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Last week's White Paper made the astonishing claim that this treaty makes Europe "easier to understand". What nonsense. It establishes a constitution of considerable obtuseness, 500 pages of it, so easy to understand that a fortnight ago the Government produced a commentary on the constitution of another 500 pages. That is aside from all the propagandist bumf on the treaty that the Government have been producing during the past six months that we are now told makes it easier for Europe to understand.
a line by line examination, as I think the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) mentioned, in the course of the legislation. Yet proceedings on the Bill in this House are to be gravely curtailed to a day and half in Committee. Clearly the Government are frightened that the more we debate it, the more the British people will see it for what it isa significant change in the relationship between the
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United Kingdom and the European Union, the first formal step towards a politically united Europe, and, to coin a phrase, the capstone of a federal state.
Mr. MacShane: Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman recall that it was one of his colleagues, I believeI am not surethe right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), who asked the Prime Minister if the Government would produce a commentary setting out the old treaties and the new one side by side? That is what we have done. We do what the Conservative party wants and he should welcome that.
Mr. Ancram: I asked a question on how widely that had been circulated, to which I received an answer, and if the Minister looks that up, he will find that not a lot of people in Britain will see that particular document. In an earlier debate I challenged the Minister to send a copy of this constitution to every elector, and on that occasion he was very encouraging in his reply, but I see that that has now disappeared from the Government's agenda.
Mr. Allen: The right hon. and learned Gentleman is getting to one of the core problems here, which is that we started with a treaty, which is essentially a deal between various Governments, and have turned it into a constitution. Some of us favour a written constitution. We think that written constitutions are so good that they should not just go to Iraq or Europe, but to the UK as well. But will the right hon. Gentleman accept that there is now a contradiction, because instead of trying to win people to an inspiring written constitution for a very large project, whether he agrees with it or not, we now have a highly technical, treaty-oriented, Euro-babble-ridden document that will make it even harder for those of us who support a written constitution for Europe to sell it to the British people?
Mr. Ancram: I have a great deal of sympathy for the hon. Gentleman in the difficulty that he will have in selling this to the British people. But the point about the treaty is that it is a treaty that, in its own terms, establishes a constitution for Europe. That is why we have to deal with it in terms of it being the constitution that the Government seek to implement, and deal with it in its detail. But from now on, rather than parliamentary scrutinywe will have only a day and a half in Committeeit will be propaganda, mostly at the taxpayers' expense, on what the Government call
Mr. Kenneth Clarke: May I ask my right hon. and learned Friend a question to which I am genuinely not sure of the answer? What is the position of the Conservative Front Bench on the parliamentary scrutiny and a referendum if, as I trust, a Conservative Government are returned in a few weeks' time? Will there be a full parliamentary process before a referendum is held, and would that parliamentary process be conducted on an altogether more sensible timetable than is suggested for this, or is it the Conservative Front Bench's policy that we have no parliamentary process and go straight to a quick referendum on the whole thing?
Our policy, which we have made clear, is that after the election we will hold a referendum before
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the end of September of this year. We would take advantage of the example of the devolution referendums, where the legislation took place after the referendums, so that the House was aware of the feelings of the people who had voted in those referendums before the case was made.
The taxpayer should wake up to the extent to which they will be fleeced to pay for this shameless one-sided propaganda exercise. The Minister for Europe said that the Government plan to spend "serious money" promoting the EU constitution, and we now discover that for once he was not joking. A written answer on 17 January revealed that the Government have tripled their budget for spending to promote the EU constitution from £200,000 last year to more than £600,000 this year. What on earth has happened to this recommendation by the Neill Committee on Standards in Public Life:
"The Government of the day in future referendums should, as a government, remain neutral and should not distribute at public expense literature, even purportedly 'factual' literature, setting out or otherwise promoting its case"?
But that is not all. Last month, the PR company, Geronimo, was hired to run an extensive communications campaign costing the taxpayer another £40,000 by April. Apparently, its brief is to promote the idea that the EU constitution is a "success for Britain". Even the Electoral Commission has inferred that the current practice is "undesirable" and that
The combining of the paving measure for the referendum and the adoption of the constitution into our law is simply an attempt to muddy the water. Of course, we welcome the Government's belated U-turn on the holding of a referendum, which the Prime Minister once told us would be
However, the Bill should be about the referendum and nothing elsethat, I say to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), is what we would do in these circumstances. I accept that with amendments this Bill could still achieve that purpose, and I invite the Government seriously to consider that. In that case, a day and a half in Committee would probably be more than enough for the purposes of seeing the legislation pass through.
Then there is the question of the timing of the referendum. We have been told that it cannot be held during our presidency of the EU later this year. Why on earth not? Now that the final terms of the constitution
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are known, it would be better for the EU to get on with the referendum. It would also be better for the stability of Europe and better for Britain, which will become increasingly frustrated and suspicious at what is clearly unnecessary delay. I have heard no convincing reason for delaying until next spring, and I now hear rumours that the Government are considering October next year. The only conclusion that I can draw is that they are running scared of the British electorate.
Keith Vaz: The right hon. and learned Gentleman will remember that there was no referendum on the Maastricht treaty. He will also recall voting for the Maastricht treaty, which extended qualified majority voting, as does the constitutional treaty. Does he regret doing so?
Mr. Ancram: As I have said before, I think in retrospect that there was a case for holding a referendum on Maastricht. In this case, where there is a fundamental shift in the relationship between the EU and the United Kingdom, a referendum is absolutely essential. I repeat that when we are on the Government Benches, after May, we will hold that referendum before the end of September.
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