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20 Jun 2007 : Column 1481

As well as voting for it, he obviously approved of it—all of it, I assume. He was one of the many Conservative Members of Parliament who voted, on a three-line Whip, against a referendum on Maastricht. Every single member of the shadow Cabinet who was an MP in 1993 voted against a referendum on the Maastricht treaty.

Andrew Mackinlay: Have we been told why?

Mr. Hoon: I am hoping to provoke Conservative Members into telling us.

I may have misunderstood the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks. In answer to a question from me during his speech he suggested, perhaps inadvertently, that the Labour party had also voted against the amendments. The truth is that the overwhelming majority of Labour Members of Parliament voted against a referendum at the time. The only Members who voted for a referendum, on both sides of the House, were the anti-Europeans. Nearly all the members of the then Government who are still in the House were in the same position.

The truth is that the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks and I were on the same side in that debate. His problem is that he has changed his position and I have not.

Mr. MacShane: The Minister is, of course, right on the referendum issue, although he should reflect that in the 1980s some members of the Labour party—I cite our departed colleague Tony Benn, the former right hon. Member for Chesterfield—were committed to a referendum.

The quotation read out by the hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) was accurate. I did say to the Foreign Secretary that because the Liberal Democrats had changed their approach and come out in favour of a referendum, we would probably not be able to secure a majority in the House. I hope that the Liberal Democrats will now stay true to their pro-European position and reject the anti-European referendum calls from the Benches to their—

Hon. Members: Right.

Mr. Hoon: I anticipate that my right hon. Friend may be a little disappointed if he relies on any sort of consistency from the Liberal Democrats.

Mr. Gummer: Is the Minister not advancing an extremely good argument for the fact that the Prime Minister was wrong to give way not to the Liberal Democrats, but to the Murdoch newspapers by allowing a referendum because, although he knew that the circumstances were wrong, he decided that it was convenient? Is not the problem with the referendum that we really must treat it as a matter of principle? Are we a parliamentary democracy or are we not? If we are, we do not have referendums.

Mr. Hoon: I agree with the right hon. Gentleman to the extent that it should be a matter of principle. The principle that seems to govern the use of a
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referendum—in this respect, my view is not so far from that of the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd)—is whether significant constitutional change is involved. We had a referendum in 1975, there have been referendums on Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, there is provision for a referendum in the Northern Ireland Act 1998, and we have committed ourselves to a referendum on the euro. Those are all fundamental changes, but not the sort of day-to-day changes that have been made in the House on a three-line Tory Whip without a referendum.

That is the area of principle with which Conservative Front Benchers have failed to deal. They have simply failed to explain why their position has changed so dramatically. The only difference appears to me to be that they are now in opposition, and will remain in opposition.

Mr. Cash: Does the Minister accept that the Government ultimately decided that they had to have a referendum on the constitutional treaty because it was demonstrated—I think that I played some small part in this—that as there was a repeal provision there was a fundamental change in the structural relationship? I have tried to demonstrate that again today. Will the Minister not accept that the distinction between that constitutional treaty and what is now being proposed is a distinction without a sufficient difference and therefore, on the Government’s own terms, a referendum is required?

Mr. Hoon: I do not accept that argument. I have set out a proper principle, and it is reflected in the constitutional arrangements of several other countries: the requirement for a referendum follows a judgment that there is significant constitutional change. That is true of the Netherlands and Denmark. If the hon. Gentleman were to look at the practice in our country, he would recognise that it is the same here.

Andrew Mackinlay: Our debate shows that each party and Member has a different threshold for what, in their opinion, constitutes a major constitutional change. Therefore, we have to make judgments on that as individual Members. The Conservative Front Bench has avoided explaining what would happen in the unlikely event that they were to return to office. Whenever there is a new IGC, a new treaty, or a change or a tweaking, would they put that to a referendum? I hope that the Minister will encourage a Conservative Front-Bench Member to stand up and answer that. What would they do? If there were a Conservative Government, would they put a comparable change to a referendum?

Mr. Hoon: While the Conservatives are in opposition, they certainly will say that they would do that, because in opposition they can make political capital out of such matters. That is what is happening. They are taking the opportunity to be an Opposition. No serious thought is going into what might happen in the unlikely event of the Conservative party forming a Government. It simply does not have an answer to that.

I have looked into the Conservative party’s position. The hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) waxed lyrical on that subject in his speech. He was asked
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recently why his party was calling for a referendum on an amending treaty when John Major’s Government voted against a referendum on the Maastricht treaty. His total explanation of the Conservative party’s constitutional position was:

That was his answer to the question.

Mr. Francois: I am glad that the Minister was awake at 7.10 am last Friday when I was on the “Today” programme. I spoke for about three minutes; does he want to read out the rest of what I said? I said that the caravan has moved on especially for the Foreign Secretary, but does he want to read out the rest?

Mr. Hoon: I am slightly sorry that I gave way. I gave the hon. Gentleman the opportunity to set out in a few brief sentences the principle underlying his position, as he has failed to give any principle. All he has done is simply give an exposition on why it is now important to have a referendum. The Conservative party has changed its position so frequently on this subject that it is difficult to know what he might like to say on it.

Mr. Hands: The Minister is being most generous in giving way. The Chancellor is reported to have said on GMTV yesterday that he would be prepared to hold a referendum on changes to the way the EU is run “if necessary”. If the Government consider it to be necessary to hold such a referendum, will they pledge to fulfil their manifesto commitment to campaign for a yes vote?

Mr. Hoon: The position in the manifesto was straightforward: that we would hold a referendum on a constitutional treaty. I have demonstrated that we have had a series of amending treaties—it has been pointed out that the original treaty of Rome has been amended. None of those amending treaties has required a referendum. The most significant of them, with the extensive constitutional change that I set out, was passed through this House in the usual parliamentary process with a three-line Whip on Conservative Members to vote down the proposal for a referendum. That is the clear history of this matter. The Conservative party’s current position is driven simply by political opportunism.

Mr. Jenkin: Will the Minister explain simply and succinctly what is the substantive difference between the constitutional treaty that was proposed and what is now proposed in the IGC mandate?

Mr. Hoon: I am in the slight difficulty that that has not yet been agreed. As the hon. Gentleman may have noticed, the European Council summit does not start until tomorrow. He is trying to anticipate the result of what will be a complicated negotiation.

It is important to look through the list of changes that have occurred, as a result of amendments to the treaty of Rome, in the Single European Act, in the Maastricht treaty and in all the amending treaties. To be fair, the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks accepted promptly that there was a substantial transfer of competence by the Maastricht treaty. No one looking at the list that I read out could have said anything else, and in those circumstances it is inexplicable why the Conservatives are arguing today for a referendum. To be fair to the hon. Member for Stone, he argued for a referendum during the debate on
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the Maastricht treaty, as did the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills. They were consistent—they voted in way that is consistent with the position now being argued by Conservative Front Benchers. It is the latter who have a problem. They are simply using this as an opportunity to make political capital. So long as we all recognise that and are straightforward about it, there is no problem, but to try to dress it up in any other way is simple political dishonesty.

John Bercow: May we focus on some specifics? Of course, in areas that do not fall within the exclusive competence of the European Union, the principle of subsidiarity and proportionality should apply, but all of us in our different parties know that as things stand, the subsidiarity provision in the treaties of Maastricht, Amsterdam and Nice is manifestly unsatisfactory and weak. Will the right hon. Gentleman argue for a yellow-card proposal, for a red-card proposal or for what else? An answer might offer some reassurance to the House and to the country.

Mr. Hoon: The hon. Gentleman, as ever, raises a good and a principled point. There will certainly be a thorough discussion at the European Council summit of proposals to strengthen the role of national Parliaments. That issue was raised by a number of Members, and it is important that that discussion take place, not least because of the votes in the Netherlands and France. The Dutch Government will be advancing that argument, I anticipate, fairly vigorously.

The Government have made it clear through the Prime Minister that we will only support any negotiated outcome if our red lines are respected. I should make it clear to my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) that those red lines will remain red. They have been negotiated within the Government, and they are the clear position of this Government and will not be breached. Again, the difference between this Government and the Conservatives is that they simply have not understood or reflected the strong tradition of parliamentary democracy in this country. John Major said at the time of the Maastricht treaty that it is not in our parliamentary tradition to hold referendums in this country. The then Foreign Secretary, the noble Lord Hurd, put it rather well:

That is a very authoritative statement by a leading Conservative, the then Foreign Secretary, about the position on referendums. I repeat that this present political opportunism on the part of the Conservatives does them no good.

Over the past 10 years, this Government have put the UK at the heart of Europe. We are driving the European agenda and working with our partners. Indeed, our relationship with France and Germany has never been better, at a time when the Leader of the Opposition cannot even get a meeting with the Christian Democrat Chancellor. The Leader of the Opposition claims to be modernising the policies of the Conservative party, yet when it comes to the European Union, he has taken a backward step in the direction of isolation. According to the spin from Conservative central office today, he is too busy tomorrow to attend a meeting before the summit of a large group of
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influential centre-right leaders, consisting of 11 heads of state and government from the European Union and members of the Commission, including the current President of the European Council, the German Chancellor, and the French, Czech, Dutch, Swedish and Greek Prime Ministers. The hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands) seems fascinated by other people’s diaries. Perhaps he could tell us what the Leader of the Opposition is doing. Perhaps he is visiting a grammar school in Buckinghamshire with the hon. Member for Buckingham, or visiting a museum somewhere. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Buckingham shakes his head. It demonstrates the isolation of the Conservative party and the Conservative leadership. Harold Macmillan lodged the first application to join the common market and Edward Heath took this country into the European Union. Margaret Thatcher signed—

It being Seven o’clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.


St. George

7 pm

Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): I beg leave to present a petition from Mr. Bernard Calvert of Wakefield, member of the Royal Society of St. George, with one signature attached.

To lie upon the Table.

20 Jun 2007 : Column 1486

Local Authority Assets (Hull City Council)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Tony Cunningham.]

7 pm

Ms Diana R. Johnson (Kingston upon Hull, North) (Lab): I am delighted to have secured this Adjournment debate this evening on an important issue for my constituents. The debate arises from the sale of the remaining shares held by Liberal Democrat-controlled Hull city council in the local telecommunications company, Kingston Communications. That action was taken without any public debate or discussion, and it deserves some public scrutiny. I know that the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, West and Hessle (Alan Johnson), and the Deputy Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), are also concerned about that decision and the effect that it will have on local services and jobs, especially at a time when the global activities of private equity companies are causing such public concern.

At the outset, it is certainly worth setting out a little of the proud history of the local telephone company in Hull. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, like many major cities, Hull developed its own local telephone company, and in 1902 the council gained its first licence to operate services, with the first exchange opening in 1904. To celebrate its golden jubilee, Hull Corporation produced a “golden pages”, a forerunner to the “Yellow Pages”, which was printed on gold paper and distributed with a classified business section. Hull has often pioneered good ideas like that.

Hull became famous for having its own municipally owed telephone company—the only remaining one in the UK—with its own distinctive cream-coloured telephone boxes, designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, who also created BT’s more famous red ones. It also had tariffs that meant that customers could speak for as long as they wanted to other customers in the local area, long before the BT friends and family packages. Local people enjoyed better service for having a local telephone company.

The company has continued to innovate, and was the first telephone network in the world to deploy 100 per cent. digital exchanges. In 1987 the Hull City Telephone Department became Kingston Communications plc, a company in its own right, although still 100 per cent. owned by the council. In 1999 the council took the decision to sell the telephone company, but retained a sizeable shareholding of 44.9 per cent. Many of my constituents bought shares too, such was the local commitment to a local business.

Until a few weeks ago, Hull city council’s shareholding in Kingston Communications stood at 31 per cent. The link between the people of Hull, as service users and employees, and Kingston Communications had lasted for 105 years, but under the Lib Dem council elected in May 2007 the link survived for only 19 days. A link that had survived two world wars was broken by the Lib Dems within 3 weeks.

I want to raise two points in this debate. First, I am particularly concerned about the hasty decision made
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by the Lib Dem council in Hull, which cashed in the remaining shareholding in Kingston Communications without any room for public debate or discussion. In particular, I want to explore the tension in law that exists when a local authority that owns shares in a publicly listed company has to make decisions about its shareholding. Apparently it must do that in private, but as a local authority it is democratically accountable to the wider electorate. That is a possible blind spot in local democracy.

Secondly, I want to explore what I believe is the lack of strategic thinking by the Liberal Democrats in Hull when they took the decision. They have been timid in their decision making, and have failed to look at what is really in the city’s best interests when it comes to developing a positive telecommunications and digital future for the area. They had the opportunity, by building on the historic telecommunications company, to work on and develop a pioneering approach in Hull. Other cities could only envy that, and I shall say a little more about that later.

I do not intend to go through the pros and cons of the sale, merely to ask how a democratically elected council could take major decisions about its shareholding in a company with apparently no discussion or debate with the people on whose behalf they hold the shares. Given the company’s long history with the people of Hull, and its current status as the city’s only provider of telephone and internet services, the matter must surely be worth some discussion and debate.

The sale took place very soon after the May 2007 local elections. There was no opportunity for a debate about the future of Hull city council’s assets, and there was no mention of the issue in the Liberal Democrat election manifesto. The people of Hull have been denied a chance to have their say on a matter that directly affects their services and provides employment in the community. The suddenness of events and the lack of transparency have had the effect of making local democracy seem somehow irrelevant.

I understand that there are rules that have to be applied when dealing with the disposal of shares, and I know that the Liberal Democrats in Hull have claimed that their hands were tied in this matter and that they could not go public with their plans. Of course I acknowledge that there are rules concerning the disposal of shares, but I also understand that the Financial Services Authority would have had no problem if the Liberal Democrat manifesto had contained a line setting out the council’s intention to review its assets with a view to achieving the best rate of return, and to evaluate its shareholding in Kingston Communications.

Clearly, a manifesto promise may not be realised, if the party that makes the promise is not returned to power. Alternatively, a party may not be able to follow through its manifesto, for all sorts of reasons. However, it is strange that the Liberal Democrats, who are always preaching to politicians about freedom of information, should have failed so miserably, when in power, to practise what they preach.

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