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2 Dec 2002 : Column 703—continued

9.27 pm

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North): It is a pleasure and a privilege to follow the right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory). He and my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) have represented this House and all of us in the discussions that have been taking place. It is not an easy task and they have both carried it out very well in their own very distinctive ways.

The differences between hon. Members should not obscure the fact that Members on both sides of the House and from all political points in their party signed up to an amendment put before them asking that proper and due consideration be given to the European constitution that could govern our way of life for decades. Everyone in the House found that it was possible to sign up to that. It may be procedural; it may just be democratic. It does not go specifically for one viewpoint or another, but it reflects, I hope, a parliamentary wish that is evident in all parties, which is that this place is nothing and has no role if it cannot have a say on whether the country has a constitution. That is why there was a broad sweep of opinion, even in the brief time that was allowed for us to table an amendment that supported our Parliament and our people, in putting forward our views and having a sensible and open debate.

I happen to be pro-European and pro-constitution, but my views should prevail only after due argument, after all of us have debated the matter and after the nation has considered the possibilities. After all, the

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right hon. Member for Wells signed the amendment not because he thought that a national debate would arise and that it would find in my favour, but because he thought that such a debate would find in his favour. I am prepared to fight those battles in public, on television or in the Chamber, because I and those who share my view must win others to our position. There is no short cut. There is no way, by sleight of hand, that we can impose a constitution on the people of the United Kingdom.

I am sorry that the shadow Foreign Secretary has left the Chamber. He made many points to which Members of all parties should pay great attention. Some colleagues may argue that those points resonate with the prejudices of British people. Whether or not that is true, they resonate with the views of British people. Many people fear that the European project is moving too quickly and without checks. The right hon. Gentleman put those points to the House clearly and openly. As I pointed out when he kindly allowed me to intervene, if he feels that we should not acquiesce to certain aspects of a European constitution they should be made clear in the constitution itself. If, like the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), the right hon. Gentleman feels that subsidiarity is a dead letter, the constitution should make clear how subsidiarity could work. If, as many Opposition colleagues believe, the role of the nation state is under threat, the constitution should make it crystal clear, in words that reassure them, that that is not so and that it would not be legal to undermine that role.

There must be a clearly written constitution and if we are to achieve it, our Parliament must be given rights in the process. It is nice to hold a debate such as this, but it was granted on a grace and favour basis. The Government have kindly allowed us to speak on the subject. We are not debating it as of right; we are not debating it because Parliament decided that it was a good thing to do and that it was an essential prerequisite for the development of a European constitution.

Parliament must establish certain rights in respect of the process. With great respect and admiration, I point out to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston that a constitution that arises from an illegitimate process will itself be illegitimate and can but fall at the first serious hurdle. We must build in a process for the appreciation and acceptance of a constitution and we must make clear what it stands for in words that reassure not only the British people but the majority of Conservative Members.

I have to take some issue with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales, much though I am loth to do so because he has been a strong and articulate advocate of the European project and on that matter I put trust in him above almost anyone. However, there is a clear distinction between coalescing existing powers in a treaty and forcing that treaty through the House on a three-line Whip and agreeing to a wholly new constitutional settlement for the people of this country.

The first is a legitimate function of the Executive. That is the role and the right of the Executive—much as some of us may object on occasion. However, the second—the constitution—cannot possibly be seen either as being in the gift of the British Executive or of a collection of European Executives. It must be something that the people of this country sign up to and are prepared to accept.

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I agree with the hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Moore) that one way forward would be a White Paper, which would open up the debate and let us all see what is at stake. The House could then get involved in proper pre-legislative scrutiny. It will not surprise the Chairman of the Procedure Committee if I say that such a process would involve all Members of Parliament, and that if it was online the whole nation could participate. If we created a constitution in that way, it would not have 40 or 50 founding fathers, as the United States constitution had, but several million founding fathers and mothers. Such a constitution would enjoy the support of the population as a whole.

In the end, however, that would have to be endorsed by the British people in a referendum. There may be some who wish that we were not committed to the referendum on the euro—many Members, both Government and Opposition, have expressed that view—but if we accept that it is legitimate to have a referendum on that subject, it must be equally legitimate for constitution making, which cannot be a lesser process than mere monetary union, as a European constitution would influence our lives for many years to come.

Those in government should not be afraid of partnership or of bringing the House along with them and trying to persuade colleagues; rational argument may prevail in the end. Equally, we should not be afraid of entrusting to the British people, after a thorough national debate, the decision whether to sign up to a constitution.

We have heard again the old chestnut about judges ruling the roost. Judges are all over statute law already, but they would only ever come into this equation if politicians disagreed so fundamentally that no reconciliation was possible or if those politicians acted illegitimately. Many hon. Members could give a whole series of examples of where that has happened. In those circumstances, the judges may be a protection for the peoples of Europe, and not the problem that some fear.

We were reminded earlier of the quotation about needing a poet to draft at least the preamble, although I think that a poet could do the whole lot. President Giscard d'Estaing's draft is up to about 300 pages of Euro-speak. It is impenetrable and makes the EU sheepmeat directive seem a racy read. We need to pull together the vision, motivation and drive that were evident in the US constitution. Although the principles of that constitution were agreed in a large committee of 40 or 50 people, Madison was then sent away with a quill pen and ink to compose something that people would be prepared to die for. Giscard's Euro-speak might cause a number of fatalities, but not for reasons of the poetry, artistry and elegance that Madison was able to contrive.

The challenge for the Minister is not merely to find a beautiful word for that most beautiful concept in democracy of subsidiarity, so that schoolchildren can carry the idea around in their pockets and in their heads, but to find the poet—perhaps someone who is here tonight or someone in some corner of Europe—who can pull together the inspiration that will mean that people are prepared not, we hope, to die for, but to fight for a

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constitution that will unite the peoples of Europe, so that when we go to France we never again have to do so with a rifle over our shoulder but can do so simply to enjoy the wonderful wine.

9.39 pm

Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East): The hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) makes a very important point in suggesting a referendum because the one thing that he and all colleagues in the House must be aware of is that there is a feeling of hopelessness among the general community on matters relating to Europe. People are concerned about what is happening.

People who are sickened about it realise that they can do nothing, that their Members of Parliament are powerless and useless in these matters and that things are getting worse. Certainly, if we take the further major step to have a written European constitution, which will interfere with virtually every aspect of our work in Parliament, they will feel particularly angry if it is forced on them without their agreement. Of course a referendum is not a means to ensure that one point of view prevails, but if the people vote for something and it turns out to be horrendous, miserable and horrible, at least we can say that they have responsibility for it.

Quite frankly, what is upsetting me is the fact that the House of Commons has not realised the extent to which power has already gone. I shall give two brief examples. Colleagues are well aware of the fact many elderly people in Britain now receive the great benefit called the winter fuel payment. They got that from the House of Commons because we agreed that elderly people living in Britain were entitled to money to help them with the cost of the cold.

How many people are aware—I was told about this in a parliamentary answer on 6 November—that, because of an instruction from the EU, we now have to pay the winter fuel allowance to people from the United Kingdom who go to live in places such as Martinique, Guadeloupe, French Guiana, Reunion, the Azores, Madeira and the Canary islands, where the sun shines all the time and it is not cold? According to the Government, that will cost £10 million. How on earth is that sensible? How is it correct for us to say that if people go to live in cold Canada, they do not get a penny, but they do if they go to the Azores or the Canary islands? Quite honestly, that is nutty, crazy and a stupid waste of money, but what on earth can we in the House do about it? The answer is, sadly, nothing at all.

The Minister may remember that the Government introduced a great Bill to say that foreign nationals could not give money to British political parties. Because of people's worries about foreign companies and individuals—perhaps in Hong Kong or elsewhere—giving money to political parties, the Government introduced that great Bill to make it unlawful. The Bill was presented to Parliament, but in the House of Lords, where the Government have such clever Ministers, they had to say that, unfortunately, they could not go ahead with it in its present form. It had to be adjusted because they were not allowed to exclude parts of the EU.

It was apparently all right for a company in Germany, France or Portugal to give money to the Labour party, the Conservative party or any other party in Britain, but

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not for people who lived in Turkey, Canada, Guadeloupe or places like that to do the same. However, the Government then made a second surrender: they had to say that, sadly, because of EU instructions, they could not exclude places that were EU overseas territories. That put us in the absurd position whereby individuals living in British Guiana were not allowed to give money to the Liberal Democrats, but people were able to do so if they lived in French Guiana. That was madness, crazy and illogical, but what on earth could we do about it? The answer is absolutely nothing. [Interruption.] This is not funny; the Minister should not laugh about it. When a democracy is dying, Ministers should get upset about it. We should not have silly twits trying to pretend that nothing will happen although new things are being introduced.

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