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6.49 pm

The Minister for Europe (Mr. Denis MacShane): This has been a good debate. We have just heard a fine speech from the hon. Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring),

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the shadow Minister for Europe, although I think that I may have read it in the Daily Mail about nine months ago; apart from the invitation to read the New Statesman, which I thoroughly endorse, he read it out with considerable vim and vigour. I shall not read from a prepared text, but will try to reply to the debate itself.

The hon. Member for West Suffolk yet again made the point that this matter was not included in the Labour manifesto, but we actually put it to the British people:

That is precisely what we shall now begin to do.

Occasionally, it is important to read the motions before the House. The Opposition motion refers to the constitutional draft presented by Mr. Giscard d'Estaing as though it were a given—a settled end text—but it is not.

Sir Michael Spicer (West Worcestershire) rose—

Mr. Francois rose—

Mr. MacShane: The hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Sir Michael Spicer) should have done the House the courtesy of being in the Chamber for more than two minutes of the Rothermere speech that we have just heard. The hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) has been here for the debate so I willingly give way to him.

Mr. Francois: I thank the Minister for giving way.

The Government's position, with which I disagree, is that they will not grant a referendum on the current draft of the treaty. However, may I ask the Minister a question about principle? Because of the nature of the IGC there are bound to be some changes in the draft before it finally emerges as a definitive text. When the Government have the definitive text, post-IGC, will they at least reserve the possibility of granting a referendum after the IGC process?

Mr. MacShane: Both the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have made it clear that if in the Government's opinion there are such fundamental changes in the relationship between the UK and its European partners as a result of the end text from the IGC, Parliament can clearly take a view of how it then wants to discuss or ratify the matter.

May I return to the points made by hon. Members who gave considered speeches? I do so as someone who, like most Members, actually loves being a Member of this place, who likes the House of Commons, enjoys sitting on these green Benches and thinks of all the other right hon. and hon. Ladies and Gentlemen who have sat here over the decades and centuries. When I do not have a final text to consider or to discuss with the House, I am honestly reluctant to accept that several hundred years of parliamentary tradition should be thrown out of the window by conceding the cause for a Rothermere referendum—a plebiscite—that will hand most power to the press.

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The Opposition have been clear from day one that the campaign was launched by the anti-European press; they said that they wanted a referendum to say no to Europe, not to test the will of the British people. The right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell), who spoke after the two main introductory speeches, called for a referendum as a matter in principle, but in another place his colleague, the Liberal Democrat peer Lord Thomson of Monifieth, said:

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is obviously a young fogey, as he wants to throw away parliamentary democracy and sign up for a referendum.

Another of the right hon. and learned Gentleman's colleagues, the Liberal Democrat peer Lord Dahrendorf, said that

I invite the right hon. and learned Gentleman to consider that point. What will be brought back to the House will be a treaty, which the Government will seek to sign, and its translation into law in this place.

If we believe in parliamentary democracy, we should wait and see what is in that treaty. The former Prime Minister, Mr. Major, put that point well when he spoke on the "Today" programme. He said that he was in favour of a referendum if the treaty so changes our relationship with the EU, but he said that we should wait and see. I invite the House to be a little patient.

Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. MacShane: I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman, as he has been in the Chamber throughout the debate.

Mr. Walter: I thank the Minister for giving way and for his references to centuries of parliamentary democracy, but perhaps he can tell the House what the point was of the referendum in 1975, proposed by a Labour Government who had renegotiated the treaty. They were not proposing to leave the EU; they were seeking affirmation of their renegotiation.

Mr. MacShane: Of course if people had voted no, we would have left. Frankly, the 1975 referendum should be examined, as it relates to the point made so strongly by the right hon. Member for Charnwood (Mr. Dorrell), who argued that the process of holding referendums somehow reconnected people to their elected political representatives. Well, I wish I could tell the House that I was persuaded by that argument. I have some experience because I worked in Geneva for some years—as hon. Members used to remind me—where referendums are held on every subject at national, cantonal and city level. I have to say that the turnout at elections and the standing of political leaders in Switzerland is—believe it or not—lower than in this country, so I fear that the notion that a referendum is somehow a magic key, a Harry Potter spell, to reconnect politicians and the people cannot be sustained.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Stevenson) argued very strongly that we were going towards a state called Europe. I think that I quote him accurately. With all due respect to my hon. Friend—we have been friends for many years—I have to say that I am not sure that people could make that speech in almost any other European country and have their argument taken seriously. The notion that the eastern European countries that have voted so overwhelmingly to join the EU have done so because they are joining a state that somehow replaces their own is simply not a receivable argument. It is receivable in the Rothermere press and on the Conservative Benches, but it could not be made in Paris, Ireland or Spain, or in any other EU country.

Mr. Bacon: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. MacShane: The hon. Gentleman has been here as well, so I shall give way.

Mr. Bacon: The first sensible thing that I have heard the Minister say is that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Stevenson) made a fine speech, as many people would agree. Will the Minister clarify the position on the passerelle clause, because the Foreign Secretary told the European Scrutiny Committee the other day that the Government would seek to get it changed? Did any member of the British Government seek to table an amendment to the passerelle clause in the Convention on the Future of Europe?

Mr. MacShane: The clause in question was inserted very late in the day. It was not introduced during the flow of things, as the right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory)—who is not here, alas—would acknowledge. That is exactly what we shall have to discuss on 4 October, and those in other European capitals all want changes, as I know from my all my contacts with them.

Many institutions and individuals want changes. I have here a letter to sign off tonight to the Royal National Institution of the Blind, which wants more QMV in EU anti-discrimination legislation. We are saying that that should stay a question of unanimity, so I will have to disappoint the RNIB, but I expect that, as it represents the blind people of Britain, it would rather have more authority at European level to produce Europe-wide legislation, covering the problems that blind people face. The right hon. Member for Charnwood would say, "Oh well, that isn't really a European competence." He should discuss that with the RNIB.

The hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) insisted on the sovereignty of Parliament. I think that I quote him correctly, so I am not quite sure, because I did not quite follow the thread of his argument, why he is proposing to transfer that sovereignty to a referendum. My hon. Friends the Members for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mr. Lazarowicz) and for Reading, East (Jane Griffiths) made the good point that we, as Members of Parliament, need to discuss—

Mr. McLoughlin rose in his place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put.

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Question, That the Question be now put, put and agreed to.

Question put accordingly, That the original words stand part of the Question:—

The House divided: Ayes 177, Noes 250.

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