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Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con): If the Commission is so small, why does it have such trouble keeping an eye on its accounts, and why did the Liberal Democrats in the European Parliament congratulate the Commission on the way in which it dealt with Marta Andreasen?

Sir Menzies Campbell: On the accounting procedures of the European Union, if the hon. Gentleman had been present on previous occasions, he would have heard me criticising the fact that the accounts were not signed off. However, a more effective system of auditing the EU's accounts would have some implications. The auditors do not, at the moment, have the right to go to individual countries, but a more effective system would mean extending the auditors' powers to enable them to examine the books here in the United Kingdom. So far, there has been no particular enthusiasm for that. If the hon. Gentleman's point is that the use of public money should be subject to proper scrutiny, that applies as much in the European Union as in the House of Commons—and in that regard, we are at one.
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I want to say a word or two about the security and defence policy. This is an important and significant development and already has practical application. The European Union has taken over command and responsibility for peacekeeping in Bosnia, which will be an enormous opportunity as well as an enormous test. It is important to remind ourselves, as it has not featured so far in the debate, that NATO is still affirmed as the bedrock of our collective defence. Indeed, the treaty says:

I make that point because I do not believe that there is anything to fear in this document, nor do I fear its consequences.

The Guardian, in an editorial this morning, says that the European Union constitution is not a document "to die for". That seems to be a pretty accurate judgment. It also seems to embody sensible reform, which is why I am willing to justify it here, and ultimately in a referendum of the British people.

3.31 pm

Joyce Quin (Gateshead, East and Washington, West) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to be able to speak in this debate in support of the Bill, and to follow the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell), whose approach to these issues I often agree with. It is also a pleasure to follow the sparkling contribution of my right hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook), who, along with the Foreign Secretary, started to debunk some of the myths about this constitutional treaty.

My starting point is the opinion poll published in The Times yesterday, which showed that Europe was well down the list of issues that people felt were important. Indeed, it was in ninth place, with apparently only 10 per cent. of voters citing it as important. I was pleased that the Labour Government's approach was more popular with voters on this issue. None the less, despite the excitability of large sections of the press, the public do not seem to be very engaged with the issue, which should cause us concern given that those of us who are present for this debate are keen to give a wide public airing to issues on which the public will ultimately have the responsibility to judge.

I understand the public attitude as cited in the opinion poll, however, because despite all the alarmist comments, it seems that many of the issues that are uppermost in the public's mind at the moment—health, education, crime and other matters—are ones on which the European role is almost non-existent. In Prime Minister's Questions today, even though Members knew that the rest of today would be devoted to the European Union, Europe was hardly mentioned if at all, whereas identity cards, crime, the importance of British science and many other issues were much more prominent. We must recognise that, and realise that all of us, despite our own interest in this subject, will have to rise to a huge challenge to make it interesting to the public. Certainly, I hope that the constitution will be disseminated widely, although I sometimes worry that it might become a national cure for insomnia in the process.
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Many comments have been made, especially in interventions, about the referendum question. I have not changed my attitude on that—I feel that this particular constitutional treaty was not an appropriate subject for a referendum. It is no different from Maastricht, Nice and other treaties on which we have not held referendums. I sometimes worry, given the increasing number of referendums that we are holding in our country, whether we should at least have some ground rules about the principles according to which we proceed to holding a referendum. After all, we have welcome legislation on the conduct of referendums, but nothing on the statute book—of course, we have no written constitution—to say in what circumstances it is appropriate to hold national referendums. I feel somewhat uncomfortable about the way in which we are proceeding in that respect.

Mr. Hopkins : My right hon. Friend talked about the ground rules for referendums. Does she agree that making sure that both sides in referendums have equal resources and limits on their spending in campaigns would be fair ground rules?

Joyce Quin: On this issue, I generally support the provisions contained in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2004, which provide a fair framework. Having been on the wrong side of a referendum in the north-east of England recently, I am well aware that both sides in that referendum felt that they at least had equal access to the media and that they were able to raise funds on an equal basis. There were not many grumbles about the conduct of the referendum, even though, to my mind, the result was a great disappointment.

Mrs. Browning : Does the right hon. Lady think that it is fair that the yes and no campaigns in referendums have only a six-month period, but the Government can continue spending money until 28 days before the referendum takes place? After all, the Government are already spending a lot of our money on this campaign.

Joyce Quin: The hon. Lady should reflect that Government policies are continually tested in the House and in the media, and a wide public debate always occurs, as we found on the devolution question. Generally, the rules adopted on the conduct of referendums are satisfactory—I am not opposed to considering possible amendments in future, but the framework for holding a reasonable referendum exists.

This is a difficult subject for a referendum, however. I strongly support the idea of a referendum on the single currency, but that is on a fairly straightforward principle, with a fairly straightforward choice to be made. This constitutional treaty, which includes so many different aspects and, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Livingston pointed out, is 80 per cent. dominated by the existing treaties, is a particularly difficult issue on which to hold a referendum.

Ideas have already been put forward in the debate as to whether the referendum is about whether we should be in or out of the European Union or what issues will be involved. I well remember dealing with the Maastricht treaty and talking to some people who were understandably keen on animal welfare. They urged us
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to vote against the treaty if it did not have a strong reference to animal welfare. A huge treaty that deals with many different issues poses a danger that the debate can be hijacked by isolated subjects in an unhelpful way. I have real worries about that.

Having accepted that we are having a referendum, however, and that there is little point in crying over spilt milk, those of us who support the constitutional treaty will have to consider ways of making the arguments to the public and of trying to give as realistic and accurate a picture about what the treaty involves as we can. In that respect, I follow the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Livingston and the Foreign Secretary. I believe that this treaty, in so far as it makes changes, makes sensible and welcome ones. It simplifies some of the existing text, delineates the areas where the European Union can and cannot act, provides for an increased role for national Parliaments and generally involves sensible institutional changes as a result of the welcome enlargement of the European Union.

It also gives us the opportunity to debunk the various myths about the Queen being replaced as our Head of State. In that respect, I was interested that The Spectator said way back in 1972 that if the Queen signed the then European Communities Act, she would be signing away her birth rights. Thirty or more years later, there seems no danger of that happening or being likely to happen in any kind of foreseeable future.

Indeed, some of the scare stories about taxation need to be debunked. It was established in the treaty of Rome that the European Commission has the power to make taxation proposals, but in reality, such matters still require unanimity. Rather than steamrollering towards a common taxation system, progress down that route—for those who want to make such progress—has been incredibly slow.

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