European Union Referendum Bill — Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:35 pm on 13th October 2015.

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Photo of Lord Lamont of Lerwick Lord Lamont of Lerwick Conservative 12:35 pm, 13th October 2015

My Lords, I wholeheartedly support this Bill. It fills a democratic deficit. As the Minister said, people have not had a direct say on a European issue for more than 40 years. No one under the age of 58 has been able to have such a direct say on our relationship with the European Union. I am pleased that the Opposition are not opposing this Bill, although in the Commons they opposed the previous Private Member’s Bill by Mr James Wharton. Nevertheless, I welcome their support for the Bill today.

However, some, like the noble Lord, Lord Liddle—he and I have often debated this—are quite unhappy. Even if they do not oppose the Bill, they think, as the noble Lord made quite explicit, that it is wrong to gamble with something as big and significant as our membership of the EU, since so much time and capital have been invested in it. To my mind, such an attitude reveals a distrust of democracy. That is and has been one of the weaknesses of the European Union. If there is any blame to be attached to why we are having a referendum, I suggest that it lies with those who promised a referendum on the Lisbon treaty and then went along with converting the constitution into a constitutional treaty, for the obvious reason that they wanted to avoid a referendum. That created enormous cynicism. It was a blatant manoeuvre to avoid democratic accountability and it confirmed the suspicion that Europe is about building a political project regardless of political opinion in the member states. Of course, Europe today is very different from the Europe that was put to the British people when we last had a referendum—and, indeed, when we joined the EU in the first place.

No doubt we will have intensive discussions in Committee. It has already been clearly signalled from the Benches opposite that there will be amendments about the franchise. I wholly support what the Minister said. If we are going to alter the qualification for voting, we should decide to do that for general elections first; that is when we should consider it. If we want to encourage more participation of young people in politics, let us concentrate on getting the 18 to 24 year-olds involved in the first place before we lower the voting age.

I do think that Clause 6 needs looking at. It is not at all clear why the Government have to disapply any part of Section 125 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. I read what Mr David Lidington said in the House of Commons and it is not at all clear what he was worried about and why we cannot have a full purdah during the period of the referendum. Perhaps my noble friend the Minister could give an example of exactly what the Minister and the Government are so worried about that they have to have this only partial application of Section 125. I remind the House that Section 125 is about material that is put out to the whole public. It is not about circulating documents to people who may be affected by some negotiation.

My position on the referendum is that I will wait to see the results of the renegotiation before I finally make up my mind. A renegotiated settlement for Britain that changed our relationship significantly would have much to commend it. I know this will offend some enthusiasts on the other side but, because of our opt-outs from Schengen and the single currency, we are already semi-detached, country club members—associate members. Sometimes I wonder whether Europe, as it goes forward, is not going to leave us rather than us leaving it—in many ways I think that would be a preferable way to proceed. But Europe goes on.

I am somewhat underwhelmed by what appeared in the Sunday Telegraph about the Government’s apparent negotiating objectives. I know you must not show your hand in negotiations and that an element of bluff is involved, but I thought that you had to bluff your opponents rather than your supporters. That is what worries me a little. I do not think that removing the phrase “ever closer union” will be of great legal significance. It is largely symbolic. I believe strongly that the red card system for national parliaments is not coming out of the negotiations at all. As the committee chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, has demonstrated, it has been on the table for a very long time already. It is just qualified majority voting by a different route. I do not think that it is enough just to buttress the wall between the eurozone and ourselves. I believe that Britain could survive perfectly well outside the European Union.