Previous Section Index Home Page

It may come as a surprise to find that the Conservatives wish to debate referendums. After all, they have had a rather embarrassing few months after the dropping of their cast-iron guarantee. That is why my hon. Friend
19 Jan 2010 : Column 236
the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), who is not in his place at the moment, was quite right to ask the hon. Gentleman whether he had a cast-iron guarantee for his proposal. He was not able to answer that, and I am not surprised.

The hon. Gentleman, as usual in these debates-there is always a bit of déjà vu to them-tried to tease the Liberal Democrats, but I remind him and the House that the Conservatives voted against the Liberal Democrat proposal on 14 November 2007 for a referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union. What is worse, they worked with the Labour party to stop this House even debating the proposition on 4 March 2008 about whether we should have a referendum on the in-out question. He says that he will not take lectures from us; likewise, I repeat that remark to him.

The Conservatives' voting record on referendums in this Parliament does not bear scrutiny. Their record on referendums in government is worth recalling, too, as the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) said. Did they offer a referendum on the single European treaty or Maastricht? No. The Liberal Democrats joined forces with the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) and argued for a referendum on the Maastricht treaty, because it really was of constitutional significance and it deserved a referendum.

Mr. Hogg: Will the hon. Gentleman help me in this respect? He has argued against the amendment on legalistic grounds, stating that "competence" is capable of extending to the trivial and the major. Assuming that one could resolve that issue by drafting, does he object in principle to subjecting to a referendum substantial transfers of competence?

Mr. Davey: As I said at the beginning of my remarks, we believe that there should be a referendum on the future of Britain's membership. There have been so many treaties over the past 20 years, as the right hon. Member for Leicester, East reminded us, and the British people have not had a referendum on any of them. It is therefore time to ask people the real question-the one that people say they want-about whether Britain should be a member of the European Union. That is the question people want to be asked, not a question about detailed aspects of a treaty.

Mr. Geoffrey Cox (Torridge and West Devon) (Con): Why does the one exclude the other? Why can we not have the referendum on the in-out question, and why should Liberal Democrats not agree to the idea that, when there are substantial transfers in future treaties, the British people are consulted?

Mr. Davey: We are saying that they should be consulted, but on a question on which we think they want to be consulted. The hon. Member for Rayleigh seems to want multiple referendums, and that is not sensible. We want a clear decision on the matter, but, although I agree with much of what the right hon. Member for Leicester, East said, I do not think it would settle the issue once and for all, as the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) rightly said. It would settle the matter for several decades, however, and many people in Britain have not had the chance to vote because they were not around for the previous referendum on Britain's membership of the European Community, as it then was. I therefore think they would like to have their say.

19 Jan 2010 : Column 237

Mr. Shepherd: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. Parties change their positions; I accept that. It was I who went to see Paddy Ashdown in February 1992, because I tabled the proposal for a referendum on Maastricht, which was Mrs. Thatcher's last vote in this House, as it happens. Paddy Ashdown had no difficulty in saying, "We Liberals believe in referendums and will support the referendum on the Maastricht treaty," but that was a particular treaty. We thought it contained considerable powers, and Paddy Ashdown gladly supported our proposal. Indeed, when the Maastricht treaty itself went to a vote after becoming a matter for legislation in the House, the Liberal Democrats took a robust position on it. The question was not, "In or out?"; it was on the specifics of a treaty. That was the point.

Mr. Davey: The hon. Gentleman has taken a principled stance on this issue over many years. At the time of the Maastricht debate, I was one of the backroom boys for the Liberal Democrats who worked on the treaty as it went through this House as legislation, and I remember the very night of the vote to which he refers. However, we have moved on from the Maastricht debate. There have been a number of other treaties-the Amsterdam, Nice and Lisbon treaties, in particular-and the mood of the British people has changed, so we must go beyond a treaty-based referendum.

Mr. Leigh: There is a suspicion, which I am sure is entirely cynical, that the Liberals take that stance because they think they can win a referendum on the in-out question, but would have lost one on the Lisbon treaty. That would be an entirely dishonourable position, so I am sure the hon. Gentleman can refute it.

Mr. Davey: Indeed. The real reason why the Conservatives want to debate referendums tonight, despite their embarrassment at dropping their cast-iron guarantee, is that they do not want to debate the real issues on Europe. They have very firm few positions, as we saw when we debated the substance of the Lisbon treaty.

I take the hon. Member for Rayleigh to task for the Conservatives' position on justice and home affairs, in particular. I shall not get into a detailed debate tonight, Mrs. Heal, because I am sure you would call me to order, but his party's leader has made it clear in public that the Conservatives want to take back competences on justice and home affairs-despite the successful work that is being done throughout Europe, particularly by Europol and Eurojust, and on the European arrest warrant. Serious crime is being tackled successfully. Drug trafficking, people trafficking, money laundering, terrorism and sex crimes of the worst kind are being successfully tackled through European co-operation, and the Conservatives' position is to remove Britain from that co-operation.

I shall try to take the proposal seriously, even though it is seriously flawed. The Minister may provide more definitive legal views on the matter, but I wonder what is meant by "competences". In explanatory notes to the amendment, the hon. Member for Rayleigh says that the competences would be supplementary, shared or exclusive competences. However, what is the meaning of "supplementary" in the European treaties? For the EU, a supplementary competence is one whereby

19 Jan 2010 : Column 238

this is the important bit-

When we look at the EU's competences that fit the definition of "supplementary", we find some very interesting ones. Under the hon. Gentleman's proposal, we would have referendums on transferring supplementary competences on culture, tourism and administrative co-operation. The Conservatives want a referendum on the bulk purchasing of paper clips. That is nonsense. It does not stand up to any serious scrutiny, and I do not believe that if they were in government, they would put forward this proposal. That is why the hon. Gentleman could not answer my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough. The proposal is absolutely ludicrous.

Mr. Shepherd: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Davey: No, not yet. The Conservatives seem to want to commit us to referendums on almost any conceivable European treaty, however insignificant, but there are other serious problems with the amendment.

The hon. Member for Rayleigh was present for the debates about the legislation on Lisbon, so he knows that there are other ways to amend treaties now. Indeed, those measures were part of the Lisbon treaty and one reason why he objected to it. One new procedure for amending treaties is the ordinary revision procedure, and, from the Library briefing, I understand that one could transfer competence from member states to the European Union using that procedure, not just through a treaty. The legal position in UK law is that if that were to happen, there would have to be an Act of Parliament. I am interested to know what the Conservative position is. If there were a competence transfer through the ordinary revision procedure, would that, in Conservative thinking, require a referendum? That would be a very interesting development that is not dealt with by the amendment. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will be able to explain it.

The key problem with the Conservative amendment is that it shows no understanding of how decisions are taken in Europe. It puts together all types of competences, whether they are relatively minor or major, or exclusive or supplementary. Let me take as an example the Lisbon treaty and justice and home affairs. Pre-Lisbon, the EU had competence in pretty much all the aspects of justice and home affairs policy that it has today. The Lisbon treaty did not change the competences; it merely moved them from the intergovernmental arena to the Community method of decision making. For example, there was the transition of the European arrest warrant from an intergovernmental decision to a Community method decision. It was not the transfer of competences that annoyed many Conservatives in relation to the Lisbon treaty, but the decision-making process, so the referendum that is being offered would not deal with many of the problems that Conservative Members have been worried about over recent weeks and months. The fact that the EU has competence in an area does not tell us about the powers or scope of the EU institutions in that area. The Tory amendment is totally silent on that.

This proposal is so utterly flawed that it should not even be supported by the hon. Gentleman's colleagues on the Back Benches. It would not do what they want,
19 Jan 2010 : Column 239
and it is so bizarre that it would cause any incoming Conservative Government huge problems. I am convinced that the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe will not vote for it. After all, he said that some Eurosceptics would have a referendum on a comma, and it appears that that is absolutely the case among those on the Conservative Front Bench. My colleagues and I will vote against the Conservative proposition, but we will be arguing in the country for a new European referendum-a referendum that people want on Britain's future membership of the European Union.

Mr. MacShane: It is pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), who, to my satisfaction, demolished the Conservatives' amendment, as well as the amendment to their amendment that they had to rush out because the original was so incompetently drafted. When the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) asked for a definition of "competences", he put his finger precisely on the problem, but he then very sensibly disappeared for dinner because no answer was available.

Some right hon. and hon. Gentlemen have said, "Let the courts decide"; others have said, "Let a plebiscite be the way forward." I am here to defend Parliament, which is where I part company from the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton, with his demand for a "one big bang" referendum that would decide things once and for all, but no other referendums. He is rather like somebody who wants to lose his virginity, but only once.

On the notion that there is a final referendum that will decide this matter once and for all, I have to part company with my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz)-my distinguished predecessor as Minister for Europe. I ask the House to have confidence in its abilities instead of surrendering to the populist passions of plebiscites. We tried that in 1975; it settled nothing. The hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) is absolutely right: far from settling the European question, it opened a Pandora's box out of which, to paraphrase Ernie Bevin, many Trojan horses jumped. That left the Labour party in considerable disarray for nearly a generation until common sense prevailed.

8.15 pm

When we talk about the European Union, of what are we speaking? It is a confederation of 27 member states. It takes, collectively, 1 per cent. of Europe's gross national income-the other 99 per cent. is raised, spent, distributed, taxed and allocated according to the 27 national sovereign states of Europe. Of that 1 per cent., roughly 85 per cent. comes back in the form of agricultural, structural and regional payments to the national Governments. If we did not have a common agricultural policy, we would need a BAP, a British agricultural policy; a FAP, a French agricultural policy; and a PAP, a Polish agricultural policy. I am not going to list all 27.

Chris Bryant: Go on-if you can remember them.

Mr. MacShane: I even know all the capitals, which is more than many Europe Ministers past and present can deliver.

19 Jan 2010 : Column 240

No more than about 10 per cent. of the laws that we decide in this House emanate from the EU; the Library has researched this time and again. That puts the whole thing in some perspective.

The amendment is an invitation to make good the lost honour of the Leader of the Opposition, who said beyond peradventure to his party that there would be a referendum on the Lisbon treaty-he offered it a cast-iron pledge, or girdle, and an ultimate guarantee-and then reneged on it. That was a jolly good thing, because no adult party that contemplates power in this country can be going down the road of wanting to unravel the major treaties that bind us together in the European Union.

Mr. Leigh: The right hon. Gentleman is being disingenuous if he is suggesting that only 1 per cent. of the powers of this country are held by the European Union. He is perfectly entitled to be fiercely and passionately pro-European, but he must not continue to argue that this is somehow a side issue. It is a matter of vital national importance, and we should have a serious debate about it.

Mr. MacShane: The hon. Gentleman is Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee. I referred to 1 per cent. of Europe's gross national income-income is not law. If he, of all the right hon. and hon. Gentlemen in this House, does not know how small a percentage of Europe's gross national income the EU takes and how much is redistributed back to this country to disappear into agricultural, structural and regional funds, then how does he expect those in his constituency or the wider public to know that, given the constant disinformation that they are fed by our press on this matter?

I revert to the lost honour of the Leader of the Opposition and his cast-iron pledge, which he tossed away gaily in a press release a few weeks ago. That is a matter for the Conservative party-what worries me is the fact that it is in the vital interests of Britain, British business and other institutions that we engage fully in the European Union. For the first time in our history, we have a party knocking on the door of power that has gone out of its way to oppose, denigrate and show contempt for our alliance and partnership and the good work that we do with the EU. We heard that in the tone of the hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois).

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind) rose-

Mr. MacShane: I give way to an hon. Member who has rediscovered the virtue of honesty as representing the UK Independence party.

Bob Spink: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, but I am an independent MP, not a UKIP MP, as he well knows.

I cannot attempt in any way to defend the honour of the leader of the Conservative party, who made a cast-iron guarantee, has reneged on it and will suffer very badly because of it. With every promise that he makes in the lead-up to the next election, he will be asked, "Is that a cast-iron guarantee you are giving this time?" The public will not trust him on it. However, how can we expect the public to return to trusting the House if we will not listen to and trust the public? Why does the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) not want to
19 Jan 2010 : Column 241
listen to the public, ask them what they want, give them a plebiscite and follow what they want to do? Does he really believe that he knows better than the majority of British people?

Mr. MacShane: I apologise for insinuating that the hon. Gentleman was still a member of UKIP. He has "re-ratted", to quote Winston Churchill, and is now sitting somewhere else. I heard the leader of UKIP, the noble Lord Pearson, say the other week in a meeting of British and Swiss parliamentarians that he would deny the Conservative party as many seats as possible in the forthcoming election. As a by-the-way, it was fascinating to hear the Swiss parliamentarians explain how now they had to bring-

The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Sylvia Heal): Order. The right hon. Gentleman may have a captive audience, but I really do think that he is going a little bit wide of the amendment.

Mr. MacShane: Well, we are debating referendums, and there is no country keener on referendums than Switzerland.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): Referenda.

Mr. MacShane: Referendums. It is a gerund.

Michael Fabricant: It is a gerundive.

Mr. MacShane: It is a gerund. Keep your hair on.

The point that Swiss colleagues made was that, more and more, their laws have to conform with the EU's. [Interruption.] Okay, I have finished the Swiss example and I shall return to the point that the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) put to me. I am here to defend parliamentary supremacy, sovereignty and democracy. I do not like surrendering to plebiscites. As Margaret Thatcher said, they are a device invented by demagogues and applied by dictators.

Mr. Cash rose-

Mr. MacShane: The hon. Gentleman is not a dictator. Is he a demagogue? Let us find out.

Mr. Cash: I simply want to ask my old combatant on these matters whether, given what he has just said, he agrees with my United Kingdom Parliamentary Sovereignty Bill, which was introduced last week. It would give him everything that he has just asked for.

Mr. MacShane: It is to the honour of our Parliament that since 1945, under different Administrations, we have initiated negotiations for more international treaties than in the previous 500 years of British history. I am aware of the treaty of London of 1604, which settled the big disputes with Spain that had bedevilled relationships in the 16th century. The glory of Britain is that it has sought to weave a sometimes tangled and messy web, but a web none the less, of international law that can bind together nations with great differences.

Next Section Index Home Page