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23 Apr 2004 : Column 565

Constitution for the European Union (Referendum) Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

12.9 pm

Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon) (Con): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I had not expected to speak for an hour or two yet, but I am delighted to do so. I am also delighted to be, for the first time in 12 years, introducing into the House a Government Bill. It was in 1992 that I last moved a Government Bill. If the Government accept the Bill, which is apparently their policy now, it would save us all a great deal of time and trouble. We will come to the one clause on which, I expect, they will hang their objection.

I introduced an almost identical Bill as a ten-minute Bill in November. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) spoke against it with passion and at length, although I imagine that in pursuit of his career he has now changed his views. The Government Whips whipped Labour Members to vote against that Bill and killed it off. This is the same Bill, and the Government's policy has changed to the point where this is what they say they intend to do, sooner or later. Far from the fox having been shot, he is now the king of the jungle, and when his head finally goes on the wall when the British public vote "No", it will be accompanied by the Prime Minister's head.

That is the nemesis for the Government's appallingly hypocritical policy of going along with everything the European Union proposes. The policy of never being isolated means that they never stand up for their rights, however right they think they are. We are seeing the culmination of that. The Government have performed not just a U-turn, but have spun an almost infinite number of times and ended up facing 180o from where they started.

I suspect that the reasons for that have nothing to do with the Prime Minister's desire to consult the peasants on what they think about the issue, but everything to do with electoral advantage—with removing the matter as an issue at the European elections and, more importantly, at the general election, in the same way as the commitment to allow a referendum on the euro meant that at the last election the Prime Minister was able to say, "This election isn't about the euro. You'll get a separate vote on that." He will now be able to say, "This election isn't about the European constitution. You'll get a separate vote on that."

The Minister for Trade and Investment (Mr. Mike O'Brien): Would the hon. Gentleman remind us of how he voted on the question whether there should be a referendum on the Single European Act? I know that he was not in the House during the Maastricht debate, but presumably he thinks that the Conservative Government were wrong to deny a referendum on Maastricht, too.

Mr. Maples: I shall come to that. One of my arguments is that at some point between the treaty of Rome in 1956 and the federal superstate to which I believe we are headed, there should be a referendum.
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The fact that there was not one at the time of Maastricht—I was not in the House and did not vote on it, though in my usual loyal way I would probably have voted with the Government of the day—reinforces rather than undermines the case for a referendum now. I also point out to the hon. Gentleman that there was a general election between the signing and adoption of the Maastricht treaty and the Bill ratifying it. They took place in different Parliaments. There was a general election in between, which alters the case.

The Government's proposed referendum has nothing to do with consulting the people; it is to do with saving the Prime Minister's skin. Perhaps he does admit to fundamental change. He would have to, given that he said on 29 October—not that long ago, though an aeon in the Prime Minister's ideological positioning:

on an EU constitution—

The fact that we are to have a referendum presumably means that the Prime Minister concedes that there is a fundamental change.

I would not go quite that far. I think that there is a significant change, and the fact that what is proposed is called a constitution introduces some legal points that I should like to explore. There has been a piecemeal collection of treaties that have advanced the position considerably during the past 48 years.

The Government have held 34 referendums so far. I am probably one of the few people who know that, as I had to count them up for my ten-minute Bill. Most of those have been held from the desire to do something positive or to give people a positive choice. This is the first to be held by the Government out of fear. That will come back to haunt them whatever they do on the issue, because they have got the fundamentals wrong and they do not have a policy that makes sense.

David Cairns (Greenock and Inverclyde) (Lab): The question to be put in the referendum appears in the Bill. How many other referendum questions were included in legislation, and how many were devised through some other mechanism?

Mr. Maples: The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. In the case of the Scottish Parliament, this House decided on the powers of that Parliament, so the legislation enacted those powers. If the Government adopt the treaty establishing the European Union constitution at Dublin, or whenever it comes up, the House can only ratify it or not; it cannot amend it. The difference in the case of the other referendums that there have been is that the House was in a position to set the substance of the legislation on which the country was voting. In this case the question is simple: "Do you or do you not approve the ratification of the treaty establishing the European Union constitution?" I imagine that when the Government come forward with their Bill, they will pose a similar question.
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David Cairns: Just to clarify this point, because I am not sure what the process will be, the question that the hon. Gentleman wants to be put to the British public is one that presumably he has devised and has put in the Bill. It is not as he just said; it is subtly different. It is:

It could be argued that the way in which he has framed that question betrays his view of what the answer should be. Should we not be trying to devise a question that is a bit more neutral than that?

Mr. Maples: I am missing the hon. Gentleman's point. I would be perfectly happy in Committee to accept an amendment that made the question neutral. If the hon. Gentleman is saying that the question is not neutral and seeks a "No" vote, I would be perfectly happy to accept an amendment to achieve neutrality. At the end of the day, the Electoral Commission will have something to say about the nature of the question. I am sorry if I misunderstood the hon. Gentleman's first intervention.

If the treaty is adopted in June, the Government can set about this in two ways. They can combine ratification and the referendum in one Bill. They can set out the treaty in the Bill and then say that it will not be ratified unless and until there has been a referendum, and that Bill could go through the House. Alternatively, they could separate the matters into two Bills, and it would be possible to pass the referendum Bill and seek the referendum before even introducing the ratification Bill. The simplest way is probably to make the referendum a pre-condition for ratification and to have them in the same Bill, but the point that I was seeking to make is that the constitution itself, when it comes before the House, will not be amendable by us. We either have to accept it or reject it in total. Therefore, the legislation will be fairly simple, and it could go through Parliament fairly quickly.

My Bill calls for the referendum to be held within six months of the treaty being adopted, and I understand that that technically means the point at which it is agreed at the intergovernmental conference. There will then be a delay during which the full text is made available for signature, which usually happens a few weeks later, and then ratification. I want the six months to run from when our Government and every other Government agree the constitution and adopt it at an intergovernmental conference. It looks as though that will happen between 18 and 20 June. It could run longer, but I do not think that there is any need to delay past that. There is a serious issue, for reasons that I will come to, and if the British public are to be invited to settle the matter, they should be invited to do so fairly soon.

The only matter of substance in my Bill to which the Government might object is the call for that referendum to be within six months. Who would want to delay the referendum beyond six months? Not even the most Eurosceptic Conservative Member would want to delay the referendum, because that is what we have been asking for. We are willing to abide by the decision of the British public, so we will not try to delay it. The House of Lords will not try to delay it. One of the reasons why the Government have changed their policy is that they feared that the House of Lords would introduce into the Bill a provision for a referendum.
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The only people who have an interest in delaying the referendum after the treaty is adopted are the Government. The reason for that is that they do not want it before the general election; they want to defer it beyond the general election. The earliest that the general election might be is next spring or summer, so we are talking about a referendum in the autumn of 2005, which will be 15 months after the treaty setting out the constitution was adopted. What can possibly be the excuse or justification for that, other than proving what I firmly believe to be the case—that this referendum is nothing to do with asking the British people what they think about this issue but with getting the Prime Minister and his skin through the next general election?

I suggest to the Government that it would be simpler to use my Bill. We could all save each other and the House of Commons an awful lot of trouble by letting the Bill go into Committee. I would very much welcome any such concession from the Minister. I am sure that, in such a Committee, we could accept amendments or agree a text for the resolution, timetable and everything else that is necessary. The measure would be on the statute book, and the Prime Minister and Government would not be able to say, "Oh well, we've got to get the referendum Bill through Parliament", because it would have been done in advance.

I believe that the ratification Bill could then be passed very quickly. It would be for those above my pay grade and that of my hon. Friends who are present to agree a timetable with the Government now, but I think that I can confidently say that the Conservative party would be willing to ensure that the two necessary measures, if there are to be separate ratification and referendum Bills, go through Parliament in very short order. I agree that they should be properly debated. A very important issue is at stake, and before the public make up their mind it would be best for them to hear what their representatives in Parliament have to say. However, that could be done in two or three days on the Floor of the House. Such a Bill would not be amendable; there would be no point in having a Committee stage or, for that matter, even a Report stage. It would need fairly lengthy consideration on Second Reading.

I am sure that my party would like to see such a measure on the statute book. Obviously, I cannot speak for the Liberal Democrats, who have been in favour of a referendum for a very long time, for slightly different reasons and rather more honourably than the Government, but I am sure that they would also like to see such a measure. If the Government do not accept my Bill, it will prove my point, which is that their desire for a referendum is nothing to do with seeking the public's decision.

I do not know whether my neighbour, the Minister for Trade and Investment, the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien), can speak for the Prime Minister, but I ask him whether the Government are going to accept the result of the referendum. We do not know about that. The Prime Minister said yes in his news conference, but a hurried press release—no doubt it would have been drafted by one of these part-time Mandelson or Campbell figures—said "Oh no, that is not what we meant at all." There is a wonderful Brookes cartoon in today's edition of The Times; I recommend it to those who have not seen it. In the top left hand corner, under "2005", it has a big "No", along with "The plebs
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have spoken". After that, there are three pictures showing the Prime Minister rearranging the pieces of the "No" into a "Yes".

That cartoon speaks volumes about what I suspect is going on. In respect of both the Danish and Irish people, we heard Governments say: "You've got the answer wrong guys, peasants; you don't understand this issue, but we in the Government understand it. Have another go and see if you can get it right next time; take another GCSE next year and see whether you can do a little better." That is what is going to happen, but I would prefer to hear the Government say that the referendum is a genuinely democratic move and that they will accept the result.

What is happening in other EU countries? Of the 14 countries, I think that six are committed to holding referendums. France and Italy are consulting. I suspect that the Government's decision to hold a referendum will mean that we see one in France, and I do not suppose that that will earn the Prime Minister any brownie points with President Chirac. It was not so long ago that the Government's mission in Paris was lobbying the French Government not to hold a referendum, because if they held one, we would have had to do so. Now, the pass has been sold by the Prime Minister. No doubt, Mr. Chirac was not one of the two or three people whom the Prime Minister consulted on the U-turn, and I suspect that he is pretty upset about it. Nevertheless, I am sure that the result will be that the French will hold a referendum too, and there will also be referendums in several of the accession countries.

The Laeken declaration, which set up the Convention, did not ask for a constitution at all. The issue was hijacked by the arch federalists—Dehaene, Giscard d'Estaing and Amato—and they produced a draft constitution pretty much before anybody knew what had happened. During the process, I spent a lot of time talking to my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory), who was one of the representatives of the House of Commons on the Convention. Latterly, I talked to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart), who was the other representative, and read her pamphlet. They both said that the constitution was railroaded through the Convention. A small group of people decided what the text should say and pushed it through. There was no formal procedure enabling people to table amendments that would be voted on—they were simply ignored. Nobody would accuse the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston of being a Eurosceptic, but she said that even the sort of things that she was proposing were left to one side. She was on the politburo, or whatever it was called, that ran the Convention, but even she was unable to have any influence.

What we have seen is a racket. The Euro-elite, which I long tried to kid myself did not exist and is really not very interested in what people think, see the constitution as a huge and wonderful way of extending their influence and power at an international level. That is given away by the incredibly pompous preamble—all
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about democracy and including quotes from Thucydides—to the Convention. I recommend it to anyone who wants a lesson in pomposity. It says:

Well, we are about to find out.

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