European Union Referendum Bill — Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:27 pm on 13th October 2015.

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Photo of Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes Conservative 1:27 pm, 13th October 2015

My Lords, I know that I am right in saying that I am the only living Conservative remaining who voted against joining the Union in 1971, when the decision was taken in the House of Commons on the principle of joining. The Government of the day had a huge majority in favour; a few months later, on the Bill itself, that was diminished to a majority of four. So I think that I have the right to say, “I told you so”, because everything that I feared has, little by little, turned out to be more or less right. I did not take that stand lightly; I held a full referendum in my constituency, which I paid for, which was overwhelmingly against joining. A great deal of argument had gone on, on both sides, before the vote was taken.

I was not satisfied just to go by the result of the poll because that would not have been democratic, in my view. I then visited the four major cities and four different members to speak to people—they were twinned with Gloucester at the time—to find out about them and see what their views were of living in what was then a fairly new form of government. It is a form of government because it governs us and does so throughout. The most important thing to be established before any referendum takes place and before the Government give any advice about the outcome of the negotiations is to know what bottom line they are negotiating for. They need that to be known by those who oppose them. That is the fundamental requirement before the whole referendum takes place.

I fear that so many of the things that one dreaded happening have happened rather quietly and through the back doors. There have been endless, ghastly regulations, debated for long periods in the common market itself and then negotiated once again in this country for long periods, none of which brought any benefit to the people of this country. There have been stupid regulations. In a recent one, especially at a time when payday loans are such a problem, it was forbidden in regulations to put the cost of the loan in money figures. It had to be done only by means of the AER. How many Peers could stand up at this point and say what the AER is? I cannot see any volunteers. That meant that people entering into small loans could not see the actual cost of the loan in money terms. We renegotiated and renegotiated over years, and at last we can now put the actual cost of a payday loan, although we can only do it on the basis that it is printed in smaller letters than the printing of the AER. That is just typical. It is not in itself a huge issue or one of the great things, but I assure noble Lords that there are many more such stupid regulations that we have had to adopt over the years.

The stupid assumption that this has been some huge advantage to us in terms of trade has been waylaid by my noble friend already, who said that in fact probably less than half our total imports and exports are affected by the European Union. I understand that at the moment we are negotiating for a special trade agreement with the United States. I am sure that if that were achieved it would be of great value to this country, if not exclusively, and would certainly sit alongside our membership without any problems whatever as the two would not cut across.

At this stage, I do not know whether I want a come-out solution. Nobody knows that because they do not know what will be achieved at the end of the negotiations—or even what they want to be achieved. It is quite right that that should be an open decision throughout people’s prospects. So many people we have known for years and who have not had strong feelings now say, “I want to come out, I only want to come out and there is no other thing that would be satisfactory”.

I personally identify very much with all the views strongly expressed by our Foreign Secretary, who was here earlier. They give very little way to anything other than what I imagine we want as our bottom line. I will want them to be adhered to throughout negotiations of such importance. Finally, I congratulate this Government on being the first one since the inception of the Union, since the early vote when I voted against, to give this country the opportunity to see what we have gained, what we have lost and what we can improve—and, if we cannot improve it, get out. My congratulations remain firmly with the Government.