Previous Section Index Home Page

16 Jun 2008 : Column 702

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): The Conservatives in Ellesmere Port have adopted a new scam on their website; they are acting a bit like a discount warehouse. A whole raft of public, well-known companies advertise their wares on the local Conservative party website—BT was one of them, but I persuaded it to withdraw its advertising. Not one of the shareholders of any of those public companies has authorised such a donation. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that legislation stops that kind of scam?

Mr. Straw: I look forward to my hon. Friend raising that issue during the passage of the Bill. Meanwhile, if he has a complaint about the regulations, he should refer it to the Electoral Commission.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): I congratulate the Lord Chancellor on ruling out further taxpayer funding of political parties. Will the Bill contain proposals for individual voter registration, as recommended by the Electoral Commission?

Mr. Straw: There are no proposals in the White Paper for individual registration, but I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he has said. I am attracted to the idea of individual registration and believe that it has to happen.

Mr. Djanogly: Then do it.

Mr. Straw: We are going to bring forward—

Mr. Djanogly: When?

Mr. Straw: The hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) asked me a series of questions, and gave the answers before I could do so. If he calms down, I will give the answer. I intend to introduce proposals, but there are spending implications. I am in no doubt that we have to move forward, and a consultation document on this and other matters relating to the regulation of the voting system will be introduced soon.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (UKIP): Does the right hon. Gentleman know how offensive it is to ordinary members of the public who value our democratic traditions to see rich individuals bankrolling candidates before the election period commences? Would he expect a decent political party to stop that practice pending the reintroduction of the trigger?

Mr. Straw: I think that the independent hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) was referring to his former colleagues in the Conservative party. We look forward to further and better particulars of what he has to tell us about that party’s practices.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): I was not minded to ask a question until I heard the sanctimonious bilge from the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne). In the document, there is nothing to address the abuse of incumbency. One of his senior colleagues has sent out letters in House of Commons-franked envelopes to all new voters on his register that include a leaflet slagging off the prospective parliamentary candidate in that
16 Jun 2008 : Column 703
constituency, so until the communications allowance is addressed, there is a serious problem and lacuna in the proposals.

Mr. Straw: I do not approve of that practice, and I have never followed it myself. We had a great debate about the communications allowance about 18 months ago, and one reason why it was introduced was to control the abuse of overspending, for example, on franked envelopes. That is one of the things that it has achieved, but I told the hon. Member for Ribble Valley that if there are issues— [ Interruption. ] I know that there are—to discuss, we should discuss them, but that requires all three parties to sit down and discuss them in talks from which one party should not walk away, knowing that they are departing from an agreed agenda established by an independent inspector.

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con): The Lord Chancellor is right to talk about public perception, but does he not accept that the public will perceive that the Government are not serious about change until they break the umbilical cord between themselves, their party and the unions, and are seen to do so?

Mr. Straw: I do not accept that. I know that the hon. Gentleman has a different viewpoint about the relationship between trade unions and political parties, and he is fully entitled to make as many points as he wishes and to persuade his voters and others to support his party, not ours, because of our association with the trade unions. However, he must accept that trade union contributions to political parties, including the Labour party, are the most regulated of any contributions. They are completely clean—there have been no validated complaints against the payment of the political levy in the past 10 years. Contrary to what we heard from the right hon. Member for Horsham, members of affiliated trade unions know that they can opt out, and at least 10 per cent.—the percentage varies from trade union to trade union—do so. He is entitled to make comments about our connection with the trade unions, but what he is not entitled to do in a democracy is to try and rewrite our constitution in a way that suits his party, not ours.

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. Will Members who do not wish to stay for the statement by Secretary Miliband leave quickly and quietly?

16 Jun 2008 : Column 704

Lisbon Treaty

5.19 pm

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (David Miliband): It is a pleasure and a privilege to be able to make this statement today. [ Interruption. ] I urge right hon. and hon. Members to contain their enthusiasm. With your permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the Irish referendum on the Lisbon treaty, which was held last Thursday. The no vote on the treaty in the referendum is important because of our strong national interest in an effective European Union, and that vote needs to be respected. The next step is for the Irish Government to give their views on how to proceed from this point, consistent with their aims for Ireland’s role in the EU. They have made it clear that they need time to absorb and analyse the result and its implications and to consult widely at home and abroad. The Irish Prime Minister has said that he is disappointed by the result but wants Ireland to continue to play a full part in the life of the EU.

I have just returned from a meeting of EU Foreign Ministers in Luxembourg, and that message was reiterated by the Irish Foreign Minister at that meeting. He emphasised the diverse nature of the Irish debate, and the overlap in the debate between issues that are affected by the treaty and those that are not. He also expressed his appreciation that around Europe, leaders had committed themselves to work co-operatively with Ireland. He committed Ireland to work for a common European approach, with Ireland at the heart of Europe. There will be further discussion among Heads of State and Foreign Ministers at the European Council this Thursday and Friday not to take final decisions but to hear a preliminary report from the Irish Government and preliminary thoughts on the next steps.

The rules of the treaty and of the EU are clear. All 27 member states must ratify the treaty for it to come into force, and we on the Government Benches will defend that principle extremely strongly. There is no question of ignoring the Irish vote or of bulldozing Irish opinion. Ireland clearly cannot be bound by changes that it has not ratified. Equally, there is no appetite for a return to years of institutional negotiation. The EU as a whole needs to find a way forward for all countries that allows the EU to focus on the big policy issues that confront us.

Eighteen countries have approved the Lisbon treaty. The Irish Government have set out clearly their respect for the right of other countries to complete their ratification processes. My conversations with other Foreign Ministers, representing all shades of political opinion across the EU, show this to be a very strongly held view. The reason for the approach is simple: an Irish vote is determinant of an Irish position but cannot determine the ratification decision of other countries. The British view is for this Parliament to determine. In this House and the other place, there have been 24 days of debate, and both Houses have voted strongly in favour of the European Union (Amendment) Bill at each stage. The final stage is Third Reading in the other place on Wednesday.

The Government believe that ratification should proceed as planned. It must be right that every country takes its own view on the treaty in accordance with its democratic
16 Jun 2008 : Column 705
traditions. That is right according to democratic principle; it is right in terms of our negotiating position in the EU; and it is right in terms of our national interest.

Our national interest is a strong Britain in a strong European Union. The EU now consists of 27 countries and 490 million people. The reform of EU institutions and working practices is important to ensure that the EU can function more effectively and cohesively, and to ensure that the EU embraces an outward-looking agenda that tackles in an effective way international issues such as migration, climate change, security and defence policy and counter-terrorism. But treaty change rightly requires unanimity across all countries. That is why it is right that we take the time to allow the Irish Government to make proposals on what they will do next, right that we assert Britain’s national interest in an effective EU that addresses the problems of the modern world, and right that we work to maintain the cohesion of the EU. That is what the Government will be doing in the weeks and months ahead, and I commend that approach to the House.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks) (Con): The Foreign Secretary began by saying that the referendum result in Ireland is important because of our national interest in an effective European Union. I agree with him about that, but I hope that he agrees with me that it is also important because it is an inspiring example of democracy in action. People say that there is a disconnection between the EU and its peoples, but Thursday’s vote was proof that when people are given a real say on the EU, they respond in vast numbers with turnout higher than in any European elections held in this country. Was it not also a courageous vote, given that the threats that Ireland would suffer if it voted no did not deter the Irish from making their own decision on the treaty? I am sorry that the Foreign Secretary did not find it in himself to congratulate Irish voters on either of those points.

Following as it does the French and Dutch rejections of the original constitution— a treaty that was, in the words of the then Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, “90 per cent.” the same as the Lisbon treaty—is it not now clear beyond doubt that there is profound opposition among the peoples of Europe to the substance of this treaty? Given that no one would ever call the peoples of France, the Netherlands and Ireland anti-European, is it not now clearer than ever that it is absurd to describe as anti-European disagreement with a treaty that further centralises power away from Europe’s nation states towards remote EU institutions?

The Foreign Secretary has said that the result has to be respected and that

We very much agree with that. However, is not that exactly what he and the Prime Minister are doing by pressing on with ratification in this country? If that is the Government’s position, why was one newspaper briefed yesterday that the Prime Minister

If that is the Government’s true position, why will not Ministers say so? Instead of the Government trying to have it both ways, why can we not have some clarity
16 Jun 2008 : Column 706
from them? Did not a previous Labour Foreign Secretary set out the only right course for this country yesterday, when he wrote:

Is not the Czech Prime Minister right to say that the Irish no is

So why, given that after those referendums the then Foreign Secretary came here to announce that the ratification of the constitution was suspended, has this Foreign Secretary come here to announce the opposite? Is the message that in today’s EU small countries do not count?

Should not the Government now plainly state that Britain will suspend ratification in this country immediately, give a clear message at this week’s summit that the treaty is finished, and make the fundamental point that no lasting political institutions can be built in democratic societies without the people’s consent? Is that not what real respect for the referendum would mean? Is it not essential that all preparations for implementing the treaty, including on the European External Action Service, are now suspended and that the EU takes no action that is not legally provided for under the current treaties? Does the Foreign Secretary agree that respecting the result means not asking the Irish people to vote again? Will he undertake on the Government’s behalf that they will take no part in any bullying of Ireland? Would it not be extraordinary for the Irish to vote twice on this treaty, when British voters have not had the opportunity to vote once?

The Foreign Secretary has said that ratification here must proceed so that there can be a “British view” on the treaty, but the reality is that the Government have never spoken for the British view. If they want to find out the British view, are there not two very easy ways for them to do so? The first is to call a general election, of which the Prime Minister is, with good reason, terrified; and the second is to keep the promise that the Government made at the last election to call a referendum in the United Kingdom, which would assuredly tell the people of Ireland that in rejecting the Lisbon treaty they are by no means alone.

David Miliband: Let me address the three key elements of the right hon. Gentleman’s comments. First, it is in this Parliament that we decide the British view of our treaties—that is what we have always done, including when the right hon. Gentleman was in government.

I believe that it is right that we— [ Interruption. ]

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order.

David Miliband: I believe that it is right that we defend the sovereignty of this Parliament and our right to take a view on how Britain should approach the issue. Every other country in Europe is going to take a view on the treaty—18 already have. The right hon. Gentleman suggests that Britain suspends itself in some kind of limbo while the other countries take a view on the next steps forward. That is not a recipe for strength for Britain; it is a recipe for weakness.

16 Jun 2008 : Column 707

Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman has discovered a new-found love for the way in which the European Union is working at the moment. He said yesterday that it is working “pretty well”. That is pretty rich, coming from him. He is the man who denounced the current arrangements as

That is what he said when the current arrangements came into force, but today he tries to tell us that we should rely on the current arrangements because they are working pretty well. He also said that

In other words, he is now saying that he wants to embrace a treaty—the treaty of Nice—that he denounced seven years ago as the end of civilisation as we know it.

I suggest that the right hon. Gentleman should understand one further point about the Nice treaty. He says that that treaty would make life simple. The first thing that will happen, if we embrace the Nice treaty as he recommends, is a new institutional debate about the number of commissioners—an issue left unresolved by the Nice treaty. Precisely the sort of institutional discussion that he says we should abandon or move beyond would be restarted by his proposal.

On the Labour Benches, we all have much respect for Lord Owen and his contribution. We respect his foreign policy expertise— [ Interruption. ] Some of my hon. Friends do not, however. It is interesting that the right hon. Gentleman cites Lord Owen’s arguments as a model of democracy. In this House and in the other place, the Bill on the treaty has been passed by large majorities, including significant votes from the right hon. Gentleman’s own party.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the position of the Czech Government, and he is right that the Czech constitutional court is currently examining the Lisbon reform treaty. It is right, therefore, that the Czech Government cannot proceed with ratification at this stage, because the treaty is before their court. But the Italian Government, a centre-right Government who were recently elected, have said that they will proceed with parliamentary ratification as scheduled The Dutch Government, also on the centre-right of politics, say:

The Swedish Government, also on the centre-right of politics, say that ratification will continue as proposed. It seems to me that it is right that we do as well.

Finally, the right hon. Gentleman said that respecting the result should mean that there should be no bullying of Ireland. He is absolutely right about that, which is why I defended today—and will continue to defend—the right of the Irish Government to take their time about how they want to respond to this result, and how they want to come back to the matter. It is for the Irish Government to decide what their position is going to be. The treaty cannot come into force unless the Irish Government succeed in ratifying it—it cannot succeed in coming into force—and the Irish constitution is absolutely plain that constitutional change requires the consent of the people; it is absolutely clear on that. That is why it is right that we wait for them to decide on their next steps, but it is also right that we are clear about our responsibilities to ensure that there is a British view in the discussions. That is what we are determined to do.

Next Section Index Home Page