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Hoping that we will defeat the Government tonight and that those such as the hon. Member for Hemsworth will have the courage of their convictions and vote out this procedural proposal, I now make the offer, which I
am sure would be accepted by those on the Conservative Front Bench, to the Minister for Europe and the Deputy Leader of the House that we sit down after tonights proceedings and do what we should have done in the first place: negotiate not a perfect solutionwe are in an imperfect contextbut a much better solution. Such a solution would not only allow debate about the substance, but allow the legislature to decide the important issues and propose them to the Government.
Of course we can do that thematically, by taking, for example, the charter of fundamental rights one week and justice and home affairs, which are currently on the agenda for tomorrow, another week. However, the decision should be led by the legislature, not the Government. We know what the Governments position is. The Committee stage of parliamentary proceedings is not the time when Governments should make their proposals; it is when parliamentarians from the Government Back Benches and all Opposition parties should test them by amendments and come to a conclusion.
Mr. Cash: Leaving aside for the moment the question of a referendumalthough we would be interested to know what the hon. Gentleman would say on thatwould he also agree, speaking from his partys point of view, that it is important that such matters as new clauses, in particular those on saving the Bill of Rights and the supremacy of Parliament, for instance, should be properly debated as well?
Simon Hughes: Absolutely. I shall come back to that, although I do not want to make a long speech, which might disappoint colleaguesover the weekend, I contemplated using motion No. 1 or motion No. 2 as an opportunity to make a record-breaking speech, which would have been a very long speech indeed. I think that I am second in the parliamentary league table[Hon. Members: Only second?] I was overtaken, sadly. My speech was from the days of trying to resist the abolition of the Greater London council, when I spoke from the then Labour Oppositions Front Bench, much to the chagrin of the Labour party, which had deserted its post. However, I decided not to do that today, because I thought that a collection of arguments from throughout the House making it clear that the proposed procedure was unacceptable would be better.
Mr. Shepherd: Although the hon. Gentlemens suggestion would mitigate the worst part of the Governments proposals, what was wrong with the traditional way of handling such a Bill, on the Floor of the House? Is that not the way forward?
That would certainly be a way forward. Unless there had been agreement that the new system was better than the old system, it would probably have been better to keep the tried-and-tested system. I do not belong to the dinosaur tendency, which says that we never change our procedures. Indeed, I welcomed the Ministers suggestion that we try to be thematic. That seemed a welcome initiative and I do not resist it just because it is a new ideaif we did that, we would never make any changes to the procedure in this place at all. However, it might be better to go back. Indeed, if we defeat the Governments motion tonight, that is certainly where we will be, with the normal procedures. That is a better starting place than the proposal that has turned
out to be totally inadequate to the task ahead of us, even though it might have been attempted in good faith.
I want to deal with some of the specific subjects that have already been identified as having been missed from the provisions on the allocation of time. We can have lots of inter-party knockabout on these matters, but, to be fair, all parties agree that there is a common interest in debating certain sections of the treaty for roughly the same length of time. However, the Opposition are making an extra bid for certain other sections to be included, and everyone has spotted the fact that the Government are trying to rush things through far more quickly than is justified. I shall come back to that issue, which I hope deals with the point raised by the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash).
Certain matters are not provided for in the timetable, and are perhaps not commonly agreed to be valid subjects for debate. They are not the central issues, but they relate to the economy, social services and public services. Adoption rights and aspects of family law, for example, are not unimportant to people, and we ought to have an opportunity to debate them. There certainly ought to be an opportunity to discuss the role and legal status of EU institutions. The Conservatives get themselves wound up about that and misrepresent the case. It is not the great monster that they pretend it is, and I shall be happy to take them on in that regard. Many organisations have legal status. The Universal Postal Union, for example, has legal status. The treaty is bringing the situation up to date by proposing that certain new structures should have legal status. So this issue is not a monster, but we should still debate it properly.
There is also a good debate to be had on the distribution of competencies between the EU, as it will be, and the national Parliaments. The treaty actually gives national Parliaments more say, not less, in that regard, although one would not think so if one listened to the Tory party. For the first time, the treaty explicitly provides a right to leave the European Union as opposed to staying in it. I would be happy to debate that, because it shows the merit of the treaty
There is also a suggestion that we should have further debates on the role of national Parliaments. I should be happy to add all these topics to the agenda. There is also a strong case for devoting more time to debating the central issues, including foreign policy and defence. The treaty proposes changes in structure, which I welcome. For example, it is a good idea to have one person responsible for foreign policy, rather than a Commissioner and another senior official.
There are many good things in the treaty, and they are big enough issues to warrant debate, as are the issues that are on the agenda for tomorrow, for which the time allowed is inadequate. There should be an opt-out in relation to justice and home affairs, and the Government have negotiated just such an opt-out. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg), now our party leader, argued strongly for that, as did
our previous party leader and our new spokesman on home affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne), who will speak tomorrow. He will also make that argument, which is one that I have advanced all the time. Those matters are rightly not part of our commitment at the moment. There is a proper debate to be had on what could happen to make them part of our commitment, however. Would there need to be proper protection for Parliament, to protect us from the position changing from an opt-in to being part of the obligation?
Mr. Davidson: Is it not the case that the Liberal Democrats have already committed themselves to voting for absolutely and utterly everything in the treaty anyway, and that they cannot therefore be seriously interested in scrutinising it with a view to seeking changes? Are they not simply engaging in a game? The reality is that if people vote Liberal Democrat, they will get Brussels.
Simon Hughes: I know the hon. Gentlemans position, and he knows ours. That is not new in this place. We think that the treaty will bring benefits to Britain. We believe that a European Union of 27 members needs different structures from the European Union of six, nine, 15 or 25 members. We need to avoid the nonsense of changing the presidency every six months. We support all those things, but that does not mean that we are against scrutiny. We have argued over and again that we do not give adequate scrutiny
We are very happy that the treaty should be scrutinised. I have made the point that the scrutiny should have come first, before we dealt with the Bill. However, we support the Bill because it will allow the United Kingdom to make the treaty part of UK domestic law. Without proper scrutiny, however, some of the proper questions that the hon. Member for Glasgow, South-West (Mr. Davidson) and other colleagues want to ask cannot be asked. Such questions could well throw up issues that, by definition, scrutiny is designed to reveal. We have never given anyone a blank cheque but, at the end of the day, the Government of any country have the executive responsibility to seek to negotiate treaties with other countries. If we had been the Government, the result would have been different. Unfortunately, we were not elected to form a Government last time, but I hope that, before the hon. Gentleman and I have finished our time here, the Liberal Democrats will have formed a Government. He will then be able to hold us to account.
Mr. Evans: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We should scrutinise everything in the treaty in detail. He says that he supports it because, overall, he believes that it is good for Britain. Does he not agree, however, that the final judgment should rest with the people, and that there should be a referendum on the issue?
Simon Hughes: I believe that the final judgment about whether the United Kingdom should be part of the European Union should rest with the British people in a referendum. On the treaty, however, given the structure of the document now before us, I do not believe that there could be a valid debate or decision by the British people, as it would be limited to the matters in the amending treaty. Because most people in Britain did not take part in the last referendum in 1975, and because this is still a big issue, we would welcome and value an opportunity to have a referendum on the big question of whether the United Kingdom should stay in the European Union, and we hope that Parliament will agree to provide that opportunity once the treaty has been agreed. I hope that the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) and other colleagues will support that proposal. Out there, the British public are not concerned about the details of how many Commissioners there are. They are interested in the big question, and that is what we ought to be voting on.
Mr. Harper: The point that the hon. Gentleman has just made may or may not be valid, but why, at the last election, did he and his hon. Friends stand in front of their electors and promise that they would give the people a say on a document that is incredibly similar to this one?
Simon Hughes: There is a very simple answer to that question. The hon. Gentleman is right. At the last election, all three major parties said that they would give the British people a vote. His party said that it would do so within six months; the other two did not specify a time. At that stage, it was understood that the proposal was that there would be a totally new, all-encompassing, once-and-for-all documenta new constitution for Europe. In all the time that I have been here, I have always said that big constitutional matters should be the subject of a referendum. Subsequently, as the hon. Gentleman well knows, the proposal did not get through the referendums in France and the Netherlands. As a result, it went back to the drawing board. He can look at my copy of the treaty if he wants to
Simon Hughes: I was being distracted, Madam Deputy Speaker. I shall just finish my sentence, then I shall follow your stricture absolutely. If the hon. Gentleman looks at the treaty, he will see that it is not a new constitution for Europe. It consists of amendments to existing documents. That is the fundamental difference.
I shall turn to the substantive reasons why the motion should be defeated. First, it does not allow enough time for debate. This is a 291-page document. There were 23 days162 hours and 45 minutesallowed for debate on the Maastricht treaty. In its breadth, this is more of that order than some of our previous, more minor debates.
Secondly, if we pass this motion, there will be a clearly flawed provision that would allow Members to initiate emergency debates and decided by Mr. Speaker or by you, Madam Deputy Speaker, only at the end of the days business. That is nonsense; by definition, these matters should be dealt with at the beginning of the days business.
Thirdly, the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), who is no longer in his place, and others made an important point earlierthat the Governments intention of giving clear notice, which is good, has resulted in our having to conduct a debate first and deal with amendments later. That is not the right way round because it means that the Executive go first, with Back Benchers and the Opposition parties having the chance to participate only later and with limited time. Logically, we should be able to see what the amendments are, have a general debate on the issues and vote at the end. There are better procedural ways of achieving the same objective.
My fourth objection is the split between four and a half hours for general debate and one and a half hours for amendments. The hon. Member for Glasgow, South-West is right to say that we are unlikely to table millions of amendments, but some hon. Members will table them and he might even table the odd one himself [Interruption.] We may well need more than one and a half hours to deal with amendments, so the motion is unacceptable in providing only 30 hours in total for all amendments before we reach Report and Third Reading. The Oppositions proposals would allow 66 hoursclearly an improvement in doubling the time, which is why we said we will support itbut we must provide sufficient time to deal with all the amendments.
That is very generous of the hon. Gentleman. However, we have not yet had an opportunity to get the amendment passed. When it is available and has been passed, we can have that discussion [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston
and Surbiton reminds me that the hon. Member for Glasgow, South-West has always held this position.
The Minister, trying to rescue his friends from a difficult position, generously said that he was willing to be flexible. I think that he will certainly need to be so if he is to make progress after tonight. Whatever happens, we hold ourselves ready to have the necessary conversations among all the political parties about how we can be much more flexible than the current proposal allows.
It is nonsense that in respect of days 10 and 11, on which we are likely to debate the referendum proposals and remaining business, the same extension of time is not available unless other arrangements are made. We know what is coming down the track; we know what are likely to prove the most controversial areas, so we should provide for them. It is nonsense, too, to assume that Report stage will not happen because there will have been no amendments. Only six hours are programmed for Report and Third Reading. As this Bill is so important, even if there were no amendments, there should be two days for Second Reading and two days for Third Reading, so the provisions in the motion are clearly inadequate.
In conclusion, I have reached the view that the modernising tendencies of the Government, whereby they want to do something good with procedure, have been overridden by the old tendency, described so well by my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) when he spoke of the Stalin in No. 10 and his authoritarian friends. That has been reflected in authoritarianism about the timetable for the Bill. We are witnessing ridiculously authoritarian control over this timetable. If this is the most important measure before usI am not necessarily saying that it isand if it must be debated on the Floor of the House because of its constitutional importance, it must have all the time it needs for full debate. We need to make that time; we do not sit in Parliament as long as we used to and Liberal Democrat Members are ready to make the time available. We may have different views about the merits of the Bill or the treaty, but the House will do itself a disservice if it does not provide enough time to debate the Bill properly.
Those who want a referendum, whether they be Liberal Democrats or Conservatives in different ways, may believe that there will be an opportunity to have one later, depending on amendments and other things. However, it is very misguided indeed for the Government, who are unwilling to have any referendum, to seek to clamp down on debate of this Bill.
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