My Lords, I am very grateful for the opportunity to introduce this Bill today. I am not surprised that we have a modest list of speakers. I am very conscious of the fact that we had a major debate on referendums yesterday in the context of Europe, and that there are 60-plus speakers on Monday for the Government’s Motion on their plans to leave the EU on a certain date in March next year. So I thank very much all noble Lords who have come to the debate today, particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter of Kentish Town, the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, from the Liberal Democrat Benches, and, of course, the very hard-working Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Goldie, who has done so much work in different areas.
In fact, I am delighted to see that I am the only man present in this debate. That pleases me as I am a long-standing supporter and member of the 300 Group, which has always maintained that, as women make up half the human race, it should be half women and half men in politics, which would then be much less hysterical because it would not be men in charge, but everybody in a balanced way.
The Bill is modest in comparison with, for example, the excellent Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley of Knighton. Incidentally, I hope that, because it is such an important Bill, it will have the effect at the margin of increasing the audience for his excellent music programme on Sundays, which I listen to if I happen to be in the UK. It is a very good programme indeed and I wish him well with his Bill.
I first introduced this modest Bill in 2006, when there was no question of us leaving the European Union. It was intended to cover a big gap in people’s knowledge. This is not a criticism of the public in general but a statement of the literal fact that very few people in this country—including politicians—knew how the European Community functioned, about its institutional structure or about the work it did. The intention was not to promote particular policies but to explain the structure, the constitution, the development of treaties and all the rest of the apparatus.
I thought that a problem was developing, both here and in other countries, but much more here, which meant that the European Union was in danger of becoming a scapegoat when national politicians came back to their home audiences and said, “Ah, well, the trouble is, Brussels asked us to do this but we don’t want to”, and all the rest of it. Almost all of it was untrue, but the EU was a convenient scapegoat, and it happened to some extent in other countries, but not with the intensity that we saw develop here. Therefore, there was the growing vacuum of knowledge about the European Union—which is, to be fair, a very complicated apparatus even for those who have the time to study it very carefully.
I am grateful for the brilliant Library briefing note by Thomas Brown on the Bill, which emphasises that it is a brief Bill but, none the less, one that has been introduced before.
The referendum had a very sad result, I thought, and the Government have been handling it rather incorrectly since then, if I may put it in that gentle way. When that result came along, I thought that one would logically no longer proceed with the Bill. I have deliberately excised the clause in the original text about displaying European flags, which for obvious reasons looks a little less logical after the referendum result, despite the narrow majority which the anti-Europe vote produced. We went into considerable detail on that yesterday in the debate on referendums, which I spoke in as well.
However, there would be a reason to carry on with the other clauses in the Bill because whatever might happen as a result of Brexit—I believe, for obvious reasons, that there should be one result, with which perhaps some members of the Government might not agree, but we will leave that aside for the moment—it would be worth while proceeding. The main provision is in Clause 1, providing for the availability of information on the European Union in all logical public buildings. It would include those run by local authorities and the information would be available free of charge, as in a library. Libraries sometimes but not always have information on the EU and there is no particular set pattern; they, too, would be welcome to give this information—on a no-charge basis, of course. It would go into all the reasons for what the European Union was doing and the background to it. Those are in the subsections of Clause 1. It would not be on a compulsory basis but one which would encourage everybody to do it, because of the easy availability of the text and the fact that this habit might therefore grow.
Whatever the result of Brexit, it will be important for us. If we presumably have close and friendly relations with the EU, as the Government hope—that remains to be seen, of course; we will see what happens in the rest of the negotiations—then it would be of value for the public to know more about how the EU works. If the result were the alternative, however, of our remaining in the European Union, then I for one would be incredibly delighted about that, as would others. I think there is a built-in majority in the Lords for that result but we will see what happens in the future. Again, that would re-intensify the reasons for having the Bill.
The other part of the Bill in Clause 2 has provisions for the twinning arrangements that are promoted by the European Commission and the other institutions on behalf of the Union. This would develop town twinning both in existing member states and different countries, as there are new ones joining now. I think Albania is making its application this month. We are waiting to see the details of that. I recently visited that country and there was already a huge display of flags, anticipating that the result would be positive.
With those elements in mind, it would be a very good idea if the Government were kind enough to give the Bill a good run and not to oppose it, even if they have their own second thoughts about our membership of the European Union. It is important that the public be well informed on these matters and that calls for a more open response. For all those reasons I thank again those attending today’s debate and, while I look forward to what the Government have to say in response, I beg to move.
My Lords, I welcome the Bill and am pleased to speak in this debate. I salute the justified persistence and perseverance of the noble Lord, Lord Dykes. He has amply refuted the notion that this measure might be closing the stable door after the horse has bolted, because it is still essential that British citizens are informed about how the EU works. It will continue to be important to us. As even a Government who are pursuing Brexit acknowledge, we want at least a “deep and special partnership” with the EU. If it is deep and special, it is therefore not possible for our citizens to understand the world unless they understand the European Union.
The question in the 2016 referendum, although ostensibly about the EU, was rather along the lines of, “Are you happy with the status quo?”. After a decade of tightened belts, no wage rises and concerns about insecure jobs, inadequate housing and widening inequality, you did not need an EU peg for many people to answer with a big raspberry, but the widespread ignorance, misinformation and sheer malevolence in much of the press towards the EU did not help. As the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, said, the EU has become a scapegoat for everything that people do not like, whether or not it has any relationship or any causative role in those matters that are causing discontent.
On knowledge of the EU before the referendum, I shall quote someone whom I shall not name because I have not asked his permission. He is a remainer now, but he voted leave in 2016. This is what he has written:
“Prior to 2016 I had never really thought much about the EU. Indeed, the only time I was vaguely aware of it was when, on the rare occasion it did make the news, it was generally in either a negative (‘red tape central bureaucracy holding back business’) or comical (‘bendy bananas’) context”— he perhaps means straight bananas—
“1 or 2 rare minutes of a news bulletin was about the maximum coverage it received. Never prior to 2016 (that I am aware of) did the British public have any objective and informed insight into what the EU is, how it came to be, what is represents, how it works, how we play our part in it and what benefits membership brings to our daily lives and that of business. In the months leading up to the referendum I therefore sought to better understand the EU as best I could”.
He continues along the lines that he did not find much guidance on that. That sums up better than I can the predicament in which many voters found themselves in 2016. They simply had not been prepared, through education or through the media, to be knowledgeable voters asked to pronounce on the EU.
We all know who started the Euro myth business of bendy cucumbers and straight bananas: the unlamented ex-Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, whose association with the truth has more than a touch of Trumpism about it. Other journalists felt under pressure after Boris Johnson, as the Brussels correspondent of the Daily Telegraph, started finding it fun to report just on jokey, and usually untrue, stuff. They were pressured by their editors to produce the same sexed-up stories, but nothing boring about what was going on in the Commission, the Council or the Parliament. No, let us have some fun stuff. That has done an awful lot of harm.
On the history of the Bill, as the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, has said, he first tried about 12 years ago to get this Bill through. He did not have a lot of help from previous Governments including, it has to be said, the Labour Government, who felt that it was unnecessary to try to increase the volume of information that British citizens had.
In 2013, Andrew Rosindell MP asked:
“the Secretary of State for Education what his policy is on the teaching of the history of the European Union in schools”.
The answer from Elizabeth Truss was:
“Should schools choose to teach their pupils the history of the European Union then they can do so at their discretion. However, as we have made clear in our proposals for the new national curriculum published earlier this year, we do not think it should be compulsory for them to do so. Where schools choose to teach this, legislation requires that they do so in such a way that pupils are not exposed to politically biased views, but are provided with a balanced presentation of opposing issues”.—[Official Report, Commons, 3/6/13; col. 1004W.]
We can hear an echo there of what many of us are criticising the BBC for these days: false equivalence. As soon as you start to say, “Please can people learn about the EU?”, there is an accusation that you are politically biased, when actually people just want factual information. Somehow you have to balance knowledge of what the EU does with negative criticism of it. That is what has dogged this issue.
I had long been meaning to do this, but the Bill from the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, prompted me to actually go and look at what is in the national curriculum about the EU. The answer is nothing. Of course the curriculum does not even apply to academies and free schools anyway, and certainly when you come to the citizenship part of the curriculum you are relying on good will and on a teacher being found to cover the citizenship theme, which I am afraid often gets shoved aside in favour of subjects that are going to be subject to examination; it is often a sort of afterthought.
On the question of citizenship, the curriculum says that at key stage 3:
“Pupils should be taught about … the development of the political system of democratic government in the United Kingdom”.
You cannot understand government in the UK without understanding the origins of EU law, and we have just been through all that in the European Union (Withdrawal) Act. We are asking people to completely not understand how EU law is made and how it is democratically arrived at between democratically directly elected MEPs and democratic Governments, so it is no wonder that you hear the accusation that the EU is not democratic. There may be a legitimacy issue about the EU, because it is seen as remote and so on, but it is undoubtedly democratic. However, we are telling our pupils that they do not need to know about that, so the myths about how the European Commission dictates everything easily take hold.
So there is nothing about Europe or the EU at key stage 3. At key stage 4, pupils have to learn about,
“local, regional and international governance and the United Kingdom’s relations with the rest of Europe, the Commonwealth, the United Nations and the wider world”.
This is as if our relations with the rest of Europe are only about bilateral intergovernmental relations, on a par with the UN and the Commonwealth. There is no mention at all of the EU or how its supranational governance—it is not a superstate, but it is a supranational organisation—affects law and governance in the UK.
Under the history curriculum, key stage 3 pupils learn about,
“Renaissance and the Reformation in Europe, … the Enlightenment in Europe and Britain”,
“challenges for Britain, Europe and the wider world 1901 to the present day”,
“Britain’s place in the world since 1945”.
There is absolutely no mention of the history, creation and development of the EU.
Lastly, under the geography curriculum, pupils are expected to,
“extend their locational knowledge and deepen their spatial awareness of the world’s countries, using maps of the world to focus on Africa, Russia, Asia … and the Middle East”.
Europe does not exist, apparently; it is literally erased from the map. Then we come along with a referendum asking, “Do you like the European Union?”, and find that they do not know anything about it.
So if there is one silver lining of the referendum, it is that in the two years since then we have had more discussion about the EU and, I hope, better chances of learning about it than in any previous time since we joined it. Really, what I am agreeing with is the absolute need for the Bill proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, but particularly with the focus on the national curriculum. Why does the national curriculum not have a single mention in citizenship, history or geography—and I am not aware that it has it in any other subject—of the European Union as such? It is quite astonishing.
I am very grateful to the noble Baroness for her remarks. Indeed, the EU is a democratic institution, with the European Parliament—and she has attested that herself with her own career there as a very hard-working MEP, as well as an extremely hard-working Peer in the House of Lords, dealing with European issues. I thank her for all that. I live in France, too, because I had to try to live in a eurozone country, even if it was not Belgium—and France is nearer for us. Can she say why she gets the impression that other countries are more enthusiastic and why Britain is less enthusiastic? As I am sure she has, I have been confronted by people visiting from France and other countries saying, “Excuse me asking, but this proposal to leave the European Union—are they all bonkers?”. I get that a lot. Would she explain why she thinks that is so? Why are we different? Why do we not have the confidence, as a sovereign country, that the other members have?
That would take more than a few minutes to answer, or more than 30 seconds. One problem is that the membership of the European Union has been a party-political football for the entire time we have been a member. No one has been able—certainly not those in the driving seat in government—to rise above that and say, “Whatever the political controversies about our membership of the EU, we are in it and, while we are in it, we owe it to our young people, growing up as citizens, to understand how it works”. It is not propaganda or indoctrination, but that is how it has been seen; it is about simply empowering citizens to understand how the EU works and, indeed, how it should be reformed and improved. No Government have been able to rise above that party-political issue to see it as a matter of simply enabling our citizens to understand the world.
My Lords, it is now, alas, probably a bit too late for this Bill to have the impact that I know that the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, would have wanted it to have in the past. Indeed, just imagine if it had been willingly and positively adopted five or so years ago, and local authorities had risen to the challenge of identifying and publicising the positive impact of the EU on their communities. As we have just heard, both the low turnout at European Parliament elections and the spike in online searches for “What is the EU?” immediately after the referendum reflect on how poorly we communicated what the EU means to the country. The only thing on which I would disagree with the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, is that it is less about how it works than about what it achieves. We were even worse at putting that across.
Prior to the referendum, public understanding of, or even interest in, the EU was low compared to that for domestic politics. That was reflected in the quote that the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, gave from someone who had contacted her. Partly, it was because we all rather took it for granted because, after more than 40 years’ membership, many or most of the electorate had spent all their adult life with us as members. So who can blame them for ignoring the difference between what was done in Westminster and what was done through the EU? They simply got used to being able to travel visa-free around Europe, were familiar with the euro, and took their cars and pets abroad with little thought as to how all that was made possible. No wonder they expected that all those things would continue even if they voted to leave, because no one had explained to them that it was through hard work, in the Council, by MEPs—such as the noble Baroness—and through negotiation, that so much of this was made to work for consumers, and that those things were part and parcel of our EU membership. Nobody explained that perhaps our driving licences or car insurance would no longer work once we had left the EU, that holiday guarantees or compensation for delays might be a thing of the past, that our students might not have the same opportunity to travel and study across 27 countries, or indeed that our access to EU products or food imports might be at risk, let alone that the ready availability of medicines could be in jeopardy.
However, when the referendum happened, the campaign taught us at least two things, though I am not sure they are the silver lining that was referred to. First, when it mattered, people wanted to know what it was all about. Secondly, to rely on parti pris campaigns, with no requirement for honestly, objectivity or fairness, is the very worst way of providing clear, unbiased information. The campaign was neither clear nor unbiased. How much better it would have been had local authorities made information available in libraries over years—if any were left after the government cuts had closed so many.
There is now just one problem with the intention of the Bill—other than that we are due to leave. How on earth could this divided, muddled, headless Government ever agree anything European, let alone some robust but unbiased material to distribute, whether in libraries or on the sides of municipal buses? They cannot even produce a White Paper when they promised. When the Minister comes to reply, can she tell us where it is? On
There is another part of the Bill, on twinning. Other than the meaningless phrase “Brexit means Brexit”, which the Prime Minister likes to use a lot, there is her catchphrase, “We are leaving the EU but not Europe”—as if geographically that was possible, and some earthquake could move us further along into the ocean. But if we take those words in the spirit she perhaps means them—that we are indeed, in our thinking, policies, friendships and allies, still rooted in Europe—perhaps that means that the UK should continue or even increase the amount of twinning and similar arrangements that localities or special interest groups have with their continental equivalents. Therefore, can the Minister outline the Government’s vision for the future of town twinning, particularly in the light of continued assertions that the UK will continue to be good neighbours and good Europeans? To do that, we need to talk, to meet and to share.
That message about communication is one of the messages behind the Bill that, even if it does not become law, we should heed. The lessons are twofold. The first is a broad and democratic one: Governments, parliaments and councils should do far, far more to describe and explain what they are doing to the very people affected by those actions. That is a very general lesson that we should learn. The second is the one that I have just referred to: we are indeed Europeans; it is our continent, and we should do all that we can to continue to work with, understand and ally ourselves with our near neighbours. So a thank you is due to the noble—indeed, the feminist—Lord, Lord Dykes, for introducing this Bill and for the chance to consider the issues that it raises.
My Lords, having the Chief Whip at my right elbow is either an indication of great praise or it reveals something much more alarming, which is that he fears that something dreadful will happen and he might have to intervene to rectify it. However, I thank him for his presence on the Bench with me.
I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, on securing in the ballot this Private Member’s Bill on making provisions for information and statistics about the European Union to be available in various public places, and to provide information to further the establishment of twinning arrangements between towns in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in the European Union in accordance with the European Union’s town twinning support scheme. I know that the noble Lord feels deeply about these issues. Over the years, he has shown great commitment and determination in relation to the provision of information about the EU. However, I have to say to him that, despite him being the only man in this debate and notwithstanding his considerable charms, this lady is, I am afraid, not for yielding. The Government’s position is to oppose the Bill and I shall explain why.
The Government do not believe that it is necessary to legislate—that is, to create an obligation—to make information and statistics about the European Union available in public buildings or online. The decision on what to make available in public buildings is, I suggest, properly one for the relevant bodies which are responsible for the buildings. If they decide that it is appropriate and worth while to make certain information and statistics about the European Union available, that is their choice. It would not be appropriate for central government to dictate what information should be available in individual public buildings. Local authorities have a much better understanding of the services which they want to offer and which provide the best value for money in their local areas.
However, I make it clear to, and in doing so reassure, the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, and the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, that the Government believe that the European Union should be a transparent organisation, with access to information and statistics relating to it available to everyone. It is worth noting that information and statistics relating to the European Union, in addition to being available from traditional sources, are also easily and freely available online from a variety of sources, including the websites of the institutions of the European Union, which contain detailed information on the purpose, organisation and priorities of the EU. All EU legislation is contained in the Official Journal of the European Union, which is published online. In addition, there is information on the UK Government’s pages, including dedicated pages on the Lisbon treaty.
The noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, referred to the provision within the education system. By way of general comment, in my experience, many young people—who of course tend to be in the van of IT skills and digital adroitness—are extremely well informed about topical issues and current affairs. That was certainly the case in the independence referendum in Scotland. On her specific question, the national curriculum is not relevant to the Bill from the noble Lord, Lord Dykes. The Department for Education leads on the national curriculum and this Bill calls for the provision of information in public buildings.
I am sorry to interrupt the Minister but, although that is technically correct, I still think it might be worth while for her to try to answer my question. If she is not able to answer it now, perhaps she will write to me to explain why the EU does not figure at all in the national curriculum, which is the responsibility of the Government. Unless I have made some mistake, the statutory guidance that I have looked through includes no mention of the EU whatever. Can the Minister enlighten me as to why that should be so? Is she willing to consult her colleagues in the Department for Education and write to me with an answer?
I quite accept that what is in the national curriculum is indeed the responsibility of government, but it is not my responsibility in dealing with this issue as the Minister for Brexit. The noble Baroness is clearly exercised by this, and she might want to raise the issue directly with the Department for Education.
When it comes to the twinning proposal in the Bill, the Government feel unable to support it for three interconnected reasons. First, traditional town twinning is a locally led activity built on the enthusiasms, preferences and commitments of local communities; it is for a local area, therefore, to decide how it wishes to approach twinning, what arrangements would work for it and how it wishes to make use of any available funds for twinning. Secondly, this would be an unnecessary bureaucratic requirement for local authorities, potentially imposing new financial burdens where budgets today are already under pressure. This would especially be the case if an area is not interested in twinning, in which case the requirement in the Bill would provide no gain for the local communities which councils are serving. Thirdly—and let me clarify this for the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter—this requirement is unnecessary as the current scheme eligibility criteria state that, if the UK ceases to be a member of the European Union, it will be required to leave the twinning scheme. The Bill specifies the EU’s town twinning support scheme, which is open to applications from:
“Towns/municipalities or their twinning committees or other non-profit organisations representing local authorities … A project must involve municipalities from at least 2 eligible countries of which at least one is an EU Member State”.
The Government have said that, for everything else, existing funding through EU funds—whether structural funds or anything else—will continue at least until the end of the transition period. The question is this: will the Government replace this funding which would have been available had we been a member of the EU, as they have promised to do elsewhere?
I say to the noble Baroness that that is a matter to be determined post Brexit. The Bill, however, is about a system that can operate only as long as the UK is an EU member state. I am merely pointing out why it will not be appropriate to continue that arrangement when the UK leaves the EU. The current scheme eligibility criteria specifically states:
“For British applicants … eligibility criteria must be complied with for the entire duration of the grant. If the United Kingdom withdraws from the EU during the grant period without concluding an agreement with the EU ensuring in particular that British applicants continue to be eligible, you will cease to receive EU funding (while continuing, where possible, to participate) or be required to leave the project”.
Requiring local authorities to start to provide information on this scheme during a time of additional complexity, as the Bill proposes, would diminish rather than enhance the enthusiasm and commitment in local communities in respect of twinning proposals.
That is not to say that the Government do not support the principle of twinning—indeed, the long-standing localist approach to twinning has over decades resulted in many hundreds of successful twinning arrangements. I reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, who was particularly concerned about this, that the Government recognise the value of effective partnerships between strong and active local communities across Europe and the wider world.
“We will shortly publish a White Paper on the withdrawal agreement”.—[Official Report, Commons, 12/7/18; col. 1158.]
I am sorry but the Secretary of State did not say that. The wording in the Statement was “next week”, not “shortly”.
Well I have merely quoted from the line that I have been given from the Box, but the noble Baroness’s comments will, I am sure, be noted.
My noble friend Lord Callanan said “shortly”.
Well, it was the Secretary of State for DExEU. My noble friend the Chief Whip is saying that the phrasing was “published shortly”. We will need to refer to that again, but it is not actually germane to matters before us at the moment.
In relation to twinning, and as an example of a new relationship with our European neighbours, we have committed bilaterally with France to 10 new-style twinning arrangements per year, designed to promote the sharing of practical experiences and expertise on topics such as productivity and skills, in order to promote growth and economic success.
We therefore urge the House to reject this Bill. Our position is clear: that we will be leaving the European Union in March 2019. Once the UK ceases to be a member of the European Union, the UK will be required to leave the twinning scheme.
My Lords, notwithstanding the final remarks of the Minister, I am grateful to all the three Front Benches represented here today for coming and replying to this Second Reading debate. A number of important points were made and because we are finishing before the time originally estimated, even allowing for the Private Notice Question on crime, we are doing very well. Therefore, although I will be brief, I feel obliged to make one or two quick remarks.
Further to the excellent speech from the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, for which I thank her again, that theme was enunciated between us. It is incredibly self-indulgent of me to quote from my own speech in the referendum debate yesterday, but I hope noble Lords will forgive me. I asked:
“Why has this country remained the bad member of the European club? It is a club of friendly, sovereign countries working together, using majority voting sometimes and unanimity at other times, building up the European Union by treaty, and increasing the collective sovereignty of the whole body—as well as the individual sovereignty of the member states—whenever they make a collective decision”.—[Official Report, 19/7/18; col. 1366.]
Britain has become more powerful as a result of membership of the European Union, not less. That is the reality.
It is very sad that the Government have a closed mind, which echoes the previous stance of Labour Governments when I first introduced the Bill in 2006. Perhaps then there was slightly more excuse or reason because it was early days, but the then Labour Government passed the Lisbon treaty without a referendum, which was commendable. That took us a step further in our membership of the European Union, with new arrangements for the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers to work together on legislation jointly.
I thank the Front-Bench Labour representative, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, for her remarks. Her questions to the Minister have revealed once again the massive government disarray regarding what to do with these European matters. I think that this country is going through a terrible tragedy and nightmare in trying to deal with a process that has been unleashed by the Government in a clumsy way ever since the referendum result. The result was advisory only and weak, in that no provision was made for the magnitude of the percentages which all referenda in countries with written constitutions would normally have.
None the less, I am grateful to the Minister for responding to the debate and dealing with the points. I understand her reservations in one sense. While I feel disappointment about that, I hope the Government will think again. When the Government say that they are opposed to the Bill, and in noting that the Chief Whip is in his place, I would add the piquant thought that there have been provisional conversations with Members of the House of Commons representing different parties who are quite keen on the idea of the Bill—if it reaches them, depending on its remaining stages in this House—so there may be a more positive response from Members of Parliament in general or in particular than from the Government themselves.
Once again, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in the debate and ask the House to give this Bill a Second Reading.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.
House adjourned at 1.45 pm.