European Union Referendum Bill — Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:02 pm on 13th October 2015.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Harrison Lord Harrison Labour 1:02 pm, 13th October 2015

My Lords, I remember the 1975 referendum, and at the time it was much criticised for being unconstitutional and outside the traditions of the United Kingdom. Indeed, I think it was the brainchild of Anthony Wedgwood Benn—or, as he was fondly called by my Conservative opponents in those days, Viscount Stansgate. I believe that that criticism is still valid. The noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, made a valiant effort to counter the fact that it is a largely non-parliamentary approach. The better approach, in my view, is the parliamentary discussions that we have in this Chamber and at the other end. The cry that you hear from time to time that this has not been properly debated is simply wrong. The subject of the European Union has featured in just about every general election that I can remember. I well remember that William Hague—soon to be Lord Hague—foundered in 2001 by basing his campaign on saving the pound.

The noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, must understand that it is not right to invoke our Irish colleagues, who have habitually, as part of their parliamentary process, used referendums from time to time. Nor is her aspiration right that a referendum will achieve a final say; I very much doubt that that will be the case. I look no further than the recent Scottish referendum. Most of us feel in our bones that there will be another coming along soon. Referendums, for the most part, seldom answer the question.

On the technical points, I agree that 16 and 17 year-olds, whose future we are here debating, should be part and parcel of the process, and I hope that the Government will think again. I also add to the questions asked by the noble Lord, Lord Tugendhat, recognising that there are various constituencies in the United Kingdom. For the past few years I have had a very real interest in financial services in this country. What of the 300,000 or so French people in this country, most of whom work successfully in the financial services sector?

The referendum is simply the wrong approach. I shall illustrate that. I recently chaired a meeting on the mortgage credit directive and I was surprised how reluctant our financial services were—it was backed by a speaker from the Financial Conduct Authority—to see the opportunities in the single market for our highly developed mortgage credit industry to penetrate the single market of 28 countries. Colleagues were surprised when I made that point.

Our habitual stance is defensive. We worry that we will lose something by conceding to other colleagues—the other 27. The truth is, if you go as a group of friends to the cinema, somebody chooses the film one week and somebody else chooses it another. That is the way that friends, colleagues and companions work. It is the sensible way that is recognised by most of us. I note that the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, will speak later in the debate. In his pivotal position I am sure he will know, understand and recognise when I say, on a recent parliamentary visit to Romania, they were astonished that we were contemplating leaving the European Union. I am sure that that is replicated by the noble Lord’s experience.

We also adopt the wrong tone. When Mr Juncker was proposed as Commission president, we found ourselves with the Hungarians as the only other one opposed. Why, for goodness’ sake? When we recently had in 2011 the budgetary discipline Bill, which was to be incorporated in national states throughout the European Union, we again prevented our 27 colleagues from achieving that.

The referendum comes at the wrong time. We propose to finish this by late 2017. That is when the French and Germans will have major elections, and, folly upon folly, when, in the second part of 2017, we will hold the UK presidency. We have recently passed a law that will prevent a UK Minister coming out and explaining to the people what was discussed and decided, because of the idea of purdah that should be laid across us and which was encouraged by the noble Lord, Lord Lamont. How strange.

What do the Government actually want: ever closer or ever looser union? It is very unclear. They also say from time to time, when they lift the curtain, “We’d like greater work done between the national parliaments” —of which we are a major chamber—“throughout the European Union”. No one can disagree with that, but physician, heal thyself: just look to the other end of this corridor and see how poorly we understand, scrutinise and develop European Union strategies—except, of course, in the House of Lords, which is, in its European Union Committee, pre-eminent in studying these things carefully.

We also say that we are opposed to the red tape that is supposedly launched on us. Timmermanns, deputy to Juncker, has been given the job of preventing useless proposals coming to the EU. In this country, we know that UK gold-plating encourages red tape. You never hear the argument made by a Minister that the biggest slasher of red tape to help businesses is the project of the single market of the European Union. That is the attempt to reduce from 28 different sets of legislation to an understandable single set which is then promoted. Who is the author of that but a noble Lord who sits in this House, Arthur Cockfield?

There is one other exception apart from Schengen that we do not recognise in this country. We are the only monoglots in the European Union. Everyone else has to learn English. We have to make a better effort at understanding other countries, in making sure that we communicate better with them, by not always using the English language. It would be a great benefit to David Cameron if he could speak a few words of other people’s languages.