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5 Mar 2008 : Column 1772
1.15 pm

Mr. Hague: If the Liberal Democrat party is so concerned about the implications of a “no” result in a referendum on the treaty, it should not have included a commitment to such a referendum in its election manifesto. The hon. Gentleman makes the point that an in-out referendum would give a clear view. On the question of in or out, it would give a clear view, but it would tell us nothing about what people think about the Lisbon treaty. Many people—including me—are strongly in favour of remaining in the European Union but against the Lisbon treaty.

This group of amendments includes an amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Glasgow, South-West (Mr. Davidson), which would enable a referendum on the Lisbon treaty and give the Government an order-making power to add another question. Although we prefer amendment No. 293, which proposes a straightforward referendum on the treaty, our second preference would be to support the amendment of the hon. Member for Glasgow, South-West. I would have thought that the Liberal Democrats would want to support it, too, because it would allow a vote on the Lisbon treaty and on another question, which is what they want.

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): The amendment that stands in the name of the hon. Member for Glasgow, South-West (Mr. Davidson) allows the Government to change the question, which presumably includes changing it to include support for the treaty. Is that what the right hon. Gentleman really supports?

Mr. Hague: If the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Glasgow, South-West were passed, we could be sure that there would be a referendum, and the terms of the question would then be open to further debate and discussion. It would be wrong to rule out the hon. Gentleman’s amendment simply on drafting grounds.

Mr. Davey rose—

Mr. Hague: The hon. Gentleman must make his own speech, but I shall let him intervene one more time.

Mr. Davey: On the question of what would happen if there were a referendum and the country voted no, the right hon. Gentleman knows that the British Conservative party has no friends in Europe. All the other 26 conservative parties oppose it. How would he negotiate in the British national interest, when every conservative party in the European Union opposes him?

Mr. Hague: The logic of the hon. Gentleman’s argument is that no nation is allowed to vote no, that even the power of veto does not really count and that no nation can stand up against the orthodoxy of the times. I say that that is not democratic, and it is not right. Indeed, it was not an argument accepted by the Liberal Democrats when they wrote their election manifesto.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): My right hon. Friend is again making an excellent speech. Does he agree that the crux of the matter is that thousands of my
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constituents have filled in forms demanding a referendum, and that they feel cheated? Either the Government and the Liberal Democrats think that my constituents are too thick to make a decision on the treaty, or they know that they would lose a vote on it. Which of those two things does my right hon. Friend think it is, or does he think it is both?

Mr. Hague: It might be both. There is a patronising attitude along the lines of, “Although this is important, it is so detailed that you out in the country needn’t worry your little heads about it”, but I suspect that the more powerful argument that has prevailed on the Government is that they do not think that they would win such a referendum, which does us no favours.

Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Co-op) rose—

Mr. Hague: In fairness to the Committee, I must try to conclude my remarks, because I want to put one further argument.

In addition to my earlier points, of equal concern to all of us who believe in thriving democratic parliamentary government is the position taken by those who promised a referendum and now wish to deny one, which damages the reputation and standing of our politics. In our role as constituency Members of Parliament, most of us in the House—I suspect that this applies to all parties—visit sixth forms and local colleges, and speak about the work of Parliament and why elections matter and votes count. We encourage young people to exercise their civic responsibilities. In many cases we send them birthday cards on their 18th birthday saying, “You now have the right to take part in decisions about your country’s future.”

Mr. Bailey: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hague: No, I am explaining my argument.

It is central to people’s faith in participation, which we so strongly encourage, that Members of Parliament, once elected, do their best to be true to the broad direction and principal promises that they have made to voters. On occasion, when Members of Parliament cannot do so, there should be a compelling reason that the country as a whole can understand and, at least in part, accept.

No such argument prevails in this case. If the Committee votes down the amendments calling for a referendum, we will have to go to our schools and colleges and say that there are times when almost the entire House of Commons can be elected on a specific pledge, and yet a majority in the House can then decide to renege on it, not because it is unaffordable, not because there is an emergency and not because the voters no longer want that pledge, but simply because those in the majority calculate that it suits them in the short term and that they can probably get away with it. The unavoidable implication is that politicians are not trustworthy, that Parliament does not see itself as accountable and that votes do not necessarily matter.

So, I believe not only that a referendum is right and appropriate on a treaty of such importance, but that if
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the Committee were to tell the Government today that a clear promise that could so easily be kept ought to be kept, it would, in a climate of loss of faith in political institutions, do more to restore public confidence in the basic honesty and accountability of our politics than any other action that we could take. The Prime Minister said that trust in the Government was central to his purpose. The leader of the Liberal Democrats called for

If those leaders remain heedless of the arguments for a referendum on the treaty, they will win short-term relief from the views of the electorate tonight, but the damage to their standing and to the politics and reputation of our country and Parliament is something on which they will have to reflect and repent for many years.

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (David Miliband): This important debate raises fundamental questions about our parliamentary democracy, and about the role of Parliament and its relationship with the people. In our system of government, we do not have a legal test for whether we should hold a referendum, but we do have a clear principle, based on precedent and for many years supported by all the main political parties. Where there is a shift in power of a fundamental nature, it must be put to the people. That is the question that I want to address today. However,

Mr. Evans: When the Foreign Secretary fought the 2005 general election on a manifesto that promised a referendum on the issue, did he put out a personal statement saying that he was opposed to the holding of that referendum?

David Miliband: No, I did not.

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle) (Con): I happen to be one of the Members of this House who voted in favour of a referendum on the Maastricht treaty. If a sufficient number of my colleagues, in all parts of the House, had joined me and helped to carry the vote, we would not have had the Amsterdam or Nice treaties or now the Lisbon treaty. However, 400 of the people who failed to do that have since fled the premises, leaving me virtually alone, as the boy on the still burning deck. We hear a lot about the military covenant, but behind a military covenant is an even more important constitutional position, which is the social contract. That is what the Government have broken, by ignoring their pledge to the electorate to hold a referendum.

David Miliband: The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that a significant number of the members of the shadow Cabinet were here in 1992, and each and every one of them voted against a referendum on the Maastricht treaty.

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Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): The comparison with Maastricht simply will not wash. No party went to the general election that preceded the ratification of the Maastricht treaty, after it was signed, promising the electorate a referendum, as the Foreign Secretary’s party did before the previous election.

David Miliband: I am going to address directly the novel constitutional argument that the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) put on the radio this morning, which is that it is not the content of a treaty that should decide whether there is a referendum.

Mr. Redwood rose—

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con) rose—

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con) rose—

David Miliband: I will make a little progress and then I will give way to right hon. and hon. Members.

The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks covered a lot of ground in his speech, but dodged the central question in tonight’s vote, which is whether the treaty of Lisbon represents a fundamental shift in the balance of power between the nation state—and this nation state in particular—and the European Union. If it does, there should be a referendum; if it does not, there should not be one.

Let me address directly the question that has been raised. I can see why the right hon. Gentleman dodged the question of whether there had been a fundamental shift, because on the radio this morning he made the extraordinary claim that it was not the content of treaties that should determine whether they are subject to a referendum. In other words, he denied the constitutional practice that says that it is a shift in the balance of power that determines whether there should be a referendum.

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con) rose—

Mr. Harper rose—

Mr. Cash rose—

David Miliband: I am happy to give way to the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash).

Mr. Cash: Does the Foreign Secretary deny that there is a whole range of fundamental changes in the relationship between the European Union and this country and Parliament by virtue of the national obligation that is imposed on Parliaments, the merger of all existing treaties with legal personality, the declaration of primacy, which for the first time is stated in a treaty, the fact that treaties are created without implementation by Act of Parliament and an extension of the powers to use statutory instruments? A range of fundamental constitutional changes are in the treaty, irrespective of all the other broken promises. The reality is that the Foreign Secretary is wholly and totally wrong in his assessment.

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The Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Sir Michael Lord): Order. That was an extremely long intervention.

David Miliband: The hon. Gentleman will know that the provisions on legal personality have been around since Maastricht, which was pioneered through the House by the Conservative party.

Mr. Lilley rose—

David Miliband: I am happy to give way to the right hon. Gentleman, the former Secretary of State for Social Security.

Mr. Lilley: The Foreign Secretary said that a novel constitutional concept was being introduced. Is he saying that it is a novel constitutional concept that Members of Parliament should keep their promises?

David Miliband: No, of course I am not saying that. What I am saying is that referendums were held on devolution in the case of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly precisely because they changed the distribution of power in this country. A proposal to join the euro would also shift power, so a referendum would be necessary. It must be the content of the treaty that determines whether we should have a referendum. I want to go through, in detail, the allegations that have been made about the content of the treaty and then the facts about the treaty, and I will show that there is no way to make the argument that it represents a fundamental shift in the balance of power in this country.

Mr. Harper: The Prime Minister met the leader of Ireland to discuss the treaty in July last year. After the meeting, the Prime Minister said that he and the Taoiseach had discussed the European constitution and how it might be taken forward over the next few months. What does the Foreign Secretary think the Prime Minister meant by that?

1.30 pm

David Miliband: Every Government and leader in Europe has recognised that the constitution has been abandoned— [ Interruption. ] The hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) says that the Prime Minister has said that the treaty is the same. The Prime Minister has never said that the Lisbon treaty is the same as the constitution. The reason he has not said it is because it is not the case.

Mr. Redwood: Is the Foreign Secretary seriously suggesting that a bigger transfer of power was involved when referendums were held on proposals for elected mayors and for the north-east regional assembly? Or is he just trying to find a smokescreen after breaking his own promise because he knows that he would lose a referendum?

David Miliband: No, I am not saying that. My case is that this treaty does not represent a fundamental shift in the balance of power in this country. Furthermore—
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[ Interruption. ] As we have discussed on Second Reading— [ Interruption. ] As we discussed— [ Interruption. ]

The Second Deputy Chairman: Order. We cannot have interjections from a sedentary position when— [ Interruption. ] Order. We cannot have interjections from a sedentary position when the Foreign Secretary is attempting to answer questions that have been put to him.

David Miliband: On Second Reading, we discussed the fact that, when the former Prime Minister announced that a referendum would be held on the constitutional treaty, he precisely said that it was not for the constitutional nature of the balance of power in that question. So that question was addressed directly on Second Reading, including by the Prime Minister at the time.

Philip Davies: Following the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), the Government insist on referendums to set up elected mayors and parish councils. Why on earth will they not keep their promise to hold a referendum when they are transferring so many powers away from this Parliament to the European Union?

David Miliband: The reason is to do with whether there is a fundamental shift in the balance of power, as there was in the cases of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. Even the shift to an elected mayor is a big shift in the balance of power for the people in that locality. That is the test that is applied in every case.

Mr. David Gauke (South-West Hertfordshire) (Con): If I understand the Foreign Secretary correctly, he has just said that the constitutional treaty did not involve a fundamental shift of constitutional powers. If that is the case, why did he favour a referendum on the constitution?

David Miliband: We went through this in detail on Second Reading. The argument was that it was vital, in the words of the former Prime Minister, to “clear the air” on the European issue— [ Interruption. ] That was the argument that was put— [ Interruption. ] I am reporting to the House what the Prime Minister said at the time. What I believe is important is that we look at the content of the treaty. The content of the treaty cannot justify the claims that have been made about the shift in the balance of power or about the facts in respect of this case.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green) (Con) rose—

David Miliband: I shall take a last intervention from the right hon. Gentleman, who has long taken an interest in this issue.

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