Home Page

Column 665

Points of Order

3.30 pm

Dr. David Clark (South Shields): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. May I seek your guidance? As you know, on Friday last, the Secretary of State for Defence published a report on the official service residences, which resulted in the departure of Air Chief Marshal Sir Sandy Wilson. That report was highly sanitised and severely edited. It was a shortened report of a larger one which, I understand, cost £100,000. Obviously, because of the brevity, much was omitted; indeed it might be argued that more was concealed than was revealed.

Of particular import to the House, however, is an admission on page 3 of the report, which states:

"Parliament was given wrong information on two occasions in 1994."

Because of the brevity of the report, no mention is made of the occasions on which the House was misled.

We have checked Hansard since early 1994, and on one occasion, there was an admission that wrong information had been given to the House, but not on the second occasion. As the House was wrongly informed, surely it is this House, and this House alone, that must be given the correct information. Will you, Madam Speaker, suggest to the Secretary of State for Defence that he come to the House and give us advice on the occasions and the details of when the House had been misled?

Madam Speaker: I have not been informed--

Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth): Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker: I think that I can clear this up. I have not been told by the Government that they are seeking today to make a statement about the matter, but the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) has been extremely helpful to the House. I notice that, on Friday last, he tabled precisely that question to the Secretary of State for Defence, so the entire House will be made aware of the Secretary of State's answer. I am sure that the House will be grateful to the hon. Gentleman for doing that.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. You will remember that, some years ago, the House debated an important and serious issue, the Single European Act, which was about the transfer of many of the House's powers to international institutions outside this country. One of the subjects that was debated, a very important subject on which we got total assurance from Ministers and the Government, was that immigration policy would be a matter for the sovereignty of the House and this country alone. It now appears that there is some ambiguity about that. If powers have been removed from this House and passed on to foreign institutions as a result of misleading information --and I do not pass any blame on anyone for that--how can this House retrieve that power and that sovereignty for the House and for this country?

Madam Speaker: If the hon. Gentleman considers carefully today's motion, which we are about to debate, he will find--and I draw all hon. Members' attention to

Column 666

this--that the matter can be raised during today's debate, and that an answer can be obtained from the Minister who is responding to it.

Mr. Marlow: Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker: I doubt that there can be a further point of order when we are debating Europe next.

Mr. Marlow: I was asking how, having passed on this power, the House --not the Government--could set about getting it back?

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): I'll tell him. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman should not have been taken in by Lady Thatcher.

Madam Speaker: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will pursue the matter by means of questions and debate and, if necessary, by defeating the Government on the issue tonight. That is how the House makes its influence known and that is how it must be done--through the democratic process. Today may be an opportunity for the hon. Gentleman to use his influence in this matter.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. On 6 February, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden) asked the Minister for Railways and Roads about the reported cuts in Transec, the section of the Department of Transport that scrutinises security at ports, airports, the channel tunnel and airports abroad. The Minister said that no front-line security services were to be cut, despite press reports that weekend. Indeed, he made that point twice. He said:

"There is absolutely no impact on front-line security".--[ Official Report , 6 February 1995; Vol.254, c.7.]

On Friday, I received a reply to a written question from the Minister for Transport in London to the effect that "inspectorial" and "investigatory staff" were to be cut. Prima facie, that seems to be in complete contradiction to the utterances of the Minister for Railways and Roads earlier in the week. Surely there should be some clarification or a retraction by one of the Ministers so that the House is in no way misled. Has there been any indication from the Ministers that they wish to clarify the position?

Madam Speaker: I have looked at the two instances to which the hon. Gentleman refers, but I do not see that, even inadvertently, the House has been misled. Hon. Members must interpret for themselves what Ministers say and not raise such matters on points of order. If the hon. Gentleman feels that there is an inconsistency, I advise him to pursue the matter with Ministers by means of questions or an Adjournment debate so that he can be clear about the matter if he is not clear at the moment.

Mr. Nick Ainger (Pembroke): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Has the Secretary of State for Education said that she intends to make a statement to the House about the Student Loans Company, in view of today's revelation that a new company is to take over the running of the Student Loans Company's computers and will save the taxpayer hundreds of thousands of pounds? Last year, the National Audit Office investigated the Student Loans

Column 667

Company, which was a shambles, especially with regard to the number of students having to wait inordinate lengths of time--

Madam Speaker: Order. I do not know what the point of order is for me. It sounds like a point of politics rather than a point of order, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman could raise the matter in an Adjournment debate or ask questions of the Secretary of State for Education during Education questions, which come up in about 10 days. I am sure that an attempt will be made to answer them.


Motion made, and Question put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 101(3) (Standing Committees on Statutory Instruments, &c.), That the Local Government (Compensation for Redundancy) (Scotland) Regulations 1994 (S.I. 1994, No. 3068) be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.-- [Mr. Lightbown.]

Column 668

Opposition Day

[5th Allotted Day]

Europe and a Referendum

Mr. William Cash (Stafford): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. You did not indicate which amendments, if any, might be discussed. I tabled a manuscript amendment relating to the issue of a single currency before the intergovernmental conference. Could you please give an indication whether my amendment, or any of the others, is to be considered?

Several hon. Members rose --

Madam Speaker: Order. I am sure that I can cope without any further help. I would always announce which amendments I had selected if, in fact, I had selected any. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and the whole House knows that. In this case, in order not to waste the time of the House--I am not one to do so--I have not selected any amendments.

3.39 pm

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil): I beg to move,

That this House believes that the popular assent of the people of the United Kingdom should be sought through a referendum before any substantial alteration of the present constitutional settlement between the European Union and its Member States.

There are two basic reasons which support this proposition. The first turns on principle and the second on practicality.

First, the matter of principle. Throughout the whole debate on Europe, we have heard much of the importance of the sovereignty of Parliament. But sovereignty does not lie with this institution. It lies with the people of this country. The powers that we have are not ours as of right, to give away as we wish. They are vested in us through the democratic process by the people of this country. Those powers should be redistributed only with the consent of the people from whom they come.

Those who argue the case for the indivisible sovereignty of Parliament seem to believe that sovereignty is an item, a single thing which resides in a single place--in a little box behind the Speaker's Chair, perhaps. But sovereignty does not reside in a single place. The people can vest their power wherever it is of benefit to them to do so. I would argue that there should be much more power at local level, some in Westminster and some-- where it is beneficial and to the advantage of the people in the country-- in the institutions of Europe. The point is that it is their sovereignty we are dealing with, not ours.

That is why I argued for a referendum before the Maastricht treaty was acceded to, and it is why we argue today for a referendum if there is to be any further shift in the constitutional settlement between Britain and Europe.

The second reason for a referendum on Europe has to do less with principle and more with politics. Anthony Sampson once wrote: "Britain joined Europe not in a fit of absence of mind, as she was said to have acquired her Empire, but by a process of deliberate deception".

If that is so, it will no longer do. The debate about Europe has been a politicians' debate which has excluded the people whom Europe is supposed to serve.

Column 669

Maastricht was a politicians' treaty, drawn up in the gilded palaces of Europe, couched in language most people could not understand and many Cabinet Ministers did not even bother to read, and passed through the House in a charade of indecipherable late-night procedures and funny hats. Little wonder that many people see Europe as a conspiracy by the politicians and bureaucrats from which they have been excluded.

Those who believe in the constructive continuing development of Europe should, with some humility, recognise that we nearly lost the whole enterprise as a result of that arrogance. Another attempt to take the people of Europe into a process of further integration, either depending on their ignorance or against their will, could be fatal to the whole European project.

Next time, we have to engage our electorates in the debate and carry them with us. If that means that we address their aspirations and anxieties more effectively, so much the better. If it also means that the political classes have to explain the benefits of what we seek to do in terms that they can understand, better still.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North): The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the future transfer of power, and he has said that people's sovereignty has been transferred by the Maastricht treaty without their being consulted. As a good democrat, does he believe that we should have a referendum now to agree to those powers which have been transferred?

Mr. Ashdown: The hon. Gentleman is a bit behind the times. The Maastricht treaty has been put into effect, and the right time for a referendum on it was before the treaty was acceded to.

I do not underestimate either the pain or the difficulty which may face us in the process of European integration, not least through the single currency, if that comes--I believe it will. That is why the decisions we make need to be ones which have the positive assent of our people, and not ones which--because they are taken without consultation by one Government-- can be as easily reversed by the next when the going gets tough.

We will no doubt hear arguments from all sides during the debate against a referendum. I shall give the most common of them. First, there is the argument advanced by those who would otherwise share my views on the importance of Europe to this country. They tell me that it will be embarrassing to go into the Lobby with people who wish to use a referendum to wreck Britain's future in Europe rather than enhance it--people such as the hon. Members for Stafford (Mr. Cash) or for Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor). That may be so, but ideas should not be judged by the company that they keep. It is perfectly possible to disagree about Europe, but agree about democracy.

Mr. William Cash (Stafford): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Ashdown: I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman in a minute if he will first let me develop my argument a little further. To tell the truth--and addressing the hon. Gentleman directly--I have a sneaking admiration for him and his hon. Friends. At least they are honestly arguing the anti-European case in which they so passionately believe. That is more than can be said for those shadowy figures,

Column 670

including some in the Cabinet, who share the same views, play to the same audiences and raise the same scaremongering fears, but hide behind the claim that they really support our infinitely flexible Prime Minister and his infinitely flexible vision of "Britain at the heart of Europe". If a referendum flushed out those closet Europhobes, it would be doing us all a great favour.

Mr. Cash: The right hon. Gentleman made a deliberate slur on me. Without in any way taking umbrage at what he said, I must ask him whether he would accept that I voted yes for the referendum in 1975, yes for the Single European Act in 1986 and yes for the European Economic Area. The reason why I would not support the Maastricht treaty and the Act that followed it was simply that they form the blueprint for European government --the sort of thing that we cannot allow in this country without damaging the very things that the right hon. Gentleman talked about at the beginning of his remarks.

Mr. Ashdown: The hon. Gentleman makes his own point in his own way, and I have no doubt that he will seek to elaborate on it in his speech. If I misrepresented his view, I apologise.

What is unquestionably the case is that the hon. Gentleman's view, which is openly and honestly expressed--and with which I passionately disagree--is held in a hidden, camouflaged fashion within the Cabinet and the Government. It is those people--not the hon. Gentleman, who has been courageous in stating his position--who need to be flushed out. We all know where they stand--they are on the same side and hold the same views as the hon. Gentleman, but are less forthright about such matters. They are content, for reasons at which we can only guess, to hide their opinions within the Cabinet of the present Government.

The next argument to be advanced is that such matters are too complicated for ordinary people to understand, let alone vote on. Frankly, that argument tells us more about those who use it than about the electorate, in which they seem to have so little confidence. Do we really have such a low opinion of the British electorate that we believe that they should be denied the right to vote on issues that the Irish, French, Danes, Austrians, Swedes, Norwegians and Swiss have been allowed to decide on?

Then there are those who say that referendums are alien to our parliamentary democracy.

Mr. Ray Whitney (Wycombe): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Ashdown: If the hon. Gentleman will give me a few more minutes, I shall be happy to give way to him. But I cannot do so at present.

Mr. Roger Knapman (Stroud): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Ashdown: If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I shall give way to him in a moment.

There are those who say that referendums are alien to parliamentary democracy. But Britain has had three referendums over the past 20 years without seeming to be much the worse for them. Nearly all democracies, with a few exceptions, have used national referendums at some time or another.

Column 671

Then there are those who say that we cannot have a referendum because it is impossible to frame the question. That ignores the fact that similar questions have already been posed, debated and answered before in this country--just as they have in no fewer than seven other European countries over the past three years.

The matter of the question is, it seems to me, very simply answered. Parliament should first debate and pass any treaty and then that can be put to the British people for their assent. If, whatever the Prime Minister's forlorn hopes to the contrary, constructive steps forward are proposed after the next IGC which substantially alter our constitutional relationship with Europe, the package as a whole should be put to the British people for their consent. Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East) rose --

Mr. Ashdown: If the hon. Gentleman will allow me to make a little progress, I shall give way later.

Lastly, some people who, like me, want constructive, sensible European integration to continue, argue that we had better not have a referendum because we would lose it. Nothing more clearly reveals how far on to the defensive the pro-European voice in the country has been driven by weak leadership, the frightened silence of Conservative Europeans and the withdrawal of Britain's business interests from this vital debate.

Several hon. Members rose --

Mr. Ashdown: I give way to the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Knapman), who was, I think, first.

Mr. Knapman: In view of all that the right hon. Gentleman says and his enthusiasm for referendums, why did so many Liberals not vote for the referendum proposals during the passage of the Maastricht treaty?

Mr. Ashdown: It was a free vote at that stage. [Hon. Members:-- "Oh!"] The hon. Gentleman has some cheek, considering how divided and split the Conservative party is on the whole issue of Europe. However, one thing is unquestionably clear--that the words of the motion are precisely the words on which the Liberal Democrats fought the European elections last year, and we fought them on a united basis, which is more than can be said for any single European policy of Conservative Members. The Conservative party is divided from end to end.

Several hon. Members rose --

Mr. Ashdown: I intend to make a little progress.

The battleground of Europe has been ceded to a tiny minority of the Tory right. What is driving Britain's policy on Europe now is not the long-term interests of the country, but what Lord Howe has recently called--I use his words precisely--the

"short term tactical considerations of party management". Lord Howe wrote:

"In the search for party unity at any price, UK foreign policy is being dragged into a ghetto of sentimentality and self-delusion." Exactly. Europe is far too important an issue for Britain for it to be left to an internal spat in the Conservative party and the minor mathematics of the Conservative

Column 672

Whips. The debate must now be widened beyond the confines of the Conservative party, to include the public at large; that is the purpose of the motion.

However, to argue the case for Europe is not to defend everything that Europe does, any more than to be proud of Britain is to defend the archaic, undemocratic way in which the country is governed. Of course Europe can be undemocratic and insufficiently accountable, but it is much less undemocratic and unaccountable than many parts of the quango state created by the present Government since they came to power.

Of course Europe can be too over-centralised, but why does it not stick in the throat of a Conservative Minister who says that, when the Conservative Government have torn the heart out of local government in Britain and refused to allow any form of

self-government in Scotland or for Wales?

Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East): The right hon. Gentleman is giving way to quite a few interventions, for obvious reasons, and I am sure that there will be more.

At least the Liberal Democrat party shares with the vast majority of the parliamentary Conservative party, and the Conservative party outside Parliament, a strong enthusiasm for those European developments. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that many members of the public would accept the second part of his thesis--that, whatever the thoughts about whether there should be a referendum and the effects that it would have on the House, at least the great public debate that would unfold would get us away from the poison against Europe that is seen in The Daily Telegraph, The Times, The Sun and the Daily Star, and we would have a proper, balanced debate, showing the real arguments for Europe?

Mr. Ashdown: I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I admire his courage for making those arguments in the House and outside. It appears that he is almost as unpopular with Conservative Back Benchers as I am, and I feel a certain fellow feeling for him in consequence. I will allow one more intervention from the Opposition side of the House and then I shall not give way again as I wish to give other hon. Members a chance to speak in the debate.

Mr. Donald Anderson: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. The motion refers to

"a referendum before any substantial alteration".

Who but the Government of the day will decide whether an alteration is sufficiently substantial?

Mr. Ashdown: The answer is: this House. I will now make a little progress with my speech.

Of course, as we have argued on many occasions, Europe's institutions and programmes need reform--starting with the common agricultural policy. But it is sheer hypocrisy to argue one day, as the Government do, that the CAP must be reformed and then to vote the next day against any extension of majority voting to enable that to happen.

There is no such thing as a "steady state" European Union. If the process of European co-operation is not moving forward, it will start to move backwards, as those

Column 673

who seek to block it know very well. Listen to the words of Sir Leon Brittan, who, writing in the Daily Telegraph last week about the single market, said:

"The European market is not an achievement that Britain can assume will never unravel, for the forces of protectionism and narrow national interest will always seek to gnaw away at it".

There is a different, more positive view of Europe, and it needs to be heard more in this country. It is a vision of Europe which is democratic and decentralised and which co-ordinates the things that it should be co- ordinating, such as defence and foreign affairs, rather than interfering where it should not in things that are done better by nations, regions and local communities. It is a Europe which recognises, preserves and celebrates its cultural diversity and its national differences. It is a Europe which is made up of nation states which choose to pool elements of their sovereignty to create something larger because it is in the interests of their citizens to do so.

Perhaps our mistake these last three decades has been to try to sell Europe to our people as a purely economic affair, to be measured solely in pounds and pence, jobs and prosperity. Of course, Europe has brought huge economic benefits for British business and British consumers, as the Chancellor made quite plain only last week. But that purely economic emphasis tends to make people look on Europe as a sort of communal kitty, which we keep eyeing nervously to check that someone else is not taking out more money than we are. In reality, the European ideal is much bigger than that. For Europe, the idea of European union is the biggest political idea this century and the most important safeguard of our prosperity, peace and stability in the next century. But it is an idea which is now being forced into retreat through weak leadership and the want of people to stand up and defend it.

As nationalism rises within the nations of the European Union and conflict deepens in the collapsed Soviet empire to the east, we will either find the political will to lock ourselves together more tightly in Europe, or we will have neither stability within our borders nor peace around them.

Sir Terence Higgins (Worthing): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Ashdown: I am sorry, but I must make progress.

The tragedy is that Europe could be losing its strength and cohesion just at the moment when we need it most. Many of the problems which now confront us in Europe are ones that we cannot solve alone, such as the creation of a safe and clean environment, the preservation of peace, the maintenance of a strong economy in the face of the global market and international currency speculation, and the widening of opportunities for our citizens and our children. Those who see Europe as merely a collection of co-operating states--as so many do on the Government Benches as well as many in the Labour party--should reflect that that is exactly what they argued for in the 1930s with futile, and ultimately disastrous, consequences. At the end of a thousand years in which Europe has been the engine and the cockpit for war--first on our own territory, then by export elsewhere in the world--can we find a different way? We began this half-century with Dresden and the gas chambers of Auschwitz. We finish it

Column 674

with ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. The question before us--and we had better answer it pretty quickly--is whether we have time to do better than we have done so far. That is why Europe matters. That is why it is time to bring Europe's people into the process of shaping Europe's future.

4 pm

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. David Davis): The right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) started by saying that his speech would be about principle and practicality. Much of what I heard was simply political opportunism. I will elaborate on that point at some length later. First, I will put the debate in the context of the Government's view of Europe and where we will be in the next year or two.

The Government start with the conviction that membership of the European Union is in our national interest--that we are confidently and constructively part of Europe. Much is said about the European Union's problems and shortcomings, and I would be the last to deny that they exist. I will take the opportunity to set out our approach to some of those problems.

Before I start to do that, we should not forget the justifications for joining the Community and for remaining part of it. As the right hon. Gentleman mentioned at the end of his speech, 50 years ago Europe was a continent of ruined cities, exhausted peoples and broken economies. From those ruins, we have created a Europe that is infinitely safer and more prosperous than anything that our forebears could receive--a Europe in which many of the old conflicts have been replaced by co-operation.

The European Community, NATO and free market economies have ensured that Europe acts now as a magnet to the countries of the east and offers the prospect of extending stability and prosperity throughout our continent. A wider Europe is the best instrument for eliminating instability in central and eastern Europe.

Europe is crucial to our prosperity. We are a trading nation and have been for centuries. The single market has been good for trade and good for Britain. Half our visible trade is with Europe. Companies in Japan, Korea and the United States choose to invest in the UK--including in Derbyshire-- and to create hundreds of thousands of jobs, because we're in business in Europe.

Next Section

  Home Page