European Union Referendum Bill — Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:20 am on 13th October 2015.

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Photo of Baroness Anelay of St Johns Baroness Anelay of St Johns Minister of State 11:20 am, 13th October 2015

My Lords, naturally we will discuss these matters further so I will say briefly, since this is the opening speech, that I have already given an undertaking to cross-party meetings in this House. The Government are not seeking to overturn the vote which they lost in another place. We will keep to that undertaking. On publishing the regulations, we are taking consideration about precisely what the risk will be of coming forward with regulations, with regard not to parliamentary procedure but to whether they would properly reflect the risk to the Government of acting or not acting on, for example, European business. If my noble friend will forgive me, we are at the stage where we are looking very carefully at a decision in another place. I feel sure I will be able to respond in more detail at a later date.

I deeply appreciate the concern felt by noble Lords on all sides of the House on this matter. I was about to say that if the Government propose any exceptions, we will of course be mindful that there will be two designated campaigns leading the debate and that it will be for those campaigns to take the lead, as Ministers have made clear from the start. It is worth dwelling on that point. It is absolutely right that the designated campaigns lead the debate over whether to remain a member of, or lead, the European Union. This is established practice in the United Kingdom, and forms a key plank of the Council of Europe’s best practice guidance on referendums. The campaigns will no doubt put forward their arguments with gusto, and there will be competing claims about the benefits or otherwise of a particular decision. The campaigns will assume primary responsibility for engaging the people of this country and ensuring that they are furnished with enough information to make an informed decision. Clearly, that is the right approach—but, also clearly, there is a role for government. The public will expect Ministers to set out the results of the renegotiation, how the relationship with Europe has been changed and if, and how, those changes address their concerns. As my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer said in June, I am sure that the Government will publish an assessment of the merits of membership and the risks of a lack of reform in the European Union, including the damage that that could do to Britain’s interests.

I have no doubt that, once the Prime Minister has announced the results of the renegotiation, there will be a lively and robust debate both in Parliament and in the media, as there should be. I know that this is a particularly important point for noble Lords. Indeed, a number of parliamentary inquiries, in the other place and here, have been launched into the renegotiation, including by the highly influential European Union Committee chaired by my noble friend Lord Boswell. He is now, of course, independent, but he will always be a friend. The Government will continue to engage with them actively.

The Government have a clear mandate to hold a referendum on the United Kingdom’s relationship with the European Union. The EU referendum Bill will enable that to take place before the end of 2017. The Bill takes the best examples of good practice from previous referendums in the United Kingdom, and sets out rules on who can vote, and how they vote, which are reasonable and robust. It ensures a fair campaign so that the deck is not stacked in favour of one outcome or the other. This Bill sets the stage for one of the biggest decisions that the people of these islands have been asked to make in a generation. I beg to move that this Bill be read a second time.