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In the most recent opinion poll, 72 per cent. of the British people say that in the national interest we should break European law. They also say, by a margin of 70 per cent., that they want an association of nation states. Some 88 per cent. want a referendum on the present situation, not to mention any future competences. For all those reasons, we have to stop the invasion of our constitution, and of the nooks and crannies. We have to have a realistic policy on the European Union.
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We need a policy that returns power to the people of this country, which is what they want-what they have demanded in successive opinion polls for the past 10 or 12 years.

For all those reasons, I am prepared to accept the idea of having a referendum for the future and for future competences, but that goes nowhere near far enough towards establishing the position that we need to secure for the people of this country. That means that we have to revisit the arrangements to produce an association of nation states. France and Germany will fight that, but as I have said in the past, I believe that we should take the lead, as we have done in successive generations on matters relating to Europe in different contexts. We face problems under the European integration process, which has a deleterious effect on our economy and on Europe as a whole; there is the prospect of implosion, which will do nobody any good. I would simply argue that we have to revisit and repatriate the powers that I have mentioned, not for ideological reasons but for practical common-sense reasons, to ensure that the British people can govern themselves.

We would certainly win the next general election if we had a UK sovereignty Bill along the lines that I am proposing. It is there on the Order Paper; I referred to it only last week. We would then get the support of the people of this country-without engaging in an unnecessary debate about whether we should be in or out-for getting the balance right and ensuring that we had political co-operation and trade, but not European government. That is the objective, and that is what we should seek to do. In my view, that would ensure that we won the next general election with a massive majority.

Mr. Cox: I shall take just a short time to defend from multiple attacks this modest, moderate and practical measure offered by my hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois). Some of the positions that have been articulated today by Labour Members-and, indeed, by Liberal Democrats-are almost impossible to comprehend. What conceivable objection can there be to offering the people of this country the opportunity to be consulted directly through their vote on a treaty that transfers substantial powers to the European Union?

Chris Bryant: It does not say that.

Mr. Cox: Hon. Members are saying that the provision does not say that. It is a matter of interpretation. In my judgment, if the matter were taken to court, it is inconceivable that a judge would conclude that some minor transfer would trigger this provision, as the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) attempted to suggest. But let us suppose that it did. What we should be seeing today is not the Liberal Democrats making some footling technical point about the amendment's drafting, but a constructive, helpful suggestion from them on how it might be improved. If they genuinely believe in consultative democracy for the people we represent, and if they really think that a referendum on European treaties would be a good thing, they should be tabling their own amendments and walking through the Lobby in support of the Conservative party.

Instead, however, the Liberal Democrats have produced a position that they believe will please an electorate to whom they have to appeal, as they so often do. They
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know that the electorate to whom they have to appeal throughout the south-west-and in the constituency that I have the honour to represent-are profoundly Eurosceptic. Through the smokescreen of a generalised referendum on membership of the European Union, they hope to persuade those Eurosceptic people, who have otherwise broadly liberal tendencies, that they can offer them one thing while doing another. That is discreditable and cynical, but the reality is that it is what we have come to expect from that party.

Let us concentrate on this measure. What conceivable objection could there be to providing the people of this country with a say on a treaty that transfers power to the European Union? Let us examine the objections that have been made here this afternoon. The right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), who has just returned to his place, contended that this would result in multiple referendums. Yes, every few years, if there were additional treaties that transferred substantial powers, the people of this country would be offered the opportunity of a consultation. What is wrong with that?

The measure would not result in multiple referendums. There would be a referendum every few years, and perhaps that would induce genuine caution in the politicians of the European Union before they created more treaties that transferred endless new powers and competences to distant institutions with which the people of this country feel no direct democratic connection. Perhaps those referendums would induce a welcome caution, as the peoples of the European Union-and specifically the British people-were offered the opportunity of a consultation and given their say. Perhaps they would provide a salutary lesson on introducing treaty after treaty while the people of this country-passive spectators-have to watch while the likes of the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) play games with, and make party political points about, the powers, privileges and inherent rights of Parliament.

There was a piquant and poignant irony, I say to the Committee, in the position of the right hon. Gentleman. I have to say that it was an extraordinary spectacle to observe him defend parliamentary supremacy so that he could the more easier give it up; and to defend parliamentary sovereignty so that he did not have to submit the consistent surrender of the powers of this House to the people of this country. What an extraordinary irony, if there is anybody watching at this late hour, would be created in the minds of the interested spectator at the thought of the right hon. Gentleman standing up for the rights of Parliament and standing up for the sovereignty of Parliament-he, a member of a Government who have consistently undermined, corroded and eroded it for the last 12 years; a member of a Government who have consistently treated Parliament with disdain, contempt and scorn since the moment they came into power on a benighted day in May 1997. Let me say to the Committee that no more amusing, ironic and exquisite moment have I experienced in my short time here than in hearing the speeches of the right hon. Gentleman in defence of parliamentary sovereignty.

There is a serious point here, Mrs. Heal-yes, there is, although if you listened to the right hon. Member for Rotherham, who I regret is not in his place, you would not think that anything serious was ever discussed on
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this subject in this House. Over the past 12 months it might have dawned on us, and the penny might have dropped, that the people of this country have stopped trusting us. They do not trust us any more in this House. They do not think that we stand up and defend the prerogatives of this House as we ought, and so the time has come when they are demanding a direct consultation on the surrender of the prerogatives and rights of this House. I, for one, agree that if one stood by the Diceyan purity of the peculiarly British notion of parliamentary sovereignty that the right hon. Gentleman was astonishingly defending, the referendum would be undesirable. If the House had stood tall and proud over the last 12 years-and, I make no bones about it, over the years preceding that-and resisted the encroachment of the Executive, and if it had stood up for the rights of the people of this country, I have no doubt that the people would be content to trust us as they were 50 years ago, but they are not. The last 12 months have further corroded and undermined that trust.

The measure that my hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh is proposing is a modest, practical measure, designed to assure the people of this country-goodness knows, are they not entitled to that assurance?-that the Members of this House will have the humility to submit to them any further transfer of power to the European Union. I say that that is a perfectly honourable, proper, prudent, measured and appropriate proposal.

The games played today make no commendable reflection on this Committee. I do not say that Government Members are not right to conclude or say that in relation to previous treaties, the Conservative party was not in favour of referendums, but the position has changed. The country is less trusting of us in the House. The country wants its say. If any people have been listening in or watching this debate this evening, they will have concluded with bafflement and bewilderment, "Don't they get it? Don't they really understand, even after the last 12 months?" This institution in which we have the enormous privilege of sitting to represent those people has fallen on hard times. The measure before us would provide a contract with the people of our country by, in effect, saying to them, "If we propose again to part in any substantial measure with any of the precious accumulation of power and privilege that over generations and centuries you have entrusted to this Parliament, we must not only debate that in this narrow Chamber, but we must take it to you, the country. We must submit it to your ultimate jurisdiction, and we must ask you whether you approve."

9 pm

I say that that is a good thing. It may not conform to the 19th century notion of parliamentary sovereignty, but the Labour party abandoned that long ago. It abandoned it through the Human Rights Act 1998, and it has abandoned it consistently time after time when it has acceded to European Union treaties. Sadly, that notion of parliamentary sovereignty is shot to pieces, therefore, which is why it made for such exquisite irony to listen to the right hon. Member for Rotherham defend it and offer it as the basis of his attack on this measure.

Parliamentary sovereignty will now only be defended with confidence by the people of this country. That is what the public are now concluding, and this is a proper
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measure that the House should pass. It is not a difficult thing to do. I do not see why pro-European Labour Members such as the right hon. Gentleman should oppose it. Why should we not adopt an approach that is more like that of our continental European partners and Ireland, who grant referendums on such surrenders of constitutional power?

I find the Liberal Democrats' position utterly bemusing. I do not think they really believe in it. At one point, they seemed to suggest that if we had a constitutional court and a written constitution, they might accept the direct referral of a new treaty to a plebiscite, but this proposal is no different from that. We do not have a written constitution, although some of us believe we should start to consider whether we should have one, but this measure would become a norm, much as five-year Parliaments have become the norm. They are not enshrined in a written constitution, but can anybody seriously doubt that if a Prime Minister or Government were to attempt to extend their life by statutory enactment, that would cause uproar throughout the country? Similarly, if we enshrine this measure in the Bill and it is passed by this House, it will become a constitutional norm-a norm that no Government would risk ever denying or ignoring. It will become, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh described it, a lock in the hearts of the British people. They will see it as a right that this House has conveyed to them, and they will defend it at the political cost and peril of any Government who seek to ignore it.

I commend to the House this modest measure. It is not the "in or out" referendum that the Liberal Democrats want-apparently-or that my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) wants. Indeed, I say to myself that I look forward to a time when it may be that we have to have such a plebiscite in order to help clear the air, but if we chose to remain inside the EU that does not mean that we should not have democratic consultations by way of referendums in the event of treaties that surrendered further power. The one does not exclude the other, and the time has come for this House to have the humility to accept that it is the people of this country who should decide in future on whether further powers are transferred to a European Union, in which they do not possess confidence, and in whose democratic credentials they have no faith.

Mr. Hogg: It is difficult to follow that contribution, so I shall not try to do so; I shall follow the example of my hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois), who was wonderfully brief-on the whole, I endorse that example.

We should go back to first principles and ask ourselves the following question: what is a transfer of competence? It is, in fact, a diminution of sovereignty; although people say that it is shared sovereignty, that is a different way of saying that it is a diminution of sovereignty. As a matter of general principle, if one wishes to diminish sovereignty, one should consult the people whose sovereignty one holds in one's hands-that means the electorate. I agree that we have often not observed that principle. I am the first to admit that we did not observe it over the Maastricht treaty and we should have done-looking back, that was an error. We did observe it with regard to devolution, which is a case in point. We consulted the electorate in Scotland and in Wales as to
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whether that transfer of sovereignty should take place-perhaps we should have also consulted in England, where the parallel would have been even more acute, because we diminished our sovereignty when we transferred to Scotland and Wales some part of our domestic powers.

The proposition that where a diminution of sovereignty is involved the electorate should be consulted is extremely difficult, as a general principle, to refute. I apologise for the fact that I have not heard all of this debate, but I have heard most of it and it seems to me that two substantive arguments have been advanced against that proposition. The first, which was advanced by the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), has force because often small transfers of sovereignty take place. For example an accession treaty in respect of Croatia might involve relatively minor transfers of sovereignty. Would we wish to subject that to a referendum? I shall return to that issue in a moment, because it is a real one.

The second, which was also raised by the right hon. Gentleman and by the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), deals with the competences of courts, and I shall deal with that first. Where there is a duty on a Government to subject a certain class of treaty to a referendum and the Government decline to meet that obligation, the citizen should have a right to go to the court. I do not think that this would happen often, because initially a political decision would have to be made as to whether or not to hold a referendum, and politicians are not so stupid-as a general rule-as to ignore the political climate in which they operate. Let us assume that a Government do choose to ignore that political climate. In such circumstances, is it not right that there is another authority that says of that Government, "You are not fulfilling your legal obligation." I do not find that in any way repellent as a principle, nor is it inconsistent with our general constitution, because time and again the Executive are challenged in the courts by the process of judicial review. That is not different in principle from what I am discussing, because when we say that the Government decline to put an issue to a referendum, we are saying no more than that Ministers collectively decline to do that. There is no difference in principle from subjecting that decision to judicial review from subjecting the decision of an individual Minister-

Mr. Cash: Will my right hon. and learned Friend give way?

Mr. Hogg: If I may, I shall finish this point and then give way. I regard the competences of the court as one of the serious safeguards for the British constitution. I believe that the courts have increasingly exercised a control over the Executive because of a recognition that we in this House, as a political institution, are not controlling the Executive in the way that we should. That is in part to do with the grip of party. My profound belief is that one reason that this House has fallen into disrepute in the way that it has has much more to do with a general perception that we are not doing our duty than with anything else. I pray in aid the courts to meet that gap in control and accountability.

Mr. Cash: I could not agree more with my right hon. and learned Friend on the question of the Whips' control over business. I made a point earlier, in an
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intervention, about the manner in which Standing Orders, which now number about 170, have taken away power from the House as a whole. That is why we want a business committee. Let me ask my right hon. and learned Friend, if he is going to continue to pursue this argument about the courts' being the final arbiter, please to bear in mind the primacy that is asserted in the annex to the Lisbon treaty, plus the substantial amount of European case law that it represents. It would mean that the Supreme Court, which has already struck down an Act of Parliament-the Merchant Shipping Act 1988-in the Factortame case, would be inclined as a matter of law, irrespective of any political or quasi-judicial considerations, to take a position on sovereignty that would not be to the liking of many of us on the Opposition Benches. We need a proper parliamentary sovereignty Bill to ensure that we get the whole package.

Mr. Hogg: May I put to the House a different question from the one put by my hon. Friend, which, I think, answers his question? Let us say that the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh is accepted by the House and that such a duty is placed on a Government. There is then a substantial transfer of competences-I shall use the phrase "substantial transfer", as it comes back to that-and the Government decline to honour that obligation. Let us say that a citizen then goes to the courts. The courts' only obligation and duty at that point will be to determine whether the Government have complied with the statutory obligation introduced by my hon. Friend's amendment. I question whether that wider jurisdiction of which my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) has just been speaking will come into play. I think that the issue at that point is a very narrow one and that the citizen would find the relief that he or she sought.

Let me make my final point on the other objection, which was advanced primarily by the right hon. Member for Leicester, East and was echoed by Liberal Democrat Members, too. It has some force. I differ on this point from my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Cox), as I do not think that we should feel obliged to submit every single transfer of competence to a referendum. We are talking about substantial competences, and my hon. and learned Friend used the phrase himself. The only issue that I have with the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh is that he has not used the concept or the language of substantial competences. I think that we should do that, if this matter goes forward. It is merely a matter of drafting and it should be possible for us to deal with it by ensuring that a referendum applies only to substantial or significant-the language is variable-transfers of competence. If that is not possible, although I suspect that it will be, there is another way forward, which is to create the presumption that there is always a referendum but to contain within the legislation a power to disapply that presumption if the House is willing to disapply it. That would depend very much on the political context of the time.

Mr. Cox: If the European Union or its countries have spent years negotiating to produce a treaty, and the changes require a treaty and cannot be made through the ordinary revision procedure, the presumption must be that whatever is being done by the treaty is of some
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significance and seriousness. Otherwise, dozens of meetings and numerous years would not have been needed to bring that treaty to fruition. It is therefore highly unlikely that any treaty would simply reorganise the system of administration or paperclips. It would deal with something fundamental-that is why a treaty would be needed.

9.15 pm

Mr. Hogg: In all probability, my hon. and learned Friend is correct. None the less, it is proper to meet an argument which has been advanced and may be relevant. Looking back on the 30 years that I have been in this place, I think, with the benefit of hindsight, that all the European treaties to which I have been a party should have been subject to a referendum. In so far as I was party to a decision at the time of Maastricht not to do that, or for that matter, on the single European Act, when I was in the Department of Trade and Industry, I did not demand a referendum. As a junior Minister, it would not have been very effective if I had, but looking back, I think we should have had a referendum on those issues.

There may be treaties to come that will have but a minor effect in terms of transfer of competence. A Croatian accession treaty, for example, might involve some transfers of competence, but of a trivial kind. That objection needs to be met, but the substantive thrust of my hon. Friend's amendment is wholly right. If he presses it to a Division, as I hope he will, I shall support it.

Chris Bryant: It was a sadness that the hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) gave us such a short speech. He was not able to explain the content of his amendments and new clause. All the amendments are impracticable, wrong and unnecessary. They are impracticable because, as we heard from several hon. Members, they are impossibly imprecise in their language and confused in their effect.

For instance, amendment 125 refers to

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