My Lords, there are two things on which everybody in this House can agree: that this referendum and its outcome will be very important to the country and that therefore it is incumbent upon this House to do everything we can in Committee and on Report to ensure that, when the Bill gets on the statute book, it is as good as it can be. By that, I mean that it should be formulated in such a way as to provide the British people with the basis on which to make a clear, well informed and objective choice.
I hope, too, that both sides of the battle will respect the patriotism of the other. The tendency for people to accuse the other side of being unpatriotic has always been a rather disagreeable aspect of debates on Britain and Europe. I certainly believe that it would be profoundly damaging to this country’s short and long-term interests to leave the European Union but I know that those who want to take us out believe the contrary and that they are as devoted to the well-being and strength of this country as I am.
I start with a general point: the Prime Minister should be given time to conduct these negotiations with other member states as he thinks best. He won an election and earned a right to our trust. When he completes his negotiations, the country can judge for itself what he has achieved. Those negotiations should be conducted not in public but in private. Once the Prime Minister secures whatever deal he believes is the best that he can, the public should be given the opportunity to cast their vote on it. When that result is known, there should be no hanging about. As we saw in Scotland, referendums cast a long shadow. The period of uncertainty should be as short and the referendum called as quickly as possible. I would like to see it called next year. My principal point is that once the negotiations are completed, it should be called as quickly as possible thereafter.
It is important that the British public should be as well informed as possible on the implications of the alternatives. This is not just a simple question of in or out. People need to know what the implications are of changing the status quo. In Scotland, one of the weaknesses of those who wanted to break with the United Kingdom was that they were unable to answer a host of questions about what that would actually mean. They could not even answer the questions on the currency. In this referendum, which is just as important for the United Kingdom as a whole as the Scottish referendum was for the people of Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom, it is absolutely essential that people should know in detail what is involved in coming out in terms of the legislative changes that will be required and of our trade with the European Union and with third countries with whom we have trade agreements signed as part of the European Union. We need to know what the implications will be for the free movement of British citizens within the European Union. We need to know what the impact on the scientific research programmes and universities in this country will be. We need to know what the budgetary implications will be, and a host of other things. This is something in which people need to see both sides of the balance sheet. If there is to be a change in the status quo, people need to be as well informed as possible on what that involves. Her Majesty’s Government have a duty to provide that.
Turning to the franchise, it is right that it should be for the British people to decide. I agree with the Minister on that point. It would not be right for other EU citizens to be able to participate in this referendum. However, by the same token, I do not particularly see why Pakistanis, Zimbabweans, Australians or Canadians should be able to participate in it, either. I sought advice from the Library and I find that if Australia, Canada or New Zealand—to take three monarchies within the Commonwealth—hold important referendums,
British citizens resident in those countries are not able to participate, and I do not particularly see why we should. If the Australians are having a referendum on the monarchy, that is their business and not ours; and if we are having a referendum on whether to stay in the European Union, that is our business and not theirs. If the Minister believes that it is important that this is a British issue for British people, I hope that she will do something about the non-British people who are at present able to vote.
The other point that I want to make refers to the 16 and 17 year-olds. We have a very interesting example before us in Scotland. My impression is that it worked well. I do not agree with those who say that if there is to be a change in the voting age, it should be introduced for general elections rather than for referendums. General elections are about the next five years. This referendum is certainly for the next generation and perhaps for very much longer. It does, therefore, touch the 16 and 17 year-olds very precisely. I will listen to the arguments but I incline very much at the moment to support those who would extend the franchise to 16 and 17 year-olds.
I look forward to playing a part in the battle ahead. I look forward to putting the case for Britain in Europe to the people of this country. I look forward to showing up what I believe are the weaknesses in the case put forward by those who want to leave. I know that we have a fight on our hands. I take nothing for granted. However, I am confident that in putting forward the case for Britain to remain in Europe, I am putting forward the case for the best interests of Britain and the British people.