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Mr. Speaker: The hon. Gentleman has put it on the record that in his opinion 24 hours is not sensible notice, so whenever the hon. Member for Shipley (Mr. Leslie) appears, or tries to appear, in his constituency, he will give more notice. I would not like to lay down an amount of time that should be considered reasonable: it is up to individual Members to decide what they feel is

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reasonable in these matters. From time to time, I could do with a Minister visiting my constituency—perhaps I can put that on the record as well.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will have noticed that in the newspapers today, and on the radio yesterday and today, there have been very serious allegations about the Minister for Children. A threatening letter that she sent to the chairman of the governors of the BBC has been published, in which she slurred the whistleblower in the child abuse scandal in Islington. Has she asked you if she can make a personal statement from the Dispatch Box? If not, she should, because it is an abuse.

Mr. Speaker: That may be the right hon. Gentleman's opinion, but there is no need for the right hon. Lady to make a personal statement. It is not a matter for the Chair.

Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I draw to your attention the latest Liberal Democrat money-raising scam? I am not often speechless, but on Monday my local Liberal Democrat council presented me with a bill for £63 for taking up the case of a woman whose friend's daughter had died. Will you make it clear to the Liberal Democrat administration how seriously you view any interference with the work of a Member of Parliament, and suggest that they make an apology in their next Focus newsletter?

Mr. Speaker: I am glad to hear that the hon. Gentleman's council has accepted that a mistake has been made in trying to charge him for a legitimate inquiry on behalf of a constituent.—[Interruption.] Order. I do not think that it is necessary for me to comment further, except to say that I hope that Glasgow city council reads Hansard.

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Constitution for Europe (Referendum)

1.37 pm

Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon): I beg to move,

I do not know how many Members of this House are aware of just how enthusiastic the Government are about referendums. If we were all taking part in a session of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" and Mr. Tarrant were to ask us how many referendums the Government have introduced since 1997, I suspect that I am the only person who would get the answer correct—it is 34. We have had a staggering number of referendums. The Government are referendum junkies—except on the most important issue that faces this country at the present time.

Of the other 14 countries in the European Union, six are committed to holding a referendum and two—France and Italy—are debating the matter extremely seriously. The French Prime Minister has said that there should be a referendum, and Mr. Chirac has instituted a consultation process. France held referendums before, in 1972 and 1992. The United Kingdom Government are so worried about what the French Government are doing that our diplomats in Paris are apparently lobbying them not to hold a referendum because it would be extremely embarrassing to the Prime Minister. Yet polls show that 80 per cent. of people in this country—even in Sedgefield and among trade unionists—want a referendum, and that demand is growing. If France and Italy were to sign up to referendums, it would be unstoppable.

We have had a mass of referendums—some on very important issues such as the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, and some on trivial issues such as whether Hartlepool should have a mayor—but apparently we cannot have one on this. We had one on the Good Friday agreement, which is a reasonably close parallel in that the constitutional arrangements for governing Northern Ireland were changed and the approval of its people was sought.

I wonder how many Members of the House—or indeed, of the Government—are aware of the very first sentence of the draft constitution, which begins:

How do we know that it reflects the will of the citizens of Europe if we do not ask them? It is a bit presumptuous to include such a sentence if there is no intention of holding a referendum.

One of the canards that the Government put about is that the Conservatives support a referendum because they want a no vote so that they can get out of the European Union. That is not my view. I do not believe that one has to be in favour of the constitution and a never-ending process of integration to be a good European. A no vote in a referendum would tell the Government that people were not prepared to support the constitution and that the Government should negotiate a different constitution or a different relationship between this country and the EU.

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It is clear that the process of change is accelerating. From 1956 until the Single European Act in 1985, the treaty of Rome remained substantially unamended. However, there were only seven years between the Single European Act and Maastricht, five years between Maastricht and Amsterdam and three years between Amsterdam and Nice. It appears that there will be three to four years between Nice and the constitution. For 39 years there was almost no change to an economic community, yet in a few short years we have advanced substantially towards a united states of Europe. The direction is clear.

I have much time for those who say, "I want to be part of a federal Europe." There is an argument for that and I can understand it. There is also an argument—with which I agree—that that is not the future of this country. However, there is no case for the people who pretend that what is happening constitutes nothing. The former Minister for Europe compared the constitution to the Beano and said that it did not introduce anything.

On examination, one can find what bothers people such as me about the constitution. It contains some big changes—no one can deny that. Whether they are good or bad is another matter. It provides for a president, a foreign minister, a public prosecutor, a charter of fundamental rights, citizenship, legal supremacy, the sole right to make treaties, more Europol powers, a diplomatic service, stronger language on common defence, harmonisation of criminal law and procedure, and co-ordination of economic and employment policy. There is also the fact of its existence. The European Union already has a Parliament, a supreme court, a currency, a central bank, a common foreign and security policy and military capability. They may not constitute all the characteristics of a state but they amount to a great many of them. It does not need more to reach that point.

The constitution collapses the pillar structure that Maastricht introduced so that there is no veto on justice and home affairs matters. That means a common policy, with qualified majority voting, on asylum, immigration and border controls. We will cede control over those matters to the European Union. The foreign affairs pillar, which has hitherto been kept as a separate intergovernmental pillar, will be compromised by the dual hatting of the foreign minister, who will be secretary-general of the Council and a commissioner. The Commission will thus get a role in foreign policy that it has not previously played.

The pillar structure will go and there will be much more qualified majority voting, including on implementing foreign policy. There is a drive, which the Chancellor says that he will resist, to include social security and tax in qualified majority voting. Competition law is becoming an exclusive EU competence. We shall have no status in competition matters in the future.

We have come a long way since 1956, when we all happily signed up to an economic organisation. I am happy with the Single European Act, which introduced the single market. However, no one then signed up to what we are now approaching. A referendum took place in the 1970s. Before the next stage in the process, the British people should be consulted; there should be a referendum.

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Perhaps there should have been a referendum on Maastricht. However, we had opt-outs from the two biggest items in the treaty—the social chapter and the single currency. Nevertheless, perhaps there should have been a referendum. Perhaps referendums should have been held on Amsterdam and Nice. However, the fact that there were no referendums strengthens rather than weakens the case for one now. It will not set a precedent. We have travelled an enormous distance since Maastricht. Since we did not hold a referendum then, it is imperative to have one now. At some point, people must be asked whether they want the process to continue.

One may hold the view that our future is an increasingly centralised European Union. I believe that that will inexorably lead to a single state. That is a tenable view and I understand the people who hold it, especially those who are honest about it and advocate it openly. We may see our future as an independent state in a more flexible European Union, co-operating on an intergovernmental basis to advance common interests. However, the issue bedevils British politics. It bedevils politics between parties and within parties. [Interruption.] There is no point in pretending that the problem does not exist.

The issue bedevils not only British politics between and within parties but British policy making. We have already witnessed that. For example, on defence, the Prime Minister is trying to do two incompatible things at once. He signed up to the St. Malo agreement and subsequently spent four years trying to ensure that European security and defence identity is pulled back into NATO. In the aftermath of the problems in Europe over the Iraq war, a little more leeway is being given on European defence. The Prime Minister must pull that back, too. We are becoming schizophrenic about the matter and that makes for bad policy. It is bad for the country because we are not clear about our destiny.

I would vote no in a referendum, but I would accept a yes vote because the direction of the country and our public policy aims would then be clear. A no vote would also make matters clear. However, if we continue as we are, we shall have schizophrenia in policy making—trying to be in and out, a good European and a good Atlanticist. The dilemmas, whatever they are, will lead to confusion. The issue must be settled so that the policy direction is clear, and that can happen only through a referendum. The time and the issue are right. If the Government are so confident that they are right, let us have a referendum.

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