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4.35 pm

Ms Joyce Quin (Gateshead, East): The motion is curious and ill- defined; it is as notable for what it does not say as for what it does say. Having listened to the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), I am still confused about some of the motion and about what it means in practice.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) said in an intervention, the motion refers to substantial changes but does not define them. It would be good to hear from the authors of the motion what exactly they mean by substantial changes.

It is clear that, in introducing the motion, the Liberal Democrats have shied away from the debate on a single currency. The motion does not make clear whether a single currency would be the subject of a referendum. Perhaps the right hon. Member for Yeovil would like to tell the House whether it would be included.

Mr. Charles Kennedy: I can clarify that point--indeed, I clarified it last Wednesday with the shadow Foreign Secretary when I showed him the proposed wording of our motion. We wanted to achieve as much support as possible in the House, so I said that the wording could be altered if necessary. He specifically asked me the same question as the hon. Lady has just asked: whether the motion ruled out a referendum on a single currency. I gave the clear answer, "Of course it does not." I do not know whether the shadow Foreign Secretary passed on that information to her. Perhaps he did not, which would explain why she is confused today.

Ms Quin: The confusion arises from the fact that I have had at least three different answers from Liberal Democrats on whether a single currency would be the subject of a referendum. That confusion among Liberal Democrats certainly existed throughout the weekend and this morning.

Sir Norman Fowler: If the motion did include a single currency, what would the Labour party say? Would it support a referendum?

Ms Quin: Our position is clear. We believe that people should be consulted. Whether that would be through a referendum or an election would depend on the timing. This is one reason why the motion does not accord with Labour party policy, a point that I had intended to make later in my speech.

Mr. Marlow: Supposing that, by some mischance, the Labour party won the next election; supposing that the issue of a single currency had not been resolved by that stage; and supposing that two years later there was a proposal for a single currency, would the then Labour Government say that there should be a referendum?

Ms Quin: Three supposes in a row make a tall order. Obviously, we will look at the position when and if it arises-- [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse): Order. Hon. Members must settle down and listen to the hon. Lady.

Ms Quin: What I said is good sense, because we do not know what the outcome of these matters will be. It

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would be difficult to commit ourselves in advance on what consultation there should be, although the Liberal Democrats seem prepared to do so.

Mr. Peter Shore (Bethnal Green and Stepney): My hon. Friend has been given the thankless task of explaining why the Labour party is not operating a three-line Whip this afternoon. It will not do to say that Labour's position is, as it were, an option between a general election and a referendum, and we all know why. We have been through this so many times before that it hardly needs reiterating, but a general election is, inevitably, about a hundred and one issues, including the record of the Conservative Government in the past 15 years. It is not about a single currency or major constitutional changes. Only a referendum can address that issue. In all intellectual honesty, my hon. Friend should admit it.

Ms Quin: I must be a masochist, because I welcome the opportunity to explain Labour policy on these matters. No great change may result from the 1996 intergovernmental conference, and the only change may be that of a Labour Government to take us into the social chapter. As that would be a clear issue between the two main parties at the general election, there would be no need for a referendum on that issue. An awful lot depends on what comes out of the IGC process. Although I sympathise with the idea of holding referendums on these issues, I have explained Labour party policy. I do not have the authority to stand at this Dispatch Box and change policy on the hoof, even if I wanted to.

Some interesting discussions have taken place between various members of the Liberal Democratic party on the tabling of the motion. Some are obviously keener on referendums than others. Some are keener on having one on the single currency. There are differences of view. That is why the motion is ill-defined and why a bit of a fudge has been presented to us today.

Ms Liz Lynne (Rochdale): Is the hon. Lady saying that her view on the referendum is different from her party's?

Ms Quin: No. Often, there can be good reasons for holding referendums. That is my party's view, but it has not committed itself necessarily to holding a referendum on the outcome of the IGCs, as we are talking about conferences that will begin next year and may last up to 18 months. We do not know what its outcome will be.

Mr. Dykes: The hon. Lady has confirmed finally and conclusively that Opposition Front Benchers support the Government's position, stating that there may be a referendum, depending on what is proposed. That is 100 per cent. support for the Government's position. Why did not the Labour party do the same thing when the Maastricht treaty went through the House, so that we could have avoided the terrible turmoil in the House and outside about divisions that are sometimes artificial?

Ms Quin: I confirm the position as I have explained it to the House. That does not mean that the Labour party agrees with Government policy on Europe. Its agreement with the Government is of a strictly limited variety. One of the difficulties of holding a referendum on the Maastricht treaty was that two versions of the treaty were available--the treaty that was available to all other European countries except the United Kingdom, and the version that had been negotiated with two opt-outs by the

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Prime Minister. That made the treaty a difficult subject to submit to a referendum. That is one of the arguments that I should like to deal with later if I can make some progress.

Several hon. Members rose --

Ms Quin: It seems as if progress will be difficult.

Many aspects should be taken into account in relation to what sort of referendum we should hold, and what sort of questions we should raise. Many of those aspects need to be decided before dealing with a motion such as this.

Mr. Legg: Will the hon. Lady confirm that Labour's position is that it supports the opt-out from monetary union, which the Prime Minister negotiated at Maastricht?

Ms Quin: We believe that the opt-out did not create any advantage for the Government; it made them seem semi-detached from Europe. No doubt exists in my mind that the nature of the economic opt-out negotiated by the Prime Minister was one of the reasons, if not the principal reason, why London was not successful in its attempt to attract the European Monetary Institute. [Interruption.] I hear some dissent to that proposal, but it was reported on German television on the day that it was announced that the European Monetary Institute would be sited in Frankfurt.

Mr. Tim Renton (Mid-Sussex): Is the hon. Lady saying, in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Mr. Legg), that the Labour party would prefer there not to be an opt-out on the single currency? Is that her position and that of Opposition Front Benchers?

Ms Quin: We have said that, if we had been in government at that time, we would have negotiated our views on the way forward in relation to economic and monetary union. Obviously, we would have taken a different line from the Government. As we know, they talk a great deal about flexibility and other such concepts, but they have done little to tackle unemployment or to try to promote economic growth in Europe.

We wanted those conditions to be attached to moves towards European monetary union. As we have the opt-out-- [Interruption.] I hope that Conservative Members will give me a chance to explain my views rather than constantly interrupting. Obviously, they are interested not in answers but in making political points.

The Labour party believes that, when it takes office, it will be able to negotiate with other countries on some of its economic priorities, which are laid out in our policy document entitled "Prosperity through Co- operation". I recommend that Conservative Members read it as it would answer the questions that they keep raising and as they seem incapable of understanding the responses that I have already given.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Southend, East) rose --

Ms Quin: If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I shall not give way, as I should like to make some progress with my speech. I have given way many times already, and my original speech has hardly begun. Therefore, I shall endeavour to make some quick progress. If the Liberal Democrats had wanted to maximise support for the motion, they would have gone about things differently. As from last Wednesday, when the shadow

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Cabinet said that it would not support the motion, Liberal Democrats knew that they had a problem, yet nothing seems to have been done to resolve it. I know, through contacting some of the other minority parties in the House, that little progress was made in trying to get their support. I spoke to the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) just an hour or so ago. He said that, to his knowledge, the Liberal Democrats had made no contact with his party, and that he had had no information about the motion.

Mr. Charles Kennedy: I would not normally intervene twice in the hon. Lady's speech, but the conjecture that is being dredged up as something to do with parliamentary debate is bizarre. Will she confirm that the essential problem that the Liberal Democrats faced in the past few days, in framing the motion and in seeking as much support as we could get for it, was that her party, which has far and away the largest number of Members of Parliament who can contribute to the cause, is the obvious place from which to gain more support? People outside will not understand why, after the shadow Foreign Secretary said last Monday, "We must take every and any opportunity to inflict defeat on the Government, not least over European policy," the Labour party, when the opportunity arises, officially sits on its hands.

Ms Quin: The hon. Gentleman confirms what I said--that contact, if any, with other parties was strictly limited. I can only repeat that the Social Democratic and Labour party told me that this afternoon.

Mr. Skinner: I have a copy of today's Evening Standard . There is further confusion. It has been admitted that a memorandum has been drawn up by the foreign affairs spokesman for the Liberal party, who was angry that he was getting the blame for not having taken part in proper discussions with my hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary. It is reported in the Evening Standard that the Liberal spokesman has made it clear to the Liberal party leadership that he has been misled because he was told not to raise the referendum issue with my hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary

"until Russell Johnston and Roy Jenkins had been squared." That says one hell of a lot. I support the referendum.

Ms Quin: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for quoting extensively from the article in today's Evening Standard . The two members of the Liberal party to whom he referred are not, shall we say, terribly enthusiastic about the idea of a referendum, which explains quite a bit in the report.

Sir Teddy Taylor: Does the hon. Lady agree that one of the problems with having a referendum is that the scene is constantly changing? Only a few moments ago, I received notification from Brussels that plans to ban all passport controls between European countries, including Britain, will be tabled by the Commission later this year. Is she aware that, if Britain objects in any way, we shall face a challenge in the European Court of Justice. The argument is that article 7a of the treaty states clearly that a single market is an area without internal frontiers in which freedom of movement of people is guaranteed.

Does it not mean that the scene is constantly changing when only this morning some of our bright chaps were saying that there was no problem and nothing would

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happen, while I have here an unambiguous statement to the effect that proposals will be considered to abolish passport controls within the European Union and that, were we to object, we would be taken to the European Court of Justice? The hon. Lady knows what would happen if we were taken to the European Court of Justice on this issue--we should not have a hope.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I have been very tolerant about mini- speeches disguised as interventions. I know that this is a very important debate but I shall now expect interventions to be brief and to the point.

Ms Quin: Proposals have to be agreed, and I think it is rather doubtful that the ones to which the hon. Gentleman refers will be agreed in that form. When I was travelling recently on the continent, I had to show my passport several times, so it seems that border controls are a long way from being removed. Indeed, I hope that many of the safeguards, which the hon. Gentleman and I would probably think are important, will remain in place.

There are times when the Opposition parties are able to join together effectively to defeat the Government. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) rightly referred to some of the opportunities that arose during the Maastricht debate, when we did not always receive the support of the Liberal Democrats. There have been occasions recently when the Government have been threatened on their legislative programme or in respect of their adherence to international treaties.

Such an occasion arose just before Christmas, when we debated increased contributions to the European Union budget. More recent examples occurred when we debated the European fisheries policy and, of course, when the Government were defeated over value added tax on fuel. We believe that we should take opportunities of this kind, but they nevertheless need to be better prepared in future.

Labour's position on the motion is that we believe that it is essential for people to be consulted on any major shift in our relations with the European Union. We accept that the most likely occasion for such a shift to occur will be at the outcome of the intergovernmental conferences. Such consultation may take the form of a referendum, but, because of the uncertain timing of the next general election and the fact that we do not know whether an election would involve a widespread debate on any significant change in our relationships with the European Union, we are not at this stage committing ourselves firmly as to whether a referendum will be necessary. It is something that we are clearly duty bound to keep under review.

Several hon. Members rose --

Ms Quin: I am not going to give way; I have done so many times already.

We are sensitive to the fact that people must not feel left out in the cold over the debate on Europe. After all, it was the Labour Government who gave people the previous referendum. After the high-handed way in which the Conservatives have run the country for the past 15 years, we can particularly appreciate the dangers to our political system of ignoring public opinion on such a fundamental issue.

Although this debate is about Europe, it is also about referendums and the role that they can play in our democracy. The right hon. Member for Yeovil said that

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some think of a referendum as an alien concept that is not a usual part of the British political system. It is certainly true that referendums have been much more widely used in Europe than in our country, which is rather ironic as so many of the people who are especially keen on the idea of a referendum at the moment are those who distrust European traditions.

However, we need to consider the role of referendums and whether we want increasing use to be made of them and, if so, why. Perhaps we should have a referendum on whether we should have recourse to referendums in future. There are arguments for changing our democracy and for having a different approach.

I do not know whether any other hon. Members listened to "Analysis" on Radio 4 yesterday. People were discussing the revolution in information technology and how it theoretically makes it possible for us to have a more participatory form of democracy--for example, by using technology to give people a say and a vote, either in a consultative way or in a binding way on the Government of the day. That is certainly a very interesting idea. Do we want to follow Switzerland and have referendums with considerable frequency, or do we want to copy the example of California, where there have been many difficulties with the frequent use of referendums?

Mr. Mackinlay: Does my hon. Friend understand that many in the new Labour party would see it as a virtue if we said that people should be consulted on major constitutional issues? What is wrong with that? It was not part of British culture to allow working class people to vote until we changed that in this place. Nor were women allowed to become Members of Parliament until we changed that in this place. It would be a good idea to allow people to decide major constitutional issues as a matter of course.

Ms Quin: I am more than willing for that to be discussed widely within the Labour party. My hon. Friend will know that our democracy commission is examining such issues at the moment. None the less--

Mr. Marlow: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Ms Quin: I have already given way to the hon. Gentleman and to many others, and many hon. Members want to speak.

It is much too early to say whether the IGCs and their conclusions should be the subject of a referendum. We do not yet know whether the IGCs will lead to substantial changes, although some people feel that it is unlikely. There is some merit in that line of argument, partly because the European Union has recently been enlarged to include 15 countries and the new countries are still adapting to the European Union. Indeed, the transition process will not have been completed by the time of the IGCs.

We are also talking about enlarging the European Union to include the countries of central and eastern Europe, about which my party is very enthusiastic. I believe that such enlargement commands widespread support in the House. It would be disastrous--certainly for political reasons--if we sent a negative political signal

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to the countries of central and eastern Europe and, having encouraged changes in those countries, seemed to be turning our backs on them.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): Is my hon. Friend seriously saying that she expects the countries of eastern Europe to be able to meet the convergence terms, which are not only part of the next IGC but automatically part of the arrangements for our move towards a single currency?

Ms Quin: It is unlikely that most of them could meet the criteria, but the Czech Republic, for example, has said that it thinks it might be in a position to do so. There is no uniformity among the countries of central and eastern Europe which are very different and have different traditions.

Several hon. Members rose --

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Lady has made it clear that she will not give way.

Ms Quin: The Labour party has hopes for the outcome of the intergovernmental conferences, and I shall briefly refer to them. Obviously we are keen on the idea of an enlargement of the European Union that would include not only the countries of central and eastern Europe, but Cyprus and Malta. I think that that was the point that the hon. Member for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellett-Bowman) wanted me to make.

Existing applications are not thought to raise any economic difficulties, and progress should be possible with them. The Labour party also hopes that we can achieve the reform of the common agriculture policy in the discussions about the IGCs.

Sir Teddy Taylor: No chance.

Ms Quin: The hon. Gentleman shouts from a sedentary position, but he will know that the consequences of trying to adapt the existing common agriculture policy to the countries of central and eastern Europe are so mind-boggling that it would be simply impossible for that policy to continue along the same lines. Therefore, we have a huge opportunity at the IGCs to put forward ideas for a new type of agricultural system in Europe.

We also believe that the IGCs could give a boost to the social dimension in the EU, and that will be far easier in the future with a Labour Government than it has been in the past under the Conservatives. We believe progress can be made also on environmental issues and the economy--crucially on jobs and on promoting economic growth--and that that can be done with a Government who take a different view from the present Government. The programme that we would propose to the IGCs would be positive and realistic, and it would be very much in Britain's interests.

It is impossible to say what the Government's approach will be while the battle is raging between the Europhobes and the Europhiles, even within the inner sanctum of the Cabinet. The Secretary of State for Employment has apparently said that three things have been decided in respect of the IGCs by the Cabinet. The Government will say no to any change in the unanimity rules, there will be no worsening of the formula for qualified majority voting, and no new powers will be given to the European institutions.

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I do not know whether the Minister can confirm that that is the official view of the Cabinet, but I questioned the Foreign Secretary on the matter and he seemed to suggest that that was not so. I have written to the right hon. Gentleman to try to get a formal response to clear up some of the confusion arising out of the pronouncements of the Secretary of State for Employment.

The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) mentioned the difference of view between the Chancellor and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. I noticed in one of the newspapers today that the Chancellor is asking the panel of wise men to come up with answers about the implications for Britain of a single currency. I know that the original wise men brought welcome gifts with them, but I am not sure that the outcome of the deliberations by the six wise men will be welcomed by the Chancellor. One thing is true: if it is welcome news for the Chancellor, it will not be welcome news for the shadow Chief Secretary--for the Chief Secretary, rather. [Laughter.] I suppose that something which pleases the Government is very unlikely to please us.

The divisions within the Conservative ranks may be entertaining, but they are profoundly bad news for Britain. I believe that Britain has been isolated and marginalised, and that it is losing out as a result. All the events of the past few weeks--indeed, the past few years, as far as the Tory divisions on Europe are concerned--provide ample reason why we need not only a change in strategy towards Europe by the Government, but a change of Government.

5.3 pm

Mr. Tim Renton (Mid-Sussex): I confess that I have found the debate rather disappointing so far. The Observer yesterday carried the exciting headline:

"Bring down the Tories tomorrow".

Under that headline was an article by the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), which contained most of what he said to us in his speech earlier this afternoon. A sense of impending doom brought me hurrying to the Chamber to make quite certain that I registered my vote--faithfully, as always--with the Government.

In looking to see those who have been rallied by the article to support the Liberal Democrats in their attempt to bring down the Tory Government, we see that, at the last count, there were 11 Labour Members present. So much for the concern of the Labour party to bring down the Government. So much also for the thought that the parties opposite have any common policy at all on the issue of the Common Market or on referendums.

We heard a typical little spat between the right hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore) and the hon. Member for Gateshead (Ms Quin), in which some of the divisions in the Labour party became clear.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Renton: No, I am not giving way. Lots of hon. Members want to speak, and I am sure that Mr. Deputy Speaker would like me to make progress with my remarks.

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My position is quite clear. I have always been opposed to national referendums. I made a speech on the subject in the House on 22 November 1974--the first time that I won an Adjournment debate on a Friday--and I still recommend its contents to colleagues. The speech contained good historical examples of the way in which referendums have been distorted in other countries, often by the way in which the question was phrased or distorted to get the answer that the Government of the day wanted to achieve.

The hon. Member for Gateshead asked why so many other countries have referendums more frequently than we do. The answer is because they have referendums written into their constitutions. In Ireland, Denmark and Australia, the need to call referendums is a constitutional matter contained in a written constitution.

Mr. Mackinlay: Very good it is, too.

Mr. Renton: What the hon. Gentleman says is fine if we wish to have a written constitution. I do not, for the simple reason echoed by Enoch Powell in a debate in April 1972 on the original European Communities Bill, when he said that the sole responsibility of the Executive is to Parliament and of Parliament to the people. I believe strongly that hon. Members are elected as representatives of a sovereign people to take difficult decisions on their behalf. If we--in the eyes of the sovereign people--get those decisions wrong, they can throw us out at the next election. That is the basis on which our Parliament is formed.

In the years I have been in the House--

Mr. Marlow: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Renton: No. I congratulate my hon. Friend on the number of times he has intervened in the debate during the past two hours, but I do not propose to give way to him. I hope that he will have a chance to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Sir Teddy Taylor: What about Scottish devolution?

Mr. Renton: I shall come to Scottish devolution in a moment, if my hon. Friend can wait.

All of us who have been in the House for a long time have taken difficult decisions on many issues. Those include moral issues, such as capital punishment and changes in the abortion laws, and constitutional issues such as the treaty of Maastricht, the Single European Act 1986 and--before I came here--the treaty of Rome. I agree strongly with Burke, who when speaking to the electorate of Bristol said:

"Your representative owes you not his industry only, but his judgment. And he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion".

That is not a popular view. [Interruption.] It is obviously not popular with the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay), who keeps intervening from a sedentary position. The hon. Gentleman would run in front of people and in front of the opinion of the day, and that is wrong. If the House is to retain respect, we must have the courage at times to follow our own judgment and, having listened carefully, not to be swayed from that.

On the matter of the referendum in 1975, I remind the House that the noble Lord Wilson made it plain when that referendum was introduced--the only national referendum which we have had--that it was not to be

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treated as a precedent, and that it would be considered as an isolated referendum--required, of course, to bring unity to the Labour party of the day.

Mr. Cash: It did not.

Mr. Renton: It did not, but that is what it was hoped to achieve. I remember a constituent who was opposed to referendums saying, in plainer language than that we use in the House, "If you have a dog, you don't bark yourself."

Against that background of my opposition to referendums, I should like to talk about one or two instances of what would happen were the Liberal Democrat motion passed today--if there were to be, in the words of the motion,

"any substantial alteration of the present constitutional settlement between the European Union and its Member States"-- in which case, a referendum would be required.

There is one issue over which, under the terms of the motion, a referendum should be required, and which has not yet been touched on in the debate. It involves what Liberals, Labour and Scottish nationalists are currently saying about their determination to have a Scottish Parliament. The current constitutional arrangements--the treaty of Rome, the Maastricht treaty and the Single European Act--are between the United Kingdom, as a unitary state, and the European Union. It is clear that the current argument among Opposition Members is about how much power should be devolved from the House to a Scottish Parliament. It is not a question of whether that should happen, but how much power should be devolved.

As we heard in the debates over the weekend, the Labour party says that it should be possible to hold the line at a Scottish Assembly. The Scottish nationalists are, more realistically, saying that a Scottish Assembly would be only the first step and their ultimate aim would be full independence for Scotland. Either way, those devolution arguments signify a substantial change in the present form of the United Kingdom--as a unitary state. That devolution should therefore be subject to a referendum.

As that devolution would affect everyone on this island, it is clear that the referendum on it should be a national one, not just for the Scots but for the English, Welsh and Cornish as well. Why? Because the Liberals and Labour are both committed to some form of regional government in England that would mean devolution to the English regions to match the devolution to Edinburgh. Logically, they have to be committed to that, because it is the only way of answering the famous question by the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) about why Scottish Members of Parliament who are unable to vote on many Scottish matters should, once matters have been devolved to an Edinburgh Parliament, vote in Westminster on comparable matters affecting the English.

The only logical answer--as is certainly realised among some Labour Members --is that comparable powers have to be devolved to English regional Assemblies comparable with those that are passed to an Edinburgh Parliament. However, the Labour party shrinks from saying that because it knows that it would be deeply unpopular. [Hon. Members:-- "Some of us are saying it."] I am delighted if some Labour Members are--I certainly read in yesterday's edition of The Independent on Sunday that the shadow Home Secretary, the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), was to announce that devolution

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