two polls were conducted at roughly the same time on people’s views on taxes and public spending. The first, by YouGov, was conducted for the Taxpayers’ Alliance. The other, for the Fabian Society, was also conducted by YouGov. However, the answers could not have been more different. In the first poll, the question was: “Do you think the Government spends too much and therefore taxes us too much, or is the balance about right, or does it spend too little?”. The result was: 50% said the Government tax too much; 16% said that the balance was about right; 12% said they tax us too little. That seems to be pretty decisive, until you read the Fabian Society poll, which listed services. It asked: “Would you prefer tax rates and the level of provision for each of the following services to rise or fall; or is the balance right?”, and then listed the services. Nearly 60% said more should be spent on elderly care, even if it meant higher taxes. The figure for the National Health Service was 50%, and on no service listed was the majority in favour of tax cuts. That just shows that the question you ask can matter. That is not a very subtle example, but I could, if the House wanted to listen to me for ever—which I suspect it does not—cite a lot more examples in which subtle changes in wording can change the outcome.
We come to the question in the Bill and the question recommended by the Electoral Commission. If I were sponsoring the Bill, I would take comfort from the fact that the commission had put forward its preferred question. For the life of me, I cannot understand why the Bill has not been amended to include that preferred question, but that is a matter for the mover, not for me. The commission said that it found no evidence that its suggested question resulted in research participants changing their vote in any way. The wording used in this case was not shown to change the result. I do not wish to criticise the Electoral Commission in any way for this extremely difficult research, but I have examined it. It was essentially based on focus groups and interviews with individual, small groups of people who were asked to analyse the question. With respect—and everyone in this House who knows about market research and polling will agree with this proposition—you simply cannot, must not, draw quantitative conclusions from qualitative research. One does not follow the other.
There is only one way in which to do a piece of research that might answer the question before us, and that is to take two samples—one asking the question put in the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, the other asking the Electoral Commission’s question—and see whether the results are the same. You probably would have to do this at least two or three times because of sampling error and so on. Then you would know whether the wording of the question made a difference. We do not know whether the Electoral Commission’s wording would produce a different result from the question of the noble Lord—it might or it might not. What we do know is that between a question drafted by the Electoral Commission, which deals with these matters very frequently and is used to finding out the nuance of questions, and a question put together by the tyros in Conservative Central Office who drafted the Bill, there should be no choice for this House. The Electoral Commission is the referee, and to begin the passage of the Bill by rejecting the decision of the referee in favour of your personal whim is a disgraceful way to legislate. I support these amendments.
My Lords, whatever our views about this potential referendum, I am sure that everyone in the House is united in the view that if there is to be a referendum, we must ensure that a success is made of it. Success does not mean yes or no, it means the number of our fellow countrymen who vote in that referendum. That will depend, first, upon the number who register under the new registration procedures that are coming in shortly and, secondly, upon the number who turn out to vote on the day.
I want to make only one point. I speak in support of Amendments 1, 11 and 32, all of which, in different ways, want the question to be put to be reworded. I should declare an interest as the founder and president of the Citizenship Foundation, which was established nearly 25 years ago when the understanding then, particularly by young citizens, of what was going on in our complicated democracy was patently inadequate for an engaged citizenry. I think that most will agree that things have become worse in the interim. For a variety of reasons, there is today a low adhesion to the political process by so-called ordinary men and women. I desperately hope that everything we say and do in relation to the Bill will be centred on that one residual need, which is to maximise the number of people who turn out on the day, if there is to be a referendum day.
I will not go into the difference between Amendments 1, 11 and 32. I will merely say to the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, that the question in the Bill does not have the optimum wording. It can and should be clearer. I do not particularly mind which of the amendments we adopt. The question certainly needs to be clearer for the sake of the public.
My Lords, I support these amendments very strongly indeed. I find it curious that, so far, not one word has been spoken from the Benches opposite in defence of their wording. That is rather curious, until you look at why the Bill is before us. Let me remind noble Lords of what the commission concluded. It said that the question,
“should be amended to make it more direct and to the point, and to improve clarity and understanding”.
Nothing could be clearer and more easily understood than that. However, it appears to all of us on these Benches that we are being asked to forget what it said and to go along, without question, with the wording proposed by Conservative Central Office, if that is where it emanated from.
Why do we have to do that? The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, for whom I have great respect and affection, who knows this House well and, in fact, is a very sane voice on all matters to do with House of Lords reform, astonished me with the attitude he has taken towards the Bill. He said at Second Reading:
“Let us say that this Bill is imperfect and has got here by a most peculiar route”— that is somewhat at odds with what the Government Chief Whip has said—
“but let us speed it on its way so that those outside this House cannot say that the House of Lords stood between them and having their say on perhaps the most important international issue of modern times”.—[ Official Report , 10/1/14; col. 1808.]
We are not saying that they will not have a say. You will not find anywhere in our amendments a clause saying that there will be no referendum on the EU. It is a complete canard to go on suggesting that this is what we on these Benches are saying. I want to make it perfectly clear that the reason why one can support these—
I never said such a thing. I said what I said in the context of the other place having not opposed this Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, this morning said that the Divisions were contrived. That confirms my case rather than confounding it. The other place has sent this Bill here when it would have been quite within the capacities of the noble Lord’s party and the Liberal Democrats either to have talked it out or to have amended it in the other place. They chose not to do so and therefore we face a Bill that was almost unanimously supported in the House of Commons and we have to look at it in that context.
I am sorry to disagree with the noble Lord but I was quoting directly from Hansard. That is exactly what he said:
“Let us say that this Bill is imperfect and has got here by a most peculiar route”.—[Hansard, 10/1/14; col. 1808.]
It could not be clearer. In whatever context you wish to put that, it is pretty plain language. It is the sort of language one is used to hearing from the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. In this case, I do not quite understand his response.
Finally, in support of these amendments, please let us scrutinise this Bill properly. We have a right and a duty to do so. We must not just wave it through, as some would have us do, because that is not what our function is here. This first group of amendments is a very good test for this House. What we are proposing is not party political—it could not be further from party politics. These amendments seek to bring clarity to the people when they have a referendum. I repeat, let us not hear more, please, from the opposite Benches saying that, on our side, this is all a conspiracy to prevent the British people having a referendum. It is not.
My Lords, it strikes me as quite extraordinary, following up on the speech from the noble Lord, Lord Quirk, where he talked to us about the verb “to be”; the question here is, “To be or not to be” because if this Bill is amended or talked out there will not be a referendum. If the Bill is amended it is going to go back to the House of Commons and it is going to run out of time. Let us be clear what is going on here. All this self-righteous talk about how we have a duty to consider this Bill—
I will give way to the noble Lord in a moment. The consequence of all this self-righteous talk about how we have a duty to consider this Bill properly will be that the British people will not be guaranteed a say before 2017 on whether they wish to be members of the European Union.
It seems it was not five minutes ago that this House was subject to an attack with it being suggested that we become an elected House. We fought off that battle on the basis that the other place was supreme; that the will of the other House should always be carried forward. The clearly expressed will of the other House was that this Bill should reach the statute book, otherwise it would not have come here. This House has to recognise that of course we have powers and duties—we could exercise our powers and duties in ways that frustrate lots of Bills—but in the end we look down the Corridor and we look at what the intention of the House of Commons was. It may be that this Bill came to this House because the parties opposite did not have the courage to kill it there but the fact is that it has been passed by the House of Commons and the noble Lord, in criticising us for not speaking and for trying to speed its passage, is making the case for frustrating the will of the House of Commons. Even worse, he is denying the British people the opportunity to be sure at the next election that, whatever happens, there will be provision on the statute book for them to have their say on the most important question facing our country’s future.
My Lords, if the noble Lord is claiming that if we passed amendments there would never be a referendum for the British people on the EU, are we changing the whole concept of parliamentary democracy? Are we saying that no Government could ever introduce a Bill for a referendum? No. It is untrue. We are saying that this Bill is a wretched Bill. It is not the proper basis on which to have a referendum. That is all we are saying. It must be changed.
The noble Lord knows perfectly well that we are not having an academic discussion here about whether the British people will have a referendum. What is being considered here is a Bill which—if it is passed unamended by this House and reflects the will of the House of Commons—will result in a referendum. The noble Lord’s views on Europe are perfectly clear and it is no good trying to pretend that the consequences of our actions, if we amend or delay this Bill, will be to deny the people a guarantee that they will get a referendum at the next election. I think that will have very damaging consequences for this House. People will say, “What on earth are these unelected people doing preventing us having our say?”. I have some sympathy with the noble Lord’s amendment—after all I made exactly the same case on the Scottish referendum—but I am not going to vote for it because I do not think that as an unelected Peer I have the right to prevent the House of Commons delivering to the British people the opportunity to have their say in a referendum.
All the noble Lord is saying would be true but this Bill refers to a referendum in 2017. It is not talking about a referendum in this Parliament. As we know—and the noble Lord knows—we cannot bind our successors. What the noble Lord is saying does not actually apply.
If the noble Lord read the Bill—it is not a very complicated one—he would find that it says that the referendum must be held before
I am not going to give way again—I intended to interrupt only briefly. The noble Lord was long enough in the other place to understand what is happening here. Liberal and Labour Party supporters do not have the guts to face up to the British people and say, “We want to stop you having a referendum,” and therefore they have dumped this here. Members opposite who vote for amendments—
My Lords, I entirely acknowledge what the noble Baroness says but, of course, if noble Lords vote to amend the Bill they should recognise that they are denying the British people their say in a referendum.
My Lords, I follow up on the comment that the noble and learned Baroness has just made. I speak in this debate as an academic more than as a Labour Party member. If the UK were to leave the European Union, it would be a really wrenching process of readjustment. When a country is contemplating such a profound and consequential decision, it is crucial that the question chosen in the referendum should be as clear and impartial as possible. For that reason I think we should have some academic discussion of it, because, as has been said, questions are crucial in a referendum.
The report of the Electoral Commission is sound, sensible and well researched. For maximum clarity it makes absolute sense to have the formula proposed in this amendment, which is endorsed by the commission. Contrary to all kinds of political babble, I would hope that most Members of the House will support the amendment because it is in the interests of the country.
It is not a party-political issue. It is in the interests of the country, if we have a referendum on a decision crucial to the future of the country, that the question asked is impartial and proper.
My Lords, I speak in support of the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong. I have a dog point—but the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, made it himself. I would put it in a slightly different form. I would say, “Why have a watchdog and ignore its barking?”.
I also have a tartan point—but the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, made it himself. When Mr Salmond put forward his question for the Scottish referendum, loud were our complaints and strong were our strictures, particularly from the former Secretaries of State for Scotland. Their wizened locks shook. In the case of the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, his head shook. Loud was our condemnation of Mr Salmond for ignoring the advice of the Electoral Commission. What happened? He listened to us, or he listened to the Electoral Commission, and he changed his question. He did as the House of Lords encouraged him to do. That seems to be quite a relevant precedent.
My third point you could call cui bono. I disagree with the noble Lords, Lord Grenfell and Lord Lipsey. They say that the question in the Bill—the slanted question—was written by Conservative Central Office. However, we know from the Second Reading debate that that is not true, because we were told then that the form of the question that the Tea Party in the other place has chosen to put in the Bill was not the one it was given by the Conservative Party hierarchy. The Conservative Party hierarchy provided a question very like the one proposed by my noble friend Lord Armstrong of Ilminster in the amendment before the House.
You have to say, “cui bono”. There will be people in this House who think that it is a very good idea to have a slanted question because they are not seeking a referendum; they are seeking a referendum that says we leave the European Union. Those on the other side who are thinking of opposing the amendment of my noble friend Lord Armstrong—and I hope they are very few—should reflect that this is not what the Conservative Party sought. This is a question that is not accidentally defective but deliberately defective. I support my noble friend’s amendment.
My Lords, I apologise on behalf of my noble friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill, whose name is added to Amendment 1 and the other amendments in this group, spoken to by the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong. My noble friend is unable to be in the House this morning because he has a medical appointment.
I agree with Amendments 1, 28 and 31, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, and with Amendment 32, and I want to speak briefly to them—but, before doing so, I want to take on what the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, said. I tend not to tangle with the noble Lord—normally he is far too ferocious for me to lift my head above the parapet— but I remind him that it was Mr David Cameron, the Prime Minister, who undertook in a speech in
January 2013, famously known as the Bloomberg speech, to negotiate a new settlement with our European partners. He said that once the settlement had been negotiated, there would be an “in or out” referendum in which the British people would choose to stay in the EU on these new terms or come out altogether. He undertook that this would be done in the first half of the next Parliament. He said:
“Legislation will be drafted before the next election. And if a Conservative Government is elected we will introduce the enabling legislation immediately and pass it by the end of that year”.
In fact, what has happened is that the Bill before us is the enabling legislation. It should not be before us in this Parliament; it should come as enabling legislation after the next general election.
I will now speak to the amendment. I note that I am the first member of this House’s Constitution Committee to so do and I regret that our chairman, the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, is unable to be here now. However, I draw the House’s attention to the Constitution Committee’s report on the Bill. The report is brief but clear. It clearly sets out that the Electoral Commission has, in Section 104, a duty,
“to ‘consider the wording’ of a referendum question and to report on its ‘intelligibility’. In doing so the Electoral Commission considers whether the question presents the options to voters ‘clearly, simply and neutrally’”.
It recommends that the question be amended from the question in the Bill, which is:
“Do you think that the United Kingdom should be a member of the European Union?”,
to one of two alternatives. One is:
“Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?”,
and several noble Lords have spoken to that, and the other is:
“Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”,
with the possible answers to the second option being, instead of yes or no, remain or leave. We should discuss both options.
My personal preference is not, as this group of amendments recommends, that the question should require a yes or no answer but that it should ask whether the UK should remain a member of the EU or leave the EU, with a “remain or leave” option clearly put to the electorate. The reason I say that is that when the Electoral Commission conducted its research—in the way that the noble Lord, Lipsey, might have found flawed, although I will not address his concerns at this point—it discovered that significant numbers of the public were confused as to whether we were members of the EU or members of the eurozone, and indeed there were people who did not know that we were members of the European Union. In the light of that, the committee certainly suggests that the House should carefully consider whether it is satisfied with the question and that it should do so in the spirit of its obligation to carry out scrutiny and revision.
My Lords, I want to make two or three short points. They will be short because, at least in large part, the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, has made one of the most important points—that when the SNP drew up the question, we all, rightly, said no. We have the Electoral Commission to do this and it must set the question. Notwithstanding some of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, and others about views within and between political parties, the principle of having an independent body to draw up the question is an important one. Personally, I am not fond of referendums at the best of times. They are usually invented in order to help political parties get out of difficult situations. However, if we are to have them—and I accept that they are now part of the furniture of politics—it is very important that the question should be drawn up independently. That is why, whichever question is acceptable, it must be agreed or approved by the Electoral Commission.
My second point concerns the wording. That is particularly important, as was pointed out in an earlier intervention. The question in the Bill is:
“Do you think that the United Kingdom should be a member of the European Union?”.
I liked the use made by the noble Lord, Lord Quirk, of the “To be or not to be” approach. My knowledge of English grammar is terrible. I seem to be able to use it all right, but I have never understood it. However, what I can say with some conviction is that in another part of “Hamlet” it is said that he ought to be sent to England because we are all mad here—so perhaps there was more logic to it than I realised.
My point is that, if you put it in those terms, you must also look at the context, which I think my noble friend Lord Lipsey put his finger on—that is, the importance of the question to the whole population. As has just been said, the reality is that a minority—it is a significant, although not huge, minority—do not know whether we are a member of the European Union. They are uncertain about that, and they often confuse membership of the EU with membership of the eurozone.
If a question is put to them in the format that appears in the Bill, the tendency is, as the Liberal party discovered when it proposed the amendment on voting systems, that people will tend to vote no if they think that by doing so they will preserve the status quo. In other words, a no vote is saying, “I don’t want change”. However, by voting no to this—I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, knows this, having written “House of Cards” so well; knowledge of the Whips’ Office is always a useful experience, not to mention knowledge of No. 10—you will change things, but a significant minority, although by no means the majority, of people will believe that they are maintaining the status quo.
I like the wording in the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, because it clearly presents the issue, which we have never resolved in this country. It says quite clearly:
“Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”.
It is a statement of a factual situation and it gives a choice. Given that one of the arguments about a referendum has always been that the people must choose but must be informed by the discussion that runs up to the referendum, it is very important that that discussion takes place in the context of a question that says, “Your two alternatives are either to leave, which has big implications, or to stay in, which also has big implications, and you must make the choice”. If we do that, at least we will be open and honest with the electorate and challenge them to think about it.
If we surrender to the people as a whole our right to be the representatives in a democracy who decide these issues and then put ourselves before the electorate—this is one of the reasons why I do not like referendums —we must ensure that the people as a whole are presented with the arguments. The wording of the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, does that and enables the debate to take place.
My other big concern about referendums of course is that, as with the one in 1975, they do not solve the matter; people are still uncertain. I suspect that in 25 years’ time you might find people arguing for another referendum. I can think of at least one person in this House who will be happy to come back next year with a referendum if necessary.
Even if noble Lords do not accept this amendment, they should accept one that will enable the Electoral Commission to deliver the referendum question in a way that enables the British people to make a proper choice.
My Lords, I support the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong of Ilminster. I am all the more willing to do so because, in its four proposers, it has support from all the main parties in the House and from the Cross Benches. In a debate which has already shown a tendency to become partisan, it is important to move ahead on that kind of cross-party basis.
I support the amendment because if and when there is a referendum, there will be a huge amount of partisan speaking, writing and so on—and quite right, too—on both sides and there will be much that is confusing. However, surely we all ought to be able to agree that the question on the paper we vote on should be a genuinely level playing field. That is critical. Everything else about the campaign will not be a level playing field—and that is right because we live in a democracy—but the question should be.
We have before us two questions. The one in the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, has been considered by the body set up under Parliament’s authority to give advice on these matters and found to be defective. We have heard why it is defective. I will be interested to hear from the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, when he replies to this debate, why he thinks that, despite it being defective, it should be persevered with. I hope that he will not persevere with it; I hope he will accept the amendment.
The other question, which has been put forward by the Electoral Commission and which we are now considering, is, as has been said by everyone who has spoken today, a genuinely level playing field. It is important that if and when this referendum takes place it is perceived to be on a question that everyone can recognise as being a level playing field. How on earth are they going to think that if the Electoral Commission’s advice has been junked on a form of words whose origin appears to be obscure at the moment? Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, can tell us whom Mr Wharton consulted before he put this on the Order Paper. Whose opinion did he take? He is, after all, a freshman Member and I doubt that he has done a great deal of drafting of referendum questions in his life. Whom did he consult?
I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, will surprise us all by accepting the amendment, because the issue of a level playing field in the question to be asked is absolutely fundamental.
My Lords, your Lordships will not be surprised that I am extremely concerned about this Bill, its implications and the time at which it has reached your Lordships’ House.
As I understand the Bill, it does nothing more than confer on the electorate of this country the right to an “in or out” referendum on our membership of the European Union—nothing more and nothing less. Further action is required from the Government and both House of Parliament before a referendum can take place under the Bill. It is clear from the present situation that no referendum is likely to take place before the next general election, the date of which we know—or at least at the moment we know—because of the excellent system of fixed Parliaments that has now been put in place.
It is clear that action by the incoming Government will certainly be required. I have reached the conclusion that any incoming Government holding a referendum during their term of office will wish to be in charge of all the details of that referendum and will put them in place through a public general statute. This will be put in place by the Government and run by the Government, with both Houses of Parliament—I hope more or less in their present forms—having a full opportunity to consider the details.
I am not a prophet—I do not know how many of us are—and I do not know exactly what the conditions will be in 2016-17. For all I know, the eurozone may be a distinct body from the European Union and a change of name may occur—as, for example, happened in connection with Maastricht when the name changed from the European Economic Community to the European Union. So the question will have to be decided ultimately in the light of the circumstances prevailing at the time of the referendum. That is absolutely essential.
Would not that also apply to the date of the referendum? Should not that be decided in the light of what is happening in the European Union at a particular point because it is becoming so transformed?
Exactly. Every part of this Bill can be altered by general legislation after the general election, including the date. However, the need for the date now is to give an entitlement to a referendum. If you do not put in a date, it will be in never-never land so it has to have a date now, but that date, like every other detail in this Bill, is subject to alteration.
Therefore, the extent to which we need to trouble about the detail is a substantial question. We do not know the circumstances of the referendum—at least I do not know—and therefore it will need to be adjusted in the light of the circumstances at the time. That will have to happen through a Bill authorised, put forward and promoted by the Government of the day. This Bill is not promoted by the Government of the day but by, essentially, the Member of the House of Commons who put it forward. He is a member of the Conservative Party and I know that the Bill is substantially supported by a good number of its members, but not all.
I am a strong believer in the European Union and our membership of it and have been for many years. I survived in government during the Maastricht debate, which would have been an experience for anyone, and there were demands then for a referendum on the Maastricht treaty. I have always found referenda difficult, but it is particularly difficult to have a referendum on a treaty because the chance that those people who vote have even read it—indeed, this may sometimes even apply to the legislators—is rather small. A referendum on a treaty is therefore difficult. At one time it was proposed to hold a referendum on the constitution of the EU, but that was equally difficult.
However, the question of whether, either now or in the future, you should be in or out is relatively simple. Just as it is in the Scottish referendum, it is a suitable question for a referendum. What this Bill does is give the British electorate the entitlement to have a referendum. As I said in response to the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, the date has to be put in, as otherwise there is no enforceable entitlement, but the actual date for the referendum needs to be fixed by Government action along with action by both Houses of Parliament.
I am anxious about this because of what has been said by the Constitution Committee. I shall read out what the committee said because it is important:
“Three further private members’ Fridays are scheduled in the House of Commons this session: on Fridays
I would like to know what the proposers of this amendment have to say in relation to that.
The danger I see is that by exercising our undoubted responsibility for scrutiny, and given that scrutiny is supposed to improve a Bill, we will improve it in such a way as to kill it. This troubles me a great deal, not so much from the point of this House and its position in relation to the Commons, but I consider it to be important in terms of the position of the country in relation to the European Union.
Surely the pressure on time that the noble and learned Lord has explained is wholly arbitrary. It is not something which has been decided by this House; it has been forced upon this House. It is no fault of this House that there is such pressure of time. The implication of what the noble and learned Lord is saying is that even if the Bill is thoroughly flawed and thoroughly bad, we should just wave it on.
I did not say it was our fault—certainly not. The Bill started off as early as possible in the other place. It took some time because there was a lot of discussion. Members of the House of Commons considered it without a guillotine and it arrived here, I think, in early December. I remember well the Clerk reading out the fact that it had appeared.
Should such an important issue as a referendum be introduced in the form of a Private Member’s Bill? Is not the reason we are in such trouble because it has been introduced under the wrong heading and in the wrong way?
There is no option. If the Government do not want to give the people an entitlement to a referendum, then unless your Lordships can enlighten me, there is no other option that I know of by which that can be made a statutory entitlement. Of course, your Lordships may wonder why they should have bothered, and I hope to come to that briefly—usually when you say “briefly” it makes your speech longer, but I hope that it does not do that to mine.
The point I want to make is this. UKIP, which is a recognised political party in our country and is represented here by the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, and others, has two issues. The first is that the people of this country should have a referendum. The second is that the people of this country, if granted a referendum, should vote to come out of the European Union. On the first question, UKIP appears to have a very considerable amount of public support, and indeed that was recognised in the debate on Second Reading.
But what about the parties simply putting a promise in their manifestos? The difficulty is that in recent years, all the parties which have been in government have promised a referendum, and yet no referendum has taken place. The result is that all the parties are being accused of making false promises that cannot be trusted. The noble Lord, Lord Owen, made this point very forcefully at Second Reading, and it strikes me as an extremely important one. If the small print of those promises were to be examined, I think it would be seen that there were no real false promises. However, from what I have seen over the years, any discussion of the small print does not form an important part of political propaganda, so the business of the false promise allegation has therefore gained a good deal of strength.
I know of no better assurance that anyone could give to the British people that they will have a referendum other than an entitlement to one in a Bill. However, the Bill, although it provides for the entitlement, need not and does not of itself actually produce a referendum. Before a referendum can take place under this Bill, action by the Government and by both Houses of Parliament is necessary.
From what the noble and learned Lord is saying, it seems that the Bill has no purpose whatever. Moreover, on his earlier point about timing, is it not the case that if we pass amendments to this Bill, it will be up to the House of Commons, if it decides that it wants to allocate more time, to do so? That could be done via the usual channels.
I have not myself been a Member of the House of Commons, but as I understand it our Constitution Committee, which knows much more about these matters than I do, has said that it is likely that if we pass amendments, this Bill will fall. That is a fact as stated by the committee. The noble Baroness has said that I am saying that the Bill has no purpose at all. I do not say that for a moment. The purpose of the Bill is that it gives the best assurance to the British people that they will get an “in or out” referendum in due course. However, it is only an entitlement and the full—
If the importance of this Bill is to guarantee the great British people a referendum, can the noble and learned Lord explain why its devisers have gone out of their way to put down the question in such a tendentious form—a form that actually goes against the advice of the Electoral Commission?
First, as I said, the Electoral Commission’s advice so far is provisional. Like me, it realises that the actual question will depend to some extent on the circumstances that obtain at the date of the referendum. I do not regard the question as particularly tendentious. The idea that those who are going to vote will not know, at the end of a referendum campaign, whether we are in the Union or out, is perhaps not the most—
Did the noble and learned Lord support Alex Salmond on changing the question for the Scottish people? I have listened very carefully, and with respect, to the noble and learned Lord. He appears not to particularly like the question, not to accept the date and not to accept that this is binding on a future Government. I have two questions for him. If he wishes the British people to take on good faith what emerges from here and from Parliament as a whole, surely he would support a better question? Secondly, why is the date in the Bill not during the lifetime of the next Government, given all that has been said about the large amount of work that the Prime Minister says has to be done before the people know the circumstances in which any question would be put?
As I said, the only purpose of the Bill, as I see it, is to provide the British people with an assurance that they will have an “in or out” referendum. Indeed, I think my noble friend said that was the principle of the Bill at the beginning. I have very little difficulty with the question as formulated by the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, and would be perfectly happy with it. However, I do not think it is a really definitive question for the referendum itself because that would be much better looked at when, finally, the referendum actually takes place.
Is not the inference from what the noble and learned Lord says that anything could be in the Bill and it would not matter as long as it goes through? That, surely, is an absurd position. It is up to us in the House of Lords to make sure that the Bill is sensible and well reasoned and, especially, that the question asked is fair and impartial. That is absolutely central to any referendum, as any country anywhere around the world with experience of this shows. The question has to be clear, fair and impartial and it has to be the core of what determines the future of the country. It does not make any sense to say that it does not matter and we will come back to it later.
I do not say that the question does not matter—not at all. I perfectly understand that the question at the time the referendum is taken has to be fair, excellent and take full account of the circumstances. In response to the second question asked by the noble Baroness, there is quite a lot of work to be done, but I know of no way other than this Bill that gives an assurance to the British people, going into the next election, that they will have an “in or out” referendum.
Would I be wrong in saying that the whole trend of the noble and learned Lord’s reasoning, which I have been following with great care, is that the wording for the referendum should not be in the Bill at all but should be determined by statute in the new Parliament? If that is the case, would it not be better to at least follow the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, and have a decent wording in the Bill? There is of course no Motion on the Order Paper to dispense totally with the wording.
My Lords, in order to have an enforceable entitlement, it is essential, as I see it, to have a question that is related to the issue that you want to raise. Essentially, the Bill is legislating to say, “There shall be a referendum”. However, in order to be enforceable and to create a real entitlement, it has to state the time within which the referendum must happen, the question that must be raised, the mechanisms by which a system can be set and who the electorate are. That is all necessary in order to create an entitlement, but the entitlement does not mean that the referendum is going to take place only in accordance with the Bill. There is no question that this Bill binds any other Parliament any more than any other Bill with a sunset clause in it. This Bill does nothing except give that entitlement to the British people. If the Bill passes, I shall be interested in the number of manifestos that contain an undertaking to repeal it.
The noble and learned Lord has set out his position repeatedly and carefully but there is one point where I am unclear on it. Is he not aware that there is an entitlement, called the European Union Act 2011, which creates a steadfast, watertight provision that there will be a referendum should there be any change and transfer of powers from the United Kingdom to the EU? It does not even limit us to having that referendum by 2017. Should that happen before 2017, we would be required to have a referendum before 2017.
The noble Baroness can be assured that I know of that Act. Indeed, I took part in proposing an amendment to the then Bill which ultimately was accepted, after negotiation and with modifications, in the House of Commons. I do know about that, but the trouble is that it applies only when there is a transfer of power to the European Union. This is why it is so important that this is an “in or out” referendum.
This is what UKIP wants. I am trying to get round to saying that a terrible shadow is cast on the second question that UKIP is posing by the attitude to the first question. An important point for noble Lords to consider in relation to the Bill is that UKIP, as I understand it, is saying that the reason there has been no referendum, in spite of so many promises, is that those who are in favour of the referendum do not think that they will get the right answer in it. I do not believe that for a minute. If the British people had a referendum on this subject at more or less any time, but particularly after the next election, I think there would be a resounding yes to staying in the European Union. I am a very firm believer in the European Union, for reasons which I have given, including the one that I was glad to hear the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, mention at Second Reading—the peace that the arrangement has brought to our continent since its inception. I used to hear that a lot from senior Members of the House when I was first here. It is vitally important and I was so glad to hear the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, put it first.
The trouble is that if the Bill does not pass, for whatever reason, it gives the best propaganda yet to the view that we do not want to give the people a referendum because those of us who are in favour of the European Union think we would lose that referendum. The failure to grant a referendum fuels the second aspect of UKIP’s claims. I am very much in favour of the European Union, as I have said. I fear that if we take any action which causes the Bill to fail—particularly those of us who are in favour of the European Union—it will give people the best propaganda yet to say that the reason for refusal in the first issue is the fear of those who support the Union that the referendum will go against them. This has never been a real issue in elections to date because all the main parties have been agreed in relation to the European Union.
The noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, was surprised that there had been no speech on this side—well, he has one now.
I thought it was the courtesy of this House to give the signatories to an amendment the right to speak first after it has been moved. Sadly, earlier in the debate, that system seemed to have been departed from, but I did not come forward quite as early as I might have done on that ground. Anyway, I am here now.
The ordinary, straightforward way to kill this Bill would be to refuse it a Second Reading in this House. But, having granted it a Second Reading, if the Bill is instead killed by the use of a procedure that is intended to improve it, that is a very powerful point that will affect the political debate on this issue until the next general election.
My Lords, I am following my noble and learned friend’s argument with care. I do not understand, however, quite how those of us who are in favour of Britain remaining in the European Union might be damaged by the acceptance of something on the lines of the amendment. I cannot see why that would be the result of accepting the amendments before us, which simply give guidance and lay down how this House, at this time—the end of January—should give our view on how such a referendum could be phrased. I cannot see how the consequence that my noble and learned friend fears could derive from accepting something like this amendment.
That fear arises because of what we have been told by the Constitution Committee of this House: that if the Bill is amended it will probably not reach the statute book. That is a very important issue for me. I am sorry about it and, as the noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Swansea, said, it is not our fault; we did not take all this time to consider the Bill but it came to us at the beginning of December and we are trying to get on with it as quickly as possible. I am sorry to have spoken for so long.
My Lords, of course it is right for the Constitution Committee to advise this House on what it believes is correct in relation to Private Members’ Bills. But if we amend the Bill in this House and it goes back to the House of Commons, it is certainly for the Government—as the people who determine the business, along with the usual channels—to determine what time should be given to these amendments in the House of Commons. Therefore, we can amend the Bill. That is our job if we wish to do so.
My Lords, I do not know whether that is an intervention. The trouble with that is that this is not a government Bill. We are in a situation of coalition and the other party in the coalition does not want this, so there is no question of the Government being able to arrange matters in the House of Commons. I defer, of course, to the noble Baroness’s knowledge of the procedure.
Before my noble and learned friend sits down, it is very important that we clear this up. Of course, the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, is absolutely right. The problem here is that the Government cannot do that because the Liberals are refusing to allow government time. So it is the case that if the Bill is amended, it will be lost.
My Lords, the issue immediately before the House is very direct and very simple. It is a choice between the version of wording for the referendum preferred by the Electoral Commission or the one that is contained in the draft. Even if the
Electoral Commission had in no way opined on this matter, I would urge the House to accept the version that is in the amendment, for two reasons.
First, it is founded on a factual matrix; in other words, the fact of our current membership of the European Union. Secondly, it shows clearly and concisely what the effect of a negative vote would be. Nothing could be fairer and I suspect that almost any intelligent schoolboy or schoolgirl in this land would say, “Yes, that version is preferable in so far as it is more likely to lead to a clear, understandable and final result in this matter”.
In addition, of course, there is the question of parentage. It comes from the Electoral Commission. It therefore has a quasi-judicial status—I appreciate that one is extending that somewhat but it is a neutral status of high standing. That, I think, makes it all the more obvious that not only would justice be done but would be manifestly seen to be done.
Turning for a moment to the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, there is no such animal in the constitutional field as an unamendable Bill so far as this House is concerned. There can be no question at all about that. The argument that is put forward is this: were the House of Lords to intervene, it would do so at its peril. Some persons use that in a blackmailing way—I absolve completely the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, from such an argument, but certain persons put it forward in terrorem. Whether it be in terrorem or as a completely neutral commentary on the situation, of the two circumstances, I would rather belong to a House that risks its own end by doing that which is right and proper than to run away from what is a clear responsibility and right in this matter.
My Lords, I will deal first with the so-called constitutional argument that seems to have emerged in the past three-quarters of an hour or so, which is that somehow or other this House should not seek to scrutinise this Bill too closely, it should not seek to amend it and it should certainly not seek to do anything that sent it back to the House of Commons in a different form from that in which it arrived here.
Over the past two years I have listened ad nauseam to Members of this House, particularly some of those who have spoken today. I am thinking notably of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, who lectured me continually on the virtues of the nominated House as we have it and the iniquities of possibly having an elected House and told me—as I say, very frequently and very loudly—that the function of this House was that we should scrutinise a Bill, we should revise a Bill, we should examine it in detail, we should send it back to the House of Commons if we thought it was right, and we should amend it. The phrase that I heard so often was that the main function of this House was to ask the House of Commons to think again.
I do not detect any dissent from the other side so I was rather disappointed when the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, at Second Reading and indeed today, repeated the argument that somehow or other this Bill is so special and so unique that we should not consider it, we should not try to amend it, we should certainly not succeed in amending it and we should certainly not ask the House of Commons to think again about what it has sent here. That is a nonsense: it is a constitutional nonsense; it is a political nonsense; and it makes absolute nonsense of the functions of this House.
We do have those duties. They are not just rights but duties. If proposed legislation comes before House of Lords, the House of Lords has a duty to scrutinise it, particularly if it has not been done properly in the other place. The short answer to this issue and this amendment is very simple: it is that the Electoral Commission, an independent body, has looked at this issue and had some research done. It may be imperfect, as the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, told us, but the general effect of all that work by the Electoral Commission is that it has come up with a proposal for a question that should be put in the referendum. It is a question which on the Electoral Commission’s analysis is clear, unambiguous, neutral and fair, and it should therefore be one which this House should be prepared to include in the Bill.
For the life of me, I do not understand the attitude on the other side. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, said that, somehow or other, we would be strengthening the UKIP argument that the United Kingdom should withdraw from the European Union. If the noble and learned Lord had looked in the rows behind him at the moment that he said that he was against that, he would have seen the faces of those whose predominant passion as far as Europe is concerned seems to be that we should withdraw. It is quite extraordinary that the people who are most vociferous in support of this legislation are not the democrats in the Conservative Party but are, as somebody has christened them, the Tea Party.
So be it. That is what we are faced with. For the House of Lords not to accept that that is what we are faced with and for the House of Lords not to do its duty in relation to this Bill would be a derogation of its duties. I hope therefore that the House will vote strongly in favour of the amendment.
My Lords, as someone who has put his name to two of the amendments grouped with the lead amendment, I am very happy to support the amendment put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong. As a relatively new Member of this House—it is three years ago this week that I took my place in this Chamber—I am acutely aware that I had to be conscious then of the role of this House as a revising Chamber but a Chamber, of course, which always gives way to the democratically expressed wish in the House of Commons.
At the Second Reading of this Bill, I was flabbergasted to hear the suggestion that we as a House of Lords should not consider amending this Bill in any shape or form even if there was a glaring weakness in it and that we should return it unamended to the House of Commons for reasons that I do not understand. I know from having spent 27 years in the House of Commons that it has the capability of creating the time, certainly if it is the Government’s wish to do so. If there is the extent of consensus in the House of Commons that has been suggested in this debate, surely that consensus would allow that time to be made available for it—or perhaps the consensus does not exist to the extent that has been suggested in this debate.
Be that as it may, I believe that the amendment before us is a vital one. It is one which I am conscious of in the context of the debate that we had some months ago on the position in Scotland. My good friend, Mr Alex Salmond, who has been roundly rubbished for suggesting a question other than the question being put forward by the Electoral Commission, had the good sense to accept the Electoral Commission’s suggestion. I believe that we should have the good sense to accept the words proposed in Amendment 1 that would provide for that to take place.
I invite the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, who is in charge of this Bill, to do what would be the sensible thing and accept the amendment. That would curtail the time that is being used and give an indication that this House still has a role on important legislation such as this. In doing so, he would change the tone of the whole debate from hereon in.
I have given way already on two or three occasions. I think that I have shown considerable courtesy in giving way several times before speaking. I say with the greatest sincerity that I have nothing but the greatest admiration for the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay. Anybody who knows him knows that he is a man of the greatest integrity, and he was undoubtedly an extremely distinguished Lord Chancellor. But I was really quite shocked by something that he said this morning and I feel that, for once, he has allowed party loyalty to override his general judgment.
He seemed to suggest—I wish I could believe that I had misheard him—that we should allow in this place any kind of rubbish to become the law of the land simply on grounds of political expediency, as a substitute for party manifestos as a declaration of future intent or something of that sort. That seemed to me an extraordinary thing for any Member of this House to say, particularly a former Lord Chancellor.
We have a duty, which it is perhaps not an exaggeration to call a sacred duty, to make sure that anything that goes forward from this place on to the statute book has been thoroughly examined. If we see something coming from the House of Commons which we believe to be anomalous or improper, or not up to the highest standards of a democratic legislature or false in any way, we must do everything possible to modify and improve the text before it leaves this House.
Equally, there is really no doubt that there is something very false about the text of this Bill. There is something very artificial about the language of the question. We all in this House think that we understand the English language. We think that we understand the difference between the verb “to be” and the verb “to remain”. We know perfectly well in any context, be it a newspaper or a novel, that if we changed every use of the verb “to remain” to “to be”, we would fundamentally change the meaning and produce complete chaos and nonsense in many cases.
If I were to say to a friend of mine, “Do you think that I should be a member of a trade union?” or “Do you think that I should be a member of my local rotary?” or “Do you think that I should be a member of the Mormon church?”, and if, subsequent to the conversation he discovered that I was already a member of a trade union or a member of the local rotary or a member of the Mormon church, I think that he could come to only two conclusions. One would be that I was going slightly mad, perhaps showing the advanced symptoms of Alzheimer’s; I can see some noble Lords who have felt for years that I have had that. Alternatively, he would feel, with reason, that I was being very disingenuous and slippery and that he needed in future to be very cautious in his understanding of everything that I had said. That, I am afraid, is the position of the Government, or the position of the Tory party, or the position of the proposers of this Bill. They have subscribed to a use of language which is clearly very slippery and disingenuous, and we have to ask why they have done it.
I have no doubt that they have done it because the spin doctors have said that people confronted with a question will be inclined to vote for the status quo, particularly if it is a matter not of immediate concern to themselves or their families—we know that Europe is not a matter of immediate concern to most people and their families—and particularly if it is a slightly complicated matter. That is the easy option—some people would say the lazy option—so that, if you want to get an answer against membership of the European Union, you imply, although it would be quite false to do it, that our membership of the European Union is something new and is not the status quo. We all know that that is the game that they are playing. The question is whether the Government, or the Tory party more precisely, should be allowed to get away with that or whether the House of Lords should feel it wants the Government of the day to get away with that. That is the question that we have to weigh very carefully, because on that depends the integrity to a very large extent of our processes here.
If it becomes known in the country that the Government of the day can get away in a referendum with posing an obviously slightly bogus and biased question, what does that say for the integrity of our democracy? What does that say for people’s confidence in our political processes? There is already enough cynicism in this country about politics without adding to it in this fashion.
Even if there was no such thing as an Electoral Commission in this country, quite openly and straightforwardly on the basis of the two texts we are comparing this morning, the one put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, is undoubtedly the one we should go for. However, there is an Electoral Commission. We have established it as an umpire to deal with precisely these matters, to give better confidence to the British people that politicians cannot get away with dirty tricks. Here, the sponsors and supporters of the Bill propose that we should simply override the views of the Electoral Commission—the umpire. Two things follow from that. First, it would be quite clear that there is no point at all in having an Electoral Commission. Why are we spending public money on an Electoral Commission if the Government of the day—or anybody who can get a majority in the two Houses—can always override its views? There would be complete cynicism about the Electoral Commission. Secondly, there would be even greater cynicism about all our political processes. I have my name to several amendments in this group but I am delighted to support the amendment put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong.
My Lords, I do not know if others of your Lordships are in the same position as me in that I remain confused about procedure between your Lordships’ House and the House of Commons on this Private Member’s Bill. I am fairly sure that very large numbers of the British public would be similarly confused having listened to this debate so far. I refer here particularly to the helpful interventions from the noble Lords, Lord Forsyth and Lord Elystan-Morgan, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern.
I will not make more of a speech on the Bill itself except to remind your Lordships, yet again, that the Bill passed through the House of Commons unopposed and is on a subject upon which a very large majority of the British people say they want a referendum. Of course, it would be a very foolhardy Government in future who dared to repeal this Bill if we passed it.
I still have a question on which we need an authoritative answer from the government Front Bench. I regret that the noble Baroness the Chief Whip is not in her place but the noble Lord the Leader of the House is—or perhaps it is the duty of the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, to answer this. The question is, quite simply: what happens if we pass any amendment to this Private Member’s Bill? Will there be time in the Commons to consider it and get it back to us, or will we in effect kill the Bill? What are the prospects of a similar Bill in the next Session and before the general election? Even if the wording in the proposed question may not be perfect, are we in effect killing this Bill if we vote through this or any other amendment? We should be very clear about that before we vote.
My Lords, a spectre haunts the Conservative Party—the spectre of UKIP. The noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, must glow with pride about that. He may have heard—as the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, said—the speech of the Prime Minister at Bloomberg. That was a damascene conversion. I invite Members of your Lordships’ House to listen to or read the speeches made by the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary, extremely eloquently, rejecting an “in or out” referendum prior to that Bloomberg speech. Indeed, the Foreign Secretary used phrases, which I will not quote now, saying what a disaster it would be in trade terms. Of course, that sentiment is echoed now by the CBI, the Japanese Government and a whole series of businesses—many Japanese, German and others—that recognise that there would be considerable uncertainty between now and 2017 if this Bill was passed.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, gave as justification for his stance that to pass this Bill would give an assurance to the British public, but an assurance of what? We have said on many occasions that the constitutional principle is clear: no Parliament can bind its successors. Will there be a clear assurance that there will be a referendum before 2017? We know for example that the Prime Minister has said very clearly that he would not intend to start negotiations with our European partners until after the next general election. Anyone who knows anything about the European Union knows that its wheels grind very slowly and there will be long and tortuous negotiations. Some countries that we believe now to be allies may no longer be—for example, the Czech Republic. Its Government have claimed for some time that they would be an ally in terms of reforming the European Union but it recently had a change of Government. The old, very Eurosceptic Government have changed to one far warmer towards Europe and so unlikely to be an ally. Poland, Bulgaria and Romania are, after the recent utterances of the Prime Minister, hardly likely to be particularly supportive. One could go on.
I wonder if the noble Lord would refresh his memory with paragraph 4.25 of the Companion, which appears on page 65. It says:
“Debate must be relevant to the Question before the House”.
I invite the noble Lord to read what I am saying. I am replying to points made by other Members of your Lordships’ House during the debate, so if I am not being relevant, nor were they.
As I am sure everyone recognises, the truth is that this would involve a great constitutional change. As a Welshman, I have considerable experience of referenda. The first referendum I was involved in was on Sunday opening in Wales. I went from London, where I was then working, to Wales and voted against Sunday opening. I have campaigned in many referenda since and have reached the conclusion that the result of a referendum depends, first, on who poses the question and whether the Government are popular at the time. Secondly, it depends on when the question is posed. Thirdly, it depends on the question. I end on this point: in my judgment, the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, made a highly succinct and powerful speech, inviting us not to allow the Tea Party to—we have used a lot of dog analogies—be the tail wagging the dog, but to follow the body set up specifically for this purpose, namely the Electoral Commission.
My Lords, I would like to ask the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, a question that I do not think has been put so far. Does he not feel a little uneasy about bringing forward this enormously important Bill in full knowledge that by doing so at this time this House would be unable to do its constitutional duty—its foremost and most important one—which is to suggest amendments to legislation without our being accused of killing the Bill or frustrating the Commons? Why did the noble Lord not bring forward his Bill earlier in the Session, when this House could do its duty to suggest amendments in full knowledge that the other place could do its duty and consider our suggested amendments before taking its decision?
My Lords, this is a vital issue and I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, and others for introducing the amendment. So that there is no doubt about it, let me start by saying that I fully support the amendment. I think it would produce a question that is far fairer. As the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, described it, it would produce a level playing field. That is extremely important, given the significance of the decision that we are being asked to take.
I received a letter from a sixth-former complaining about the speech that I made at Second Reading. She said that there was no point in us rehearsing the different arguments for and against the European Union, as that was something that would come out in a referendum, and that the real issue, as some noble Lords have characterised it on Second Reading and today, is about democracy itself, the chance for the people to have their say. The noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, made the point at the very beginning that his amendment would have no impact on that democratic intention.
The fact that we need to address, if I may say so, is what we really mean by “democracy”. It is not just a word, it is a process which we intend to serve—a better and higher purpose than any autocracy could achieve. It is about how we do things to get a result; it is a process that should lead to a decision. That requires clarity on the issue to be decided. The issue should be capable of being decided beyond doubt and beyond ambiguity, and this decision is a very profound one, so we had better make sure that when the country is invited to take the decision, it can get it right.
I do not believe that there is ever a Bill that is so unimpeachable that it cannot or should not be changed. The noble Lord, Lord Wigley, made the same point a few moments ago. It is not an appeal to democracy to say that we should not try to change the Bill; indeed, I think that that would be a rather disrespectful silence, as far as the people of the United Kingdom are concerned. The role of this House, as several noble Lords have said, is not to embrace expediency in these circumstances but to ensure that we have got the ethics right in providing the people of this country with the decision. It is true that we are not elected, but that does not in these circumstances mean that we are not relevant. I invite the House to embrace its relevance.
In May 2015, any party can say in its manifesto and put it to the people that there will be a referendum in 2017, should it wish. The mechanism to get that legislation through can unquestionably be achieved between May 2015 and 2017, quite aside from the possibility that noble Lords have canvassed of the Government, or at least a part of the Government, making time in the House of Commons to reconsider any amendment that comes from this House. It is very important that there should be a reconsideration, because it is conceivable—just out of prudence, I do not rule out the possibility—that somebody may conclude that it is important to have the referendum well before 2017. A bad set of results this May, with UKIP apparently doing better, may very well persuade a Prime Minister who has regarded this as a moving target all the time, to move the target again, if he believes that it is politically the right thing to do. I understand that these political pressures come on people.
It would be quite wrong for this House not to challenge the Bill. It would be quite wrong because it is not a party point; it is a point about the interests of the people of the United Kingdom being served fully and properly. The eminence of those who have tabled the amendment shows just how significant and broadly spread the support is. It is sometimes a courtesy to refer to colleagues in this House as being very eminent, conjuring that up as a turn of phrase, but if we look at the genuine experience of those who have tabled the amendment and the significance of the roles that they have played in this country, we can see just how important it is to take their views with the greatest seriousness. It is the basis of the Electoral Commission’s view. It is the basis on which the Select Committee on the Constitution has given advice. I know that I have only been here about 10 years, but I cannot recall circumstances in which all the advice of that kind has simply been ignored.
The fact that the Electoral Commission made two suggestions is not a reflection of its inability to decide, but an observation that either would be far better than the proposal in front of us. It invites us to do what we are supposed to do in political life: to take a decision. The one thing that is not in the Electoral Commission’s mind is to fall back on the worst of all the possible solutions, rather than to choose one of the better ones, as the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, to the great help of this House, has done. Indeed, the Electoral Commission is not entirely disregarded in the Bill. When it is useful to refer to it, in Clause 3(1), lines 6 to 7, and Clause 3(3), lines 14 to 15, those supporting the Bill find it very convenient to rely on the Electoral Commission. Let us rely on it properly for all the advice it gives, if we may.
I will mention Scotland briefly—but not, curiously, in the context of the referendum to be held on a far more sensible question than the one that Alex Salmond originally proposed. I will briefly mention the referendum which led to devolution in Scotland. It was a very big process. There was a constitutional conference, a major campaign and a fair question. It took a long time and it was done very thoroughly. We should reflect for a moment on the reason that was so. I recall the words repeated time and again during that process, because I believe that they are central to a decision as large as the one that this House is being invited to take. What was aimed for was that the people of Scotland should come to what was called a determination of their settled will. They were going to make a change where it was critical that they had fully explored and understood the whole of it and had settled on another solution for the politics of Scotland which would not be challenged or pulled apart in a matter of weeks, after people had decided that it might not have been the right thing to do.
The noble Lord, Lord Phillips, made the point about encouraging a larger number of people to vote, and I share that view, but even more important—I hope that he will not feel that I am making a contrast here, because I am not trying to—was the fact that the people of Scotland would know precisely what they had decided and whether they wanted to live with it. That was what was most important. This is a fundamental constitutional change and also needs certainty.
A number of comments have been made about the confusing nature of the words, the fact that they are tilted and the fact that they are ambiguous. I will not repeat those arguments; that would be tedious for the House and inappropriate. I know this: often, people ask me whether I think that something is the case. I may think it, but it does not always give rise to a purposive decision to change it. We go through all sorts of ambiguities in the cognitive process before we conclude that something has to be changed in a particular way. This question really will not do in arriving at a settled view. I ask those on the Conservative Benches to think again and to accept the amendment. It is always painful to change a position in politics, but it may none the less be right to change position on this occasion.
Finally, of course, the House of Commons will get its way. The Conservative Party, which is dominant in the House of Commons in this respect, can most certainly make the time for everybody to think again.
My Lords, I am not sidestepping the question. The number of times that noble Lords on all sides of the House have said that the affairs of the House of Commons are determined by the House of Commons, and that we are not the right people to try to do it, is a statement about the proper constitutional relationship that we have with them. That is not a trivial point; I would not presume to do that with the elected House.
I wanted to say that the pressures to act precipitately and move repeatedly, as I think Mr Cameron has, are not the right way. We will have to live with this Bill and it had better be the right Bill. I believe that this change will give it at least a chance of being the right Bill.
My Lords, the House has now been sitting for more than two hours and I will therefore try to deal with the amendments in this group with some general summing-up statements. A number of issues were raised today about the question in the Bill, and whether it is one which the public will understand and which will allow the people to have a say—an opportunity to decide and to reconnect with politics, as my noble friend Lord Phillips said.
My Lords, it is as spokesman for the Conservative Party. The Bill’s wording of the question—
My Lords, this is a Private Member’s Bill and in the usual circumstances it is normal for the Minister to give just a general view. It is not for the noble Baroness to give the Conservative Party’s view on each of the amendments. That would be entirely improper, in my view.
My Lords, I was not proposing to give the Conservative view on each of the amendments. I was going to make some general points. The Bill’s wording of the question is, I submit, fair and clear. It is the right question to put to the British people.
We have been going for more than two hours, as the Minister said, yet in one sentence she has just said that she will not respond to the point about why the question is the wrong one and why the Electoral Commission’s is the right one. How is that, unless there is no answer to the question—in which case she should accept the amendment? What is the justification for not accepting the question put by the Electoral Commission? That has not been answered from those Benches.
My Lords, clearly the House wants to hear from the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, so in those circumstances I will simply finish by saying that the Electoral Commission’s key finding was that the question in the Bill did not lead voters to favour one answer or the other. Its concern was that some voters who do not know whether we are currently in the EU would be confused. However, we feel that following a full referendum campaign, the number of people this would affect would either be very few or none.
My Lords, I am terribly sorry, as I know that the noble Baroness has a job to do, but when she says things like, “We believe”, that is extremely difficult. I know that the noble Baroness is in a difficult position. I do not know whether she is there as a government Minister or as a Conservative, but great care has to be taken.
My Lords, the Bill is about the British people having their say on the UK’s membership of the EU. That is what they want to decide upon and this is a simple binary choice: in or out. I will leave the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, to respond.
My Lords, thank you. I have listened carefully to this debate and have given this particular issue a great deal of thought over recent weeks. I have also taken note of the fact that 81 amendments have been put down so far to the Bill. This is but the first group of amendments and we have already taken well over two hours in discussing it—which is why, at the risk of seeming discourteous to the House, I do not intend to take any interventions. I want to get on with this. Although I simply do not have time—
My Lords, I am Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition and I would like to be heard. The difference between the noble Lord who has sponsored the Bill and the Minister is that it is the noble Lord’s Bill. It is a Private Member’s Bill. I think that the whole House would therefore expect the noble Lord to answer the questions that have been put to him—and if noble Lords who have intervened previously in this debate feel that there are additional questions to be answered, that is entirely appropriate. I think the House would find it appropriate if the noble Lord answered those questions.
If I may be allowed to make progress, I will do my best to do precisely that and to answer the questions that have been raised. They are about the questions in the amendment which the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, tabled. I am afraid that I simply do not have time to acknowledge all those who have spoken, although I thank noble Lords for their, by and large, reasoned and reasonable contributions, and in particular for the elegant way in which the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, introduced his amendment.
I am not entirely unsympathetic to what has been said. As I said at Second Reading, the case about the question is arguable but not overwhelming. Although some noble Lords have implied that we are standing at the gates of hell, and that almost any question would be better than this one, it is worth remembering that the Electoral Commission did not condemn out of hand the question that stands in the Bill. Some of the references to the commission’s findings that were made during this debate were hugely exaggerated. I have its findings here and have read every word. The commission said:
“We found that the wording of the question itself”— the question contained in the Bill—
“is brief, uses straightforward language, and is easy to understand and answer”,
not that it was confusing and misleading, as the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, suggested. The Electoral Commission had its reservations, of course—
Since the noble Lord is quoting from the Electoral Commission’s report, his quotation, in order to be accurate, should be precise. Exactly after the phrase which he has quoted, the words of the Electoral Commission are,
“however … the phrase ‘be a member of the European Union’ to describe the referendum choice is not sufficiently clear to ensure a full understanding of the referendum as a whole … The question wording does not make it clear for some people what the current status of the UK is within the EU, and the referendum choice as expressed in the question is likely to lead to confusion”.
If that is not a clear dismissal of the version of the question that the noble Lord is offering, I do not know what is.
It is precisely that point which I am about to address. If noble Lords would do me the courtesy of listening, they might actually learn a little about what I feel about this, rather than what the noble Lord, Lord Kinnock, feels about it. That is more time wasted. I will get on to the time-wasting in just a minute, if noble Lords will allow me.
As I was about to say, the Electoral Commission had its reservations, of course, and we have already heard much of that from noble Lords. However, I believe that the commission’s concern that some voters might be confused, because they are unaware that we are already members of the European Union, is a little oversensitive. Yet the role of the commission is to be cautious, and I do not criticise it for that. I understand that in the past we have made a habit of accepting the commission’s recommendations about any referendum question, but it is worth remembering that its role in this matter is entirely advisory. It is not an umpire or a judge but, as the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, has just pointed out, a source of advice. At the end of the day, it is up to us. The other place debated almost this exact same amendment as we are dealing with here and, after a lengthy debate, rejected it by a majority of 241.
It is also worth remembering that the commission was not able to offer a clear single alternative question. It is hugely significant that this amendment, which mirrors the second alternative suggested by the commission’s report, has not been properly tested by the commission; it clearly states in its report that it did not have time. So it is entirely possible that if I accepted this amendment, the commission might come back at a later stage and tell us that this wording was not good enough either. That would put us in a most awkward position and embarrass so much of what has already been said here today.
At Second Reading I mentioned other potential weaknesses in the commission’s report. I do not want to go back over too much of that ground but many noble Lords have expressed their concerns today. It is perhaps a pity—I put it as no more than that—that not a single Member of this House expressed any concern while the Electoral Commission was undertaking consultation at a stage that might have avoided the need for this amendment in the first place. Indeed, only 19 individuals and organisations offered any comment whatever. If this is a serious issue, it has been a long time coming.
It is also a fact of life that currently 81 amendments have been tabled to this short Bill. We know that some of the Bill’s opponents are determined to use any means to kill it. While I want to make progress, I hope that the House will allow me a moment to deal with that central issue because it gives a context to all else that we do here. Right from the start, the moment that the Bill came to this House, it has been true that, as the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, who sadly I do not see in his seat, told the BBC—and I am grateful for his frankness about this—that the opponents will use every trick in the book to derail it. It was put to him in an interview by Mr Mark D’Arcy that the aim would be to keep this Bill running in one form or another pretty much right up to the election. The noble Lord replied: “What they do not want to do, I do not think anyone wants to do, is to have their fingerprints on the dagger that kills it”. There we have it—death by a thousand cuts, or at least by 81 amendments, and that is what undermines the rights of this House.
I hasten to add that I am not accusing the sponsors of this amendment of any hint of deviousness. Many of them have made their points with charm and eloquence, as we would expect them to. However, we all know what is going on. We cannot deny the presence of an elephant in the room, a very large and unreasonable elephant—those who have no intention whatever of working to improve the Bill but who are solely intent on trying to kill it. They claim to be trying to improve the question but in fact are trying to ensure that no question is ever put.
We all know that if the Bill is to survive—if we are to give people the referendum they want—we have to get the Bill through this House in reasonable shape and in very short time. That timetable is not mine; it is simply another fact of life. It is a further fact that after six days of detailed consideration, the Bill went through the other place at every stage with a huge majority or no opposition whatever. We could all speculate why Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs ran for cover, but the fact is that they did. So, in the belief that what was good enough for Labour and Liberal Democrat geese down the other end of the Palace must surely be more than enough to satisfy their noble ganders, I ask the noble Lord, who is not party to any of these games, to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, my modest, innocent little amendment has given rise to a long, interesting and wide-ranging debate, and after more than two hours I do not propose to try to deal with every point. We are being told that the Bill must pass unamended to go back to the House of Commons in order to be concluded in time to be passed into legislation in this Session. As to that, although I am not an expert in procedure, it seems that if the House of Commons is sufficiently keen to see the Bill passed, it can change its procedure as a matter of exception in order to deal with it. I therefore hope that your Lordships will not be put off by that threat.
We are told that the Bill is a necessity as a guarantee or, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, said, an assurance that there will an “in or out” referendum about our membership of the European Union in 2017. With the greatest respect to those who are saying so, I cannot see it. It is impossible for this Parliament to give a cast-iron guarantee or assurance about something that is going to happen after the next election. Suppose that in May 2015, after the next election, there were to be a change of Government and the new Government decided that there should not be a referendum on this matter. The new Government would be free to introduce legislation in the House of Commons to give effect to that decision; the House of Commons would pass it; and then it would come back to this House, and no doubt we should be told that an unelected House ought not to challenge the view of the House of Commons.
I am with those who feel that we should not shirk our duty to scrutinise the Bill and, if we can, improve it, and that, with the greatest respect to the House of Commons, if that House feels that the Bill is so important, it should then adjust its procedures in order to deal with it. I do not think that the Bill provides the kind of guarantee or assurance that we shall have a referendum, because no one can know what will happen in 2015. If it is a guarantee at all, it is so only until May of that year. In fact, the best assurance that the people of Britain can have that there should be a referendum will be the commitment by the present Prime Minister to hold a referendum in 2017. As I said at Second Reading, that is a commitment that he can enshrine in a manifesto. No doubt the manifesto does not have the force of a statute, but at least its shadow stretches beyond the next election and would govern what the new Parliament did. I might almost argue, if I allowed myself to be political, that if the British people thought it so vital to have a referendum, as I am sure they do, their best means of assuring themselves of getting it would be to return Mr Cameron, who has given them this commitment.
The time has come for us to take a decision on this matter. I am afraid that I am not persuaded by the procedural arguments that have been deployed from the Benches here, and I think there is a strong measure of support for the amendment that I have proposed. Without any further ado, I should like to test the opinion of the House.
My Lords, Amendment 8 has appeared rather more quickly than noble Lords perhaps expected. I make it clear from the outset that Amendment 8 is purely a probing amendment and, if noble Lords have not realised the significance of the date in the amendment—
“The referendum shall not be held before
Clearly, if the Scottish people were to vote for independence, there would be a significant impact on the Bill. As far as I can see, no provision has been made in the Bill to deal with that matter, to which we shall no doubt return in debate on other amendments which impinge on that question. We do not know what the outcome of the referendum in Scotland will be. Therefore, in passing legislation to deal with the period through to the end of 2017, which is not only after the Scottish referendum but, if there were a yes vote, also after the fulfilment of independence for Scotland, it would mean that the United Kingdom was a very different entity from the one it is now. That must surely be taken on board in the Bill.
I am not opposed to a referendum in all circumstances. I have no doubt that there are circumstances when a referendum is needed. If a referendum is going to be meaningful, clearly the definition of the units—of the people who are taking part—has to be clear; it has to be determined. Therefore, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, who is in charge of the Bill, will be able to tell the House how it would respond to the possibility of a yes vote in Scotland.
It may well be that the opinion polls at present say that it is likely to be a no vote, and I think we all recognise that. However, I think we also recognise that a week is a long time in politics. One cannot rule out the possibility of a yes vote. Therefore, we need to have some provision that deals with it. There are implications in terms of the voting and negotiations that may need to take place between the United Kingdom and the European Union for any new deal that may be the basis of a referendum in 2017, and that has to be thought through. I get the impression that the drafters of the Bill just have not thought of the implications of the Scottish referendum result. For that reason, I beg to move.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, and I go back a long way. We are of different parties and we come from different parts of Wales, but on this as on most things he speaks eminent sense. There is an elephant in the room, the elephant being the Scottish referendum. We do not know what the result of that referendum will be but, if it be for independence, it will clearly have profound implications for this Bill generally and for a number of facets of the Bill. Therefore, I am pleased to follow his wise words.
My Lords, I, too, express my support for the noble Lord, Lord Wigley. The Bill as drafted has not taken account of the Scottish referendum in any way whatever. That is why there are other amendments in my name in relation to eligibility to vote for 16 and 17 year-olds and in relation to the count, and a number of other matters.
I take the opportunity to say now to the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, because I did not want to interrupt his fine reply to the previous amendment, that at the same stage in the consideration of the Equality (Titles) Bill, proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, nearly 90 amendments were tabled, and in exactly the same stage of the passage of the Bill proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Steel, to further reform the House of Lords, 160 amendments were tabled. Therefore, 80 amendments is not an excessive number, and it ill behoves him and others to criticise Members of the House of Lords for tabling amendments that seek to improve a very bad Bill, as the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, has done and I have done.
My Lords, this is a helpful amendment, and I have only one very brief comment to make. We have had a number of proposals coming through this and the other House over a period of time that have changed our unwritten constitution in quite significant ways. It is very difficult to know how they all mesh together, because they are almost never spoken of in terms of taking a helicopter view of the whole set of proposals. That probably leads towards the laws of unintended consequences on occasions because we do not have a holistic view. It would be incredibly hard before the Scottish referendum, allowing for one of the possible outcomes of that referendum, to make any intelligent decisions in this area. I do not think that we would be thanked by the people of Scotland, as it might very well be that they would feel that it took an element of their choice away from them, in the full sense of a choice about their future in Europe, in relation to the currency, and so on. It is a very sensible proposal, and I hope that the House will give it proper consideration.
My Lords, dates are very difficult, are they not? We have this particular amendment, which talks about October 2014, and other amendments that suggest 2020. We have talked about the Scottish referendum, yet at other times in debates on the Bill we have heard that we cannot have this or that date because of what is going on in Germany, Brussels, and so forth. Dates are difficult, and I acknowledge that. There is no ideal date; it is a bit like trying to find the right time to suggest that your wife should start a diet. There is never going to be a right time for that, which is why—
It is very simple, and I was about to get on to that. That is why the date in this Bill is very flexible. The Bill says that the referendum must be held any time up until the last day of 2017. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, has spent so much time instructing us, this is not the last time that this Bill and the measures for this referendum will come back to this House.
Dates are difficult, which is why the Bill has a very flexible date contained in it. However, I believe that, to put it this way, while many people might understand why the House took the view that it did on the previous amendment, I suspect very few would understand why we would twist and turn the Bill around to pass this amendment. It is unnecessary and perhaps misguided.
I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving away, and I understand part of what he is saying. However, were Scotland to vote yes, although that may be an unlikely outcome as things stand, would he accept that for the period after the referendum, perhaps even up to 2016, when independence would become a fact, it would be difficult to hold the referendum on the EU?
I like to deal with the practical world, rather than hypotheses, and the Prime Minister has already said that he needs this time to undertake the fundamental renegotiation that is behind all this. That is why he is going to campaign at that referendum on the basis of staying in, not getting out. He has already started that process of renegotiation, which will take time. There is no chance, in the practical, real world, that we could encounter a situation in which this referendum would be begun before the date that the noble Lord suggests. So this is really an unnecessary amendment, and I ask the noble Lord to consider withdrawing it.
My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity of having at least put the point on the record that there is an issue here to which we may well return on later amendments, as the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, indicated. I am grateful to noble Lords who have participated in this short debate. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 8 withdrawn.
Moved by Lord Roper
9: Clause 1, page 1, line 3, at end insert—
“( ) The holding of a referendum under subsection (1) is subject to the condition set out in section (referendum condition) below being met.”
My Lords, Amendment 9 is included in the group we are discussing, along with Amendment 74, and is not part of the second group headed by Amendment 2 as it appears in the groupings list, because Amendment 2 was pre-empted by your Lordships’ decision on the previous amendment.
Amendment 9, together with Amendment 74, has the same effect as Amendment 2 would have done. As the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, said of the amendment he moved some time ago, this amendment in no way goes against the principle or the objectives of the Bill—nor does it have any effect on the date—it merely tries to ensure that if a referendum takes place, it will be more satisfactory.
The two amendments in this group in my name and those of the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, and the noble Lords, Lord Hannay and Lord Anderson, seek to ensure that effective impact assessments are undertaken of the effect of the United Kingdom ceasing to be a member of the European Union. Throughout our discussion on the previous amendment and on Second Reading, everyone was clear about the importance of the decision which the British people would be taking in such a referendum. If the British people are to take such a decision, they need to take it with the necessary knowledge before them. Therefore, Amendment 74 suggests that the Government should publish such information and lay it before Parliament.
However, unlike what is suggested in a subsequent amendment, the Government are not necessarily expected to prepare the reports on the impact assessment. They may ask other bodies to do that, such as the Office for Budget Responsibility or the National Institute of Economic and Social Research. We are anxious that objective information should be made available to the public so that serious discussion of the impact of the UK ceasing to be a member can take place.
I think that the noble Lord was referring to my Amendments 5, 6 and 7 in relation to the renegotiation, the balance of competences and the transfer of powers, where the Secretary of State will have to report, which we will come to later. I hope he is not saying that he thinks those are unnecessary, and that he is saying that the impact assessment would be in addition to the reports by the Secretary of State.
My Lords, the noble Lord is right. We will come to his amendments with their new numbers, which I think are 42A and 43A. I was going to refer to them a little later—Amendments 5, 6 and 7, like my Amendment 2, having been pre-empted. Those amendments refer to reports being prepared by the Government, and the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Turnbull, refers to an assessment being prepared by the Secretary of State.
Amendment 74 suggests that it is necessary to provide the electorate with information on four matters, the first being an assessment of the impact on the UK economy of the UK ceasing to be a member. I was encouraged to read in the press this morning of the speech which the Permanent Secretary to the Treasury, Sir Nicholas Macpherson, made to the Mile End Group earlier this week, in which he pointed out that the Treasury would certainly provide information on what it considered to be the negative impact of the UK leaving the European Union. In recent weeks we have seen the information which bodies such as the British Bankers’ Association and other banks based in the United Kingdom have submitted to the Treasury as part of the balance of competences study. It is important that this information is brought together so that people know what the effect of our ceasing to be a member would be.
Secondly, we believe that a report ought to be produced showing the impact of the UK leaving the European Union on the rights of individuals within the United Kingdom. Individuals, our fellow citizens, at the moment have various rights as part of our membership of the European Union, including—as has been discussed recently—the right to free movement of labour, as well as other rights. Those, again, would be affected by our ceasing to be a member. It is important that people should be aware of the implications.
Thirdly, what would be the impact of our leaving the European Union on the rights of citizens of other member states of the EU who live in the United Kingdom? Again, there is a strong case for information to be obtained and put forward on an objective basis before the referendum, so that this matter can be clear.
In the fourth category, we believe there is also the impact on our fellow citizens who live elsewhere in the European Union. This matter came up in several speeches at Second Reading, including in relation to the impact on the variation of pensions for British pensioners living elsewhere in the EU, when compared with the pensions of British citizens living elsewhere in the world. It is important that we have information put before the electorate on the impact that our leaving the EU would have on this group of citizens.
I hope that our debate on this subject will not necessarily be as long as our previous debate, and I have tried to set out the major points that need to be covered in these reports. We will also, at some stage, need to consider the best way in which such information can be made available to the public. I beg to move.
Given that the House has just decided to amend the Bill, I hope that this amendment in particular will be looked at very sympathetically because it is designed to improve the circumstances surrounding the referendum for the benefit of Parliament and our citizens, if that referendum takes place. The amendment would ensure that Parliament and the public get the best possible amount of information about the consequences of their vote either for or against. It is a principle on which we should all be able to unite, and I am glad that the amendment has attracted support from around the House.
As the noble Lord, Lord Roper, has said, the amendment relates to getting information to Parliament and the public on a variety of issues that will be crucial during the referendum campaign. The first relates to the possible effects on the economy of staying in or withdrawing from the European Union, and we know that there is a good deal of discussion about this issue. We all know that businesses have expressed a great deal of concern about the prospects of withdrawal from the EU. I was interested to see only yesterday, for example, it was reported in the newspapers that concerns had been expressed by JP Morgan, BAE Systems, the British Bankers’ Association and Unilever, which is quite a cross-section of economic interests.
Concerns on economic grounds have been expressed in many parts of the country, including the City of London. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, is very much aware of City publications expressing concern about the uncertainty surrounding Britain’s future membership of the EU. Concerns have also been expressed in my part of the country, the north-east, where, as I mentioned in previous debates, we have large, successful firms such as Nissan exporting to the EU. The people who work in those firms will be concerned to make sure that their future will be as guaranteed as much as it can be, following any referendum. I think economic information is going to be vital for those reasons.
The noble Lord, Lord Roper, also mentioned—and indeed the amendments contain—references to other aspects of our membership of the European Union where we need to be fully informed about the consequences of either staying in or withdrawing. That is particularly vital for citizens’ rights. The noble Lord, Lord Roper, quite rightly mentioned the freedom of movement provisions, which many citizens in the UK benefit from on a day-to-day basis. Indeed, it is interesting that in consideration of this Bill I, and I am sure other Members of the House, have been lobbied a great deal by European Union citizens living in Britain and also British citizens living in other parts of the European Union wondering if they are going to be able to take part in this vote and what the future means for them and their rights as citizens. These are important matters that we need to take into account.
We know that the rights of citizens and, indeed, the rights of people in employment have been affected very considerably by membership of the European Union. A large number of European directives have been brought in to guarantee, for example, paid holidays, increased maternity benefits, paternity leave and so forth. People will want to know what the future holds on those issues following a referendum vote.
Although this is a straightforward amendment and is reasonable in asking for full information before such an important decision is made, it actually says a lot. Indeed, we could have days of debate on each of the matters mentioned in the amendment, but that is not what we are trying to do today. We are trying to make progress with the scrutiny of this Bill. I hope that my few comments have explained why I so strongly support what I believe is a very reasonable and sensible amendment to the Bill.
My Lords, I support the amendment for slightly different reasons. If there is to be a meaningful decision, the choice must be clear. Unfortunately, I think it is extremely likely that if the 2017 date survives in this Bill the choice will be anything but clear because, for reasons that I shall advance later when we come to Amendment 10, it is extremely unlikely that the negotiations that Mr Cameron wishes to enter on, which he has not entered on so far, will be concluded by 2017. There are many reasons why fixing a date is the last way of getting effective negotiations.
What could be the result? We do not know. We will not know in 2017 what kind of choice we are facing. What sort of Europe will we be invited to stay in or to leave? What sort of eurozone will there be? Personally, I believe the eurozone will survive but this is by no means certain. However, suppose it does survive, how big will the eurozone be? How tightly knit will it be? What will be the relations between that eurozone and the single market? There may be several countries which do not wish to support the British expansion of the single market.
There may also be several countries in the eurozone which may not wish to come to an agreement that will be favourable to the City. Certain forces in Germany would like Frankfurt to be the financial centre of the eurozone while others in France will want Paris to be it. All sorts of problems will exist and we will need some sort of knowledge about the assessment. There is a great danger that the City would be sidelined and that is something to which the impact assessment would have to draw attention.
What would happen if, as seems possible but not certain, the banking union will then be complete? What will be the relations between the banking union and British banks? I certainly get the impression that there is a growing movement among bankers that they would rather like to join the banking union. They are not as afraid of the new regulations because our regulations are tighter than theirs and they fear being excluded from these vital decisions.
I think that we will face a very difficult decision if we have a referendum in 2017. Negotiations should take place first and then there should be a referendum, rather than facing a decision at a time when it is very unlikely that negotiations will be complete. The whole question of whether to stay in or leave will need a very careful impact assessment, certainly if the date of 2017 is preserved.
My Lords, I add my support for the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Roper. My name is added to the amendment and I want to explain briefly why I think that it makes very good sense, both for those who are extremely keen to see this legislation on the statute book and for those who are less keen to do so. I think that both should be united.
I doubt whether anyone in this House would assert that the information provided in the press and on television and so on about the European Union is very satisfactory. It is highly partisan in many cases and I fear that in the context of a referendum, if and when one takes place, that will continue to be the case. I may deplore that but, as an absolutely fundamental believer in a free press, I am certainly not going to go around saying that something should be done to stop that.
This amendment seeks to ensure that there is available to the voters objective information about the consequences of a no vote in a referendum. The consequences of a yes vote are less problematic because our membership would be entrenched further and we would, I hope, move on. I support the Prime Minister’s wish to see a reformed European Union and I hope that we would carry on in a reformed European Union. However, I suggest that the electorate—our fellow citizens—should be given a lot of basic facts about the consequences of a no vote.
The reports that we are suggesting should, in my view, under no circumstances be government policy; they should be produced by an objective body or bodies capable of assessing these things. No attempt is made in the amendments to suggest which they should be—that would be far too prescriptive—but a body such as the OBR could produce some of the information. I do not know; it would be for the Government to organise that in the context of a referendum but not to produce it themselves. There is a case for the kind of information on the four or five issues that we have suggested should be set out in this Bill, and there should be an obligation on the Government of the day, if and when a referendum is called, to organise that and to make sure that it is available to the electorate.
We have now crossed a watershed—perhaps not as determinant as the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, told us a few minutes ago it would be; nevertheless, it is a watershed—and I hope very much that the noble Lord will see that, as the Bill is being improved by this House, this is an amendment that he can accept. It does not cross any watersheds and it does not seek to do anything that those on his side of the House who have spoken very strongly in favour of a referendum should be in any dispute over. They surely want this objective information to be available to the electorate, and this is the best way to ensure that it is, although of course I am not suggesting that at this stage we should write out what that information would be.
I have fought European elections as a candidate. One of the characteristics of that experience was that most of the electorate have a vague idea of the actual issues as opposed to the emotional issues. On something as important as the country’s future membership of the European Union, whether you are in favour of it or opposed to it, there is a great need to ensure that the decision, whatever it might be, is taken on the basis of an understanding and knowledge of the real issues.
I am quite sure that during the campaign exaggerated claims will be made by both the proponents of staying in and the proponents of leaving. It is important that there is a datum point of accurate information and an understanding of the implications, to enable the wider public to make the decision they will have to face.
My Lords, I pose a simple question: who can be against an informed electorate in a democracy? The danger now is that people obtain their views of the European Union from elements of the press which have a clear line. It would be helpful to find, as far as is possible, objective individuals to provide an assessment that can form a basis for an informed electorate.
I can add to the list provided by my noble friend Lady Quin of those who have already expressed a view. The CBI, for example, concluded in a recent report that while the UK could certainly survive outside the European Union none of the alternatives suggested either a clear path to improvement, advantages/disadvantages or greater influence.
There is clearly a danger of both sides exaggerating the consequences of being in or out. The Rhine will not overflow. Armageddon will not come whether we are in or out. It is a question of the balance of advantages and disadvantages, and what can better inform us of that than an independent assessment with which to inform the electorate?
Apart from the CBI, a number of major firms have also expressed a view. They are concerned about the effect on them, on their employment prospects and on further investment in the UK if there were to be a period of uncertainty. These include, for example, easyJet, Nissan, Toyota, Hyundai, and even the Japanese Government. I recall how often Wales has looked to Japan for increased investment and has done fairly well out of it in the past. It is unusual for a Government to express a view on a matter affecting another Government, but the Japanese Government have said that the UK has several advantages as a gateway for the European market and considerable Japanese investment. Japan, effectively, if I may paraphrase, expects this to continue.
Obviously we need to have an informed electorate. There will be consequences whether we remain in or come out but, as a number of noble Lords have said, who knows what developments there will be within the European Union between now and the time of a referendum? Some countries—there has been speculation about Greece in the past—may no longer be members. There may well be, although I think it unlikely, an acceleration of membership and an agreement on migration, and the question of the banking system might change, as the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, has said.
We have impact assessments for a series of other matters: the effect on public expenditure and so on. Certainly in the past when constitutional changes have been made affecting local and regional government, there have been learned commissions to look at them. In my judgment these matters are vital to us—for the UK economy, for European citizens within the UK and for our own citizens outside.
The methodology is available. The Government will be well aware that the Norwegian Government commissioned Professor Fredrik Sejersted to carry out a survey in Norway on the effects, and he was called in to our Foreign Office to advise on the methodology. At the moment it may well be that Mr Murdoch will have a far greater impact on voting intentions and ordinary citizens like ourselves will at least be allowed our say, but in my judgment it is not Mr Murdoch, his press and others who should prevail. The public should be well informed on the consequences for or against before they make the great leap.
My Lords, in the event of a no vote, there will not be a clean break with the rest of the European Union because Europe will still begin 21 miles away. We will be enmeshed in it in hundreds of ways. Just as there is a relationship between Canada and the US, we will have to find a new relationship. In order for someone to carry out this impact study, people will want to know what the Government will try to retain of the existing relationship, to modify and to drop. Where a change is made, the Government will need to set out their ideas for whatever they think should be the successor regime. Without that information, an impact study cannot be made and people will not be able to assess how it will apply to them.
Amendment 72, tabled in my name, comes right at the end of the Marshalled List. It asks the Government to do what only the Government can do, and that is to set out how they think these various regimes will be modified, and from that the impact assessment can be made. The two really go together, but because of the groupings, they will be considered separately. I support this amendment and I hope that in due course noble Lords will support Amendment 72, which is a partner to it.
I rise very briefly to support the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Roper, and other noble friends. I think that we have moved on now. A very large majority have voted not just in favour of the question, but in favour of the principle of amendment. That is because, of course, the only argument put by the other side was not against the last amendment—or only a very weak argument was made against it—but that we must not amend the Bill. The fact is that it has been amended, so now we can look seriously at it and try to improve it. This is one area in which we can make a useful contribution, and I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Roper.
I remember very well that before the 1975 referendum complaints were made by both sides, particularly by the no side, that all the information had been supplied by the Government and that that was unfair. There is a case to be made for some kind of hard-headed and objective assessment on which we can make our choice about whether to stay in or come out. I rather agreed with the noble Lord, Lord Roper, when he said that the assessment should not necessarily be done by the Government themselves because that was precisely the argument in 1975: the information was not to be trusted because the Government were pro-European and therefore it should have been provided by someone else. The suggestion that the Office for Budget Responsibility might be the body to do the work is a good one. I therefore support the noble Lord, Lord Roper, who I hope I can call my noble friend, which he certainly is because I have known him for 50 years, and I hope that in doing so I have done my duty to him and, indeed, to the argument for improving this Bill.
My Lords, I will speak briefly to support the amendment put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Roper. I believe that the provisions of this pair of amendments are absolutely fundamental to holding any meaningful referendum. Unless the implications of a change—and, indeed, the implications of staying in—are spelt out quite clearly, how are the public to be in a position to make an informed judgment? If we believe in referenda—I indicated earlier that there are circumstances in which I do—it is absolutely essential that we have this sort of provision. We have had a number of referenda in Wales; the noble Lord,
Lord Anderson, referred a moment ago to the referendum on opening or closing pubs on Sundays. There was also the 1979 referendum, which the noble Lord, Lord Kinnock, will remember very well as he left me with some bloody noses on that occasion. There was one in 1997 and a subsequent one in 2011. In each, it was necessary to spell out the implications of what was taking place. As far as we in Wales are concerned, there would be far-reaching effects, on two sectors in particular.
The noble Lord, Lord Anderson, referred to the importance of the Japanese manufacturing sector in Wales and the excellent work that was undertaken by the Welsh Development Agency in attracting more than 50 Japanese companies to Wales. Companies in Japan and Wales have indicated their concern if their strategy of locating their manufacturing capacity in the UK in order to sell to the European market was to be undermined by a change of this sort. The implications of pulling out of the European Union certainly need to be spelt out in those terms. In Wales, we have one very significant manufacturer, Toyota, on Deeside. If anything was to undermine that, it would be a body blow. We also have British Aerospace on Deeside, which works very closely with European partners. There would be immensely damaging implications for the company and the 7,000 or 8,000 jobs in north-east Wales. That needs to be spelt out so voters in the area know.
The other sector that would be affected is the agricultural sector, where up to 80% of income is now related to activity on which the European Union has a bearing. My friends in rural Wales in the farming fraternity most certainly have great fears—those, too, need to be spelt out for residents in rural Wales who may not be farmers themselves but will need to know the effect on their community if the main industry in the area is undermined. For those reasons I support the amendment.
My Lords, I will say a very few words in support of the excellent amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Roper. First, I underline what my noble friend Lady Quin said at the start and what was repeated by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, and my noble friend Lord Radice. The noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, finds himself in new territory now, which I am sure he will welcome. The fact that one amendment has been passed means that he is free, at last, to exercise the discretion that I know he has. If I may say so modestly, I think that he would increase his stature greatly if he now exercised that discretion from time to time. It will not delay the Bill any further, undermine it in any way or create problems with the House of Commons—it is not going to create any problems. Knowing him well, admiring him and respecting him, and having had a number of conversations with him, I hope that he will see himself as free to accept this amendment and, perhaps, some later amendments. That would go a long way to legitimising his position, and that of the Bill.
I was very pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Roper, said that his amendment was complementary to those of mine that are now numbered as Amendments 42C, 42D and 42E, which relate to reports by the Secretary of State on the transfer of powers, the negotiations and the competencies. It is also complementary to the excellent amendment that my noble friend Lord Lipsey put forward and which I have had the pleasure of adding my name to, Amendment 69, on the public information office. That, too, would be complementary and helpful.
I have two substantial points to make. One is to compare this with the Scottish referendum. Those of us from Scotland are beginning to think that it has been going on for ever, and we still have a long way to go—but the one thing we cannot say in relation to the Scottish referendum is that we have not been provided with information. We have had assessment after assessment by each of the departments of the United Kingdom Government, and there are more to come; we have had the so-called White Paper, Scotland’s Future, from the Scottish Government; we have had the no campaign arguing its case, Better Together; we have had think-tanks galore; and there will be more over the next few months until
Finally, a number of Members have made the point about the effect on industry. My noble friend Lord Wigley mentioned agriculture. I also hope that the impact assessment will look at the environment and environmental legislation. So many environmental matters deal with Europe and, as we have heard so many times, there are no boundaries to pollution. There are problems in relation to the environment that the EU deals with that we should have a report on. There is also the social chapter: so much in terms of health and safety, workers’ rights and everything else that concerns me and my party so greatly has been a matter of discussion, debate and improvement within and by the European Union. I hope that the report will cover that as well.
For all those reasons, I strongly support the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Roper, and I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, will give very serious consideration to accepting it.
I, too, support the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Roper. The analogy with 1975 is interesting. As the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, has reminded us again and again, the House of Lords passed without difficulty the Bill for the referendum. Of course, the difference was that the governing party had had in its election manifesto a commitment to having a referendum, and the renegotiation was taking place; it had taken place by the end. It was not a future renegotiation and a referendum in another Parliament; it was a referendum in the here and now. It was completely uncontroversial as a Bill, the question was in no way slanted and it went through like a dose of salts.
That was a totally different situation from the one we face with the Bill in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs. In 1975 there was a public information campaign in a very narrow sense. There was in Whitehall a referendum information unit, staffed partly from public service, partly from outside, which provided— genuinely impartially—information to the two campaigns, and the campaigns made what use they wished of it. There was very little direct communication by the Government with the elector.
The requirement then was not nearly as great. It was not long that we had been in the European Union. People could remember what it was like to be outside the European Union. There had been huge debate about Mr Heath’s application. There had then been an election, which was fought on a number of issues but that was one of them. The public were pretty familiar with the issues. People who have for a generation and a half assumed that the rights they acquire by being members of the European Union are permanent rights, people who live in Spain or Italy or Ireland, and enterprises that have made their decisions about investment on the assumption that our membership of the European Union single market is permanent are going to have to think about how these things would change.
The noble Lord, Lord Turnbull, got it exactly right and I agree with everything he said. The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, was correct to say that the four assessments called for in this amendment would have to be genuinely factual, impartial and independently produced. It is a serious requirement which should be in the Bill. I agreed with the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, when he said at Second Reading that it was a principal defect of the Bill that there was nothing in it about facilitating unbiased debate before the referendum was held. This amendment would correct that defect, and I support it.
“If we left the European Union, it would be a one-way ticket, not a return”.
There can be few bigger questions ever to present themselves to the British people in this or any other age, certainly in peacetime—questions about war, of course, are characteristically not put to the British people. If that is the dimension of the decision, it is very clear that it must be subject to a full assessment, not as an addendum or an afterthought but as a basic prerequisite of conducting a referendum and a meaningful vote in it.
The reason for that is very straightforward: there is no commercial organisation of any dimension, even quite small concerns, which would begin to undertake any significant shift in its product range, in its marketing, in its location and in a proportionately big investment decision without undertaking a full evidence-based assessment of the impact of taking that decision. It would be an assessment of the impact not just on the firm and its labour force but perhaps on the locality, the environment and on transport needs. Anyone who has been part of such decision-making, as many people in this House, including me, have been, is familiar with the very refined techniques that now exist for undertaking comprehensive and thorough impact assessments. That is what the whole of commerce does. Indeed, it is what the whole of local government does. There can be no significant decision facing any council in this whole country that has any kind of recognisable implication for the community, the budget of the council or the well-being of the citizens that is not subject to rigorous impact assessment, particularly risk assessment. Useful techniques exist for undertaking those exercises in ways that are comprehensible to the citizens of the locality as well as to the decision-makers, executive and elected, in the council.
If we are faced as a country before 2017, or maybe after it under the terms of European Union Act 2011, with this monumental choice whether to book a one-way ticket, not a return—in the words of the Prime Minister—an assessment of impact that is comprehensive, thorough and communicated in understandable language would be a basic, vital requirement.
To the list that exists in the proposed “Referendum condition” clause, which is commendable and touches on most of the issues that would be of significance to people, we could add some more words from the Prime Minister. He said that we would have to think about,
“the impact on our influence at the top table of international affairs … That matters for British jobs and British security”.
It is not a detached, academic consideration of whether we have lost an empire and still seek a role, or anything esoteric at all. He said, rightly, that it matters for British jobs and British security.
We could add that question to the list: can we realise the Prime Minister’s and the Chancellor’s ambition of remaining in the single market, whatever happens to our membership of the European Union? The Prime Minister said that that is the most important single reason for us belonging to the European Union. If that is the case, surely the issue must be examined with great rigour. What would be the impact, that we could assess, on our participation in the single market? The results of that assessment should of course be available to the British people for prolonged discussion and comprehension before they come to casting the fateful vote.
My Lords, I suspect that there is one other potential impact of deep concern to my noble friend, the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, and myself: the danger that there will be differential social, economic and environmental effects within different parts of the United Kingdom, irrespective of the Scottish dimension. I hope he would agree that that matter should also be canvassed so that those who live on the periphery of the UK can also be aware of what their vote would mean.
I am grateful to my noble friend. We could add a number of matters that absolutely, legitimately and centrally would determine attitudes in any referendum—as I said, whether it is held under the terms of this Bill, the one that succeeds it because this Parliament cannot dictate to the succeeding Parliament, or the terms of the 2011 Act. Of course, as my noble friend said, that is absolutely central.
As the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, and my noble friend Lord Anderson will know, I am not in any sense or form a secessionist or nationalist—quite the contrary, I am a unionist in more senses than one. But the fact is that if we were to have a referendum it would be entirely sensible for us to make an arrangement that ensured that its results were acknowledged according to England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland—if it is still part of the United Kingdom, which I dearly hope it will be. That is not in order to create trouble within this United Kingdom but, quite the contrary, so that people could signify their comprehension of the detail of the impact assessment and their calculation of what the real effects of departure could be for the part of the country in which they live and work and which they hold most dear.
I do not want to tire the House with a list of the various concerns that would have to be subject to impact assessment. I simply use what I have said and the illustration provided by my noble friend to further illuminate the argument supporting this amendment. I appeal to the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, to give full recognition to the force of this argument because I know, whatever his enthusiasms about a referendum or our participation in the European Union in future, he would not want Britain to go gentle into what could be a very dark night. He will want to ensure that the British people are in possession of dispassionate analysis and very thorough assessment of what the effect would be of departure from the European Union in order that their vote in a referendum was one of maximum information and, one hopes, wisdom.
That being the case, and respecting the noble Lord, as I do, I hope that he will accept the intellectual, constitutional and political rationale put to him by me and my noble friends in the course of this fairly short debate and be willing to embrace the amendment.
My Lords, on this side of the House, we regard this as a significant amendment. Given that the House has decided by an overwhelming majority that the Bill is amendable, we very much hope that the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, will consider it favourably. It is a serious attempt on our side to improve the referendum proposal and make an independent impact assessment a vital condition before a referendum can properly proceed. We want rational, independent consideration of the costs and benefits of our EU membership and of the alternatives to it. The amendment is, we hope, a way to facilitate that rational consideration of the issues at stake.
Why is it important to look at alternatives? Those of us who have spent a lot of our lives in politics know that opinion polls do not always give a very accurate reading of what is likely to happen at a general election. You can often be miles ahead, but the result at a general election can be very different. Why is that? It is a point of key relevance to the Europe debate. It is because, in the mid-term of any Government, people are simply thinking about what they think of the Government. It is only when they get to the election that they start thinking about it as a choice between the Government of the day and the Opposition. If we are to have a sensible debate about the European Union, it is vital that people do not just see it as expressing an opinion in a poll in a TV reality show about what they think of Brussels, the Commission, the European Parliament and all the rest, where we know what the result would be, but that they think about what are the alternatives to our present EU membership. They need to be explored independently and objectively.
A recent attempt to do this was in the CBI’s report, Our Global Future. That is on the economics. The CBI came to the conclusion that no alternative option to full EU membership can combine all the benefits of EU membership with none of the costs. I shall not risk being accused of wasting the House’s time by reading out the report, but it went through in meticulous detail all the different options, such as the so-called WTO option, becoming a member of the EEA, the Swiss option, or having some kind of free trade agreement with the European Union. It went through all the options. Those options need to be explored properly. That was the point that the noble Lord, Lord Turnbull, was driving at. We cannot have a sensible discussion in a referendum on our EU membership without the Government saying what they would do if the people voted to come out, because it is only in those circumstances that people can make a proper choice. That is one of the reasons why we support this.
It is important to emphasise that this is not only a matter of economic and social costs and benefits. It is also about the rights of citizens, particularly our citizens living presently in other member states of the European Union, and how a withdrawal would affect their position. It is also about our security. The present Government have just been through a huge exercise on the JHA opt-out and have decided that it is essential to Britain’s security that we opt in to certain of these measures. They know that if we were not part of those measures, senior figures in the police force and in the intelligence services would have very serious doubts about government policy. We need to look at the whole range of issues to do with our EU membership.
This has to be done objectively and properly. If we are to have a fair debate, that is absolutely essential. We all know that large sections of the press are going to argue for Britain to withdraw. There is no fairness in the British press on this issue, where you have the Mail, the Express and the Sun, and to a lesser extent the Telegraph and the Times, united in their view against membership of the European Union. However, we also have a lot of misinformation now in social media. If we believe in democracy, it is the proper duty of the Government to ensure that the public are properly informed of all the options through a proper, independent analysis.
As my noble friends Lord Kinnock and Lord Giddens said in the earlier discussion, whether we are in the European Union or not is a fundamental choice for the future of this country. The debate about it must not be treated as some way of papering over the cracks in one of our political parties. It has to be treated as one of the most fundamental decisions that, in our lifetimes, we will ever take.
My Lords, perhaps I may briefly refer back to what I said at Second Reading. I said that the Bill was not about being pro-European or anti-European but about being pro-democracy. The noble Lord raised a number of issues about the people being informed and I agree with him. One of the positions that the Government have taken in relation to the balance of competences review has been on having an independent review of each individual area, where organisations and individuals are given the opportunity to give evidence, and for those reports to be presented in an independent way so that people can see where the European Union helps and where it hinders.
Such a referendum will generate a huge amount of interest and a great deal of campaigning. I think of my own experience of campaigning during the AV referendum. It becomes apparent as the referendum date comes nearer that the campaign steps up and a huge amount of discussion takes place. Members of this House and of the other House will have the opportunity to have their say. Business will have its say, NGOs will have their say and both sides of the case will be put. I am convinced that when this referendum is eventually held, the yes campaign and the no campaign will have long and detailed campaigns which will allow the British public to hear both the case for and the case against. This is an opportunity to allow that debate and those campaigns to start, and to allow the British people to have their say. There is overwhelming evidence that a referendum is what the people of this country—
My Lords, I thought that with the Minister’s reference to the balance of competences in her opening remarks, she was about to turn and recommend to her noble friend that they should accept the amendment. Is that the case? If not, why not? She is in government; if there were a referendum tomorrow, would the Government ensure that the sort of information called for in the amendment was provided? I hope that the answer is yes, and if it is then I hope that she will recommend this amendment to her noble friend.
As the noble Lord is aware, the balance of competences review is to be done over four terms. The first set of papers has already been published and the second is being published as we speak. It is important that there is a timeframe within which this proper process is allowed to take place, and that is why the date as set in this Bill is not before the end of 2017. In those circumstances, I would say that the overwhelming feeling of the British people is to allow the referendum to happen.
My Lords, someone has just passed me a note to remind me that today is the anniversary of when the Emperor Caligula was deserted by his noble friends in 41 AD and came to a sticky end. I am not quite sure what they meant by that.
Another amendment, another hour, so I will be brief. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Roper, for the dignified way in which he has introduced the amendment. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes; I hope that it will not embarrass him if I confirm that we have extremely cordial personal relations outside this Chamber, but I assure noble Lords that that has never done anything to undermine the asperity of our politics.
Once again, this is a specific matter that was debated in the other place at some length and was turned down by a resounding margin. I understand why. The amendment could be taken as implying a lack of belief in our democratic process and the ability and capacity of people to come to a sensible conclusion. Of course they should be fully informed. That is the basis of our democracy; it is what election and referendum campaigns are all about. We have the most mature democracy in the world. The people are more than capable of understanding that the press often talks complete nonsense, as do the political parties and even perhaps the CBI. We have heard a lot about the CBI on this particular amendment; I understand that the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, and others would like the CBI to have a role in this independent, objective and dispassionate—to use the word of the noble Lord, Lord Kinnock—assessment. Is that the same CBI that a few years ago was chiding the then Labour Government to get off the fence and join the euro? You see, it is not quite as simple as—
Many of those companies have changed their mind. The noble Baroness is simply confirming the point that I want to make: these objective assessments are terribly difficult, and not simply obtained by the movement of a pen.
The noble Lord fully understands that that is not at all what I am saying. I am simply suggesting that this is not only a difficult issue but an important one. Of course we want people to make up their minds, and in order for them to do that they need information. Above all, though, what they need first and foremost is a vote—the first vote that they will have had in 40 years.
My Lords, nothing in the Bill prevents a future Parliament, before a referendum, from asking for just such an independent assessment in the circumstances of the time. Nothing in this Bill says that that is not going to happen. It is simply that this Bill is not required to do that in order for that to be achieved. The people will get their information—they will probably start complaining that they have had too much information—but they do not need this amendment in order to get it.
Having listened to the noble Lord’s argument and not disagreeing with his fundamental approach that the people of course need the right information to make up their minds, given that it is not necessary for this amendment to be passed in order for them to get that information, I respectfully ask him to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I am extraordinarily grateful for the support from all parts of the House for this cross-party Back-Bench amendment asking for the Bill to include an obligation to provide objective information on these critical matters. Given the time, I hope noble Lords will forgive me if I do not go into detail on all the points raised, although I think that the agenda which the noble Lord, Lord Kinnock, proposed is probably rather more than the one which I was thinking of, but there are obviously other ways in which these other matters can be dealt with.
I also felt that the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, on environmental matters and the social chapter spelled out some of the things which were already included. I hope that the House understands very clearly the distinction between the objective analysis which we are putting forward in this set of amendments and the other matters which are put forward in other amendments to which we will be returning later.
In view of the support from all parts of the House, I was very disappointed that the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, the promoter of this Bill, having said that he agrees with it, feels that it is not necessary to have it in the Bill. That is an argument one often gets as far as amendments are concerned. It is, of course, no longer possible to say that we must not have any amendments because we already have one, and having got one, the arguments against this one seem much reduced. On that basis, I wish to test the opinion of the House.
My Lords, the amendment would remove the specific 2017 date from the Bill; it would not, of course, remove the insistence in Clause 1(1) that there should be a referendum but would merely leave open the date.
At Second Reading, in my usual low-key, modest, respectable, Cross-Bencher way, I touched on the reasons why I, as a negotiator, thought it unwise to put our negotiators in the forthcoming renegotiation under time pressure by locking them into a 2017 requirement for the successful completion of a renegotiation, which it seems that we will not start until 2015. Reading Hansard and seeing what I said at Second Reading, I am reminded of Warren Hastings in Westminster Hall at his impeachment, standing amazed at his own moderation.
I am struck by the fact that we do not know what it is that we will be renegotiating. We do not know what we want. The noble Lord, Lord Owen, had a point at Second Reading when he suggested that we should start now trying to win friends and influence people on whatever it is we want to achieve. I rather agree, but we do not know what we want to achieve. We have seen three or four hints in recent weeks. We have been told that we may want to scrap free movement of persons, in Article 3 of the treaty, or to have the EU drop its Charter of Fundamental Rights, in Article 6 of the treaty, and resile from the European Convention on Human Rights.
We may want to roll back EU competence in labour and social law and change the single market rules to give Whitehall a veto on EU laws on financial services. Indeed, on that, we have been told that the message for the foreigners is, “Reform or we leave”. All that sounds quite big stuff, involving fairly fundamental issues. Putting it as mildly as I can, I warn the House that all that would take time. Perhaps I should touch very briefly on the timetable for treaty revision.
My Lords, will the noble Lord please explain to me—if he is able to—when he uses the term “we may”, which “we” is he talking about? Is he talking about “we” meaning the country, “we” meaning the Government or “we” meaning part of the Government?
I am sorry; I spoke loosely. I was talking about the Government of the day in the United Kingdom seeking treaty renegotiation.
There are four stages to treaty amendment, and the Conservative Party has argued that renegotiation will end in treaty amendment. It has defined success as treaty amendment. Stage one is that one has to find 14 other member state Governments who agree that one’s proposals for change make sense, or at least that they are worth considering in a convention. You have to have a simple majority.
The second stage would be a convention in which the national Parliaments, the European Parliament, the Commission—
I hate to deprive the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, of my wisdom, and he has been far too polite in the past.
The second stage of the process of amending the treaty is the calling of a convention. The last and only convention so far lasted for just over 18 months. The convention has to end up with consensus. The next stage is an intergovernmental conference in which one needs the unanimous agreement of every other member state to one’s propositions. Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. The final stage would be ratification of the outcome. If it involved treaty amendment, the changed treaties would require new national ratification in every member state’s capital. I assume that before we have the referendum, we would want to know, and be able to tell the country, whether the renegotiation deal had stuck and had been accepted in other member states. A very awkward and complex situation would arise if you had a referendum on the assumption that the renegotiation deal would be ratified everywhere, and that turned out not to be the case.
We do not begin those four stages until after an election in 2015. It does not add up. The first stage, the bilateral diplomacy, we do not appear to be doing. We do not appear to be collecting the 14 friends to get past the first hurdle. As to the second stage, the convention, I do not know how long it would take. It might take much less than the 18 months taken last time, but it is a finite hurdle to get over and it will take time. As to the third stage, the intergovernmental conference, Maastricht took a year. This one might take less but, on the other hand, it sounds as if the propositions that the Conservative Party envisages bringing forward are rather fundamental. Finally, as to ratification in 2017, one would be asking the French and the Germans in their election years to agree with the British on, say, restraining free movement of persons, taking human rights out of the treaty, exempting the British from social law or giving them a veto on financial law. You would be seeking agreement on that in the year in which a French Socialist President was seeking re-election, and a German Government who strongly believe in human rights would be facing the polls.
The noble Lord has not mentioned the danger that ratification would not have taken place. If the British had a referendum and wished to remain in the EU, but ratification did not take place after that decision was made, that would put us in a constitutional position of great severity.
I entirely agree with the noble Lord. The point that I am trying to make is: because the renegotiation is envisaged to take place before the referendum, the date set for the referendum in 2017 cannot be right. It does not work.
I am struggling with this argument because we are going to have a referendum in September on whether Scotland should remain part of the United Kingdom. The proposition then is that the referendum should be held before the negotiation. I did not think that the noble Lord had any difficulty with the idea of that referendum.
It depends on where you are starting from. It is not an easy position, but if the position of the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, is that he wants to get us out anyway and we should not bother with renegotiation, that is fine. Why not? However, the Conservative Party’s position, as clearly explained in the Prime Minister’s Bloomberg speech—in which, by the way, he was speaking explicitly as leader of the Conservative Party, not as Prime Minister—was that he hoped to renegotiate a different relationship with Europe, put it to a referendum and recommend that we stay in the European Union. I am just saying that that timetable does not work. It does not add up.
At Second Reading, a lot of noble Lords commented on the date. A lot of noble Lords made the point—better than I am making it—of the unwisdom of locking the negotiators’ feet in concrete and putting them under time pressure. That is not a wise idea. The noble Baroness, Lady Falkner of Margravine, said the date was arbitrarily picked out of the air. We have not been told in this debate why it has to be 2017, other than that was the date in the Bloomberg speech.
The noble Lord makes some very interesting points but are they not rather academic in view of the votes that have now taken place and that the House to some extent has already passed wrecking amendments?
Nothing in this referendum in any way affects the first line of this Bill that says that there shall be a referendum. This amendment concerns only whether it is wise to set in the Bill the end date by which time the referendum must have been held. That is my sole point. I have heard no rationale for the 2017 date. I look forward to the explanation of his rationale from the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs. It will not be sufficient for me to hear that the Prime Minister said in the Bloomberg speech that it would be by the end of 2017. He said the first half of the Parliament. That would not be a sufficient rationale for me because it was not put in advance through the political process and raised in Parliament and is not, as I understand it, government policy. It is the policy of the Conservative
Party, just as the Bloomberg speech was the policy of the Conservative Party. If we have to have a date in the Bill and it has to be the end of 2017, please tell us why. I can think of only one reason and I am not of a suspicious mind. If you wanted a referendum to produce the result that the UK leaves the European Union, you could not pick a better time. You are saying that the Government must bring their renegotiation to a head in what must be, because of the French and German elections, absolutely the worst year to do it. You are saying that they have to try to cut corners and accelerate the timetable, which the European Union will want to follow. You are maximising the chances that they lose friends, fail to influence people and do not get the renegotiation objectives they have in mind—
Clearly the date chosen—before 2017—appears to be the worst possible time, as the noble Lord properly points out. It is also during the UK presidency and it will prove extraordinarily difficult for the UK objectively to be chairing the European Union as president and at the same time be pursuing objectives the purpose of which we do not yet know.
I agree. Again it is the cui bono question. Why would you want to set this timing unless your aim is to get us out? I look forward to hearing an alternative, more encouraging explanation of the rationale from the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, and until I do, I think that we should take this date out of the Bill.
I am very uneasy about the whole renegotiation process. I am very uneasy that we are raising public expectations in this country by saying week after week, issue after issue, “Yes, we will sort that out in the renegotiation”. Everybody agrees that the EU needs reform but reform is an amorphous, amoeba-like creature, and it seems to go off in different directions depending on whatever the Daily Mail says this week. We are always told, “Don’t worry, it’ll be dealt with in the renegotiation”.
I think that there are issues that can be renegotiated, and I am absolutely not, in principle, against renegotiation. However, one has to be clear with the country, preferably before the election, about precisely what kind of European Union one is trying to create and whether it is going to work—how many friends you have and how negotiable are your aims—and one needs to be honest about it.
If your Lordships want a renegotiation and they want it to succeed, Amendment 10 deserves their support, because a successful renegotiation is incompatible with a 2017 deadline.
I should advise the Committee that if Amendment 10 is agreed, I cannot call Amendments 12 to 15 by reason of pre-emption.
My Lords, I want to say a few words on the amendments in my name and those of my noble friends Lord Anderson and Lord Davies of Stamford. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, can hear me, although whether he wants to or not is another matter.
I, along with my colleagues, have tabled about 10 amendments in this group. Some commentators outside this House have said that this is a disgrace and really dreadful. I see some nodding across the House—I presume in agreement with those commentators. It is our right and privilege to put down amendments and we should consider them carefully. I tabled a large number on this issue so as to give various options for the date—that is all. Some other commentators outside have said that the amendments are completely contradictory because they give different dates, but that misunderstands the purpose of Committee stage. As I understand it, the Committee stage of a Bill is for examining various options, and I have put down options for before the general election, after the general election and, as it happens, at the general election.
Some people argue—I know that the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, might do it from his own perspective—that there should be an “in or out” referendum as soon as possible. Some pro-Europeans also argue that—in other words, in order to clear up the matter for another generation, just as we supposedly did in 1975, let us have an “in or out” referendum. If we are going to do that—forget about the renegotiation; this is just about whether we think that the principle of the European Union is right—then the early dates we have suggested in Amendments 13 and 14 of
The other option is 2020. Again, if you want to have a proper, thorough and widespread renegotiation, then the more time you have to do it, the better. As others said earlier, we still do not know exactly what the Prime Minister wants to renegotiate. When he was interviewed on the Andrew Marr programme, he did not seem to know which areas he wanted to renegotiate. We do not have the details of all the areas, so perhaps more time is necessary.
Amendments 16 to 20 would provide the opportunity for Ministers to decide the date depending on the outcome of the renegotiation. They would provide sensible flexibility in relation to the decision on the date and that might be better. Amendment 21 would insert,
“after consultation with the First Ministers of the devolved administrations”.
As the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, knows, I am the last person—perhaps the second last person; he is the last person—who would want to give Alex Salmond a veto on anything at all. It does not provide a veto: it is just a consultation with the First Ministers of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland about the date.
The noble Baroness opposite agreed with my critics but I hope she will agree with me now that these amendments provide the options for consideration by this Committee, which is its purpose. No doubt when we get to Report we will have firmed up the dates and will be clearer of what the desirable date should be.
On the point of consultation with the First Minister of Wales, for example, will he bear it in mind that in the period 2014-20 we are in receipt of structural funds? If we pull out half way through that period there will be considerable uncertainty and therefore his input would be significant.
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, because that is exactly the kind of thing that the First Ministers of the devolved Administrations could put into the debate. It is not a veto. It simply provides an opportunity for them to say, “Look, if you do it on this particular date it is going to be unhelpful and difficult because of certain circumstances”. For example, we are having the Commonwealth Games in Scotland and there may be other events in the future during which it would be undesirable to have a referendum, or before or after. The amendment will give the devolved Administrations the opportunity to consult.
This group of amendments provides the opportunity for Euroenthusiasts to have an early date if they want to settle matters once and for all; equally Eurosceptics or Europhobes will have the same opportunity—and here is a Europhobe just to prove it.
My Lords, from listening to the noble Lord it is obvious that the purpose of his amendments is to give him an opportunity to make a long speech. For example, Amendment 13 suggests that we should have the referendum on
That is an absolute calumny. [Interruption.] The noble Lord, Lord Trimble, is known for his acerbity on these matters. I have been going for six minutes; when did we last take six minutes on a filibuster? In my main speech earlier in the day I was less than 10 minutes whereas the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, rambled on for nearly 30 minutes. He was the one doing the filibustering, not me.
At the risk of wasting any more time, dare I suggest that it is not a filibuster but a “Milibuster”, something designed by the Labour Party to cause so much delay and confusion that we will all have forgotten where we started from?
My Lords, I have put my name to Amendments 10, 23 and 24 in this group. Sitting on the Conservative Benches in your Lordships’ House, I should perhaps explain why I have done so. I did so because I believe that it is in the interests of not only the United Kingdom and the European Union but also of the Conservative Party to ensure that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, if he is the Prime Minister after the next election—on these Benches we hope that he is—is not placed in a straitjacket into which we are in danger of tying him if the provision in this Bill is not amended as suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Kerr of Kinlochard.
Can I just take a moment to remind the House of the history of this matter? We as a party have moved from a position of total rejection of a referendum to the promise of one in the next Parliament to the acceptance of a Bill in this Parliament and, sadly, to the inadequate Bill that now is before us.
The noble Lord, Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, has gone through in considerable detail the necessary steps which have to be taken to achieve an amendment of the treaties. I will not weary your Lordships by reading out or referring to Article 48 of the Treaty on European Union. Suffice it to say that it encapsulates all those steps. Suffice it to say also that this is not the first time that I have asked in your Lordships’ House this question of my noble friends on the Front Bench: how is it envisaged that you can negotiate meaningful, serious and significant changes within the period 2015 to 2017, given the provisions of the treaty by which we are bound? The answer cannot be that there is a fast-track procedure, because that is for small matters. If we are talking about only small matters, why are we going through this agony here today?
I suggest that the date is not practical. It is possible to envisage a situation where negotiations are not completed before the deadline is reached. What happens then? Do we have a referendum on incomplete negotiation? What will be the position of the hoped-for Conservative Government and the hoped-for Conservative Prime Minister then? What recommendation will he or she make to the country? The Prime Minister has said that he wants to campaign enthusiastically, post negotiations, for the United Kingdom’s continued membership of the European Union. I therefore address my remarks particularly to my noble friends on this side of the Committee. If we support him in that statement of policy, let us ensure that he has the space to do the job he has told us he wants to do, and if we do, that we will support the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Kerr of Kinlochard.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, has made a brave speech and, dare I say, a consistent speech because the position he has outlined is that which was taken by the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary in 2011. He is therefore being consistent, and one could well ask why there has been a change to what he referred to as the downward slope. Historically I could make the same point over a rather longer period.
When as a young man I joined the Foreign Office in 1960 and was doing some work for Mr Edward Heath, at that time the Conservative Party was enthusiastically in favour of Europe. I concede that in 1983 there was an appalling manifesto from my party—the death warrant. Then there was a reversal of the parties. Mr Major had a torrid time with people whose paternity he doubted, but the problem is that the people whose paternity he doubted are now in the driving seat of the Conservative Party. Mr Major has made very clear his own position: he does not support Mr Wharton’s Bill, which is masquerading as a Private Member’s Bill.
It is clear that the date is crucial, so why was it chosen? I picture a little conference in the darkness of the night in Downing Street, with a large bran tub with a series of dates in it. Someone pulls a date out of the tub and says, “Why not 2017?”. It appears to be as arbitrary as that. We have been given no serious explanation of why it should be the date, but we have been given a very good explanation by the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, as to why it should not be used. We have the good fortune to have in this House the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, who has immense experience of negotiating with our European partners. We also have the benefit of the noble Lord, Lord Hannay. Having been our ambassador in UKRep in Brussels, he knows where the bodies are buried, how negotiations are carried out, and about the need to build up a team in support of the position one wishes to favour. That is the real battle.
I will not repeat what the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, said, based on his own experience, about the unreality of the date. For referenda, the key determinants are who asks the question and, if it is the Government, in part, on their popularity at the time. In Wales in 1979, the devolution package was voted down massively by the people, four to one, because it was put forward by a highly unpopular Labour Government at the fag-end of their period. By contrast, the devolution referendum in 1997 was passed, just, after being put forward by a very popular Labour Government which had a substantial mandate. It depends who puts forward the question and when. The people of Sweden, for example, were consistently against joining the European Union, but a very small window of opportunity opened, which happened to coincide with when the referendum took place, and the people of Sweden chose, then, to enter the European Union. It is very much a hit-or-miss matter.
My starting proposition is that this is an arbitrary date. In fact, as the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, said, there could probably not have been a worse date in terms of the concerns of the chief negotiating partners—the French and, at that stage, the Germans—along with the added complexity of the British six-month presidency in the latter half of that year. There can be no serious rationale for that particular date. It is most unlikely that any time before that date will be suitable, for the reasons which the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, has set out: the complexity of the negotiations and the crabbed way in which the European Union sets about negotiations. If it is unlikely that one will reach a determination by 2017, why the hurry? One is bound to ask what their motive is.
I recall that, at Second Reading, I probably made a mistake historically when I attributed a particular good story, which I have lived on for 10 years, to
Metternich—the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, very properly, corrected me and said it was Talleyrand who made that particular point. I defer to his historical knowledge on that, but will pose another historical analogy. Just prior to the French Revolution, a very acute observer, looking at the French liberal aristocrats who were flirting with revolution just before 1789, said, “Those who are blowing upon the flames will one day be consumed by them”. My noble friend Lord Pearson is no longer in his place, but it is he and his party who may well be benefiting from what the Prime Minister is doing.
I commend to the House an interesting article in the Financial Times of
Indeed, 100 Conservative Members of Parliament signed that letter to the Prime Minister, saying, “More, more”, as if he were a penguin-house keeper, throwing fish to the penguins in the hope that they would say, “That’s enough”; but no, they swallow them down and ask for more. They have exposed their real motives. He has not put off UKIP, which seems to be doing pretty well in the polls. He has not put the European question to sleep until the general election—far from it. Through this debate and what will follow, we are continuing to keep the European Union very much on the agenda.
I feel rather like Mr McEnroe: are they serious? What is the reason for choosing that arbitrary date? We do not even know what the objectives of the Conservative part of the Government are in pursuing those negotiations. We know that they have made the position more difficult for themselves by alienating some of their best potential friends: the Romanians and the Bulgarians; the Czechs, who have now changed their position; and the Germans, who do not have any treaty change within the coalition agreement that was recently hammered out. Far from building a consensus with like-minded countries, they have put them off. We know that, but what is their motive? Certainly the Back-Benchers are incensed and I will not go over what the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, has said from his own experience about the length of their position.
What will happen if we set into the terms of the Bill this date of 2017? If it is the case, as we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, that there is no way in which negotiations can be concluded by that arbitrary date, what then happens? Because we will be bound to have a referendum, will the question be perhaps not the one we have just agreed but something along these lines: “You will be aware that”—if the Conservative Party is then in power—“the Prime Minister has pursued negotiations with our European partners. There has been no finality. Do you wish him to continue—yes or no?”. Perhaps that is the only question that can plausibly be put forward at that arbitrary date of 2017.
The negotiations are highly unlikely to be completed by that time. We do not know the objectives. We do not know the timetable. Therefore, we do not know whether or not the Government will succeed. Will they just make up the objectives after they have reached a certain determination? Either way, this date is wholly unrealistic and it should be rejected.
My Lords, I promise I will be brief and I will try not to repeat what others have said. If I made the speech that I really wanted to make, when noble Lords read it in Hansard tomorrow they would probably all accuse me of plagiarising the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, because I agree with every word that he said—it could not be said better.
I would just like to make two points. Of course, I am concentrating strictly on the question of the date. We do not hear so much nowadays about repatriation of powers. The game has changed. It is now all about reform of the European Union. I give credit to the Prime Minister for having picked up on that. He now speaks about us being part of the reform of the European Union. The problem that arises, as far as renegotiation is concerned—to repatriate powers or whatever else the Conservatives would like to see happen—is that our European partners do not see that as a priority. They are interested in the reform of the European Union.
There will be a new Parliament shortly; there will be, I hope, a refreshed Commission and a reinvigorated Council. As we get closer to 2017, there will be new political leaders in Europe. They are looking at European reform and what they want—and they really do want it—is for Britain to be part of the process of reforming the European Union. If the aim of the Conservative part of the Government is to clog up the works, which is what the effect will be, with a long string of requests for repatriation of powers, we will have a very poor reception and they will not be so interested in us taking part in the reform of the European Union. It is extremely important that we focus on reform of the European Union and a little bit less on what might please the Back-Benchers at the other end of the Palace.
The noble Lords, Lord Kerr and Lord Bowness, and others have made the point that we do not know the purpose behind choosing 2017, although we have our suspicions, which have been mentioned. We just do not know. The Conservative Party owes us an explanation as to why it chose 2017. Surely it must have known about the elections in Europe; surely it must be aware of our presidency; surely it must be aware of how long it takes to negotiate. Why then did the Prime Minister decide to pin himself down to 2017?
The Prime Minister seems to have assumed a new role: that of Harry Houdini, binding himself in chains. Because Harry Houdini was a very clever man, he managed to get himself out and then hand the hat around to collect some dosh. Well, David Cameron is no Harry Houdini. He will not be able to get out of that bind if he binds himself to 2017. All the problems that have been adumbrated by the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, and others, he will have to face if he is still Prime Minister.
We need a clear answer from the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs: why 2017? If the date is to be 2017, how does he see that it could possibly be of assistance to a Conservative Government and, more importantly, to the nation as a whole?
My Lords, I share the concern expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, who spoke with authority and considerable experience in moving this amendment. I believe that the statutory imposition of a 2017 deadline threatens our entire strategy for securing Britain’s future in a reformed European Union. Moreover, this part of the Bill as it now stands undermines and contradicts some of the assurances given by the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary in previous statements. Not long ago, both those Ministers argued the case for realism, but, regrettably to me, they have played politics with it ever since. Yet theirs was the correct strategy before they wilted under fire. This amendment restores their original logic. More importantly for me, it restores Britain’s chances of winning the long struggle that lies ahead of us.
Clause 1(2) of the Bill propagates the facile belief that this country’s 27 partners in the European Union will allow us to reshape Britain’s role in it according to our own arbitrary deadline. I support the amendment because it removes that barrier, allows for proper negotiation and provides us with a good chance of success. Do the Bill’s supporters really believe that a binding commitment to hold a referendum before the end of 2017 will persuade others in Europe to comply with our proposals and at the speed we dictate? The Germans have a term for what is needed now: Realpolitik—let’s get real.
The Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary profess to be reformers and not quitters. That stance I admire. Answering a question during this Bill’s Second Reading in the Commons on
Clearly, he did not envisage the referendum taking place in a diplomatic void or during negotiations. Neither, although we can only assume it, did Mr Cameron. The Prime Minister in that major speech on
“And when we have negotiated that new settlement, we will give the British people a referendum with a very simple in or out choice. To stay in the EU on these new terms; or come out altogether”.
In other words, a new deal for Britain was the priority, followed by a referendum. He said:
“It is wrong to ask people whether to stay or go before we have had a chance to put the relationship right”.
He was correct. Alas, I am afraid that the Prime Minister has boxed himself into a corner from which he must be extricated—I was going to say “extradited”, but “extricated” is a better word. His original judgment is still valid, but a rigid deadline would impede a satisfactory renegotiation.
Whitehall must know that the Government’s consultations with industry, commerce and other vital interests are pivotal to a robust negotiating position for us. We need the support of all those interests, but consultations have not yet even begun. This amendment gives the next Government, whatever its colour, room for manoeuvre and a chance of success. That is why it should be supported by the House today.
Earlier in this debate, our critics said that we would cause problems for the Commons if we amended the Bill and would face the wrath of the people if it was amended and not accepted by this House as it stands. That assertion has been made bunkum of. We may have many blemishes on our society, but one thing that we have is a very full-blooded and strong parliamentary democracy. Part of that parliamentary system is our job, which is to scrutinise, ask awkward questions, speak out about double-talk and double standards, and amend legislation where we feel it necessary. Private Member’s Bill or not, too much is at stake now to take this Bill at face value. If we fail because of our own obduracy, Britain will be humiliated and our chances of ever reforming the EU will be severely damaged. This amendment is in the interest of our country. That is why it has my support. I hope that it has the support of many Members on all sides of this House this afternoon.
My Lords, I agree with every word that the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, said and therefore will not waste the time of the House by going over the points in detail. That was admirably done by my noble friend Lord Bowness and the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, in their speeches. I just want to make one particular point: both at Second Reading and in our debates today, I have heard it alleged that those of us wishing to amend the Bill are trying to sabotage the principle of a referendum and that there is some deep-laid plot to deny the British people the right to a referendum. The reverse is true.
As I said at Second Reading, I support the position set out by the Prime Minister in his Bloomberg speech. I shall campaign for a Conservative Government and when one is elected I shall campaign for a yes vote in the referendum when it occurs. But because I take that referendum very seriously, I am anxious that it should be held on the best possible basis: the details should have been fully thought through; it should be designed to provide the British people with the most objective possible choice and all the information that they require; and, before the referendum takes place, the British Government should have the best possible chance of achieving their objectives. I supported an earlier amendment and shall support this one, not because I wish to cut across the House of Commons or deny the British people the vote but because I wish to see the referendum carried out on the best possible basis and designed to achieve the result that the Prime Minister said that he wants to see.
My Lords, the only reason we have the Bill, and certainly the only reason that we have a Bill with a deadline, is the repeated failed attempts by the Prime Minister to mollify and pacify the euro-secessionists within the Conservative Party. Because of the risks, speculation and difficulty to which it subjects our country unnecessarily, I think that it is the most fruitless and most dangerous appeasement since Danegeld.
What is the Prime Minister seeking to negotiate? That is central to the Bill. He was good enough to tell us in his Bloomberg speech that he wanted to negotiate a new settlement with our European partners in the next Parliament,
“a new settlement in which Britain shapes and respects the rules of the single market but is protected by fair safeguards, and free of the spurious regulation which damages Europe’s competitiveness”.
He does not go into more detail about that; I suppose that we will have to wait for it. He calls for a proper and reasoned debate and then says:
“I say to our European partners, frustrated as some of them no doubt are by Britain’s attitude: work with us on this”.
I use those quotations to illustrate the complexity and the need for co-operation with European partners to make any significant progress on the kind of negotiation that the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer envisage: to negotiate a new settlement, which has at its centre powerful and influential participation in the single market but with our obligation shorn of any of the duties and contributions to which we object.
I think that that summarises fairly the approach to be taken in the event of the Prime Minister being engaged in that new settlement. That would make the whole process very fragile. The date, which is the subject of our debate now, makes it even more fragile. Why is that? Because the specification of the date of December 2017 means that the furthest possible realistic date to honour the undertakings of the Bill, by which negotiations would have to be concluded, would be, let us say, October 2017, 17 months after a general election in which the Conservative Party hopes to be victorious. It gets even more complex because, just underneath the provision relating to
Do people really believe that after the date of the referendum has been specified in December 2016, we can expect our partners in Europe—despite their distractions, which the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, has properly pointed out, with their acute domestic questions relating to their general elections—to whom the Prime Minister has appealed for patience, to stick with us when they know very well that we are facing a deadline of a maximum of 12 months, during which time the referendum must be held after the date has been appointed?
That brings me to my final point. I think that noble Lords will recognise it to be a practical point because, with the galaxy and diversity of talents and experience in this place, there is any amount of acquaintance with negotiation. Probably everyone in this House has done it, in one way or another, whether as a trade unionist, an employer, a politician, a civil servant, a manager or a parent. We have all engaged in negotiations and I suppose that there are a couple of basic golden rules about them.
The first rule is that you signify a deadline for the conclusion of negotiations only if that deadline can be one of your weapons—for example, “If we do not finish this deal by next Tuesday night, the deal’s off the table”, or, “If you don’t make the deal by next Tuesday night, we’re having a ballot and going out on strike”. So you use a deadline to influence the negotiations themselves, but only when you are a participant in negotiations and have sanctions. You can negotiate with your children, if you have a more democratic parental relationship than my children tell me I had in their upbringing, because there can be a withdrawal of privileges and a denial of this, that and the other, simply because they have not kept to their side of the bargain. That is part of growing up and of being a parent. You can do the same thing as an employer or a trade unionist, or any form of negotiator using sanctions to try to uphold the deadline and secure your objective.
What sanctions are in the hand or pocket, or the red box, of any member or putative member of a future British Government who have set themselves a deadline to negotiate a complex and comprehensive new settlement with the rest of the European Union, a prominent feature of which is our implacable right to continue to operate with full privileges and obligations in the single market, if we expect them to be willing to endorse that and give us our way in the name of reform? The reform objective is decent and very supportable. I have been working and campaigning on reform of the European Union in a variety of ways for a very long time past, so I support the objective of reform. However, what reforms can you undertake while ensuring that they are copper-bottomed, secured in negotiation and adopted as policy, or even as treaty amendments, if you are working against a deadline? In this case, there are no realistic sanctions to be employed against those who will not bear with us, negotiate in good part and come to a conclusion according to the timetable set down in the Bill.
The reality—is it not?—is that you never set a deadline unless you can enforce it and use it as a weapon of negotiation. If you make a deadline in any other circumstances, the calendar and the clock will do your opponents’ work for them—or at least, not your opponents but your partners in negotiation. It is easy to make the error sometimes and I have been known to slip into it very occasionally myself. I ask the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, to consider whether even his objective of securing this legislation to facilitate a referendum is really served by having an explicit deadline in the Bill. It is a deadline that takes no notice of the objective realities of our politics and other peoples’ politics, as the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, so forcefully pointed out. That is evidenced by any knowledge at all of the conduct of political and constitutional affairs in the European Union. A deadline takes no account of the even more basic realities of the biology and psychology of negotiation.
That is the last thing I would do to my noble friend Lady Quin. I would never take on a Geordie lass in that or any respect. I am very grateful to the noble Lord for permitting me what I hope is a courteous way to conclude my speech.
I sincerely hope that the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, thinks in these practical terms because he is sincere in his objective, but if we in this House are not to make fools of ourselves we simply cannot allow, on a gigantic issue of this kind, a deadline to be set for the conclusion of immensely complex negotiations that will affect the destiny of our country.
My Lords, I ask that the seriousness of the Bill be taken into consideration in determining when a referendum should be held. It is not about effecting changes or reforms only for the benefit of the United Kingdom. If that process has to be postponed until after the election, as has been said, we have a very short time in which to achieve those changes. The terminal date for the referendum seems not even to allow for that possibility to be achieved.
I think that our ambition should be greater. I served in the Convention on the Future of Europe in 2002, and it was noticeable at the time that many countries came to that operation without a clear view of how they would wish to see the EU reformed, but gradually, and very largely due to the skills of the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, a consensus was reached. There were certainly some exceptions—people like David Heathcoat-Amory, who did not agree with the end results—but the reality was that substantial steps were taken to improve the operation of the EU.
In 40 years the EU has transformed the history of Europe. It has made it a place where justice, democracy and peace can reign, and that is something from which we should not back off. We should accept that we can improve the methods of enhancing those goals. I think that for Britain to stand apart and say, “We want certain changes for us alone”, is designed to create a hostile reaction, whereas we should go into this process of reform saying, “We recognise that there are other countries that wish to see change, that wish to see the institutions more democratised, that wish to see not just a single market but one that embraces services and that wish to see not just economic change but security changes to see how we can co-ordinate our defence and security policy and make it more effective—not just an alliance between France and Britain, but something involving other countries as well”.
As we witness China growing in importance and its GDP rapidly rising, and as we see India and the BRICs growing in strength, it becomes more important from a global point of view that the European Union is stronger and is recognised by all its citizens to be a vehicle for influencing the better outcomes that we all seek to achieve. That cannot be done with a deadline of December 2017. It requires us to recognise that if we are going to have 28 countries working together to improve the operation of the Union—and we have seen it improve—we require longer to bring together the consensus which we need.
Last week, I was with the Select Committee in Brussels and Paris and what probably struck me most was the disparity of views about how to achieve these goals. For example, the European Parliament needs to have some right of initiative, as do national Parliaments, in indicating the direction of policy, but that has not clearly come on to the agenda yet. Although as a result of the convention and the Lisbon treaty the European Parliament has now has a right of co-decision and much greater authority and consequently greater democracy, we need to ensure that the voice of the European Parliament has greater influence on events.
I believe that the time is ripe for another Convention on the Future of Europe to enable member countries in all their governmental forms to come together collectively and work out a consensus. We need it to enable us to have the evidence of the citizenry presented, not just matters decided by conclaves of Governments who say that they are looking after their own. We need to have a full, open, transparent discussion about the limitations of the European Union, its achievements and its possibilities.
To set a date like this is to threaten the other member countries of the European Union with the possibility that Britain, one of the most influential countries, one of the most respected democracies in western Europe and, indeed, in Europe, might back out. That would be, frankly, a historical disaster, not just for this country, but for the European Union and for global governance, so let us not decide to set a limit to the decision-making of a referendum in this country. Let us amend this proposal. That does not mean that we need to be against referendums entirely, but let us be realistic about the time it takes to change the ways we do things. Let us endeavour to do it properly, systematically and thoroughly. Therefore, I support the amendment.
My Lords, I ask my noble friend a point of clarification. I am not clear about the relationship between the negotiations and the date of any referendum in December 2017. Earlier in the debate, my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern said that there was every likelihood that, if something became problematic it was always open to a successor Parliament to amend the legislation. In the case of the negotiations not being concluded in time for a referendum at the end of 2017, would it be the policy of the Prime Minister to follow the line of action advocated by my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern, or would it be his policy to proceed with the referendum regardless?
My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord replies to that because the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, has given the game away. There is, as the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong of Ilminster, said earlier, there is no point to having this date if noble Lords want to have this flexibility. I therefore add a question to the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs. In one minute it is seen as a bilateral negotiation by Britain and in the next minute it is clear, as has been said by many speakers, that it is a multilateral negotiation. It cannot be both at the same time. The first would be narrow, and I do not think it would get very far. If it is the latter, a multilateral poker game, it certainly cannot be time constrained in advance. When he replies, I ask the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs: which is it?
My Lords, I make a rather simple point. When we began our proceedings today, there was a widespread view that if any amendment were carried, it might endanger the future of the Bill. There was therefore a great inhibition against voting for any amendment. I do not believe that was wholly true because, as was pointed out in earlier debates, it would be possible for the other place to allow enough time for the Bill to proceed and for the amendments to be considered.
At all events, we are now in a situation where an amendment has been carried; it makes little difference whether one amendment has been carried or a number. It is therefore extremely important, if the Bill is to have a future, as I believe it should, that we make it as good as we can by carrying out our duty of amending it in a sensible way. I find it quite difficult to think of any amendment which has been proposed more sensibly that that of the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, this afternoon.
It seems to me that if we are really in favour of a genuine referendum on the substance of the issue, following a serious negotiation—which I believe is what the Prime Minister intends—then there really is a very strong case for the amendment. Therefore, whatever my noble friend on the Front Bench’s brief may originally have said, I hope that she will consider the point which I have just made and, more particularly, that my noble friend Lord Dobbs would also consider it. It seems quite clear that the Bill would be better it we accepted the amendment.
My Lords, each of the last three speakers has put very significant questions to the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, and we all look forward to his response. The House will have listened with particular attention to the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, as he has long experience of public life and the logic of his intervention seems to me very compelling.
I very much enjoyed the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan. I agreed with every word of it. He and I have had pretty much the same views on this subject during the 25 years we have known each other. I am as confident as I ever was that the judgment that we have taken on these matters over the years will be vindicated by history.
The noble Lord, Lord Kinnock, said some very wise things that I hope have been taken good note of. It will have struck the House—and I trust that it will strike the public—that we have heard in the course of the past two or three hours from the four Members of the House who have the greatest experience of dealing with the European Union and European Union affairs— that is, the noble Lords, Lord Kinnock, Lord Tugendhat, Lord Hannay and Lord Kerr, coming from the two major parties and from no party. All that they said and the advice they gave to the Government, which I think was very sound, was strikingly in harmony. That is probably a very significant point.
I put my name to several amendments in this group, a number of which—Amendments 13, 14 and 15—I saw, and continue to see, essentially as probing amendments designed to illuminate the issue and clarify the options. In that respect, as I shall explain in a moment, my expectations have been more than fulfilled. However, if we want to make the Bill a little more viable and a little less absurd, the right agenda for the
House now is to agree Amendment 10 of the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, and Amendment 16 of the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, to which I put my name. That would produce a coherent solution to the problem the House now faces.
There has been a lot of comment in the course of these debates to the effect that what we are faced with in the Bill is a series of absurdities. It is absurd to have a referendum that is supposed to take place up to four years after the decision to hold it is taken. I do not think that in the whole history of referenda, which as far as I can recall started with Napoleon I’s plebiscites, anybody has ever had such a ridiculous notion before. How could the Government possibly have come up with such an extraordinary notion? The whole thing looks suspect from the start.
What also looks very suspect from the start is the fact that the Prime Minister, the Chancellor, the Foreign Secretary and the other Conservative members of the Government have all apparently had this damascene conversion over the past year and a half in favour of having a referendum Bill when a short time ago they opposed it, using very much the arguments that we continue to use quite genuinely against the whole idea.
It is also very suspect that intelligent men—they are intelligent men; they are not fools—cannot have worked out for themselves the compelling logic set out by the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, which makes this date an absurdity if there is to be a renegotiation or some sort of change in our relationship with the European Union as a result of the initiatives launched by this Government. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, has persuaded everybody, including—this is the point that I am coming to—those who have brought forward the Bill, have pushed for it and have forced the Prime Minister to go along with this initiative: that is, the people who have been described in this House several times already today as the Tea Party.
The most eloquent spokesman I know of the so-called Tea Party—the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth—appears to have accepted the logic of the noble Lord, Lord Kerr. I noted that in his intervention, which was a dramatically important one, he said that the referendum might take place before the renegotiation. He had obviously abandoned the idea of making anybody believe that there was a reasonable chance of concluding the negotiation before the referendum, so he decided to switch it round and say that the referendum might take place first. I think what has happened this afternoon is that one more cat has been let out of the Tea Party’s bag, because a referendum which took place before the negotiation would make our leaving the European Union almost inevitable. Why? Because, in having a referendum, the Government would have to get a mandate for a particular negotiating agenda. They would have to say, “We are going to change this, change that, demand this and demand that”, and that would be the agenda that the public would then endorse.
Unless the Tea Party believes, rather like Napoleon I, that we could proceed in our European policy on the basis of diktat and simply lay down to 27 other nations exactly, in the finest detail, what they will and will not do, and what they will and will not subscribe to, there is no way in hell, if I may say so, that we would ever end up with a final agreement that corresponded exactly with the negotiating mandate that the Government had obtained the consent of the British people to pursue. In other words, such a referendum would be doomed to certain disaster. It could not possibly lead to a successful conclusion or any position other than there being a gap between what had been promised at the time of the referendum—and the deal that the British people had presumably endorsed if they had accepted the referendum and supported the Government’s negotiating agenda—and what emerged from that negotiation.
This is another example of the cat being let out of the bag. These are people who are devising methods, fair or foul, to ensure that, whatever happens, we come out of the European Union. Another cat was let out of the bag last week. A letter from 95 or, as some people said, 100 members of the Tory Party told the Prime Minister that the Government should introduce a Bill that would give the British Parliament the right, whenever it wished, not to fulfil but to derogate from any rule, directive or resolution of the European Union.
Again, these are not stupid people. They knew what they were doing. What would happen if we were to pass such a Bill in this Parliament? De facto, we would have left the European Union, because immediately we would be in breach of the treaty of accession. De facto, we would be out, but without a referendum. We would be out without the British people having realised what the process was that was leading to our inevitably having to get out. Unfortunately, they still have not woken up to that.
So much for democracy and for the idea that you cannot make such a move without the consent of the British people. We must be quite clear what the agenda of members of the Tea Party is in taking over the Conservative Party in this way, which they have done so successfully—to get us out of the European Union by hook or by crook. It is therefore important that in our debates we throw light on that and open up the truth, because it is a terrible truth, about which the British public should be in no doubt.
My Lords, I do not think that the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Stamford, could accuse me of being a member of any Tea Party. I well remember when he was a Conservative and enthusiastically cheered on the party, sitting by my side in another place. He has had a dramatic conversion, but I do not want to talk about that.
I have to ask the noble Lord to let me intervene because he said something about me that I cannot accept. Of course I have never suggested that the noble Lord is a member of the Tea Party, and I do not know why he supposed that I was saying that or could draw any such imputation. He has indeed known me for a long time in two parties; he reminds me of an embarrassing part of my past. However, I hope he will acknowledge that I have never changed my views on this subject, and I am glad to say that many other Members of this House here, including on this side of the House, will vouch for that. I have not moved on that question, and any imputation to the contrary—the idea that I was cheering a contrary view at some point—is utterly wrong, and I hope that he withdraws it.
I did not suggest any such thing. The noble Lord should keep his cool. He may always have supported Britain’s membership of the European Union, and so have I. I made it plain at Second Reading that I had advocated an “in or out” referendum since the Maastricht negotiations. I felt that the boil needed lancing. I also made it plain that in any such referendum I would campaign enthusiastically for our continued membership. If I had to give a single reason for that, it is that I was in the House of Commons long before he was. I remember when Romania, Bulgaria, Poland and all those Eastern bloc countries were in the Soviet bloc and under the grip of the Soviet Union. I rejoice that they are members of the European Union today. That alone is a reason for keeping the European Union in being.
I have been somewhat chided today by the noble Lords, Lord Grenfell and Lord Richard, for what I said at Second Reading. I take it in good part, as they meant it in good part. However, in my speech I sought to put a case for giving the Bill a fair wind. I think it was a reasonable case and anyone reading the whole of the speech, and not merely quoting selectively from it, could come to only that conclusion.
I wanted to intervene at this point today because we are now in a rather different place. The advice that I gave was certainly not heeded. It was comprehensively unheeded in the first vote. I say to my noble friend Lord Dobbs—whom I have been very glad to support and will continue to support and who has been doing a valiant and very difficult job—that the Bill has not been ruined by the two amendments that have been passed, and it is now up to the House of Commons to grasp that fact. When the Bill goes before another place on
I am most grateful to my noble friend, who was a Member of the House of Commons for rather longer than I was—I was a Member for only 14 years. As he said, the Bill has been amended, and my noble friend Lord Higgins argued that we can just add more amendments, but that will require time. I do not understand his point when he says that this can be dealt with by the House of Commons. The reason that we are dealing with a Private Member’s Bill and not a government Bill is because the other half of the coalition—the Liberals—refused to give the Bill time. In the absence of a commitment from the Liberals to do so, and indeed from the Front Bench of the Labour Party, how is it conceivable that this Bill can get through? Is my noble friend not kidding himself?