|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
The Government have conceded that there are provisions in the general language of the treaty that
could be damaging to the United Kingdom. However, although they claim to have secured protection for this country, through special protocols and opt-outsthe then Prime Minister Tony Blair set out the red lines to the Liaison Committee on 18 June 2007they will not allow sufficient time for such matters to be debated. There are serious doubts about the effectiveness of the safeguards in each of those areas, and I do not need to say that the European Scrutiny Committee, among others, has drawn attention to them.
It is utterly wrong that foreign and defence policy should be taken together in this business motion, because the potential role of the EU in shaping and implementing a common foreign and defence policy is being hugely extended under the treaty. Indeed, that was a major objective for many who support the new treaty. The Government claim that they have preserved the requirement for unanimity, enabling the UK to maintain its own independent foreign policy. However, there is no doubt that the intention behind the treaty is increasingly to bring EU members, including the United Kingdom, into line behind a common EU policy, with common representation gradually subsuming the independent national positions of the countries that comprise the EU.
This treaty matters. It will lead to a fundamentally different European Union from the one that the population we represent in this place has signed up to. There is no evidence that this direction has popular support. Indeed, polling evidence shows consistently that the vast majority of the population would prefer a much looser relationship with Europe, with roughly half opting for the type of relationship that would preserve the benefits of free trade and intergovernmental co-operation while opting out of the project of economic and political union.
These important issues cannot be adequately debated in the time proposed. If we consider the length of some of the speeches that we have heard today, it is difficult to see how we shall properly be able to scrutinise and debate the large number of amendments that are going to be tabled after the generic debate that will take place each day that these matters are to be debated in the House. The Government have been dishonest. They let it be known last October that there would be 20 days of debate. That figure was leaked in the national broadsheet newspapers. The figure then came down to 15 days, and we now know that it is to be 12. Even then, there will be limits placed on the length of the debates. Is this the proper way to handle a critical issue of constitutional importance?
I cannot better, or even come anywhere near, the oratory of my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills. Now that the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich is back in her place, I should like to say that she did a huge service to the House in the debate today. Her experience is legendary, and I believe that she meant every word she uttered this afternoon about how the House is now operating and how it should be operating. I know her well, and I greatly respect her. In this place, we have many common interests and a great deal of common ground. We want this place to work, and we want the people out there whom we represent to trust us and to have confidence in the House of Commons and in Parliament as a whole. At the moment, they do not, because those who are here are, in the main, unable to exercise their own view, their
own opinion or their own experience. They are told what to do by Government Whips. I have to say that, on many occasions, my party has been just as responsible for that as the Labour party that is now in government. They are destroying the integrity of this place and the independence of our country, and I want none of it.
I will vote against the business motion tonight. Yes, I will support the Opposition amendment, because it is a little betteralthough, as several people have said, only a little. We should have nothing to do with this. We are here to represent this country and its interests, and the interests of our constituents. Poll after poll has indicated that the people do not want this treaty. I make a plea to Members of the House to honour their own instincts and experience and vote properly and independently when we vote later this evening.
The Governments motion allows us too little time to debate the treaty and the Bill, and the way in which they have split up the time is completely undesirable, as many right hon. and hon. Members have said. A huge number of amendments have already been tabled, and there will certainly be many more. We will simply not be able to do them justice, and the House will be abdicating part of its responsibility in expecting the other place to debate the issues that we do not see fit to discuss.
Not long ago, the House was given far too little time to debate the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill. Indeed, the Leader of the House admitted that too little time had been given and promised to learn the lessons of that experience. As we look at the motion before us today, it seems that those lessons were not learnedor, if they were, that they were discarded rather too easily. The Opposition proposal for an extra six days of debate therefore has much to commend it.
I also approve of splitting the time much more equally between debating the detail and what have been termed the more thematic debates. I shall not seek to compete with the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), whose comments carried a great deal of weight, but I rather share her sentiments. Since I became a Member of the House, I have heard a number of Ministers say that the purpose of the law is to send out a message. Well, it is not. Our purpose is to pass laws, which have to be debated in detail. As other hon. Members have pointed out, what happens to people charged with a criminal offence or facing the civil courts will not be decided on the basis of principles, themes or thematic debates. It is the detail and the specific points of law, and hence the quality of the job we do here in Parliament, that makes the difference. That is why it so important that we have enough time to debate these issues in detail.
There seems to be a fundamental contradiction at the heart of the Governments case. We contend that this treaty is essentially the same as the constitutional treaty on which a referendum was promised. The Governments justification for not holding a referendum is to extolnot very convincingly, but very loudlybelief in the supremacy of Parliament and the fact that we live
in a parliamentary democracy, with the clear implication that it is here and in the other place where these matters should be debated. If we follow that through, those who argue that we should not have a referendum, but should debate these issues in this House should surely want us to have adequate time and flexibility to do so. The Government are trying to have it both ways. They say that it is inappropriate to have a referendum because these matters should be debated in Parliament, yet when it comes to the parliamentary debate, the Government are not prepared to give Parliament the time and flexibility it needs.
The Liberal Democrats have an interesting policy on how they are going to cast their votes on a referendum, but I believe I heard the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) say earlier that he agreed that the Bill and this treaty did have constitutional significance. Indeed, he said that in arguing why these matters should be debated in a Committee of the whole House. Therefore, it is surely incumbent on the Government to allow a full and proper debate.
Simon Hughes: As the record will show, I said that we have always taken the view that if legislation has constitutional significance, there should be a referendum. However, I also made it clear that once this changed from being a constitutional treaty to an amending treaty, it lost that constitutional status.
Mr. Harper: I will check the record tomorrow, as doubtless will the hon. Gentleman. I certainly believe, and the evidence from polling confirms it, that the vast majority of the British people believe that this treaty does have constitutional significance and that there should therefore be a referendum.
Let me pick up one or two points that arose earlier when the Minister for Europe, who I now see back in his place, was speaking. Paragraph (4) of the business motion deals with Standing Order No. 24, on which you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, made an interesting ruling. I come back to it not because I believe it is extraordinarily likely on the balance of probabilities that our debates on the treaty will throw something up that will require a debate under that Standing Order, but because an important point of principle is at stake. I suspect that if the motion is passed tonight, it will not be long before other programming motions are presented containing the same clause, and I think that that would be a retrograde step.
I stand to be corrected by the Minister, but my reading of Standing Order No. 24 and the motion suggests that the motion makes a significant change in removing not just Mr. Speakers right to make decisions on whether we should have debates, but the right of a Member to rise at the start of business and apply for a debate under the standing order. The motion states that on an allotted day when there is a motion in a Ministers name to discuss the treaty,
proceedings shall be taken in accordance with the Table.
a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration.
If a Member applied for such a debate, and if Mr. Speaker were minded to grant it, it would by definition be on an important matter that should be considered urgently by the House. Given that on most of the allotted days the hours of business are protected, it would surely be appropriate for the debate on the standing order to take place at the start of business on the following dayor, if Mr. Speaker decided that it was sufficiently urgent, later the same dayand for proceedings on the treaty to commence afterwards. I feel that given the frequency with which such urgent matters arise, if a matter were important and urgent enough for Mr. Speaker to see fit to grant a debate, it should take precedence over discussion of the treaty.
When this issue was raised earlier, the Minister responded to the various points of order and interventions by saying that he was minded to be flexible on such occasions, but however reasonable the Minister isand he is a reasonable manit is in the nature of business motions that we do not really want to rely on the reasonableness or otherwise of Ministers. Indeed, it might not be this Minister who happened to be at the Dispatch Box on a future occasion; it might be one of his hon. Friends, who might not be so reasonable. I think that Members would be much happier if paragraph (4) were not there, and it would be helpful if before we embarked on tomorrows business, another business motion were tabled removing it.
Stephen Pound (Ealing, North) (Lab): I am always pleased to observe that someone else has studied Standing Order No. 24 with the assiduity with which many Labour Members do so. I note the hon. Gentlemans obvious sincerity, following the thunderous sincerity of the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton). Both have said that there is insufficient time for this matter to be debated. We have heard that the extra six days is a mere pettifogging addition that the hon. Gentleman will spurn. How many weeks, months ordare I say?years does he think would be appropriate for us to discuss this reform treaty?
Mr. Harper: If the hon. Gentleman had been in the Chamber for long enough to hear the rest of the debate rather than coming in at the end, he would have heard the beginning of my speech, in which I said that I was very content to support the amendment tabled by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, which would provide the six extra days. I consider it an improvement on the Governments motion.
I want to make two more points, relatively briefly. The firstwhich we raised earlier, but without receiving a satisfactory responseis that it is not clear how long the business will run on days nine, 10 and 11. There appears to be no time limit for day nine; the motion does not even say that the business will run until the moment of interruption, although I assume that that is the case. Day 11 is the critical day, the day on which the Minister himself said we were likely to be given a vote on a referendum, but as things stand the business could be compressed heavily by Government statements. There might be statements on important matters that should rightly be put before the House, but it would be helpful if the Minister committed himself tonight to allowing
business on that day to run for at least six hours, but preferably as long as necessary, given that we shall be talking about not just clause 8 and amendments providing for a referendum, but all the new clauses and new schedules tabled by Members.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) elegantly referred to my final point: how the programme motion was created in the first place. Unfortunately, I agree with him that it is the basis for the Governments media grid for the next couple of weeks, which will provide Ministers with an opportunity to be at the Dispatch Box each day at a time of their choosing, and to talk about subjects of their choosingand at the beginning of each day when we turn on the radio and listen to the Today programme there will no doubt be discussions about what is going on in the House that day, completely under the Governments control. I suspect that the Minister alluded to that when he talked about the motion being for the convenience of those outside the House. I would like to think that he was referring to our constituents, but I fear he was talking about our friends in the media.
The motion is designed to support a Government news agenda, as my hon. Friend ably suggested. Understandably, the Government wish to be in control of events, but they are putting their desire to be in control ahead of the rights of Members to table amendments about matters of concern to them and their constituents. The House should support the amendment of my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) and vote against the Government motion.
This Treaty marks a new stage in the process of creating an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe, in which decisions are taken as openly as possible and as closely as possible to the citizen.
I am confident that the treaty will fulfil the first of those objectivesever closer unionbut I am not as confident as I would like to be about the second and third objectives on openness and decision making. We have not got off to a good start in being open and taking decisions as closely to the citizen as possible, not least in this House and in what Ministers have told Members about negotiations and the intergovernmental conference process to date.
I was hoping that this motionthis much-trumpeted opportunity to give the issue the promised detailed, line-by-line considerationwould make up for that lack of openness. I appreciate that the Minister who will wind up the debate has styled himselfjustifiably, I thinka straight-speaking sort of chap, and I believe that his colleague, the Minister for Europe, is that as well. However, it will take a lot of straight talking to convince me that the Government have been anywhere near open on these proceedings to date.
It is important to go back to what took place before the IGC negotiations in June. On 7 June, the then
Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Derby, South (Margaret Beckett), gave evidence to the European Scrutiny Committee. She more or less said that that was a waste of time because nothing was taking place. She even denied that there were any negotiations. She said:
There has been a process whereby Member States were occasionally invited to give some views. There have not been negotiations.
I came here because you asked me to come and give evidence. If you had asked me whether there was very much I could tell you, I could have told you no before I came here.
A fortnight later, as if by magic, a draft IGC mandate appeared and was circulated to Departments. It was circulated for some 48 hours before the then Prime Minister went into negotiations, in which time we are led to believe that all Departments saw the document and gave their comments on it. On 23 June, the negotiations were completed and an IGC mandate came into being. What is more, the very next month the Government produced a document stating,
The Reform Treaty strengthens the role of national Parliaments in EU decision-making.
We were concerned at an early stage that the process which was leading up to the convening of an IGC was proving to be far from transparent.
Against that background, it is natural for us to look for an opportunity to compensate for that lack of openness and to have full discussion in this House. However, what this motion offers has come as a disappointment, and it is very much in keeping with the Governments approach before the IGC negotiations, with a view to closing down discussion. I agree with the learned comments of Opposition Members with far more experience of procedure than me about the severe curtailing of the opportunity to subject this provision to line-by-line consideration.
Let me give one example that was mentioned by Labour Members: immigration and asylum policy, which comes under the judicial and home affairs part of the debate. We have been given four and a half hours to debate the entire field of judicial and home affairs. My right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) was right to take the House through all the issues covered by that field. The part of the treaty dealing with judicial and home affairs consists of five articles; immigration and asylum is just one.
|Next Section||Index||Home Page|