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I shall speak only briefly in this debate, because I know that any discussion on the European Union attracts a huge amount of interest, not just from the usual suspects but from those outside the House as
it is, obviously, one of the most interesting aspects, in my view, of Government policy. I would like to see more debates on the European Union and much more scrutiny of such issues on the Floor of the House of Commons. I would also like to ensure that the European Scrutiny Committee can bring its reports to the Floor of the House on its own motion, allowing Members of the House to discuss the facts, as opposed to the myths, about the European Union.
I have some sympathy with the remarks of the shadow Minister for Europe, but we need clarity about what he means in respect of the transfer of powers. There is a consensus among all the parties in the House that we are better off in the European Union than outside it. I am not sure whether that applies to the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash), but the Front-Bench teams of all political parties are united in the belief that the future of this country remains within the European Union.
In order to convince me to support him, because I am with the Government on the amendment, the hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) must tell us two things. First, who is to be the final arbiter of whether powers have been transferred? As with most things to do with Europe, facts are put to one side and the issue becomes a matter of opinion. The Conservative party takes a principled stand. It has said that the Lisbon treaty entails a massive transfer of powers, so there ought to be a referendum. The Government's position has been different. Their view is that the treaty is codifying, there are no new powers and therefore, in trying to tidy up and improve the operation of the European Union, there is no need for a referendum.
Mr. Hogg: May I suggest that the answer to the right hon. Gentleman's question is that in the first instance, it is a matter for a political decision whether the competences transferred are sufficient in scale to justify a referendum? But if the Government declined to hold a referendum, as I said in my intervention, a citizen could go to the courts. It would then be for the courts to determine whether the circumstances that have arisen within the treaty are sufficient to require a referendum. Ultimately, it would be a matter for the British courts.
Keith Vaz: That is an interesting point. I am not sure that we heard it necessarily from the Front Bench. I know that the right hon. and learned Gentleman, a most distinguished lawyer and Member of the House who, sadly, is standing down at the next election, has suggested a way forward, but I, as a representative of my constituents, would not want constant referrals to the courts or constant applications to the High Court and then to the new Supreme Court on the issue. That would paralyse Government policy. Whichever Government were in office, that would not be the best way of dealing efficiently with a matter of such importance.
Mr. Cash: I do not agree that the matter would be best dealt with by the courts, not least because of declaration 17, which is annexed to the Lisbon treaty. It gives guidance to the courts with regard to the question of primacy of European law not only over our laws, but over our law-making, our constitution and this Parliament. I have not the slightest interest in transferring to the Supreme Court of this country decisions on the question in that environment. We need a United Kingdom Parliamentary Sovereignty Bill such as I introduced only last week.
Keith Vaz: That is exactly the problem that we face: two distinguished lawyers, a Queen's Counsel and a former shadow Attorney-General for the Conservative party, disagreeing as to whether the courts should be involved. That is in a short debate in the House. One can imagine what would happen if every citizen had the right to make an application to the courts. Our court system would be log-jammed, the Government's policy would be held in abeyance, and the whole European Union would probably not be able to operate. That is why we have such a problem deciding what to do about the issue.
Mr. Leigh: The right hon. Gentleman is making a very good speech and I agree with much of it. The problem is to determine whether significant powers have been transferred. For instance, if Croatia joins, there may well be an accession treaty. It could be argued that some powers were being transferred. Ultimately, the matter will depend on the courts. We have no tradition in this country of a Supreme Court making political judgments. It could be very dangerous.
Keith Vaz: I agree. That is the problem with the solution on offer. We need to determine the circumstances in which a competent authority can say that powers have been transferred. For various reasons, party political points will always be made when we discuss Europe. I agree that there are divisions in all the major political parties. I am not sure that there are any divisions in the Liberal Democrat party on Europe, but there certainly are in the Labour party. There is a small minority in the Labour party who believe that we should not be in Europe at all, and I think that applies to the Conservative party as well. We need to find out, and the hon. Member for Rayleigh will convince me to support him, if he has a formula that will allow us to make that first decision.
Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): Is there a certain irony here? If the argument is that power from the House has been transferred in part to the EU-to some extent, obviously, it has-what would be the logic of transferring further powers from the House to the courts? That has not happened before and, in my view, as a humble Member of the House, would be totally unacceptable.
Keith Vaz: My hon. Friend is being very modest in describing himself as a humble Member of the House. He probably has more experience of the House than all of us put together, in terms of length of membership of the House. He is right-
John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): On the question of how a decision is made, I have some sympathy with the proposal from the Conservatives, but they miss certain aspects. Perhaps we should develop a constitutional court to examine the issue and identify which legislation is constitutional in nature and should require a referendum for it to be changed.
Keith Vaz: I think the hon. Gentleman would find that the cry from the Benches would be, "Too many courts and too many lawyers already involved in these issues." It is a matter for Parliament and politicians to decide in the end. That is the problem that I have with the proposition from the hon. Member for Rayleigh.
Secondly, the hon. Gentleman did not answer the question that I put to him. Suppose we accepted his formula on the transfer of powers. We have had quite a few treaties in the past 20 years. We did not have a referendum on Maastricht. I am not sure whether the Conservative party has revisited its history and believes that we ought to have had a referendum on Maastricht.
I cannot hold the hon. Member for Rayleigh responsible because he was not in the House at that time, but the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) was in the Cabinet at that time- [Interruption.] He was a Minister of State. At any rate, he was in the Government. We did not have a referendum over Maastricht, and none of the other treaties that we have had in the past 20 years have come anywhere near the transfer of powers in that. If that treaty did not satisfy the criteria, how would any other treaty do so?
Mr. Cash: I instigated the Maastricht referendum campaign, which got more than 500,000 signatures on the petition to Parliament for such a referendum. Of course I believe that there should have been one. The Conservative party, apart from three Members, was united on the entire Lisbon treaty. As a consolidating treaty, that is more important than Maastricht because it takes the process of integration, plus primacy, so much further. It is a lethal treaty and should have been subject to a referendum. It is a disgrace that the Government did not hold one.
Keith Vaz: That is the principled view of the hon. Gentleman. He has always held that view, not just about the Lisbon treaty, but about every statutory instrument and every motion to do with Europe that has ever come before the House. It is always a disgrace, always the thin end of the wedge, and must therefore be opposed.
On my second point, I should like to know-if not now, perhaps later-how many of those treaties would have passed the test of the hon. Member for Rayleigh. I think he would find that on matters of opinion, quite a few treaties would have passed the test, which would have meant that the country was in a constant state of referendums. If we who were elected to the House pass every decision over to a referendum, there is no point in Parliament or in electing representatives.
My final point is a question: what are we doing in Europe anyway? I believe that the Conservative party is signed up to the concept of Europe, but of course its members have to oppose everything that the Government propose in that regard. That happens for a variety of reasons, but the fact that there is going to be a general election in the next few weeks means that the official Opposition cannot support the Government on anything but must show principled opposition to everything that the Government put forward.
That applies most of all to issues involving Europe, but even so I think that the Conservative party is pro-European. Should there be a Conservative victory at the next general election, there is no prospect that a
Conservative leader and Cabinet will say that Britain should come out of the EU. There will of course be a lot of mood music and many statements about being very tough with the Europeans in discussions and negotiations, but I have been in this House for 23 years and I know that every British Minister who goes to Brussels does so to speak on behalf of the British people and Parliament. That applies equally to my hon. Friend the current Minister for Europe. No Minister ever goes to Brussels or to the other European cities to hand power over to other people. That has never been the intention of any Government.
Mr. MacShane: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. Does he agree that every previous Opposition party hoping to win power-the Conservatives in 1970 and 1979, and Labour in 1997-was on the whole pro-European? However, the huge difference now is that the Conservative party has broken off all relations with its sister right-wing parties in Europe. The mood music is important: the Conservatives are not going to pull out of the EU but, if they were ever to win power, they would destroy the chance of Britain-and especially British business-of having any real influence.
Keith Vaz: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. He speaks with great authority, being the longest serving Europe Minister in the past 13 years. I do not know how many we have had in that time, but we have probably had about seven. However, I know that he is the longest serving-
Keith Vaz: So far, absolutely. However, after his stunning performance at the Dispatch Box, I think that that the present Minister for Europe, my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Byrant), will definitely be promoted after the election-unless he can manage to do what some of us have always suggested, which is to ensure that the European portfolio is represented in the Cabinet. That would be the very best way to ensure that we scrutinise what is happening in Europe.
All the parties need to put their posturing to one side-that is, with the exception of the Liberal Democrats, who have always been very clear about where they stand on the European issue. That is why I believe that it would be a good idea for us to hold one referendum on the question of this country's membership of the EU. We should put the matter to the people once and for all. We have been in the EU for three decades, but let us just put the question to the people so that they can decide whether we should stay in or come out.
I know that the Foreign Secretary does not like that view, and that it is not shared by the Government, but some of us are so frustrated by the constant sniping about everything European that there may be no other way for the British people to make a final decision on Europe. Despite everything that the Conservative leader has said, I think that he will be sitting on the same platform as the Labour Prime Minister and the leader of the Liberal Democrats, saying that Britain's future is in the European Union.
It may be that the best way to deal with these European issues is to have better parliamentary scrutiny. I think that I remember Ministers making statements in this House about the need to have more European business on the Floor of the House so that it could be properly scrutinised. The problem is that such business is usually scheduled for Thursday afternoons when a one-line Whip is in operation, which means that attendance is very low. The only people who turn up are those of us who love coming to EU debates, and the Minister and the shadow Minister, who have to come to them.
Mr. Shepherd: The right hon. Gentleman said that we should have a once-and-for-all referendum, but I remember what the late, lamented Peter Shore had to say about that. As long as there is an England, the issue will never be closed, as it is about national self-government. As long as this country remembers what it is about, the issue will always re-emerge. We govern ourselves.
Keith Vaz: That is absolutely right. Otherwise, what on earth are we doing here discussing these matters at 7.55 on a Tuesday evening? Of course we want to govern ourselves, but the British people ought to have an opportunity to say something about Europe. They have not been allowed to as yet, but people need to be able to position themselves as they wish.
Mr. Winnick: I am very pleased that my right hon. Friend has been so generous with his time, and I am intervening for the second time. I am someone who has modified his view about our membership of the EU. For many years, I have accepted that we belong inside it, and there is no doubt in my mind that coming out would be to Britain's disadvantage. However, my right hon. Friend is one of the most enthusiastic Members of the House of Commons when it comes to Britain's membership of the European Community. Does he agree that there is an obligation on the British Government of the day to see to it that excessive powers are not handed over to the EU? There is a great deal of disquiet among the British general public, and I believe that one reason for that is the feeling that we are losing power to the EU to such an extent that is becoming almost unacceptable. I differ with the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) about our membership of the EU, but he does have a point that cannot be overlooked.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is why the official Opposition have brought these amendments before the House. The public are concerned, because they only ever get anti-Europe stories from the tabloid
press. Everything is blamed on the EU, but the public would feel differently if we had a fair press that respected discussions on Europe.
When a country signs a treaty as important as the one covering accession to the EU, it is signing up to some important principles. We said that we would work with EU colleagues and partners, and that is what we are doing. Of course there has to be some pooling of powers-that is the only way for accession to be accomplished-but there is no need for powers to be handed over wholesale.
My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) has been in this House much longer than I. Will he name any British Minister of the past 20 years, Conservative or Labour, who said that he was attending a meeting with EU counterparts because he wanted to hand over all sorts of powers that he did not believe that the British Parliament or Government ought to have?
Let us put the myths to one side and have a proper discussion and public debate on this issue. Until we do that, I am afraid that I cannot be convinced about the amendments that have been put forward.
Mr. Davey: I shall make it clear from the start-I hope this will put the hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) out of any pain-that we will not be supporting his amendments tonight. We will be voting against them, and I shall explain why.
Liberal Democrats support a referendum on Europe, but on Britain's membership of the EU and not on the legalese of any specific treaty. We believe that the British people want to be able to answer the in-out question, and that that is the sort of constitutional issue that is best put in a referendum. As the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) said, that is the right way forward.
Mr. Cash: Given what the leader of the Liberal Democrats has said about a proposed question, would the hon. Gentleman agree to a question such as, "Should the UK Government renegotiate the terms of its relationship within the EU?"? Yes or no?
Mr. Davey: No, because we need a clearer question about Britain's membership of the EU. I hope that that is helpful, but the fact that we would want a different question in the referendum is not the only reason for our opposition to the amendment. Another reason is that we think it is fatally flawed. As far as we can see, it would require a referendum on the transfer of any competence, however minor. That could lead to referendums on issues of policy that are relatively minor and which certainly have no real constitutional significance. That surely is an unsustainable position. I cannot believe that the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) supports it, and I shall be interested to see whether he votes with his hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh in the Lobby tonight. Neither can I believe that, in government, the Conservatives really would honour the amendment to the letter, because it is so fatally flawed.
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