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Mr. Francois: These amendments and new clause 68 would ensure that any future treaty that transferred areas of power or competences from the United Kingdom Parliament to the European Union would require the consent of the British people in a referendum as a condition of its ratification. This referendum lock would give the British people the final say on whether they wish this Parliament to hand over further areas of power to the European Union. This is a right similar to the one that voters of the Republic of Ireland already enjoy under their constitution.
Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (LD): The following point is crucial to these amendments and new clause 68. Will the hon. Gentleman give a cast-iron assurance that if his party forms the next Government, this will be part of their legislative programme in their first term-yes or no?
Mr. Francois: I will answer in my own way. I very much hope that the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) will support us in the Lobby this evening in order to amend the law tonight. If we were not to succeed tonight, we would, as I shall discuss later in my speech, then amend the law if we were to form an incoming Conservative Government. He will have an opportunity to support us in the Lobby tonight.
Part 2 of the Bill also seeks to give the Government a get-out clause to ratify treaties in exceptional circumstances without allowing for detailed parliamentary scrutiny and approval. Our associated amendments 126 and 127 would, in effect, disapply the special exemptions that the Government have granted themselves in the Bill to ratify treaties, so that they could not apply to any treaty that transfers further powers from this Parliament to the European Union.
Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): My hon. Friend mentioned the Irish constitution, whose guarantee is a cast-iron one, because it is part of a constitution that is almost impossible to change. In our case, a Conservative Government could have a referendum just because they wished to do so, but a Labour Government would not have to hold a referendum. What does the amendment mean?
Mr. Francois: By putting in this referendum lock, the amendment means that if ever there were a future treaty that transferred powers from Britain to the EU, there would have to be a referendum. We are committed to that, which is why we are moving the amendment on the referendum tonight. To return to the point made by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, if we were not to succeed tonight and if we were victorious at the general election, we would amend the legislation as an incoming Conservative Government in order to achieve a referendum lock. I hope that that is very clear. What the House will want to know this evening is whether the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats support a referendum lock, which is what we are proposing tonight. I hope that that provides a clear answer for my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh). We shall wait to see what Labour and the Liberal Democrats do in the Division Lobby.
We do not believe it is right that treaties relating to the EU should be specifically exempted from parliamentary scrutiny, so we have tabled amendments 126 and 127, which seek to undo the loopholes that the Government have introduced in the Bill and to ensure that a future Government cannot avoid giving the British people their say. On that point, I shall give way to the right hon. Gentleman.
Keith Vaz: I am not, in principle, against the idea of referendums relating to the European Union; in fact, I am on record as saying that I think we ought to have an all-singing, all-dancing referendum on membership of the European Union. However, may I just ask the hon. Gentleman how many of the treaties that have been passed in the past 20 years does he think would have needed to be the subject of a referendum?
Mr. Francois: Thank you. Our amendment proposes that if ever there were a future treaty that transferred powers, a referendum would have to be held. As the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) knows, we argued very hard for a referendum on the Lisbon treaty. I do not wish to pre-empt the debate, Sir Michael, but I have a funny feeling that that may yet crop up again once or twice in the next few minutes.
Mr. Cash: This amendment has, of course, been tabled by our Front Benchers and my hon. Friend will, I am sure, understand that references to the transfer of future competences are, in the opinion of some of us, including myself, simply not enough. We need to ensure that we repatriate economic competitiveness, for example, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) said that we must in his speech to the Centre for Policy Studies in 2005. Will my hon. Friend clarify the difference between what my right hon. Friend said then and what is being said now in the most recent speech on Europe, which is that we want to repatriate that competitiveness?
Mr. Francois: As my hon. Friend will know, I am talking now about an amendment that concerns future treaties. I do not propose, although my hon. Friend tempts me to do so, to go into long debate about the changes for which we have asked on how the Lisbon treaty will apply in the UK post-ratification. I hope, Sir Michael, that you will understand why I will not go down that route this evening. I want to focus on this amendment. The commitment given by my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) definitely still stands.
The last major ratification of a European treaty was that of the Lisbon treaty. During debates on the treaty, Conservative Members of Parliament kept their manifesto promise and voted for a referendum. Unfortunately, with a few honourable exceptions, the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats did not.
My party believes that the British people should be given the last word on any future transfers of power from the UK to the EU, so I challenge the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats to have equal trust in the British people and to support this amendment tonight. Before they vote, I would also ask them to consider the following. If they vote against the amendment, they will be voting against giving the British people a say on any future handover of power to the EU and people will rightly ask why. Their most likely conclusion will be that Labour and the Liberal Democrats, once again, mean to sign new treaties handing powers over from Britain to the European Union without consulting the voters, as they have conspired to do in the past. If that is what they plan to do, we will be happy to inform voters of their intentions at the imminent general election.
I am, as ever, particularly curious about the position of the Liberal Democrats. They have so many that one is entitled to be curious about them. Let us take a look at one of them. At the 2005 Liberal Democrat party conference, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg) proposed a conference motion, seconded by the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable), no less, that stated the following:
"Any proposals which involve significant change in the relationship between the Union, the member states and its citizens should be approved in Britain through a referendum".
That is essentially what these amendments would accomplish, so it would be an act of extraordinary inconsistency if the right hon. and hon. Gentlemen did not support them, and if their colleagues in the Liberal Democrats did not do so, either.
Liberal Democrat spokesmen are well practised at explaining away extraordinary inconsistencies, so I look forward with interest to hearing what the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) has to say.
Mr. Willis: As we are talking about inconsistencies-and it is important to recognise that my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) will give a robust defence to the questions that the hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) has rightly posed-does the hon. Gentleman not find it inconsistent for the Conservative party to give a cast-iron guarantee about the Lisbon treaty and for it now to display this wriggling when talking about the future? He and his party gave a cast-iron guarantee that they would ensure that the people would be able to have a vote, but there is now no guarantee that if the Conservative party came into power it would do anything about the Lisbon treaty, the Maastricht treaty or any other piece of legislation. That is a betrayal of the British people and of the hon. Gentleman's party.
Mr. Francois: I think that that was more of a rant than an intervention. This is a guarantee that would be enshrined in statute, and that is why it would be so important. The hon. Gentleman knows full well that we campaigned for a referendum on the Lisbon treaty. We argued for that referendum in this House and we voted for it in this House. If the Liberal Democrats had kept to their manifesto promise, as we did, and had voted with us in the Lobby, there were enough Labour rebels to have delivered that referendum. The Liberal Democrats know what they did in abstaining on that point and in conspiring with the Government to prevent a referendum on Lisbon, so we shall take no lessons whatsoever from those on their Benches about desires for a referendum. Let me make that very clear.
Importantly, these amendments and the associated new clause seek to help restore the British people's trust in politics by ensuring that any future treaty that transfers powers to the European Union at the expense of the UK Parliament must be put to the British people in a referendum.
One of the difficulties that will always arise is the question of how one compels a Government to do that. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is probably
the case that if a Government refused to hold a referendum, a citizen could go to the courts under judicial review and get an order requiring the Government to do it? That is the safeguard, and it is a considerable one for the citizenry as a whole.
Mr. Francois: If a Government had enshrined in law the guarantee that any future transfer of powers in a treaty would be put to the British people in a referendum-if that had been put on the statute book-and if such a treaty was introduced and an individual felt that the Government were trying to wriggle out of their referendum commitments, that individual would have recourse to law in the courts. My right hon. and learned Friend makes an important point. That would help to give this amendment teeth and it is all the more important, therefore, to put it on the statute book.
Mr. Davey: Will the hon. Gentleman explain the difference between a statutory protection and a constitutional protection? It seems to me that a statutory protection such as that which he and his hon. Friends wish to introduce could be overturned by a Government, who could change the law. It therefore cannot be said to be enshrined and cannot be a lock, as he is trying to suggest.
Mr. Francois: Given what has happened in the past few years, if this provision were to be put into law and a Government attempted to remove the provision, I think that the British people's reaction would be very severe. I throw that question back to the hon. Gentleman, and I shall listen carefully to what he has to say in his speech. As we want to try to amend the law tonight, I want to hear him say that the Liberal Democrats support the amendment and that they will never seek to overturn it. I want to hear that from the Minister, too, given what has happened in our country in the last couple of years and given the need to restore public trust in politics. I always listen to speeches made by the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton very carefully, but I shall listen with especial care tonight to see whether he will give, on behalf of his party, a commitment that his party would support the amendment and, if it is passed, that they would never seek to overturn it.
If these amendments are not passed today-this brings me back to the earlier question asked from the Liberal Democrat Benches by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough-an incoming Conservative Government would introduce their own legislation by amending the European Communities Act 1972 to ensure that this referendum lock is enshrined in law. Nevertheless, I commend the amendment to the House and hope that the Liberal Democrats and the Labour party will join us in voting for it, thus helping to restore, in some part at least, trust in politics among the British people.
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