Previous Section Index Home Page

15 Jun 2010 : Column 81WH—continued

British economic policy should be decided by British Governments that are elected by the British electorate. As and when we need to co-operate with other member states and other nations, we should do so on a democratically agreed basis. I am sure that that would be most agreeable to everyone, as well as being beneficial. It would also help us resist the tendency to nationalism. If people become frustrated about the EU and the lack of democracy, they may turn to other forms of politics, some of which would be much more unpleasant-one such is nationalism-and there is talk, even in Germany,
15 Jun 2010 : Column 82WH
of serious disorder if things are not made democratic. If the Germans and the Greeks can decide their future, so can we. Although we have friendly relations with other member states, if we rather than the European Commission and the European Union were able to decide our future, everyone would be a lot happier. The danger of extreme politics would go.

Graham Stringer (Blackley and Broughton) (Lab): I am listening carefully to my hon. Friend, and I share most of his views. Does he agree that one of the mistakes made by our trade union and labour movement-it was a historic and democratic mistake-was to be persuaded by Delors that we could more easily get a shift to the left and more trade union rights via the back door of the European Union, then the Common Market, than by winning the argument in this country?

Kelvin Hopkins: I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. The fear was that the only way to roll back what was then described as Thatcherism was by going along with the European Union. The TUC flip-flopped right over from being critical and sceptical about Europe to being enthusiastic. Subsequently, however, judgments have been made by the European Court against trade unions and in favour of employers, because it thinks that they interfere with how the market should operate. The trade unions, and even John Monks, a great enthusiast for the European Union, are becoming more sceptical.

Mr Cash: May I mention again the extremely important paper written by Professor Roland Vaubel of Manheim university on the raising of rivals' costs? Much of that is to do with labour regulation. I shall give the hon. Gentleman a copy, as it demonstrates how regulatory collusion can create disadvantages for certain countries.

Kelvin Hopkins: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that. I take a slightly different view on some of these things because I think that trade union rights should be decided though the democratic governance of member states.

International involvement comes through the International Labour Organisation, with its minimum standards for labour regulation. That is where we should stand, but we fall below those standards. I want us to move forward and restore trade union and worker rights at least to the ILO standards, in many ways going back to the sort of regime we had in the past. That would not be agreeable to the Government, no doubt; and other countries, too, might choose another approach. However, that is the approach that I would like to see, and I would like to see it voted on by the working people of Britain, who I hope would support the election of a Labour Government committed to re-establishing trade union and worker rights. It is another example of democracy. I do not want to see the European Union telling me or other trade unionists or socialists that we cannot legislate in a particular way. We should decide our trade union rights, not the EU.

The EU and its ultra-federalists have over-reached themselves. It is time to roll back the EU, and restore sovereignty and democracy to member states. Member states may choose to go down a socialist road or a non-socialist road, but the direction should be down to them and to their electorates and peoples. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on raising this important subject, and I hope that my brief comments are helpful.

15 Jun 2010 : Column 83WH
10.25 am

Mr Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con): I apologise, Mr Streeter, for having missed the opening of the debate and the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash).

I see this debate as being divided into two sections. Sovereignty of Parliament is questioned-indeed, threatened-by the development of the European Union. That may be so if custom and usage has a part in it; sovereignty of Parliament is the profound constitutional doctrine that has determined the course of our development over nearly three centuries. I do not see that concept being threatened for as long as the judges apply it.

The conflict that arises with the European Union is entirely of Parliament's making. If there is a conflict, it is because Parliament assents to each and every dreadful transfer of powers-powers of initiation, and powers of legislation-to the EU. The conflict lies with Parliament asserting-contrary, I would argue, to the will of the people-that all these transfers and mechanisms used by the EU are appropriate. That will doubtless be the Government's position today; they will fudge along, arguing that we are, of course, taking strong measures to protect our sovereignty. However, there is no need to protect our sovereignty if we in Parliament are clear about its relationship with the people.

I have argued during my time as a Member of the House of Commons that it is not the sovereignty of Parliament in the current age but the sovereignty of the British people that matters, and that for as long as Governments are not prepared to refer the issues involved in that concept to the people themselves, then the question of legitimacy arises. Those are the issues that I think thread through the problem.

Anyone who has experienced modern British government knows the tyranny of the majority; the sovereignty of Parliament can indeed assert itself and, as a raw concept, be a great tyranny. Instead of the old traditions, with Governments attempting to win arguments to pursue their policies, they now resort to sheer, simple, straightforward majoritarianism. It is evidenced, of course, in the proceedings of the House, where guillotines are the order of the day. No one can say, in a proper and reliable sense, that the sovereignty of Parliament rests upon consent, in the sense that due and proper process, the seeking of an argument and the ability to develop an argument, is scrupulously observed by Parliament.

In respect of the European Union, one speech on what was happening was perhaps the best that I ever heard. Leaving aside all the manoeuvrings, it was an observation made on 28 February 1992, when I was moving my Referendum Bill on Maastricht, that it was incredible that what will now be two generations of those who had run our country's affairs were prepared to surrender that thing which this island, this nation, had believed was among its crown jewels-self-government. That is what this conflict is about.

In my lifetime, Governments of both parties have, since the referendum, pursued the giving away of whole areas of self-government. The hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) referred to the right of others to determine our employment laws and the relationship with the trade union movement. Such matters were brought up by Peter Shore, whom we remember as the author of Gaitskell's "a thousand years of history"
15 Jun 2010 : Column 84WH
speech. That was not a rabid anti-European Community measure, or the Common Market as it was then called, but a speech made in the absence of knowing what this would lead to-cautious, intelligent and well worth reading today.

Why have the two generations who have run our public policy pursued a policy that undermines the very sense of sovereignty of the British people, and done so often contrary to the wishes of the parties-it destroyed Major-and the people, as regularly diagnosed by public opinion polls? Those who make the laws are accountable. That is what self-government is about in a democratic age. They are accountable to the people, in our instance; hence, I call it the sovereignty of the people. What in those relationships makes the European Union, to which we have outsourced the making of our laws, accountable to the British people? Of course it is not accountable, nor was it ever intended to be. The biography of Edward Heath was mentioned; his regard for the wholehearted consent of the British people was contemptuously disregarded. It took Mr Wilson and a split Labour Cabinet to give a "sort of" referendum to the British people on something of which Mr Gaitskell would have said, "We do not know where this leads". And we did not know where it led.

I praise my hon. Friend the Member for Stone for initiating this wide-reaching debate about where we are and the significance of what we should be. I stand, as does my hon. Friend, for the British people in this argument. In the end, those who give cast-iron guarantees on referendums, or otherwise, destroy faith and trust in themselves and in our system. This debate gives us a way forward to show that our political parties believe in their people, their nation and the trust conferred when they make a pledge.

10.33 am

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to see you chairing the debate, Mr Streeter. Following the contributions this morning, I think the Minister and I will be the more pro-European contributors, which is perhaps ironic. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash) on securing the debate and on his consistency, constancy and determination. I am sure he will apply as much rigour to his scrutiny of the new Minister for Europe as he did to that of the previous one; indeed, if anything I suspect his scrutiny will increase slightly. I am sure he will look forward to that. I, too, pass on my condolences to the hon. Gentleman; he spoke movingly about his father and mother. Many of the positions we adopt on European matters spring not only from an intellectual position but from an emotive argument that has sustained itself in our hearts. I do not say it is a bad thing; it is an entirely laudable one.

One area on which I agree with the hon. Gentleman is European scrutiny: we still do not do it properly-not only in this House but across Parliament. It tends to be done by a very small number of people who could perhaps be described as obsessives or anoraks-I include the hon. Gentleman, my hon. Friend the Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) and myself in that category-and we need to find a means of doing it better. The hon. Gentleman is right: we rarely vote on European matters and that ought to change. I have never understood why European affairs debates have to
15 Jun 2010 : Column 85WH
be on the motion for the Adjournment or a general debate. I do not know why they cannot be on a substantive motion before the House, which might encourage the Whips to take a greater interest in ensuring that more people attend such debates, and might extend the range of issues that we discuss. The focus is often narrow-on what is going on in the European Union-rather than broad.

My hon. Friend the Member for Luton North and I both nominated the same person for leadership of our party, but we may end up voting for different candidates. I say gently that I also believe in democratic socialism, but I do not believe that it can be built in one country alone. We have to strive for it internationally, because the rights and principles that one adheres to apply to all.

Kelvin Hopkins: The candidate that my hon. Friend and I nominated is a Eurosceptic.

Chris Bryant: Which shows what a generous soul I am.

It is good to see the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr Shepherd) in his place. He pointed out that Parliament consistently assents to such measures, which relates to the point I made earlier about the European Union and scrutiny in this House. Parliament assented originally in the European Communities Act 1972, and we continue to assent every time we choose not to have a vote, and every time we choose to do so and vote in favour. In a sense, therefore, the nub of the question about sovereignty is rather different.

Mr Cash: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Chris Bryant: If the hon. Gentleman does not mind I will not give way, which means I will shut up sooner. He spoke for some time and we want to hear from the new Minister.

There are some significant paradoxes and problems facing the Union. We all rightly fight for fiscal autonomy for each of the member states, but also know that we are economically interdependent. If the euro collapsed it would be bad for the British economy, not least because to all intents and purposes, in many regards we are Europe's banker. We want the rest of Europe to shoulder more of the security burden around the world, particularly in Afghanistan. At the same time, the only way we can achieve that is by cajoling and persuading. We want Europe to punch its weight in relation to the emerging economies-Brazil, Russia, India, China and so on-but we rely on self-discipline to achieve that and often, self-discipline does not work when Russia holds out its paw with an enormous financial offer.

We want better protection-for instance, for British people who have chosen to live in Spain and whose houses are being pulled down-but we are not prepared to ensure that Europe has the enforcement powers when rights are not being protected. We want better EU regulations so that financial services organisations in Cyprus, for instance, do a better and more legitimate job, but at the same time we want to ensure the autonomy of the UK financial services industry. We want Romania and Bulgaria to be members of the Union, but at the moment I can see no prospect of allowing Romanians and Bulgarians to work in the UK. I suspect that the
15 Jun 2010 : Column 86WH
same might be true of Croatia and the other countries we hope will become members of the European Union in the near future, such as the western Balkan countries. We want them to join, but I suspect that the Government want a derogation so that those nationals cannot enjoy freedom of employment in the UK from day one; perhaps the Minister will clarify that point later.

Likewise, I have always considered the operation of the common agricultural policy immoral in many ways, as other countries are unable to compete because we subsidise so much. At the same time, if there was not a common agricultural policy there would be a French, Italian, German or Greek one, which could be considerably worse. There is a constant clash at the heart of Europe between subsidiarity and collective action, and now is a key moment in European politics to decide how to reconcile such issues. I suspect that such a reconciliation will happen at a dinner on Wednesday evening when Angela Merkel and President Sarkozy meet up. Let me say gently to the Minister that I hope he ends up joining the European People's party, because it is easier to do business sitting at the table when the decisions are being made, rather than waiting for the moment after the decisions have been made by the big players.

The hon. Member for Stone did not refer much to his or the Government's sovereignty of Parliament Bill. I have expressed views on the matter before, so I will not bore the Chamber with them again. Suffice it to say that it will either mean nothing because Parliament is already sovereign-it could, if it wanted to, withdraw from the European Communities Act 1972, it could repeal the Act or decide that the legislation no longer applies-or it will mean something, in which case this House can say, "We don't care what has been decided through the co-decision process; we simply disagree." It could say, "I don't care whether the Government have signed up to it; we disagree and we are going to strike down that legislation." Such a move, however, is potentially very dangerous because it puts us on course for leaving the Union.

I have a few questions for the Minister. He told us that there would be a new Europe Committee-a Cabinet Sub-Committee. Has it met yet and is it to meet in public? It will be fascinating to see the Deputy Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary publicly debating Europe. Will the Committee include Members from the devolved Administrations in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland? Some of the issues that come up at such meetings are devolved responsibilities, so there might be a particular value in including those Members. I have similar questions about the committee on parliamentary sovereignty. Who will chair it and who will be on it? When will it meet and what resources will it have? Will it effectively be a parliamentary commission, and if not how will it conduct its business; and when will it complete its work? Finally, what is its precise position on whether Britain and countries outside the euro should be required to present their budgets to the Commission? It seems bizarre that the European Union or the Commission-in whatever format-should be able to have sight of a British Budget before the British Parliament.

10.43 am

The Minister for Europe (Mr David Lidington): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash) on securing this debate, and also express my
15 Jun 2010 : Column 87WH
sincere condolences to him on the recent death of his mother. He clearly set out his views on sovereignty. In the last Parliament, he championed the United Kingdom Parliamentary Sovereignty Bill to allow for further debate and consideration of such matters. As my hon. Friend knows, the Government are now considering a United Kingdom sovereignty Bill, and the programme for government agreed by both parties in the coalition states:

As my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr Shepherd) pointed out, the common law is clear; Parliament is sovereign. European Union law takes effect in this country only by virtue of an Act of Parliament. The European Communities Act 1972 states that European Union law should have primacy. That means national laws, including Acts of Parliament, must be interpreted in such a way as to comply with EU rules. Where the two are incompatible, UK law is disapplied. The 1972 Act, therefore, gives EU law primacy over UK law for so long as that Act remains in force. However, as successive Governments and the courts have recognised, such measures do not impact on sovereignty, because it is always open to Parliament to amend or repeal an Act; it is Parliament's choice that EU law has primacy, and it can, if it chooses, change its mind. I do not want to underplay the enormous political consequences that would flow from such a decision, but those are the constitutional facts, and they were confirmed in the most trenchant language in the metric martyrs' case in 2002 when the courts ruled that

The Government are now exploring how they can ensure that the fundamental principle of parliamentary sovereignty is upheld. They want to assess whether the common law provides sufficient ongoing and unassailable protection for that principle. It is an important process, and it is only right that sufficient time is allowed for discussions within Government and for appropriate advice to be taken. Once the Government have decided on whether there should be a Bill to reinforce the principle of parliamentary sovereignty, we will make an appropriate statement to the House.

Mr Cash: My hon. Friend the Minister will know that I have spoken on both this subject and the metric martyrs' case on many occasions. Does he not accept that we voted against the Lisbon treaty, which is a consolidating treaty and incorporates all the treaties? In addition to that, the issue of primacy is already clearly stated in Costa v.ENEL and in other cases. They say that the European Court of Justice asserts its primacy over our constitution. I hope that the Minister will come on to that, because that is where a big problem starts to get even worse.

Next Section Index Home Page