New Clause 1 - Public information on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union

European Union (Referendum) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:15 am on 11 September 2013.

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‘(1) It shall be the Government’s duty to undertake a public information campaign on the question of EU membership.

(2) The public information campaign shall include the preparation of a booklet of no more than 10 pages summarising the meaning of the referendum question, and the possible impact of leaving the EU on the UK economy, the international interests of the United Kingdom, and its political influence globally.

(3) It shall summarise the main arguments for and against membership of the European Union.

(4) The booklet shall be distributed, so far as is practicable, to all households in the United Kingdom and Gibraltar.’.—(Emma Reynolds.)

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Emma Reynolds Emma Reynolds Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

I will briefly outline why I have tabled new clause 1. I am not going to press for a vote, but at some stage in our consideration of the Bill it is important that we should consider whether it is appropriate to put into the Bill an obligation on the Government of the day—we do not know what they will look like—to undertake a public information campaign at the time of a referendum. Obviously, that should be as dispassionate and objective as possible, and set out the advantages and disadvantages of our membership of the European Union, and the advantages and disadvantages of leaving the European Union.

I have set out in the new clause that the campaign should take the form of a booklet of no more than 10 pages. It is important that the information is concise, simple and informative so that people have the opportunity to consider the advantages and disadvantages. That is important because recent polling suggests that quite a number of people are uncertain about how they would vote in any such referendum, and many people suggested that they would like more information. It would certainly be useful for people making such an important decision about our membership of the European Union to have  at their disposal information that is easy to understand and digest and that makes it easy to weigh the arguments for and against.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour, Huddersfield

My hon. Friend makes a good case, but I think she is facing an uphill task. When I asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer whether he had ever had an independent evaluation of the cost to this country of leaving the EU—the impact on our economy, on our jobs and on the future well-being of our economy—he said that he had never had such an analysis.

Photo of Emma Reynolds Emma Reynolds Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

I have had a similar experience when putting oral and written questions to the Minister for Europe. Earlier in our deliberations on the Bill, I asked whether the Government have even started to assess the costs of withdrawal, and I was faced with the answer that the Government think it is in the national interest for the UK to remain in the European Union. That might not be the opinion of some of the Government’s Back Benchers, but it certainly seems to be the Government’s current position. I am sympathetic to my hon. Friend. For the time being we do not have an assessment by the Government and it seems that they have not embarked on one. That is why I think it is important that we add new clause 1 to the Bill. It might not be the current Government who are in place in 2017 or earlier. It might be a Government of a different political colour. I would hope so, but we do not know.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour, Huddersfield

It could be a Lib-Lab Government.

Photo of Emma Reynolds Emma Reynolds Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

It could be a Lib Dem Government, for all we know, if they get all those leaflets out. We simply do not know what the Government of the day will look like when this referendum takes place. Therefore at some stage in our deliberations it is worth considering in more detail whether we should include in the Bill an obligation for this type of public information campaign. Finally, and this depends on whether earlier clauses are amended in relation to Gibraltar, if the franchise were extended to Gibraltar that information campaign would extend to the good people of Gibraltar. I do not wish to push the new clause to a vote. It was tabled as a probing amendment. We will return to the matter in more detail on Report.

Several hon. Members rose—

Photo of Joe Benton Joe Benton Labour, Bootle

Does the hon. Lady intend to withdraw the new clause at this stage?

Photo of Emma Reynolds Emma Reynolds Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

I am happy for there to be a debate on this.

Photo of Joe Benton Joe Benton Labour, Bootle

In that case the hon. Lady must move the new clause.

Photo of Martin Horwood Martin Horwood Liberal Democrat, Cheltenham

I am relieved that that the hon. Lady managed to move her amendment before withdrawing it. The emerging tactics on the Labour side of the  Committee, in moving amendments that they do not support themselves and sometimes trying to withdraw them before they have even moved them, are perhaps indicative of the overall Labour political strategy these days. Who knows? That would be an unfair and uncharitable comment to colleagues who have supported me on many issues in this Committee.

Photo of Jim Dowd Jim Dowd Labour, Lewisham West and Penge

On what premise does he assume that there is a Labour strategy?

Photo of Martin Horwood Martin Horwood Liberal Democrat, Cheltenham

I could not possibly comment on that. I will not rise to that as I am sure you will tell me off, Mr Benton.

I am not particularly minded to support this new clause although I am open to persuasion. I understand exactly what the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East is getting at. There are a number of possible objections to this. The first is the quite basic one that that there is a whiff of propaganda on the rates about this. In a free democracy we should not have the information about the sides of an argument presented through official channels. It should be up to the political parties, the media, and the press to put those messages across in free debate.

We have public service broadcasters in this country who are obliged to present a balanced view of political debates. The BBC and Channel 4, as public service broadcasters, are under a duty to do this. We have a lively media in print and increasingly online that I am sure would be extremely active in the referendum campaign. I do not think there would be any shortage of information flowing around about the arguments for and against the referendum question when it happened. I cannot see that the public information document would add a great deal.

If the hon. Lady is talking about the necessity of presenting some of the implications of exit from the European Union, I agree that that is very important. The spirit of some of my amendments, debated in an earlier Committee sitting, was to make sure that Government Departments had reported in official form on the implications of exit and laid those reports before Parliament. That is important and needs to be done, but to turn that information into a short publication at public expense is not necessarily the right thing to do.

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

Yet again, unusually, I find myself in ashamed agreement with the hon. Gentleman. I remember that in the 1975 referendum objective information was apparently going to be provided; it turned out to be purely pro-European propaganda. Unfortunately the political class across Europe has shown itself not to be neutral in these matters at any time. Providing information should be left to those campaigning on either side of the argument—political parties and the like.

Photo of Martin Horwood Martin Horwood Liberal Democrat, Cheltenham 9:30, 11 September 2013

Who would have guessed that in a European Union Referendum Bill Committee I would have agreed so much with the hon. Member for Luton North?

Photo of Emma Reynolds Emma Reynolds Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

I hate to try to prise open the great friendship or marriage between the hon. Member for Cheltenham and my hon. Friend the Member for Luton North, but surely my hon. Friend’s argument against the impossibility—as he would have it, I guess—of having an objective assessment of the advantages and disadvantages could also apply to the amendments the hon. Member for Cheltenham spoke to in an earlier sitting about reports on the implications of leaving the EU? I imagine that if my hon. Friend followed his argument to a logical conclusion he would also conclude that those implications would be presented in a non-dispassionate, non-objective way.

Photo of Martin Horwood Martin Horwood Liberal Democrat, Cheltenham

The answer to that is that when Government Departments lay information before Parliament the civil service is under a duty to present the correct and dispassionate version of that information. Any statistics have to be in line with the guidance of the Office for National Statistics and, if necessary, checked, by the National Audit Office, perhaps, or even the Public Accounts Committee and other scrutiny Committees; an example could be the Environmental Audit Committee in the case of implications for our presence in climate change negotiations, our membership of the EU emissions trading scheme and things like that. There are plenty of tools at Parliament’s disposal to ensure that the information laid before it is objective, accurate and correct. I do not think that that would necessarily apply in the case of a booklet going out to the public.

Photo of Jim Dowd Jim Dowd Labour, Lewisham West and Penge

In 1975, of beloved memory for my hon. Friend the Member for Luton North, myself and one or two others here, that is exactly what did happen: the Government provided funds for both sides of the argument, and also distributed a pamphlet to every household in the country, even though the Government’s official position was in favour. The pamphlet included sections relating to the opinion of Commonwealth countries, as portrayed to the British Government, and also gave an outline or indication—I would not say an analysis—of the consequences of saying yes or no.

Photo of Martin Horwood Martin Horwood Liberal Democrat, Cheltenham

That is an important point. I was 12 at the time, and cannot quite remember how objectively the information was presented in that booklet. I am sure that, with a little research, I could come to a conclusion on what the hon. Gentleman has said.

Photo of Emma Reynolds Emma Reynolds Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

Given that I had not been born, I do not remember the 1975 referendum.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour, Huddersfield

She has only been here five minutes.

Photo of Emma Reynolds Emma Reynolds Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

I have indeed only been here five minutes, as my hon. Friend keeps reminding us, although it feels a bit longer than five minutes right now; it is three and a half years, but never mind. Surely, if it is possible for Government Departments to present to Parliament, in a dispassionate and objective way, the implications of leaving the European Union, it is also possible for the Government as a whole to present, in a short, informative booklet, in a dispassionate and objective way, the advantages and disadvantages of either remaining a member of or leaving the European Union? It is not beyond the capability of Government to do that, and it would be desirable for the Government to do so.

Photo of Martin Horwood Martin Horwood Liberal Democrat, Cheltenham

I am not sure that it is not beyond the competence of Government to do that. We have examples before us at the moment. The balance of competences review is going on; that is publishing, in semesters, the weight of evidence on the advantages of various competences being exercised at British or European level. We have the “Trident Alternatives Review”, an excellent document that went into a great deal of detail. They are being summarised in the media in cursory ways and politicians are being reduced sometimes to single sentence soundbites. The ability to present that kind of evidence objectively in a leaflet is challenging.

I do not necessarily object to the various campaigns receiving a degree of public funding, but the opportunity will be there for those campaigns, political parties and other organisations, such as trade unions, the CBI and others, to put arguments across in leaflets and other popular formats. However, to try to produce an official document that does that is both unnecessary, given the amount of debate that will be around, and challenging.

The point I was about to make before the last series of interventions was that even agreeing on the case for or the case against might be quite a challenge. Actually, I suspect that most of us on the yes campaign side would find it reasonably easy to agree something straightforward, but as the hon. Member for Luton North has said—I am not sure whether he said this in the Committee, but he said it on the margins—while many in the Conservative party are convinced that the European Union is a socialist conspiracy, he knows that that is not true; it is actually a capitalist conspiracy.

There may be other arguments. Given the bizarre, convoluted discussions we have had on the franchise, we might find that Irish, Maltese or Cypriot citizens, who would have a vote in the referendum, might vote for exit to get rid of the troublesome, handbagging United Kingdom and allow the rest of Europe to get on with the European project. There are therefore different arguments and rationales for voting one way or another in the referendum and trying to produce an official summary of the arguments for and against would be a little bit of a challenge. The Electoral Commission might be able to advise on that and help, but that is a reason to pause for thought before voting in the new clause. Perhaps our noble friends might be able to explore that at greater length when the Bill reaches their end of the corridor.

The third reason to be cautious is the cost. We have seen recently that ambitions to fund publicly the provision of information to electors proved challenging in the police and crime commissioner elections and in the alternative vote referendum. There might well be some of the same cost implications in this referendum, too.

Photo of Emma Reynolds Emma Reynolds Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

One of the reasons why the turnout in the police and crime commissioner elections was so low was because people did not have enough information available. Actually, many of the people I spoke to on the day who were normally reliable voters but refused to vote in that election said that because they had not had information from any of the candidates—such information was not publicly funded—they would not vote. If the Government had wanted to do the elections properly, they would have provided funds to enable candidates to put information to people and then we might have had a bigger turnout. Is not the hon. Gentleman in danger of falling into that same trap?

Photo of Martin Horwood Martin Horwood Liberal Democrat, Cheltenham

The hon. Lady makes an important argument, but she is conflating two quite different matters. In the police and crime commissioner elections the normal, free communication to the whole electorate from candidates was not publicly funded. I do not object to providing balanced public funding in some form to the yes and no campaigns; that is a well established principle in elections and referendums. I challenge the idea that a single, official communication should go out. If such a leaflet had gone out during the police and crime commissioner elections that said, “It’s very important that you vote on this,” I do not think that it would have had a great impact. People did not vote in those elections partly because they did not see them as important, or did not know about them, but also because they thought that politics should keep well clear of involvement in the police.

None of those arguments apply in this case. Argument about the European Union vote would be all over the media. Nobody would miss the fact that a referendum was going on. Everybody would understand its importance and, of course, party politics would be mired in that debate from the outset, so those arguments do not apply at all.

Photo of Emma Reynolds Emma Reynolds Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

There is a question about the lack of objective information regarding the police and crime commissioner elections, because many voters said to me on the day that they did not understand what the new PCCs were going to do. Keen proponents of the commissioner model have now said that as people get used to the idea of PCCs and see what they do, they might be more motivated to exercise their vote next time. In the same way, would it not be useful to have an unbiased and objective account of the implications of deciding to vote either way in a referendum? I tabled the new clause because people often complain that the information they receive about the advantages and disadvantages of our membership of the European Union seem biased and weighted to one side of the argument.

Photo of Martin Horwood Martin Horwood Liberal Democrat, Cheltenham

I take the hon. Lady’s point, but the fundamental reason why I am not really persuaded is that I just do not think that the leaflets that she envisages will really have the impact she expects. In the context of a European Union referendum campaign, leaflets would be vanishingly unimportant overall. My background is in marketing and, although a keen proponent of tackling climate change, I was always sceptical of the previous Labour Government’s attempts to produce official public education campaigns on the subject. The amount of media weight—to use the jargon—that was achieved through official communications was extremely small compared with the average run of Sunday supplements with climate change specials that were coming out left, right and centre, which were far more important in shaping public opinion. One BBC documentary probably had more weight than all official Government communications on climate change put together. A similar situation would apply here. This attempt at official communication would be challenging in principle, as I have explained, and would just disappear in the massive public, media and political debate around the EU referendum, in which both sides of the argument  would be fully aired and objectively so by the public service broadcasters. I am therefore not persuaded to support the new clause.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour, Huddersfield

I want to speak briefly in favour of the new clause. The fact is that we have a scurrilous press. Most of the press in this country is pretty awful. Rupert Murdoch still owns much of it. Alexander Lebedev, who is well-connected at the highest levels in Russia, owns three newspapers and goodness knows what he believes about membership of the European Union. I wonder what The Sun will be saying. Good information should be available to everyone in the run-up to the debate.

The Government may not like that because even though the Committee has been good and civilised under your chairmanship, Mr Benton, it is a bit of a furtive way to introduce such an important proposal. It is a bit by the back door. We all know that. The real truth, which we have not really discussed, behind why this is a Private Member’s Bill is that the Government do not have the courage to do it themselves because of disagreements between the coalition partners. That is why proceedings have happened in this way. That is not to criticise the promoter of the Bill, who has acted entirely honourably and with integrity. Historians looking at the Bill, however, will see that the manner in which the Government introduced a major policy that will affect our country’s future for years to come was scurrilous and furtive. They chose not to say, “We’re going to go for a referendum.” There is a right-wing caucus within the parliamentary Conservative party now that is terrified of this new party that is eating into its vote in by-elections and local and other elections. That is why we are here, and why we need to support the new clause.

Photo of Martin Horwood Martin Horwood Liberal Democrat, Cheltenham

I suggest that the hon. Gentleman is rewriting recent political history a little. He is painting a picture of a disagreement between coalition partners. In the coalition negotiations, it was rapidly agreed what process would be followed on referendum legislation. That legislation was introduced and the Minister for Europe argued for it vociferously, supported by me as the spokesman for the Liberal Democrats. We had virtually unanimous coalition agreement that it would go forward. It is now the European Union Act 2011. The Government agreed that legislation after many hours of consideration. What has changed is disagreement within the Conservative party, not the coalition.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour, Huddersfield

I am very happy to amend my view of history to some degree.

Photo of Emma Reynolds Emma Reynolds Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

In 2011, there was obviously a tenuous agreement between the coalition parties, but it is clear that there is no longer such an agreement. Regardless of whether there was a debate between the parties on the European Union Bill in 2011, the fact is that there is clearly profound disagreement between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives on this matter.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour, Huddersfield 9:45, 11 September 2013

On another matter, we all know that in the House all this week there has been a similar issue. A Bill to tackle lobbying embraces only about 1% of that  because the Deputy Prime Minister must be given the fig leaf of having introduced some sort of lobbying register in the House. We all know that that is an ineffective way of controlling lobbying because 99% of it will not be touched. It is the hamfisted way in which the Government run into trouble, and in the process they have managed to alienate almost all the charities throughout the country.

Photo of Martin Horwood Martin Horwood Liberal Democrat, Cheltenham

The hon. Gentleman is a much better authority on Governments running into trouble than anyone on the coalition side of the Committee.

There is no disagreement officially in the Government, because they have on their record the European Union Act 2011. What has happened is that an hon. Member has introduced a private Member’s Bill, which the Prime Minister, as leader of the Conservative party, has chosen to support. I am not sure whether the rest of the Conservative party will ever have the chance of voting on that as policy because I do not think they are allowed to vote on policy, so it is difficult to know what the corporate view is. The issue has arisen from disagreement in the Conservative party; it does not reflect a change in the official Government position, although I understand what Labour Members are saying.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour, Huddersfield

The hon. Gentleman accused me of rejigging or misinterpreting history. Everyone can remember that the Prime Minister made it clear that any hon. Member who came high in the ballot for private Member’s Bills would be persuaded to introduce such a Bill. That is the truth of the matter, and everyone knew that that was the chronology of events. That is why we are in this Committee discussing this important Bill that was introduced in a way that I have never seen during my time in the House. A provision that will affect the whole future of our country is being introduced through a private Member’s Bill, but was not in the manifesto of any political party. In this country political parties are accountable because they go to the country with a manifesto, and if it has a majority, they are given a mandate to implement it.

Photo of Jim Dowd Jim Dowd Labour, Lewisham West and Penge

I want to examine briefly my hon. Friend’s comment that this is a private Member’s Bill that will affect everyone’s life and that that is unprecedented. I do not think it is entirely unprecedented. Many of the great social reforms of the 20th century started life as private Member’s Bills—for example, abolition of the death penalty, abortion law and so on. However, it is unique in not calling on the Government and Parliament to do something now. It is trying to say that someone else must do it at an indeterminate future date.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour, Huddersfield

My hon. Friend is right. It was remiss of me not to take into consideration the far-reaching impact that private Members’ Bills have had on our country, but I still believe, in terms of the future of our economy and our broader social and economic life, that this is the most important and far-reaching private Member’s Bill that I can recall.

Photo of James Wharton James Wharton Conservative, Stockton South

The hon. Gentleman tempts me to drift from the strict topic of the new clause, but how much of the history of this  topic should be included in the 10-page booklet that the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East would introduce with her new clause?

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour, Huddersfield

My view is that some information would be good. There was a very good Evening Standard-sponsored debate a few days ago where a serious number of leading economists and leading business people wiped the floor with those urging us to leave the European Union. That sort of debate should be broadly shared with the electorate of this country and of Gibraltar, but the fact is that we will not have that.

I do not know what the Prime Minister was doing meeting privately with Mr Lebedev in a pub the other night. Perhaps they were discussing the attitude of Mr Lebedev’s three newspapers towards Europe. I do not know what the conversation will be with Rupert Murdoch, but I do know that the power of the press will be largely anti-Europe and for us leaving the European Union. Some dispassionate, objective information to the electorate would be a small effort to correct the imbalance we will see in the campaign, if we get to the referendum stage.

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington The Minister for Europe

I completely understand and accept the spirit in which the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East moved her new clause. It is perfectly reasonable for her to test the waters in this debate over how information should be provided to the electorate by the Government or other parties during a referendum campaign, but I am not persuaded by the particular text of the new clause, and I will explain why. I completely share her hope for there to be a well-informed, wide-ranging public debate in the approach to a referendum and during the weeks of the formal campaign itself. There will be a need for public information, and I do not think that anyone who has spoken in this debate has dissented from that view.

If the Committee looks at how the referendum campaign and the approach to it will be conducted in the course of the political calendar, there is a general expectation that the British Government will want to make their view widely known and explain the reasons for the recommendation that they put to Parliament and the British people. The hon. Lady’s new clause invites us to consider the extent to which we need to prescribe in statute how the public should be given information and the extent to which we need to depart from the existing framework of statutory governance in that respect.

Under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, which was put in place by the previous Government, the Electoral Commission is empowered to designate an umbrella group to represent each side of the referendum campaign. The commission must either designate an organisation for each outcome of the referendum, for both the yes side and the no side, or it is free to take the decision to designate none at all. It is not permitted under law simply to designate an umbrella organisation for one side of the case. It seems to me that that is a perfectly sensible provision. An organisation that has been designated by the Electoral Commission as an umbrella organisation has certain benefits. It is entitled to one free mailshot to each household or elector; to a referendum broadcast; and to the use of public rooms free of charge. In addition, designated  umbrella organisations are eligible for a grant from public funds of up to £600,000. During the AV referendum both the no and yes campaigns made use of the free mailshot and of the referendum broadcasts.

In addition, the Electoral Commission may choose to undertake its own mailshot to electors, outlining information as to what the referendum is about, how to register to vote and how to exercise the vote. There is nothing in the PPERA that would prevent the United Kingdom Government or the devolved Administrations from commissioning and publishing factual reports on the subject matter of a referendum, except for the provision in section 125 of the Act that prevents central and local government alike from publishing promotional material about a referendum during the 28 days immediately prior to the poll.

I am not persuaded that we need to lay down in statute, in the way that the new clause suggests, how the Government might go about presenting their case. It is perfectly reasonable—indeed, logical—to expect that the Government of the United Kingdom will want to make their case. I find it inconceivable that there would not be one, if not several, debates in Parliament about the conclusion of negotiations on the Government’s recommendation for a referendum. I would fully expect the devolved Governments in each of the devolved parts of the United Kingdom to be making their views known. If Gibraltar is included—and even if Gibraltar were to be excluded—from the vote on this, as all members of the Committee have acknowledged, Gibraltar would be affected by the decision of the United Kingdom for or against continued EU membership. Therefore I would expect the Government of Gibraltar to have their views and to want to express those. If we are going to constrain and lay down precise obligations on the Government of the United Kingdom, as the new clause provides, then the question arises as to whether we would have similar statutory provisions in respect of devolved areas of the United Kingdom. Since Gibraltar has its own constitution, dating from 2006, we would be stepping a bit outside the boundaries of what is constitutionally possible if we were to try to lay down limits on what the Government of Gibraltar could do and say within their own jurisdiction.

A lot of this is going to happen anyway and we do not need the new clause. I am glad to be able to strike a note of coalition unity at this stage of the proceedings, in that I have a lot of sympathy with what my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham said, in questioning the efficacy of the large-scale distribution of written information with OHMS stamped, metaphorically if not literally, upon it. It is a sad truth that people these days are much more inclined to look to third parties to provide endorsement of a particular political stance. After all, that is why all mainstream political parties in this country are eager to identify and recruit reputable third party endorsements for their policy platforms.

Photo of Emma Reynolds Emma Reynolds Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

I find the relationship with the coalition more and more mystifying, given that the right hon. Gentleman spent the last 10 minutes disagreeing with the hon. Member for Cheltenham, in saying that there should be a public information campaign in the form of some sort of mailshot. That is exactly at odds with what the hon. Gentleman was actually saying.

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington The Minister for Europe 10:00, 11 September 2013

What I said was that the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 provides for the designation of umbrella groups, entitles such groups to a free mailshot to each household on the register, and allows them to apply for a grant from public funds of up to £600,000 to help fund the cost of literature or other campaigning materials. It seems to me that a decent framework already exists.

It is striking that the most serious questioning of the PPERA arrangements has come from the House of Lords Constitution Committee in its report “Referendums in the United Kingdom”, which was published in the 2009-10 parliamentary Session. That Committee did not recommend that the existing framework be replaced by the notion that the Government should be responsible for supplying greater quantities of literature. Instead, the Committee advocated a model provided by electoral referendums in New Zealand in 1992 and 1993, in which a wholly independent body provided information and ran the public education process.

I accept the sincerity with which the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East tabled the new clause, but I am not persuaded by the case for it. It is not sensible to tie the hands of a future Government over precisely how they will express their opinion and make recommendations to the public. To include in primary legislation such details as a limit on the number of pages is a little de trop, and we should be wary of getting involved in such micro-management of the public information process.

Photo of William Bain William Bain Shadow Minister (Scotland)

Does the Minister recognise that it is important to give the Committee, and indeed the wider House, a sense of what the policy of the Conservative part of the coalition on promotional materials actually is? We remember during the 1975 referendum that a potted version of the sort described in the new clause was delivered to every household in the country. In the referendum in France in the mid-1990s, an entire copy of the treaty on European Union was delivered to every household in France. Does the Minister not recognise that not only would the amendment help the country, but it would assist him in dealing with the party management problems he would be sure to face if the plenary Chamber began to understand that he intended to deliver a copy of the entire renegotiated treaty to every household in the country? Would not many Government Members be sceptical about such a measure?

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington The Minister for Europe

I am delighted to welcome the hon. Gentleman to the Committee. He has obviously spent the early hours of the morning closeted in the Library trying to frame that intervention. I hope that he feels a sense of catharsis after having managed to get that off his chest, and that his brief visit to our proceedings has been rendered worth while. Against my instincts, let me treat his intervention seriously and try to respond the point he raised.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour, Huddersfield

On a point of order, Mr Benton. It is not up to any member of the Committee to determine who attends or when we attend. We are all very busy people, and most of us have tried to attend the Committee  as well and as often as we can, but we have other duties. It is not the Minister’s job to try to set a standard for attendance in the Committee, and it is certainly not his job to criticise my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East, who has been an assiduous contributor to our proceedings.

Photo of Joe Benton Joe Benton Labour, Bootle

That is certainly a fair point of order. At the same time, I must give consideration to the fact that I do not think the comment was intentionally offensive. The observation is noted, therefore.

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington The Minister for Europe

I have to say that if the hon. Member for Glasgow North East found my remarks offensive, Glasgow politics must be much more thin-skinned than I ever assumed was likely.

Photo of Martin Horwood Martin Horwood Liberal Democrat, Cheltenham

The Minister’s remarks were well made, and I am sure that the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, would agree if she was representing him, as she did in his absence yesterday.

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington The Minister for Europe

I am paying close attention to Mr Speaker’s circular that we all received earlier this week on parliamentary etiquette, including about whether it is appropriate to intervene immediately after arriving late for parliamentary proceedings, but I shall leave the point there.

Returning to the intervention of the hon. Member for Glasgow North East, when we have a referendum in 2016 or 2017—whichever year it takes place—there will be no doubt whatever about the formal policy position of the Conservative party or of what I hope will be a Conservative Government. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made it clear in his Bloomberg speech in January that he wants to achieve reforms of the European Union that will alter for the better how it operates and, in so doing, make the British people feel much more comfortable with their place in Europe. He set out his hopes for a referendum campaign and, as Prime Minister, he will make his and the Government’s position clear at that time. It is completely implausible to imagine that there will be any doubt.

Individual hon. Members will have to make up their minds what they will do in a referendum campaign and which side they will advocate. In all my years in the House of Commons, my experience is that the issue cuts across party boundaries. It is always likely to do so, and I would be surprised, when we come to a referendum, if individual members of different parties did not dissent from the majority view and leadership of their party, and they will make their opinions known to their constituents and the national electorate.

I cannot let the hon. Member for Glasgow North East get away with his passing reference to the French referendum in the 1990s. His intervention reminded me that the French called that referendum because they felt they had been bounced by the decision of our then Prime Minister, Mr Blair, to submit the European constitution to a referendum. The French had a referendum on the European constitution and rejected it. They had the opportunity to vote, but the people of the United Kingdom were denied a vote on what became the Lisbon treaty, despite the Labour Government’s promise to hold a referendum.

Photo of Emma Reynolds Emma Reynolds Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

The right hon. Gentleman is usually a keen and accurate historian, but he has fallen down somewhat on this occasion. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East was referring not to the French referendum on the constitutional treaty—which took place not in the 1990s but in 2004—but to the one on the Maastricht treaty, copies of which were sent out to every household in France.

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington The Minister for Europe

The hon. Lady reminds me that France, like some other European Union countries, has already had more than one opportunity for the public as a whole to have a say about the nature of their relationship with the European Union. That throws into stark relief the fact that that has not happened in the United Kingdom. The absence of that opportunity to vote is one of the main reasons why we have seen such public disaffection from Europe today. One of the key arguments in favour of the Bill is that it will provide a means of settling this argument definitively for a generation or more.

I want to draw my remarks on the new clause to a conclusion.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour, Huddersfield

Before the Minister does that, he used the phrase “I am not going to let him get away with that.” I am not going to let the Minister get away with not addressing the manifesto question. Should not a major decision such as this—to put a referendum before the electorate of this country—be in a manifesto and acted on if that manifesto gets the approval of the electorate, and enjoys majority support in the House of Commons, rather than being introduced in this back-door way?

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington The Minister for Europe

I really do not think it accurate or fair to describe as a back-door procedure the Private Members’ Bills procedure that has been accepted by both sides of this House for many years. It is a perfectly legitimate way to seek to change the law. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made it clear that at the next general election, in 2015, he will, as leader of the Conservative party, include such a referendum commitment in our party’s manifesto and platform for government. He will seek a mandate from the British people to lead a majority Conservative Government on that basis and on the basis of the rest of the manifesto. He could not have been clearer when he spoke in January on that matter.

The new clause raises important questions, but the extent to which it seeks to establish in precise detail how a public information campaign ought to be conducted is a mistake. I hope the hon. Lady will withdraw it, but she is right to have raised these important subjects.

Photo of Emma Reynolds Emma Reynolds Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

First, I welcome the Minister for Europe back to the Committee. We had some extensive deliberations yesterday, and the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Norwich North, responded elegantly and eloquently to our concerns about clause 3. I agree with the Minister, to the extent that in his opening remarks he said that we would need a well-informed and wide-ranging debate should there be a future referendum on our membership of the European Union, as laid out in the Bill. He also helpfully set out the provisions of the PPRA, pointing out that, if  such a referendum takes place, the Electoral Commission can designate an umbrella group which could deliver a mailshot to every household.

My new clause 1 simply provides for something for which there is already precedent. As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East said, a precedent was set in France, and precedents have also been set in the UK: the 1975 referendum on our EU membership, which has already been mentioned; and the May 2011 referendum, so dear to the hearts of many Liberal Democrats, which did not go their way. That is why I find the remarks of the hon. Member for Cheltenham so surprising. In that referendum, the Electoral Commission produced a 12-page booklet on the advantages and disadvantages of the alternative vote system compared with the current voting system.

Photo of Martin Horwood Martin Horwood Liberal Democrat, Cheltenham

With respect, that answers precisely why Liberal Democrats are so sceptical about repeating the process.

Photo of Emma Reynolds Emma Reynolds Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

The 12-page Electoral Commission booklet is not to blame for the failure of the campaign to introduce the alternative vote system, which was roundly defeated on that occasion.

I respect the Minister’s point that public information would be available. He said that a lot of this will happen anyway. However, we simply do not know which party or parties will be in government in 2016 and 2017. We are, therefore, distrustful of any future Government, because we do not know which parties will be in power. I think it is appropriate, relevant and necessary to put in the Bill an obligation for a public information campaign. I take the Minister’s point that we could perhaps drop the “no more than 10 pages”. I agree that that is too prescriptive; it would be up to the Electoral Commission, or the umbrella group designated by the Electoral Commission, to make that judgment.

Photo of Jim Dowd Jim Dowd Labour, Lewisham West and Penge 10:15, 11 September 2013

I am grateful for the opportunity—since we were talking about who was or was not here at various stages of the Committee—to apologise for my late arrival yesterday. It was due to an emergency visit to my dentist for some root canal work. On balance, I think I had a better time than the Committee. The 1975 booklet was 15 pages.

Photo of Jim Dowd Jim Dowd Labour, Lewisham West and Penge

Because I can count beyond 10. To get to 15, start at one and work your way up. I do think the description is unnecessarily prescriptive. It would be a lawyer’s dream, because it does not specify either the size of the page or the size of the print. It could go on for ever.

I think the Minister was disingenuous to claim, albeit indirectly, that that would be the sum total of the campaign. As I understand it, the new clause indicates an element of it—one that is hopefully relatively objective. It is something that will go to all households to augment what those in favour and against are stating. On this question above all, it would be ridiculous for any Government of any colour to say that they have no opinion, as the decision would clearly dictate Britain’s place in the world for decades, if not centuries, to come.

Photo of Emma Reynolds Emma Reynolds Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

That brings me to a point on which I think the Minister for Europe and I would agree in a referendum: wanting to continue our membership of the European Union. That might be very different from the view of some hon. Members in the Committee and in the House. That will be an interesting development.

The point made by the Minister and by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham West and Penge is right: I do not mind whether the booklet is 10 pages or 15 pages. We can consider the new clause again on Report. I will by then ensure that it is not so prescriptive. As my hon. Friend pointed out, the font size and page size have not been prescribed, so the 10-page limit is somewhat meaningless.

It is worth reiterating what I said in my opening remarks on the new clause. In many of the opinion polls, a substantial proportion of people say they do not know what they would do in the event of a referendum on our membership of the EU. Some more detailed polling suggests that people say that they do not know because they have not arrived at a decision and do not feel they have the information required to do so, notwithstanding the fact that there would be a lot of information available and coverage in newspapers. I am sure that certain newspapers would say that we should come out, and others would say that we should stay in. Notwithstanding all the information available to the electorate—for that reason, actually—I still think it would be valuable to have an unbiased account of the advantages and disadvantages of staying in or leaving, because I do not think that there would be an objective account in all that information. People feel that some of the information they get from political parties is biased, and I think they would prefer to have something that is objective. Should a referendum take place, a booklet of some number of pages would be appropriate. I think we will come back to the subject on Report, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the clause.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the Chair do report the Bill to the House.

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington The Minister for Europe

May I briefly express my thanks to you, Mr Benton, to Mr Streeter, and to Mr Sheridan, who took the Chair for a while during our first sitting, for your patience, for your endurance at times in presiding over us, and for the good humour and tolerance that you have shown during our proceedings? I pay tribute again to the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South, who introduced the Bill. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham and the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East. I also thank my hon. Friends and Opposition Members on the Committee. Our proceedings have taken place in a good-humoured atmosphere. There has been an exchange of views and some robust debate, but I do not think that the tone threatened to become embittered, and that is extremely welcome.

I also thank the Clerks and the Hansard writers, and my officials from both the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Cabinet Office for the support and advice that they have given during the Committee’s proceedings.

Photo of Martin Horwood Martin Horwood Liberal Democrat, Cheltenham

May I briefly add my thanks to you, Mr Benton, and to your fellow Chairs for keeping us on the straight and narrow? I thank the right hon.  Member for Aylesbury, the officials, the House of Commons staff, and the Clerks and others, especially with respect to our first sitting of the Committee, which looked at one stage as though it would continue into August. Their patience with the machinations of politicians was much appreciated.

Many issues have been raised in Committee, including serious issues about the status of Gibraltar and conformity with the European Union Act 2011 and the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. We have discussed the franchise, the costs, the complexities of the timing, and the interaction with the Scottish referendum. We have also discussed the EU reform negotiations and even the German elections. We have discussed issues to do with the provision of information, many of which are as yet unresolved. The Minister said that he would return to us with information about the status of Gibraltar, but that issue is still unresolved. That reflects the hurried and slightly ill-considered nature of the legislation and its severe need for further scrutiny on the Floor of the House and in another place.

The best argument in favour of a referendum was the one recently put by the right hon. Member for Aylesbury, who said that it would at least settle the argument for a generation. I suspect that that is a consummation devoutly to be wished, not least by the three party leaders. I might put it more in terms of lancing the boil of Euroscepticism once and for all. These are serious issues and they deserve a great deal more deliberation. My thanks again to you, Mr Benton, and to the officials who have supported us in this process.

Photo of Emma Reynolds Emma Reynolds Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

I should particularly like to thank you, Mr Benton, for your guidance, patience and endurance. You chaired the first few hours of our proceedings and are now chairing the final stages. Given that this is my first experience of a Bill Committee upstairs, and my first experience of a private Member’s Bill Committee, it was extremely useful to have your guidance and that of the Clerks. I should also like to put on record our thanks to Mr Streeter and Mr Sheridan.

I should like to reiterate the thanks to officials in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Cabinet Office. I thank my hon. Friends for their support and their attendance. I also thank Government Members for their attendance. Overall there has been friendly and collegiate discussion in Committee. I welcome that, and I hope it continues. There are further issues—I will not list them now—that will need more detailed consideration on Report. We should all be proud that we have nevertheless covered a lot of ground in Committee.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour, Huddersfield

May I thank you, Mr Benton, for being so tolerant, certainly of me and my interventions? I should also like to thank colleagues. One of the advantages, or disadvantages, of being the Chair of a Select Committee for 10 years is exemption from Committee duties. It has been a nice return to the camaraderie, which I remember fondly from when I was a younger Member, that arises from the intense situations in which we put ourselves in these Committees. I thank you for your tolerance, and I am grateful for the tolerance of colleagues, whom I annoyed slightly sometimes by suggesting that they might not have been here very long.

Photo of James Wharton James Wharton Conservative, Stockton South

It would be remiss of me, as the promoter of the Bill, if I did not put on record my thanks for your chairmanship, Mr Benton, and that of  Mr Sheridan and Mr Streeter, and for the excellent work of the Clerk and all those who made the Committee possible. On behalf of the whole Committee, may I thank everyone who has contributed to what has been an excellent process? I am pleased that it is drawing to an end. I hope that by expressing my thanks on behalf of everyone here, other Members will consider that what they want to say has been said, and will not feel the need to make a further speech stressing our gratitude to everyone who has contributed.

Photo of Joe Benton Joe Benton Labour, Bootle

On behalf of my co-Chairmen, I should like to extend a thank you to the promoter of the Bill, the Minister, the shadow Minister and all members of  the Committee for their courtesy to the Chair, and for the pleasant way in which the proceedings of this very important Committee have progressed. I should like to add my thanks on behalf of fellow Chairmen to the learned Clerk, the Hansard Reporters and all the staff who have contributed to a very successful Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly to be reported, without amendment.

Committee rose.