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With regard to what the Prime Minister did or did not know, he will answer for himself, but he has said that he takes full responsibility for the decisions he took and that he had no knowledge of any illegal of criminal activity by Andy Coulson when he decided to employ him.

Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): Will the Secretary of State, whose behaviour so far on this matter has been beyond reproach, pass on to the Government and the leader of the Conservative party the request that they join my party in asking Rupert Murdoch to withdraw his bid, and will he confirm that it is entirely appropriate for the regulator, Ofcom, to consider illegality by any of the people employed by any title owned by News Corporation, meaning all its newspapers and not just the News of the World?

Mr Hunt: My right hon. Friend has asked a question that I cannot answer, because every Member of the House can have a view on whether the takeover should go ahead or be withdrawn except me, as I have a quasi-judicial role and so I am unable to prejudge the decision by making a comment. With regard to illegality and the requirement under the Broadcasting Act 1990 that all people holding broadcasting licences be fit and proper, I wrote to Ofcom this morning to ask whether it stood by its original advice that the deal could go ahead, in view of the matters that came to light last week and had News Corporation not withdrawn its undertakings today. I am pleased to say that, with this referral to the Competition Commission, all those issues will be considered properly and fully.

Margaret Beckett (Derby South) (Lab): Does the Secretary of State not recognise that at a time when wrongdoing was being very strongly alleged, and even more strongly denied, the Prime Minister’s decision then to appoint Andy Coulson to No. 10 as director of communications reinforced the credibility of what we now know to be unjustified denials of wrongdoing? Is that not why the Prime Minister should be here today?

Mr Hunt: With respect to the right hon. Lady, there are all sorts of things that this Government and the previous Government have done that we might now review in the light of the allegations that have emerged in the past week. That is why it is incredibly important that we have these two public inquiries to get to the bottom of press ethics, which is why we are trying to ensure that we grapple with the problem and sort it out, rather than sit on it for a very long time.

Louise Mensch (Corby) (Con): In 2003 the predecessor of the current Culture, Media and Sport Committee, of which I am a member, warned of deplorable practices in the media, including payments by journalists to the police, and called for an inquiry. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we should have had an inquiry at that time?

Mr Hunt: Hindsight is a wonderful thing and I think that everyone will be reflecting on what has happened. In the last Parliament there were two Select Committee inquiries on the matter and two reports by the Information Commissioner stating that things were wrong and needed

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to be sorted out, but nothing happened. Let us hope that as a political class we are up to the challenge of sorting things out this time.

Mr Jack Straw (Blackburn) (Lab): Extraordinarily, the Secretary of State has come to the House without any briefing whatsoever to give further and better particulars behind the Prime Minister’s statement on Friday that he had—very careful words—no “specific” knowledge that Mr Andy Coulson had appointed a known criminal to work at the News of the World. Given the absence of a briefing today, does the Secretary of State accept that it is his duty to go back to the Department and to Downing Street and insist that a full, detailed chronology of who informed whom—or failed to inform whom—by name and what they said is published by the close of play today?

Mr Hunt: I believe that the Prime Minister is a man of honour and integrity, and when he says that he had no knowledge of that particular episode, I believe him.

Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): It is regrettable that undertakings that the Secretary of State had previously secured have been withdrawn today, but will he tell the House why, under the Competition Commission referral, it is possible for the “fit and proper person” test to be applied in the decision?

Mr Hunt: I will tell my hon. Friend why that is the case. Typically, when there is a referral to the Competition Commission, it could decide to block the deal entirely or it could negotiate undertakings, circumstances and conditions under which it would consider it acceptable for the merger to go ahead. The Competition Commission is considering media plurality, just as I did. It is not considering broader competition issues, but if as part of that consideration it decided to accept any undertakings, it would want to be sure that they were credible, which is why compliance with the “fit and proper person” requirements of the Broadcasting Act 1990 will be extremely important.

Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab): Did the Secretary of State know about the dinner involving the Prime Minister, James Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks two days after he was handed responsibility for this policy area? Why, shortly after that dinner, did he abandon the previous approach by the Business Secretary and reject Ofcom’s clear recommendation to send the matter to the Competition Commission?

Mr Hunt: I did not know about the dinner, and I did not reject Ofcom’s recommendation. If the former Culture Secretary had been listening to my statement, he would know that I actually accepted its recommendation. On 25 January, I wrote to News Corporation saying that I was minded to accept what Ofcom was recommending, namely a referral to the Competition Commission.

Anna Soubry (Broxtowe) (Con): No party cosied up to the Murdoch press as much as the Labour party, and the Press Complaints Commission has been an inadequate, toothless body for far too long. Does the Secretary of State think that there is some connection in the failure of the previous Government to sort out the PCC, and will this Government take on that task?

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Mr Hunt: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I am sorry to say—and I am sure that she will agree with me—that the Leader of the Opposition got his tone absolutely wrong. The shameful events of last week are something for which both sides of the House need to take their share of responsibility, and, working together, both sides of the House can make sure that we sort them out so that they never happen again.

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): May I remind the right hon. Gentleman that on 11 March 2003, Rebekah Brooks told the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport under my chairmanship:

“We have paid the police for information”,

thereby admitting a criminal offence? She was then editor of The Sun, having just been editor of the News of the World. How is it possible for someone with that background to become chief executive of an organisation and for that organisation’s bid to be accepted or even not brushed away totally?

Mr Hunt: What I would say to the right hon. Gentleman is how is it possible, when that happened under his Government, for them to do absolutely nothing about it for eight years?

Sajid Javid (Bromsgrove) (Con): I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. Will he confirm that any police investigation into this matter will cover the media practice of blagging?

Mr Hunt: I confirm to my hon. Friend that the intention is that the judge-led inquiry will cover all illegal and improper activity, and I am particularly keen that it should cover the practice of blagging, which is at the heart of many of the problems that we have been finding out about in the past week.

Mr Tom Watson (West Bromwich East) (Lab): As head of Operation Abelard, John Yates would be aware of paperwork showing convicted private investigator Jonathan Rees discussing the use of covert surveillance techniques, including computer hacking, with a close associate of Rebekah Brooks, Mr Alex Marunchak. Rees, while serving time in prison, discussed his contact with reporters from The Sunday Times. Far from this scandal being about wrongdoing at the News of the World, it is a story of institutional criminality at News International. John Yates’ review of the Mulcaire evidence was not an oversight. Like Andy Hayman, he chose not to act. He misled Parliament. He misled readers of The Sunday Telegraph only yesterday. Does the Secretary of State agree that his position is untenable?

Mr Hunt: With great respect to the hon. Gentleman, who I commend for his tenacious campaign in this area, I do not think that that is a judgment that I, as Culture Secretary, should make. However, all the practices that he describes must be dealt with properly, in terms of both the specific criminal acts and the changes necessary to make sure that they do not happen again. He made one very important reference, in particular, when he pointed out the issue of computer hacking. We have to be very careful to act with sufficient thoroughness to make sure that we do not find that e-mail hacking becomes the next big scandal.

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Charlie Elphicke (Dover) (Con): Between 2003 and 2010, successive reports set out that there were serious problems. Can the inquiry cover the relationship between the media and the Government to look at why action was not taken before now?

Mr Hunt: Yes.

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): On behalf of the Scottish National party, we welcome the public inquiries and the referral back to the Competition Commission. Does the Secretary of State agree that there has been a systematic failure of successive Westminster Governments when it has come to the whole field of the regulation of the press? As long ago as 2006, the Information Commissioner found more than 3,000 breaches of data protection, but nothing was done. How can we have any faith that this House will in future get its press regulation fixed?

Mr Hunt: It is stretching it a bit to say that this is a Westminster issue and not something that affects the whole of the United Kingdom. We have to sort it out, and we are absolutely determined to do so.

Mrs Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): The House fully appreciates why the Secretary of State cannot give his opinion on the BSkyB matter. Is he aware that the vast majority of people out there in the country are not the least bit interested in party political point-scoring, but believe that if Mr Murdoch had any decency at all, he would withdraw his bid for BSkyB?

Mr Hunt: As I said in my statement, I completely understand the horror with which many people viewed the thought of a company allegedly responsible for these appalling actions taking over what would become Britain’s biggest media company. I completely understand where the public are on that. We now have a lengthy process that will get to the bottom of the media plurality issues. If any of the appalling events that have come up in the past week are linked to media plurality, I am sure that they will be considered in their entirety.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): I hope that the whole House will, like me, be scandalised by the facts that are emerging this afternoon about the former Prime Minister’s son’s medical records having been targeted by other newspapers in the News International stable.

One of the biggest problems that we have is that the police failed to act systematically. Assistant Commissioner Yates repeatedly lied to Parliament. He said that there were very few victims. He said that all the victims had been contacted. He said that all the mobile phone companies had been put on notice in relation to this. All of these things are lies, as he seems to have admitted in yesterday’s edition of The S unday Telegraph, and yet he has not had the decency to apologise to this House or, for that matter, the decency to apologise at all—surely he should. He is in charge of counter-terrorism in this country, for heaven’s sake. Surely he should resign.

Mr Hunt: I completely understand the hon. Gentleman’s anger on that issue, but obviously parliamentarians cannot tell the police what to do because we have the separation of powers. However, the judge-led independent

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inquiry will look fully at the way in which the police have behaved and it will get to the bottom of this. We must give it our full support.

Mr Don Foster (Bath) (LD): The House will have noted in the Labour leader’s contribution the complete absence of any reference to the repeated failure by the Labour Government, despite repeated warnings to act in this area. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, notwithstanding what has been announced today, which is frankly little more than another ruse by the Murdoch empire, there is nothing to prevent Ofcom from now investigating whether the Murdoch empire is fit and proper to own the 40% of BSkyB shares that it owns?

Mr Hunt: Ofcom is at liberty to investigate the “fit and proper” issue in the Broadcasting Act 1990 at any time. It will have to investigate that issue to see whether it is relevant to the potential acceptance of any undertakings subsequent to a Competition Commission inquiry. Those issues will therefore be looked at thoroughly and carefully.

Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab): Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Home Affairs Committee and the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, both of which have held inquiries into these matters, will be consulted about the terms of reference of the public inquiry? I have just received a letter from the Director of Public Prosecutions confirming his view on the law of phone hacking. I see that the Attorney-General is beside the Secretary of State. Is it the Government’s view that we should take the narrow interpretation of the law, as championed by the Metropolitan police, or the wider interpretation, as championed by the DPP?

Mr Hunt: The right hon. Gentleman will understand that that question is slightly above my legal pay grade. It is not for the Government to take a view on that matter, but for the courts. If the courts take a view that is not consistent with what we want to see, we are at liberty, as a Parliament, to change the law to ensure that the courts interpret it in the way that we want.

Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): The previous Administration ignored reports from the Information Commissioner about 300 journalists across the national media being involved in illicit practices to gain information. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the inquiry he is setting up today will look across the national media and consider wider issues than just phone hacking?

Mr Hunt: Absolutely; we need to look at the kind of problems we may face in the information age, which might be very different from the tragic problems that were reported last week. We will look at all those issues. We recognise that our press has some of the finest traditions in the world, but has fallen sadly short of them. We want to do everything possible to ensure that we go back to having the finest journalism in the world.

Mr Michael Meacher (Oldham West and Royton) (Lab): Given that the criteria for media plurality are so narrowly drawn that they exclude such critical issues as the capacity to distort competition through cross-promotion, price bundling and preventing rivals from advertising, why cannot the Secretary of State use the delay created by the police investigation and sorting

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through 150,000 responses to the consultation to modernise the criteria for media plurality, either through a one-clause Bill or through an amendment to the communications legislation?

Mr Hunt: The issue of media plurality is not as narrowly drawn as the right hon. Gentleman might think. All the issues he talked about can be considered in so far as they affect media plurality. What we cannot consider under the Enterprise Act 2002 are competition issues, which are considered separately. In this case, they were decided by the European Union. We recognise that the law on media plurality needs to be looked at. Some of the processes that have come to light in the past few months have caused Ofcom to question whether the law is right on protecting media plurality, which we all think is very important. We will consider that as part of the communications Bill that we propose to bring before the House in the second half of this Parliament.

Conor Burns (Bournemouth West) (Con): Did my right hon. Friend in recent days take any advice on the potential legal consequences had he, as Secretary of State, followed the advice given in public by the Leader of the Opposition? If he did seek such advice, did it suggest that had he followed the advice of the Leader of the Opposition, he would have sought to place himself above the law?

Mr Hunt: My hon. Friend is right that had I, as was suggested by the Opposition on a number of occasions, immediately referred the matter to the Competition Commission without going through due process, I would have exposed the Government to potentially successful judicial review. I think it is incredibly important, when people are concerned about newspapers putting themselves above the law, that the Government do not do so.

Mr David Winnick (Walsall North) (Lab): Can I bring the Secretary of State back to earlier questions? Is it not an amazing situation when an organisation admittedly involved in criminality can even be considered for further ownership of the media? No one outside this place can really understand that. It is surely a matter for punishment, not for reward.

Mr Hunt: The hon. Gentleman will be relieved to know that there is indeed a very important responsibility to ensure that everyone who holds a broadcasting licence is fit and proper. However, that is a responsibility not for politicians but for the independent regulator, Ofcom, which I know will discharge its responsibilities very carefully in that respect.

Steve Baker (Wycombe) (Con): Do the Government agree with me that the best way to improve media plurality and break the excessive power that has led to such repulsive behaviour is to eliminate all barriers to entry into the media market?

Mr Hunt: We want to encourage investment in the UK media sector in any way we can. I have to admit that right now, how to do that has not been at the top of my mind, but I agree that we want to stimulate plurality. The arrival of the internet makes that possible in a much lower-cost way than would otherwise have been the case.

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Mr Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): Is it not convenient that this absent Prime Minister has been able to dodge the real questions—what did he know about criminal activities from Murdoch, when did he know it, and is it not time, based upon the British public’s reaction, that we sent this non-tax-paying Murdoch back whence he came and, for the final humiliation, got the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change to drive him to the airport? [Laughter.]

Mr Hunt: I am not sure how I can follow that, but suffice it to say that the hon. Gentleman has the chance every Wednesday to ask the Prime Minister any question that he chooses.

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): The Secretary of State understands the huge public concern not just about the plurality issues of the BSkyB takeover but about the criminal and unethical behaviour of Murdoch’s News International. I welcome the Secretary of State’s assurance that the “fit and proper person” test can be taken into account by the Competition Commission, but as he has said, it is Ofcom’s responsibility. In a letter on Friday, it seemed to say that it was reluctant to act while police investigations were ongoing, for fear of prejudicing them. Can the Secretary of State confirm that if the “fit and proper person” test cannot be resolved while the police are still investigating, he will make no decision until the criminal investigations are complete?

Mr Hunt: I have to inform my hon. Friend that I am not legally allowed to put a pause in the process until any criminal proceedings have come to a conclusion. However, I will take as much time as I need. I am very well aware of public concern on this issue. The Competition Commission will report in six months’ time, and there will then be a subsequent period of intensive discussions. During that period I am very hopeful that we will properly resolve the “fit and proper person” issue, because I am aware of how important it is to Members of all parties.

Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): One of the reasons for operating a positive vetting system in Whitehall is to see whether officials might be susceptible to blackmail. Following the horrific revelations from News International, it appears that Mr Coulson would be a prime candidate for blackmail. Was he positively vetted?

Mr Hunt: I am afraid that I do not know the answer to that question.

George Eustice (Camborne and Redruth) (Con): May I welcome the decision to review the regulation of the media, which is central, long-term, to raising standards and restoring faith in journalism? However, is the Secretary of State aware that for the best part of 10 years, Alastair Campbell invited the Labour party to do just that—to review the regulation of the media—but that it failed to do so throughout its term in office?

Mr Hunt: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, which is why, with the greatest respect, I think the Opposition have got their tone completely wrong this afternoon. We have an opportunity to do something that many

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Opposition Members in their hearts know should have been done a very long time ago. We are determined to do that, and I would encourage them to work with the Government to ensure that this time, we get it right.

Mr George Howarth (Knowsley) (Lab): In view of the fact that the Secretary of State has a quasi-legal responsibility in some of these matters, why is he making this statement?

Mr Hunt: Just because I have a quasi-judicial role does not mean that I am not able to announce to Parliament important developments in the exercise of that role, which is what I have done this afternoon with, I see, Mr Speaker’s approval.

Mr Speaker: I was not expressing approval or disapproval; I was just nodding benignly, as is my way.

Greg Hands (Chelsea and Fulham) (Con): When it comes to the wider inquiry, could we ensure that the press practice of blagging is included? It appears to mean using subterfuge and pretence to gain access to confidential and other personal information, and it has been alleged of other newspapers, including by a journalist who now works for the Leader of the Opposition.

Mr Hunt: We must absolutely ensure that we do everything necessary to stamp out blagging. One of the most awful parts of this whole process is that we have discovered just how easy it is. In that respect, I would add that I believe that the role of phone companies is very important as well. They need to ensure that they are co-operating fully to ensure that it stops.

Mr David Hanson (Delyn) (Lab): Could the Secretary of State advise me—if he cannot do so today, he could report back in future—whether the Prime Minister or any member of the Government has discussed these extremely serious allegations with Mr Coulson, or with Rebekah Brooks, since his resignation from the Downing street office in January of this year?

Mr Hunt: The Prime Minister has said that he has not spoken to Andy Coulson since he resigned his position—[ Interruption. ]

Mr Speaker: Order. The House has heard what has been said—[ Interruption. ] Order. I call Mr Christopher Pincher.

Christopher Pincher (Tamworth) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend think that it is a great pity that the very fine and bipartisan speech made last Wednesday by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) was not repeated today by the Leader of the Opposition? Does not the contrast between those two speeches demonstrate who is the better and more thoughtful man on this issue?

Mr Speaker: Order. I am sure that the Secretary of State will want to focus not on character assessment and comparisons in relation to it, but on phone hacking and the media.

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Mr Hunt: Any character assessment should be done by someone independent—as we have been discovering, independence is important.

May I take this moment to correct what I said earlier to the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson)? I believe that what the Prime Minister said was that he has not spoken to Andy Coulson recently.

Mr Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): I do not think that the Secretary of State or the Leader of the Opposition were in the House about a decade ago, when there were quite a lot of references to, and discussions about, the occult financing of the Tory party by the then Mr Michael Ashcroft in Belize. That was quite properly investigated by The Times newspaper. Since then, the now Lord Ashcroft has had his second chance—we should leave it at that. In the second inquiry, will the Secretary of State focus a bit on how we can have an ethics of journalism that protects not us, but the little person? Those are the ones who are destroyed by The Sun, The Mail on Sunday, the News of the World and all those foul practices.

Mr Hunt: I am not quite sure that I understand the first and second halves of the right hon. Gentleman’s question, but let me just say that the second inquiry will absolutely concentrate on the ethics of the press. The lesson from last week is that what changed the public mood was the fact that phone hacking moved from being something that affected celebrities and politicians to something that tragically affected members of the public.

Alun Cairns (Vale of Glamorgan) (Con): Does the Secretary of State regret that such serious and grave matters have been used for party political point scoring? Will he reassure the House that the investigations from hereon will still contain an invitation to the Leader of the Opposition to contribute constructively to such an important debate that is in all our interests?

Mr Hunt: I absolutely give that assurance to the House because we want to solve this problem. The Leader of the Opposition has to make up his mind whether he wants to continue with his party political posturing or tackle this problem in the national interest.

Toby Perkins (Chesterfield) (Lab): Is it not a disgrace that the Secretary of State has come here to make a statement without basic answers to the questions being asked? He does not even know about conversations between Andy Coulson and the Prime Minister that anybody who reads a paper would have known. Why is the Prime Minister not here? What is his engagement that is more important than this House?

Mr Hunt: The Prime Minister is not here because today we have had an incredibly important development in a decision for which I am responsible. I therefore thought it important, as did he, that I came to speak to the House.

John Cryer (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): The Secretary of State will be aware that, in his statement last Friday, the Prime Minister said that he commissioned a company to do a basic background check on Andy Coulson, but

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he omitted to name the company. I am sure that it was a perfectly innocent omission, but will the Secretary of State place those details in the Library of the House this afternoon?

Mr Hunt: I will pass on the hon. Gentleman’s request to the Prime Minister.

Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab): I have a relatively simple question: did the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, Ed Llewellyn, pass on details of the allegations of criminal activity to the Prime Minister? If the Secretary of State cannot answer that question, will he write to me to let me know?

Mr Hunt: The Prime Minister has said that he had no knowledge of any illegal activity by Andy Coulson before he offered him the job in Downing street.

Mr Michael McCann (East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow) (Lab): You might recall, Mr Speaker, that on 27 April, I led an Adjournment debate in the House on the inadequacies of press self-regulation. Sadly that debate was very thinly attended. I learned from other Members afterwards that a lot of Members did not want to participate in case they were then targeted by the press. What reassurance can the Secretary of State give us that the review of press regulation will be free of intimidation?

Mr Hunt: The best reassurance I can give to the hon. Gentleman is the fact that the inquiry into illegal activity—and certainly the kind of pressure he is talking about would be illegal—will be conducted by a judge who will, without fear of favour, look at everything that has happened and make recommendations to ensure that it stops.

Helen Jones (Warrington North) (Lab): Further to the Secretary of State’s answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson), now that he has said that the Prime Minister has not spoken to Andy Coulson “recently”, will he undertake to place in the Library a log of any meetings and phone calls between the Prime Minister and Andy Coulson since his resignation from Downing street?

Mr Hunt: I will happily pass on the hon. Lady’s request to the Prime Minister, who will make a decision on what he wishes to place on the public record.

Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): Due to the confusion about who knew what and when in Downing street, is it not about time that the Cabinet Secretary was asked to conduct a review and get to the bottom of who knew what and when?

Mr Hunt: With respect to the hon. Lady, we have two independent reviews, one of which is looking into all illegal and improper activity, and the other of which is

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looking into press ethics. I think that all the activities about which she is concerned will be covered.

Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): The Secretary of State indicated at the beginning of his statement that he had been late in preparing the statement because something had happened within the past half hour. He then went on to say that he was here instead of the Prime Minister because an important development had taken place. However, we were given to understand two or three hours ago that it would indeed be the Secretary of State making the statement. Surely these statements do not square.

Mr Hunt: Had News Corporation not withdrawn its undertakings half an hour before I spoke, I would have had another important announcement—one that is no longer valid—to make to the House about the operation of those undertakings. That is why the Prime Minister said that I was the appropriate person to make this statement.

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): Little has been said today about the practice of journalists giving illegal backhanders to police officers and perhaps even to royal protection officers, which seems to be prevalent from the News of the World down to the smallest local paper. It is disappointing that the Home Secretary is not here for this debate. May we have assurances from the Secretary of State that before Parliament goes into recess we will get a statement from the Home Secretary about what actions she has taken to stamp out this practice and ensure that any police officers involved are held to account?

Mr Hunt: I hope that what I have announced today will reassure the hon. Lady, because we are having a judge-led inquiry that will look into all illegal and improper activities, including the kind of activities that she has mentioned. That inquiry will be statutory, and it will have the ability to compel witnesses, who will speak under oath, so we will get to the bottom of the kind of activities that she describes and ensure that we stamp them out.

Paul Blomfield (Sheffield Central) (Lab): Does the Secretary of State agree that it was wrong for ordinary staff at the News of the World to have been sacrificed in an effort by News International to protect those at the very top of the organisation who were really responsible for the scandal at that newspaper? Does he therefore agree that Rebekah Brooks should resign from her post forthwith?

Mr Hunt: I think everyone should be held to account for their actions, whether they are the people personally responsible for phone hacking or the people who authorised it.

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Points of Order

5.10 pm

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. One hon. Member has already referred to 11 March 2003. Also on that day, Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks appeared before the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee and cited the Milly Dowler case as a prime example of good co-operation between the press and the police. In retrospect, that seems one of the most disgusting pieces of cynical manipulation of a Select Committee ever. In addition, there has subsequently been a series of lies by News International and by the Metropolitan police to Select Committees of this House. That means that Members from all parties have been led a merry dance. That is partly because witnesses are not required to give evidence on oath, and we are therefore unable to pursue someone for perjury if they have lied to a Select Committee.

There is now, however, going to be a judge-led inquiry in which the witnesses will have to give evidence on oath. Mr Speaker, can you ensure that it is perfectly possible for that inquiry to look at the issue of whether lies were told to Parliament, which might otherwise be covered by privilege—[ Interruption. ] I hear what the Clerk is saying, and I disagree with him. I urge you to disagree with him as well, because it is important that the judge-led public inquiry should be able to look at how Parliament could be so grossly misled, how Members could be intimidated and how people could refuse to give evidence. If that were to happen, we might come up with a stronger Parliament that is able to deal better with issues such as these in the future.

Mr Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order, but he is somewhat inclined to invest me with powers that I do not possess. Although it is generous of him to make that attempt, I think that in all wisdom, I should resist it. I will happily reflect on the particular points that he makes, but I would emphasise to him and to the House that there is a distinction between what the Chair can do and what the House as a whole can decide to do. The hon. Gentleman will know that a Member who wishes to raise a privilege complaint —he did not use those words, but I think that that concept was there in his point of order—is required to give me written notice. That is provided for on page 273 of “Erskine May”. I understand, as I think the House now will, that the Select Committees involved in this matter—the Home Affairs Committee and the Culture, Media and Sport Committee—are themselves pursuing the matter. As the hon. Gentleman also knows, the Chair does not intervene in matters before Committees of the House. I must also add that it is of course always open to a Committee to report to the House on any matter it wishes, but that is a matter for the Committee and not for the Chair to decide. I will leave it there for today.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Speaker: In a moment. Patience will be rewarded. I call Mr Hilary Benn.

Hilary Benn (Leeds Central) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Could you advise the House whether you received any indication earlier today from the Prime

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Minister as to why he was unable or unwilling to come to the House this afternoon to make the statement that we have just heard? His refusal to do so means that the House has had no opportunity to question him about these matters, whereas last Friday he gave the press the chance to do that in a press conference. Is not that a gross discourtesy to the House? Furthermore, given the number of questions asked of the Secretary of State this afternoon that he was unable to answer—I feel sorry for him, because he has been dumped in it—can you confirm that you would make time available later today for the Prime Minister to come to the House to make a statement if he can finally find the time and the will to do so?

Mr Speaker: I am grateful to the shadow Leader of the House for his point of order. The answer to his first question is no. I received no communication of the kind to which he referred. The second point that I would make to him is that it is always open to a Minister, if he or she so wishes, to come to the House at any time to make a statement on an important matter that is of interest both to the Government and to the House.

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I have had cause on a number of occasions recently to draw your attention to the fact that Ministers have made statements and held press conferences outside this House—they have done so on a considerable number of occasions now—and then come to the House either later or not at all. We have now had the latest and worst example of this. The Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport said in his last answer that everyone should be held accountable for their actions. The one person who refuses to be accountable for his actions in this is the Prime Minister. That being so—while I recognise that although you do not have power, you do have a remit—what action will you take, Mr Speaker, to make it plain to this Government that it is totally unacceptable for them constantly to insult this House by making statements outside the House and then perhaps coming here as an afterthought?

Mr Speaker: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his point of order. First, I have repeatedly stressed—and I do so again—that important statements of policy, including changes of policy, should be made first to the House. Secondly, the Prime Minister, to whom the right hon. Gentleman referred, will be here in the House, if not before Wednesday, then on Wednesday to respond to questions. The right hon. Gentleman and other Members may seek to catch my eye on that occasion if they are so minded. Thirdly, he will have noticed that when statements are made, in an attempt always to protect the interests of the House as a whole—and in particular the interests of Back-Bench Members—I am inclined to let them run fully, so that Back Benchers have a full and unvarnished opportunity to question the Minister, whoever that Minister may be, and however senior he or she may be.

Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme) (Lab): Further to the earlier point of order, Mr Speaker. The Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport has followed phone hacking tenaciously. In February last year we issued a report that found it inconceivable that only one rogue reporter at the News of the World knew about

11 July 2011 : Column 57

phone hacking. During that inquiry very senior people at the

News of the World

and News International testified that a so-called second investigation, in 2007, found no further evidence of wrongdoing, and News International’s lawyers wrote us a letter confirming that. However, documents passed to the Metropolitan police by News International and held by those self-same lawyers now show that this was a blatant untruth. Several inquiries into this whole affair have already been announced, but it also prompts the question whether Select Committee powers should be made more effective—from giving powers of summons through to imposing consequences when witnesses mislead and lie with impunity. On behalf of the House, may I ask you, Mr Speaker, to give some thought not only to future reform to make Select Committee powers more effective, but to discussing the issue urgently, so that we can learn the lessons of this affair with the Government and urge them to bring forward reforms to put Select Committees in this House on a par with congressional committees in the United States?

Mr Speaker: Once again, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. With reference to the specifics of the matter to which he has referred, if a Committee feels dissatisfied with the information that it has been given, it is open to that Committee to reopen an investigation or to request the reappearance of a previous witness, as a number of Committees have already decided. In so far as he focused in the second part of his remarks on the cause of strengthened Select Committees, with greater powers, I would say to him that if the House wants more powerful Select Committees, with a number of specific new powers that they do not currently possess, the House can will it. That is not specifically for the Chair—the Chair has spoken on these matters on many previous occasions, and I think the Chair’s views are well known on these issues—but for the House to decide.

Stephen Pound (Ealing North) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Can you advise the House whether there is a mechanism for correcting the extremely unfortunate—and, I am sure, unintended—typographical error in paragraph 1, line 5 of the written statement circulated by the Secretary of State, which could cause considerable distress? What mechanism can be used to correct this?

Mr Speaker: The hon. Gentleman is a trusty servant of the House. He is also sometimes a mildly unkind Member in that he refers to a matter without giving me any notice. The truth is that I do not have the foggiest idea what he is chuntering about—but I will look into the matter. If he wants to return to it and it is a genuine point of order, I will try to respond to it.

Helen Jones (Warrington North) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Today, Southern Cross has announced that it is going to cease trading, which is causing great concern to many elderly people and their relatives and, indeed, to many Members. Have you had any indication from Ministers that they are going to make a statement about this? I include Ministers from both the Department of Health and the Department for Communities and Local Government, as I am sure Members would like to hear what additional support is being offered to local authorities. Have Ministers approached you in any way, Mr Speaker?

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Mr Speaker: I have received no indication of any intended ministerial statement on this subject, but I alert the hon. Lady and the House to the fact that tomorrow we have questions to the Secretary of State for Health, including topical questions. That might provide a suitable opportunity to highlight these concerns.

Emily Thornberry (Islington South and Finsbury) (Lab): Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. About 31,000 vulnerable residents do not know what is going to happen to their homes. Have you heard, Mr Speaker, whether Ministers intend to publish the full list of landlords who are suddenly taking control of 250 homes as of today so that we can have some transparency about the process? At the moment, as I say, 31,000 vulnerable residents are in the dark and 40,000 members of staff have no idea whether their terms and conditions are going to be honoured.

Mr Speaker: I accept that this is an extremely serious matter and, in the mind of the hon. Lady and perhaps others, a matter of some urgency. She will know that, as I have just pointed out to the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones), Health questions take place tomorrow and the issue can be aired then. I have a suspicion that the hon. Lady, who has quite properly raised this matter a number of times, will return to it before long. The Minister on the Bench and representatives of the Government will have heard what she had to say.

Toby Perkins (Chesterfield) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Earlier today, the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw) asked the Minister of State, Department for Education, the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather) a question about the way in which the pupil premium was spent in Lancaster. The Minister turned up, having clean forgotten to bring an answer to that question. That came hot on the heels of a recent written question that revealed that the Department for Education answers a very small number of questions on time. Can you, Mr Speaker, enable the House to hold the Department for Education to account by inquiring what problems it faces that can justify Ministers turning up unable to answer questions for which they have had a week’s notice?

Mr Speaker: I note the point of order and the hon. Gentleman will recall that when that question was answered—or, rather, not answered, as he describes—I indicated to the Minister that it would help if Ministers read the question before answering it rather than afterwards. To be fair, the Minister took responsibility for that, and I understood her to indicate that she would look into it and seek to avoid a repetition. I hope that that is helpful, but I have a feeling that the hon. Gentleman will keep his beady eye on the matter. The House would expect nothing less.

european union bill (programme) (No. 3)

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7)),

That the following provisions shall apply to the European Union Bill for the purpose of supplementing the Orders of 7 December 2010 (European Union Bill (Programme)) and 24 January 2011 (European Union Bill (Programme) (No. 2)):

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Consideration of Lords Amendments

1. Proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion four hours after their commencement at today’s sitting.

Subsequent stages

2. Any further Message from the Lords may be considered forthwith without any Question being put.

3. The proceedings on any further Message from the Lords shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement.—(James Duddridge.)

Question agreed to.

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European Union Bill

Consideration of Lords amendments

Clause 1

Interpretation of Part 1

5.24 pm

The Minister for Europe (Mr David Lidington): I beg to move, That this House agrees with Lords amendment 1.

Mr Speaker: With this it will be convenient to take Lords amendments 2 and 4.

Mr Lidington: Since the Bill was given its Third Reading just four months ago, it has been considered carefully and assiduously by the other place, as Members in all parts of the House would expect. I pay tribute to the House of Lords for the diligent way in which it examined the Bill. The Government might not always have shared the views of colleagues in the other place, and we will deal with the points of disagreement in more detail during the debate, but it only right for us to note and welcome the careful, meticulous analysis conducted there.

The House of Lords has agreed to 15 amendments that it now falls to us to consider. They cover a number of issues, and I am sure that Members in all parts of the House will want to spend some time considering each of them, so I shall try to make good progress with each group.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton North) (Lab): Having read the Lords amendments fairly carefully over an hour or so, I have the impression that they are all essentially about weakening a Bill that was not very strong in the first place. Could we not shorten the debate and vote on them fairly quickly?

Mr Lidington: I welcome what I take to be the hon. Gentleman’s support for a reversal of some of the Lords amendments and a restoration of the Bill to the state that it was in when it left this House. However, I am in his hands and those of other Members in terms of the time that it will take to deal with the amendments. I feel that we should do justice to the consideration that the House of Lords devoted to the Bill by dealing in turn with the amendments for which it voted.

Mr William Cash (Stone) (Con): If I may quote the hallowed words of, I believe, John Bright, we should perhaps

“Be just, and fear not”.

Will the Minister be kind enough to confirm that he will do everything possible to ensure that the amendments relating to clause 18, to which the European Scrutiny Committee gave such careful consideration and on which it produced such a comprehensive report, will be reached so that we can at least discuss those questions emphatically? They are extremely important, and will allow us to discuss the Supreme Court and its potential interpretation of laws that might inhibit the supremacy of this House.

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Mr Lidington: I certainly do not intend to delay our reaching a group of amendments in which I know my hon. Friend is particularly interested. However, as I said to the hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins), I am in the hands of the House in terms of how long it will take us to debate the two groups of amendments that Mr Speaker has placed before the group relating to clause 18.

The first three amendments were proposed by my right hon. and noble Friend Lord Howell of Guildford on behalf of the Government. They are essentially technical, and were intended to deal with concern that was expressed in the House of Lords about the interpretation of some of the provisions in part 1. They fall into two categories.

Lords amendment 1 changes one of the definitions in clause 1 involving the phrase “or otherwise supporting”. The fear was expressed in the House of Lords that the Bill, as originally drafted, could inadvertently prevent Ministers and their officials from taking part constructively in negotiations about new proposals for action. That is not, and has never been, the Government’s intention. Our intention is that the United Kingdom should continue to be an active player in the European Union, engaging with our partners and ensuring that the EU delivers what it ought to be delivering for the benefit of our citizens and those of other European countries.

Under the Bill, the Government would not be able to vote in favour of, or otherwise support, a treaty or other provision specified in part 1 when the time came for the final decision to be made in the European Council or in the Council of the European Union without the necessary approvals. The words “or otherwise supporting” are included simply because—as many Members who follow European affairs closely will know—it is possible for a proposal that is subject to unanimity to be adopted even it has not been agreed to by each member state in a formal vote. For example, a formal vote does not always take place. In certain circumstances where the Chair believes that he or she has the mood of the room, silence can be taken as assent and, when a decision requires unanimity, abstention is, effectively, counted as a supportive vote, as set out in articles 235(1) and 238(4) of the treaty on the functioning of the European Union.

5.30 pm

Mr Cash: Having listened with enthusiasm and interest to my right hon. Friend’s earlier remarks about timing, on the basis that I think it is generally conceded that this particular batch of amendments is entirely uncontroversial and that the whole question of the amendments’ content could be dealt with in about 30 seconds flat, will he be kind enough to address them as swiftly as possible, to ensure that the House can get its views across on all matters?

Mr Lidington: I am encouraged by my hon. Friend’s remarks to be increasingly confident that we can reach the group of amendments on which he is anxious to speak in good time. I remind him, however, that four hours have been set aside for our deliberations on these three groups of amendments, and I think it is right that we should do justice to the consideration that the House of Lords gave to the Bill by addressing each of the amendments it approved.

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On Lords amendment 1, all I want to say further is that the phrase “or otherwise supporting” is included to remove any doubt—just as the previous Government used that phrase to remove any doubt when drafting the European Union (Amendment) Act 2008—and to ensure that a proposal could not be adopted in such a way without the appropriate authority required under the provisions of the Bill.

Lords amendments 2 and 4 make it clear beyond doubt that, under the terms of the Bill, a referendum would not be required in the United Kingdom if a treaty change did not apply to the UK but only to Gibraltar, and this would not transfer competence or power from the United Kingdom. I say straight away that it is hard to work out a scenario in which a treaty amendment that constituted a transfer of competence or power would apply only to Gibraltar and not to the UK. It is possible in theory, and this point was raised in the other place, and we have sought to assuage that concern by proposing these two technical amendments.

Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con): Notwithstanding the recent comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash) on the need for brevity, let me say that while I agree that this is a technical tidying up of the clause as it left this place, I am concerned that a future Foreign and Commonwealth Office—not the current one—that wished to stitch up the good and loyal people of Gibraltar should not have that opportunity through the back door of the European Union.

Mr Lidington: I can certainly assure my hon. Friend that the current Government are absolutely committed to Gibraltar remaining British for as long as the people of Gibraltar want that to continue. We have made that clear publicly since the day we took office, and I have repeated it in public both in this country and on a visit to Gibraltar a few months ago.

Mr Ian Davidson (Glasgow South West) (Lab/Co-op): Given that this proposal refers specifically to Gibraltar, has the Minister sought and obtained the views of the Government of Gibraltar, and are they supportive of it?

Mr Lidington: Yes, we have done so. The original provision before its amendment by the House of Lords was approved by the Chief Minister of Gibraltar, whom we consulted before originally publishing the Bill, and we have consulted the Government of Gibraltar about the additional change in this Lords amendment and they are content with it. They do not think it in any way damages their position.

I hope the House will agree to these Lords amendments.

Lords amendments 1 and 2 agreed to.

Clause 2

Treaties amending or replacing TEU or TFEU

Mr Lidington: I beg to move, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 3.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Lords amendments 5 to 13 and 15.

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Mr Lidington: I ask the House not to support the Lords in these amendments. I am afraid that I am going to have to test the patience of my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash) a little on this group, because these Lords amendments were passed against the Government’s wishes and, in our view, significantly weaken the Bill’s safeguards.

The amendments would restrict the scope or operation of the referendum lock that was approved by this House. They are contrary to our clear intention to ensure that any future proposal to amend the European Union treaties to transfer further competence or power from this country to the European Union should be subject to the consent of the British people. The purpose of the Bill is to reconnect with the people whom we serve. It aims to re-engage them with key decisions on the direction of the European Union, on which they have, in the past, been denied their say. The amendments would not deliver on those aims but, on the contrary, make it much more difficult to achieve them.

Mr Cash: Will my right hon. Friend join me in deploring what recent events have demonstrated? Does he, thus, agree that it would have been extremely desirable to ensure that a referendum should apply to any treaty, either current or future, which attempted to change the fundamental relationship of the United Kingdom to the European Union, including in respect of the creation of a two-tier Europe—between the eurozone and the EU—in economic governance? Does he agree that that is a matter on which a referendum is every bit as important? This is not merely a question of a transfer of competence and powers but one that goes to the very heart of the constitutional relationship between the UK and the EU.

Mr Lidington: If, as I hope, this Bill obtains Royal Assent and goes on to the statute book, this Government and future Governments will, from the moment its powers are commenced, be bound by the provisions of this legislation with regard to the way in which they handle any future proposal to amend the European Union treaties, negotiate and agree a completely new treaty or invoke one of the passerelle clauses in the treaty of Lisbon. As my hon. Friend knows, in certain cases a Government would have to hold a referendum before a particular treaty could be ratified by this country. For any treaty change, even one that according to the provisions of this Bill would not automatically require a referendum, an Act of Parliament—primary legislation—would be needed, and it would of course be open to Parliament at that time to decide to go further even than the provisions that we are putting forward in this legislation.

Mr Cash: May I say that I am delighted by that delightfully disingenuous response? As my right hon. Friend knows perfectly well, I am referring to the treaty that has already been made, and I immediately realised what he was up to when he talked about “any future” treaty. I accept that an Act of Parliament may be needed, but does he not, by the same token as the principles that he has set out in great detail, also agree that we should have a referendum on the creation of such a two-tier Europe, which creates constitutional change in the relationship between the EU and ourselves?

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Mr Lidington: The principle on which the Government have consistently sought to act in preparing and introducing this legislation has been that a change to the treaties that transferred new competencies or powers from the United Kingdom to the institutions of the European Union would require the agreement of the British people in a referendum. That is the principle, so for us the test for the sort of hypothetical treaty change that my hon. Friend is describing would be whether it transferred competencies or powers from this country to the EU. I do not want to stray too far from the subject of the Lords amendments we are discussing, but the hypothesis that he describes could just as well be a question of a quite separate intergovernmental treaty between members of the eurozone, for example, as an amendment to the treaty of Lisbon, which would require the assent of the United Kingdom.

Mr Cash: Let me have one last shot. Does the Minister concede that there is a world of difference between the members of the coalition Government having entered into an agreement between themselves for purposes that suit them and the constitutional convention that a referendum is required when there is a fundamental constitutional change in the relationship between us and the European Union? It is as simple as that.

Mr Lidington: We sought in this Bill to define a constitutional change of the sort that my hon. Friend describes in terms of a transfer of competencies or powers from the United Kingdom to the European Union. That seems to us to be a significant constitutional change and the definition is one that we have incorporated into the Bill. Now, if he will forgive me, never mind how delightful I find his interventions, I think I ought to make some progress in addressing the Lords amendments directly.

Let me deal first with Lords amendments 3 and 5, which one might term the threshold amendments. They would provide for a turnout threshold of 40% for any referendum under the Bill. If that threshold were not met, regardless of the result the final decision over whether to ratify a treaty change would pass from the people back to Parliament. That runs contrary to the spirit and intention of the Bill and would leave the British people in real doubt about the effect of their vote.

I know that the intention of colleagues in the House of Lords was to safeguard the sovereignty of Parliament, but I do not agree with them that the Bill would challenge the status of Parliament. In fact, Parliament will have a much stronger role than ever before.

Henry Smith: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for being so courteous in giving way. Does he agree that, ironically, elections to the European Parliament often have a turnout of 40% or less, as do many local authority elections? Would it not be absurd to consider those as merely advisory?

Mr Lidington: My hon. Friend is right. We get into very dangerous territory as elected representatives when we start to say that only votes or elections in which the turnout was above a given percentage are valid. What is at issue is our intention to provide for the British electorate to have the final say on whether or not the

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Government of the day can agree to transfer competencies or powers from the United Kingdom to the European Union. The outcome of a referendum should, in our view, be determined by the will of those who vote and not by how many turn up to vote.

As the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) said earlier this year when we debated a turnout threshold for the referendum on the alternative vote:

“If we agree to anything that passes for any sort of threshold, people in this country will have an incentive to say, ‘If you don’t know, don’t vote’”.—[Official Report, 15 February 2011; Vol. 523, c. 907.]

A turnout threshold seems to me to be a recipe for apathy. It would undermine one of the fundamental aims of the Bill, which is to reconnect the British people and better inform them of the decisions taken in their name at European Union level.

5.45 pm

Mr Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Lochaber) (LD): The argument that the Minister is very fairly advancing is reinforced by what the Electoral Commission said in advance of today’s proceedings. Its task and statutory duty in issuing a certificate following an election has to be based on a proper definition of the size of the electorate and what constitutes turnout. Does the Minister agree that the amendments add no clarity whatever to that?

Mr Lidington: My right hon. Friend is absolutely correct about the views of the Electoral Commission, which I believe it expressed publicly in its response to the amendments passed in the other place. There could be some perverse, although unintended, I am sure, effects if the threshold amendments were upheld. In some circumstances, there would be an incentive for one side in the referendum campaign to urge abstention rather than support in an effort to keep turnout below the magic threshold of 40%. It could also mean some very peculiar outcomes. Obviously we are talking hypothetically, but if we stuck with the 40% threshold, a poll would be deemed invalid if there was a turnout of 39% in which 5% voted one way and 34% voted the other, whereas a poll with a turnout of 41%, with 21% voting one way and 20% voting the other—the 1% margin—

Mr Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): That is not 100%.

Mr Lidington: I assumed that I did not need to translate the figures for the right hon. Gentleman and I am sure that he understands my argument perfectly well. There could be a very small difference between the two sides in a referendum result, but it would be valid if the turnout was just above the 40% threshold, whereas a much bigger and more decisive outcome just below the 40% would be deemed to be of no account.

Kelvin Hopkins: In very extreme circumstances, there could be a result of 39% to zero with the zeros winning.

Mr Lidington: I think the hon. Gentleman is being hypothetical and I am sure that some voters would be cussed enough to insist on going to the polls whatever the odds against them but his point is a reasonable one.

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Mr MacShane: Does the right hon. Gentleman recall the referendums on Scottish and Welsh devolution in the late 1970s, which required a threshold that was not reached? That was a grotesque humiliation for the Labour Government and was an exultant moment of glory for the Conservatives as Mrs Thatcher swept forward to victory. You really should not bury your successful past so quickly.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Order. I am not trying to bury my unsuccessful past.

Mr Lidington: In 1979, I was still a university student and had other things on my mind than the devolution referendums in Scotland and Wales. If one takes the right hon. Gentleman’s point about the imposition of the threshold then and looks back at the history of the decade after, which resulted in no move towards satisfying what were genuine aspirations for a greater degree of devolved government in Scotland and Wales, it made the public disconnection from Westminster of the people in those two countries greater over the subsequent years. But this is a matter that historians can argue over.

Mr Davidson: Can I clarify what the Minister is saying? Is he saying that the 40% rule would apply not only to referendums in this context but to any future referendum and that the Government would be committed to opposing any 40% threshold for any future independence referendum in Scotland?

Mr Lidington: I am not going to speculate on a hypothetical Scottish referendum. We have said clearly not just on this Bill but on the Bill that authorised the referendum on the alternative vote system that we felt the decision should be taken by those people who voted, and the outcome should not depend on any artificial threshold that we chose to impose.

Mr Cash: My right hon. Friend may recall that it was my amendment that led to the question of the threshold in the AV Bill. Does he accept that something profoundly different went on in the 1970s regarding Scottish devolution, because it was a different formula? On this particular issue, however, there is no doubt that the same kind of spontaneous combustion would occur in relation to any referendum on the European issue, fortunately, and the same kinds of figures would prevail as were registered in parts of Staffordshire—80% against the Government’s proposals to enter into a treaty that was unacceptable to the United Kingdom. There is nothing that anyone can do about it. Tests, thresholds and all the rest of it would be swept away.

Mr Lidington: I am confident that if and when a British Government made a proposal to support a treaty change to give extra powers to the European Union and put that to the people, the turnout would be significantly above 40%. I have confidence in the voters.

Chris Heaton-Harris (Daventry) (Con): I thank the Minister for giving way; he is being generous with his time. Does he agree that thresholds are just bliss for the lazy politician? If politicians are not sure that they are going to win and want those on the other side to prove their point, they can sit at home and do nothing. If we extended the threshold to local elections or European

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elections, as my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Henry Smith) suggested, I would not have been elected on the 23% turnout that was achieved in the east midlands in 1999. More votes were cast that very weekend to evict Bubble from the second “Big Brother” house.

Mr Lidington: My hon. Friend puts his point well. There have been parliamentary by-elections where the total turnout was less than 40%, and I do not think anybody argued at that moment that the election of that Member was in any way invalid.

Mark Reckless (Rochester and Strood) (Con): My right hon. Friend presumed earlier that the Lords had inserted the amendments to protect parliamentary sovereignty. Is it not possible that some noble Lords voted to insert the amendments because, in the circumstances outlined by the hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins), if 39% of people vote against something to do with the EU and 0% in favour, they would prefer it if the 0% won? In this context, is my right hon. Friend aware that some noble Lords are in receipt of EU pensions? Would it not have been better if that financial interest had been declared?

Mr Lidington: My hon. Friend has put matters on the record. I am content to take the arguments and reasons given by Members of the House of Lords as justification for the amendments in which they believed.

Ian Swales (Redcar) (LD): Does the Minister agree that if we accept the amendment, we are setting up a perverse incentive for the Government of the day to seek a low turnout if they wish to get a measure through? That might affect the way they publicise a referendum or engage with the process.

Mr Lidington: That puts it fairly. The perverse incentive to seek an apathetic reaction from the electorate is one that I would want to avoid.

Mr Davidson rose

Mr Lidington: I will give way one last time, because I want to deal with the other Lords amendments in the group.

Mr Davidson: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way in the circumstances. Surely the hon. Member for Rochester and Strood (Mark Reckless) is wrong and we cannot have a situation where Members of the House of Lords who are in receipt of money from Brussels vote and do not declare it. Surely that would be counter to everything in our parliamentary democracy and surely they give an indication that they are in receipt of gold from Brussels.

Mr Lidington: One thing that I have learned in my 19 years in this place is that each House is very jealous of its own procedures and privileges, including what the rules should be on the declaration of financial interest, so I think we should leave that to the House of Lords authorities to decide.

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I am surprised that the threshold amendment was supported in the House of Lords by the official Opposition Front-Bench team. I hope that when the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr David) catches the Deputy Speaker’s eye, he will provide some explanation of that course of action and indicate whether he plans to lead his party through the Lobby in defence of a 40% threshold, although he has probably given up hope of leading the hon. Member for Luton North.

That support is particularly astonishing because the hon. Member for Caerphilly is seriously at odds with his, and my, immediate and distinguished predecessor. It was the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), who was Labour’s spokesman on Europe, who said repeatedly in debates on 2 November last year that he disagreed fundamentally with the very idea of thresholds, saying:

“I do not agree . . . about thresholds in referendums because, broadly, they are not a good idea.”—[Official Report, 2 November 2010; Vol. 517, c. 846.]

He repeated that a few columns later. As a Conservative politician, I feel slightly nervous trespassing on the frontier between Caerphilly and the Rhondda, but the hon. Member for Caerphilly owes the House an explanation for this departure in Labour party policy that he has presumably devised and implemented.

Amendments 6 to 13 are very significant indeed in their impact. They would remove from the referendum lock several passerelle decisions that would transfer power and competence from Britain to the European Union. The other place accepted that decisions to adopt the euro, give up UK border controls, or create a single, integrated military force should require a referendum. That was a welcome step, but it is not enough. The coalition agreement set out clearly that

“no further powers should be transferred to Brussels without a referendum.”

All the decisions included in clause 6 as it left the House of Commons would constitute such a transfer.

Some Members of the Lords felt the original clause 6 did not provide Ministers with what they termed sufficient “pragmatic flexibility”. I would say in response that it is a direct consequence of the abuse of so-called “pragmatic flexibility” in the past that there is such lack of trust in the European Union today, and in Governments as a species, for decisions taken on European Union matters. It is that lack of trust which the Bill seeks to address. Speaking as someone who disagrees with some of my hon. Friends on the Back Benches, I want to see the United Kingdom playing a vigorous, active, constructive role on behalf of our people within the European Union. Our ability to do that and to enjoy the confidence of the British people in so doing will be enhanced if we can point to the safeguards that are provided for in the Bill included in clause 6.

Mr Cash: On that important point, is my right hon. Friend aware of the remarks of the Prime Minister as reported in The Spectator only a few days ago on the question of the renegotiation of the existing treaties, which I called on the Prime Minister to do when he came back from the last European Council summit? Does the Minister for Europe know that I tabled a written question to the Prime Minister asking him what objectives he has set to maximise what he wants from the UK’s engagement with Europe, and whether such

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objectives will include any opportunity to renegotiate the UK’s relationship with the EU? As the Minister must know, the answer that I received today says that the Prime Minister is not going to answer that question, I am afraid, and that he has transferred it to the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. Does the Minister have an answer for me, therefore, to the question that seems to have been transferred to him?

6 pm

Mr Lidington: Providing the formal response to my hon. Friend’s question is clearly a treat that is yet in store for me. I will obviously give him a proper and considered response when the question reaches me, but everything I have observed about how my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has acted in respect of the European Union since the general election has shown his utter determination to maximise the interests of the United Kingdom and the British people in every negotiation at European level in which he has taken part. Everything that he, the Deputy Prime Minister and other members of the Government do, from conversations with colleagues to meetings of the Council of Ministers, is about trying to get the best possible advantage for the United Kingdom from our membership of the EU.

Mark Reckless: In that case, although Ministers had such great success in preventing the use of the EU-wide financial stability mechanism in the case of the Greek bail-out, will the Minister explain why it was simply nodded through with respect to Portugal?

Mr Lidington: I think that I would test the House’s patience if I were to go into that in detail, particularly as there was a debate on bail-outs a few weeks ago, in which I think my hon. Friend participated, and to which my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury responded at some length. I am sure that there will be other opportunities to question Treasury Ministers about that.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Order. For the convenience of the House, I remind Members that just because the debate has the word “Europe” in the title, that does not mean that we can have a wide-ranging debate on European issues. Some latitude has been given, as Mr Cash knows, but could we now please look at the specific amendments?

Mr Lidington: The amendments to clause 6 would introduce huge inconsistency in the referendum lock. They would make the method used to transfer competence or power the determining factor in deciding whether or not a referendum should be held, rather than the fact of the transfer of competence or power itself. There are four ways of amending the treaties to allow transfers of power and competence from the United Kingdom to the European Union. First, there is the ordinary treaty revision procedure. Secondly, there is the first part of the simplified revision procedure, which was the method used recently to agree the recent treaty change on the eurozone stability mechanism. Thirdly, the British veto could be given up using the second part of the simplified revision procedure set out in article 48(7) of the treaty on European Union. The fourth and final way is through the use of a decision or passerelle without formal treaty change.

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The Lords amendments seek to remove the last two methods from the referendum lock. I do not see the logic in this. For example, the amendments would mean that were a future UK Government to decide to give up their veto over foreign and security policy under the ordinary treaty revision procedure, there would first have to be a referendum, but if they decided to give up that veto under the passerelle decision in article 31(3), which would have exactly the same effect as a change under the ordinary revision procedure, there would be no requirement for a referendum. I do not think that the British public would understand being able to vote on a treaty change that gave up the veto but not having a say over a passerelle that did exactly the same thing, and there are other such examples. As my right hon. and noble Friend Lord Howell argued, this would be tantamount to locking the front and back doors of a house but leaving the kitchen window open. It is not the way to restore the trust of the British people.

The amendments would also draw an artificial distinction between a possible future agreement on a common European defence that would involve the creation of a single, integrated military force and other similar decisions that would not. The amendment suggests that the only controversial element would be a decision to develop a “single, integrated military force”, but there would inevitably be confusion over the extent to which such a force would be established. For example, would the establishment of an integrated command structure, an integrated unit or integrated budgets count? That lack of clarity could allow each step to be presented as “not quite” leading to a single integrated military force, and therefore “not quite” justifying a referendum. It is important that we hold to the principle that were a British Government to decide to opt in to a common European defence, that should ultimately be subject to a decision by the British people. A common defence could undermine the pre-eminence or capability of NATO, notwithstanding any assurances provided in the EU treaties. Maintaining that pre-eminence has been a long-standing concern of this and previous British Governments.

Mr Bernard Jenkin (Harwich and North Essex) (Con): My right hon. Friend is making an able demolition of these unacceptable amendments, but will he describe what sorts of decisions on common defence he thinks would currently trigger a referendum, because it is difficult to see how such decisions would constitute a transfer of power under the rather narrow definition set out in the Bill?

Mr Lidington: As the House debated in Committee and on Report, in the Bill it is the creation of a common European defence entity that goes beyond what is defined as a common security and defence policy, which as my hon. Friend knows is very limited in scope within the treaties as they stand. If there was to be a common European defence, that would clearly have to be defined in treaty terms, but sometimes, as he would be the first to note, language that appears quite generalised in scope, once written into a treaty, provides the basis on which numerous detailed measures can then be brought forward because there has been an overall extension of competence to the EU institutions. It could—I am not saying that it always would—spell the end of an independent UK defence policy, which was one of the previous Government’s red lines during their negotiations on the Lisbon treaty.

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The amendments would also remove any decision to participate in a European public prosecutor from the referendum requirement. Hon. Members will recall the sensitivity and divergence in views across Europe over the idea of a European public prosecutor who would be able to launch prosecutions in the United Kingdom and other member states in areas affecting the EU’s financial interests. When we considered this issue earlier this year it was accepted that people should be asked for their approval before any Government could agree to participate and allow cases to be prosecuted independently in the UK’s legal system.

We have always guarded jealously—rightly, I think—the principle that decisions on whether to prosecute any individual or corporate entity should be taken by the designated independent prosecutors. To give those powers to some new European body that could come in and state whether a prosecution would or would not take place, irrespective of what the Crown Prosecution Service, the Director of Public Prosecutions or Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs said about a particular case, would be a very serious shift of power and competence away from this country to Brussels. It would be right for the British people to be asked to assent to that before a Government were allowed to ratify such a decision.

Before I move on from the Lords amendments to clause 6, I should like to express my amazement that, when the House of Lords voted for an amendment to remove from the referendum lock a decision to end the requirement for unanimity in agreement to the EU’s multi-annual financial frameworks, the official Opposition voted in favour of that proposal. I hope that the hon. Member for Caerphilly will explain on the record where the Opposition now stand on the matter. Everyone in the House, whatever their views on the EU, knows that in the next couple of years a key issue facing every Government in the EU and all the Brussels institutions is the negotiation on the new MFF which will effectively set budgetary decisions and ceilings for the next five or seven years in the EU’s life and development. It is vital that that remains subject to unanimity and that the British Government, whoever is in office, continue to have a right of veto.

Mr Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab) indicated assent .

Mr Lidington: The hon. Gentleman is nodding, so he must explain why members of his party—not just Labour Back Benchers but official spokesmen in the House of Lords—trooped through the Lobby to say that they wanted to scrap the British veto and allow the fate, for example, of the UK’s rebate to be subject not to consensus but to qualified majority voting. That would be the impact of the measure. The hon. Gentleman is saying that he would remove from the referendum lock a decision to switch from unanimity to QMV on that matter.

Mr Cash: Does my right hon. Friend agree that perhaps it has something to do with the report on the question of economic governance, in which it appeared as if the underlying theme expressed by certain Opposition Members in the House of Lords was edging us towards the prospect of fiscal union? There really is a substantial

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difference in policy, principle and philosophy, if I can use that expression, in their attitude to the EU and that of the House of Commons.

Mr Lidington: My hon. Friend makes a good point. The Opposition need to own up to where they are coming from. If the hon. Member for Caerphilly wants to intervene and say that his Front-Bench colleagues in the House of Lords had gone rogue and he was unable to control them, that he was sorry and he did not really mean it, a plea for forgiveness might be entertained. But if he really supports the proposal to remove decisions on the MFF from the referendum lock, he should say so clearly to the House, because the Labour party did not say that when the Bill was debated in the House of Commons.

Mr David: I will make a deal with the Minister. I am more than happy to explain the Labour party’s decision when I speak to the Lords amendments, but will he explain to the House the comments of Members of the other place such as Lord Brittan, or the actions of Lord Heseltine, both of whom expressed complete disagreement with fundamental aspects of the Bill?

Mr Lidington: I have huge respect for Lord Brittan, Lord Heseltine and those senior Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords who have devoted their political lives to support for European integration—they have a consistent and honourable point of view on this. I do not agree with them. There is a key difference—and the hon. Gentleman may wish to challenge me—between the way in which Lords Brittan and Heseltine spoke and voted and the way in which his colleagues did so. My noble Friends gave distinguished service in government, but many years ago, and they are no longer ministerial spokesmen. The hon. Gentleman must explain why the Labour party’s official spokesmen in the House of Lords spoke and voted in the Lobby for an amendment that he appears very unwilling to support.

6.15 pm

Mr David: I find it amusing and surprising that the Minister is dismissive of senior Members of the House of Lords such as Lord Brittan, who not only had reservations and disagreed with parts of the Bill, but said that there was nothing in the Bill at all with which he could agree.

Mr Cash: He has got a pension too.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order. It has been interesting to hear hon. Members discuss their opinions of the careers of distinguished Members of the House of Lords, but I should like the Minister to return to the business before the House, which is Lords amendment 3, and his views on that, rather than on anyone in the House of Lords.

Mr Lidington: I will try to avoid that temptation, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Chris Heaton-Harris: To help out the Opposition, the Minister may have noticed that they had a completely different policy on the MFF on days that began with a

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“T” from on those that began with any other letter. That happens to be true when it comes to the Lords.

Madam Deputy Speaker: I do not want the Minister to help out the Opposition, who can take care of themselves. I want him to help out the Government by speaking to the amendment. Perhaps he would return to it.

Mr Lidington: I shall turn to Lords amendment 15, which would insert a sunset clause into the Bill, so that part 1 and schedule 1 would expire when Parliament is dissolved, only to be revived at the discretion of the Secretary of State and with the approval of Parliament for the duration of the new Parliament. That exercise would have to be repeated every five years. I have looked carefully at the arguments for such a measure. As the Government made clear in the other place, sunset clauses can be useful in legislation proposing new or extraordinary powers for the Executive, or in legislation that would serve a specific or time-limited purpose, but this Bill does neither.

Some colleagues in the House of Lords said that the Bill was a constitutional innovation and should therefore be subject to a sunset clause, but much of what we do in Parliament is innovative. We believe that the Bill is an innovation that will be welcomed by the British people, and it should become an enduring part of our constitutional framework.

Kelvin Hopkins: I agree entirely, and I think that the British people would like the Bill to be rather stronger.

Mr Lidington: I think that the British people would be alarmed at the thought that they were being offered new rights and responsibilities for a term of only five years, and would then have to wait and see whether they would be graciously renewed by a new Parliament.

In a survey conducted two years ago, more than four out of every five British people wanted a referendum on any future treaty change. Everything that we do in the House is reversible—no single Parliament can bind its successor—so there is no reason to single the Bill out for a sunset clause, which would mean that it merely loaned power to the people of this country on the future direction of the EU for a limited time. After that, the decision on whether or not to lend them the power for another five years would be in the hands of the Government of the day. The British people would rightly look on such a proposition with disdain.

Henry Smith: My right hon. Friend is entirely right. If the amendment were allowed to stand, would it not render the proposed legislation completely empty? As he eloquently said, it goes against the constitutional principle that no Parliament can bind its successor.

Mr Lidington: My hon. Friend is quite right. In a previous Parliament, when we voted for constitutional legislation as far-reaching as the devolution of power to the Scottish Parliament and the Assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland, we did not vote for the inclusion of sunset clauses. Parliament took the view that if that legislation, in due course, proved not to be workable, or if there were a profound change in the public mood or a new Government were elected with a mandate from the

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people to effect changes and reverse that devolution, that was a matter for the future Parliament at that time. The idea that we should impose a sunset clause in this case simply because it is something new seems to be completely inconsistent with the way in which Parliament and successive Governments have approached previous constitutional reforms.

Mr Cash: I am interested in the line that my right hon. Friend is taking. Without pre-empting any other discussion, does he agree that this is also about the whole question of our membership of the European Union being only on loan from this House because under the Factortame decision Lord Bridge made it clear that it was a voluntary act and no more? Does he therefore think that inserting a reference to the European Communities Act 1972, as proposed in the amendment tabled by the former Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, would be making a profound mistake in thinking that this all hinges on the Act when in fact it depends on Parliament itself?

Mr Lidington: My hon. Friend is inviting me to comment on the subject matter of the third group of amendments. I hope that he will forgive me if I delay commenting in that fashion until we reach those amendments.

This Bill places Parliament at the heart of every decision to be considered. Each decision will need parliamentary approval, whether by Act or by resolution. The sunset clause would take that power away from Parliament, and until such time as part 1 was revived, none of the controls in part 1—not just the referendum lock but none of them—would apply. Some colleagues in the other place claim that the Government are binding future Governments and not themselves. However, we have already said that we will use the Bill to ratify the current treaty change on the eurozone stability mechanism, and we will also use it to consider the treaty change required for Croatia’s accession. Once the legislation is enacted, this Government, too, will be bound by it.

There is another reason why a sunset clause is unnecessary. The previous Government set up a system of post-legislative scrutiny under which the Government of the day are required to publish a memorandum to Parliament on the operation of each Act of Parliament up to five years after the commencement of that Act. This is examined by relevant parliamentary Committees, which can decide whether to conduct a detailed examination of that legislation. I am happy to put on record that we think that this is a good idea and that a future Government must publish a full report on how this Bill has been used within five years of its becoming law. That will result in the clarity and the reflection that colleagues in the other place seek, but without arbitrarily depriving the British people of their say.

The case for this Bill is simple: it is to give the British people the chance to have their rightful say over future changes to the EU treaties, whether through formal revision or use of the passerelles that transfer competence or power from this country to the EU. The Bill does not substitute the British people for Parliament, for Parliament will continue to have a central and strengthened role in approving such key decisions, but it provides a vital opportunity to address the disconnection that has developed over the years between the British people and the decisions

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taken in their name by Parliament and Government. This group of Lords amendments would not help us to achieve these goals—indeed, they would seriously jeopardise our chances of doing so—and that is why I hope that this House will disagree with them.

Mr David: I would like to comment briefly on Lords amendments 3 and 5 regarding the 40% threshold and on Lords amendments 6 to 13 regarding the number of referendums. I will then focus on Lords amendment 15 regarding the so-called sunset-sunrise clause.

Some people in both Houses say that a reasonable turnout in referendums is necessary to ensure a demonstrable degree of legitimacy. That argument was advanced during the alternative vote referendum debate, but it has weaknesses. We have already heard that there is a certain perverse incentive to encourage a lower turnout than might usually be the case, and that is a fair point. It is important to remember that there has been a threshold of 40% on only one occasion—the devolution referendums for Wales and Scotland in 1979. Wales rejected the then Government’s devolution proposals by a majority of four to one, while in Scotland there was a turnout of less than 40% but a narrow majority in favour of the proposals. The result in Scotland brought this question to the fore: when is a win not a win? That is a real dilemma, and it is one of the reasons that many Labour Members have reservations about the use of the 40% threshold.

Reference was made to my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). I should point out that Rhondda is in south Wales and Ronda, as it was pronounced by the Minister for Europe, is in Spain. My hon. Friend tells me that, although he speaks Spanish, he represents to the best of his ability the constituency in south Wales.

Amendments 6 to 13 would reduce the number of theoretically possible topics for referendums from more than 50 to three: the single currency, the creation of a single EU integrated military force, and border controls and the Schengen protocols. As Labour Members argued consistently on Second Reading and in Committee, there is an overwhelming argument for referendums to be held if ever a British Government wanted this country to join the single currency, which is extremely unlikely, and when there is a proposal for a major constitutional change. In Committee, we proposed an amendment for a Joint Committee of both Houses to examine whether a proposed treaty change was a significant constitutional change. Unfortunately, that proposal was not successful in this House, and nor did it gain sufficient support in the other place. However, that remains our position. Of course, Members in the other place are entitled to their views, but we have reservations about the proposal that referendums should be confined to these three subject areas, and it is important to put on the record that my comments set out the Labour party’s position.

That brings me to the sunset-sunrise clause. In the other place, Lord Kerr, the distinguished former head of the diplomatic service, put forward three arguments for such a clause, one of which related to foreign policy. He argued with conviction that were the provision enacted, other European Governments could freeze Britain out of the debate through enhanced co-operation

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or by acting outside the treaties altogether. That might happen, he said, when a British negotiator in Brussels is unable to agree to something

“because his Government back home will tell him, ‘Don’t be silly. That would trigger a referendum.’”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 15 June 2011; Vol. 728, c. 810.]

He argued that a regular assessment and decision at the start of a new Parliament on whether such a system was working would be a reasonable measure to adopt. That is worthy of consideration.

Charlie Elphicke (Dover) (Con): A Government would say that only if they did not think that they could win such a referendum, so how can it be right for his lordship to put the case that the British people, if they were minded to vote against such a thing, should have their role entirely negated? That seems to be the essence of the argument, and surely that is wrong.

Mr David: That is not entirely fair. When Lord Kerr presented his argument, he suggested that referendums could be triggered on what are universally considered as fairly technical, minor matters. It is a hypothetical situation. Nevertheless, it is important to recognise that in the minutiae of negotiations, we negotiate effectively for the United Kingdom only when we do not have it in the back of our minds that there might be hurdles to be overcome at a later stage.

The other two arguments used in the other place were essentially constitutional. It was argued that the referendums envisaged in the Bill are essentially post-legislative. In other words, once the Government have negotiated a treaty change and Parliament has agreed to it, a referendum will be held. As the referendum is post-legislative, it is a lock. The electorate will have to decide whether to overrule the Government and Parliament of the day. Holding referendums post-legislatively in that way questions Parliament’s traditional role. Such a change should therefore be subject to constant review and reaffirmation or otherwise. That constitutional argument is worthy of consideration.

By far the most important and powerful argument concerns the principle that a Parliament cannot bind its successor. That is a vital principle of our parliamentary democracy. In the evidence taken by the European Scrutiny Committee, which is ably chaired by the hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash), a number of expert witnesses explained the importance of that principle. Michael Dougan, the dean of the Liverpool law school and a professor of European law at the university of Liverpool, concluded his evidence by saying:

“If there is a real concern about the doctrine of Parliamentary sovereignty that needs to be addressed during the passage of this Bill, it surely consists in an attempt by the Government to persuade the current Parliament to bind its successors in a manner which runs counter to accepted understandings of our constitutional order.”

That is a pretty powerful statement.

6.30 pm

Kelvin Hopkins: Even though legislation can in a sense bind our successors, our successors can introduce legislation to annul previous legislation. There is a difference between the automatic disappearance of legislation at an election and an Opposition party coming

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into government with the commitment to reverse legislation. That is still possible, so our successors will not be bound absolutely.

Mr David: That is an important qualification, which I will come on to address specifically. It is important at this stage to make the general case that this is a central part of our unwritten constitution.

Mr Cash: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the question of fettering a future Parliament is secondary these days, unfortunately, to the fact that the Supreme Court could, as the European Scrutiny Committee examined in its evidence and report on this Bill, assert that it has ultimate authority in certain circumstances? That is the mischief that we must ensure does not happen under any circumstances. We will come on to debate clause 18 and the Government’s proposals, which open that door in an alarming fashion.

Mr David: Like the Minister, I do not want to stray into that debate. One thing that has been clear from this whole debate, including on Second and Third Reading, is the real threat to this institution comes from judicial activism. That threat does not come so much from the European Union as from our own judiciary. We must be mindful of that.

Another expert witness who gave evidence to the hon. Gentleman’s Committee was Vernon Bogdanor, a research professor at King’s college London and a former tutor of the Prime Minister. He said that

“the purpose of the bill must be to prevent a future government from supporting such an amendment or transfer without a referendum. The bill seeks, in other words, to bind a future government. That seems to me inconsistent with the declaratory proposition that Parliament is sovereign.”

That is an extremely powerful statement. We must consider the full impact of this legislation.

Charlie Elphicke: The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful case for Parliaments not binding their successors. The logic of his argument is surely that at the start of each Parliament, this country’s membership of the European Union and the legislation on the European Union should be reconfirmed.

Mr David: No, I do not think that that is the case. One thing that has come across clearly in the debates in this House is the sovereignty of Parliament. We are talking about the sovereignty of Parliament in a dualist system, but Parliament nevertheless has the right to determine what legislation has primacy over the people of this country. The ultimate decision rests with this country.

Ian Swales: The sovereignty of Parliament is obviously absolutely key. If we passed the sunset clause, sovereignty would in effect pass to the next Government, not the next Parliament. As the hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) said, a future Parliament has the power to change this legislation. The sunset clause would pass that power to the Government, not to Parliament.

Mr David: No, it would not pass to the Government, because we are talking about Parliament itself deciding.

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In our electoral system, it is the Executive who are accountable to Parliament. We are talking about parliamentary sovereignty.

Mr Cash: Will the hon. Gentleman please reflect on what he just said? Is he trying to maintain the fiction that it is Parliament that makes decisions, when most decisions are in fact taken at the direction of the Prime Minister and the Government through the Whips?

Mr David: I very much hope that in this Parliament that will not be the case. I have taken heart from the rebellious comments and actions of the hon. Gentleman. I very much hope that Parliament will assert itself through the course of this Parliament and that his concerns will prove to be mistaken.

I hope that most Members of this House would uphold the time-honoured doctrine, despite the qualifications that have been expressed, of one Parliament being unable to bind its successor. I hope that Members do not question that. We should never seek to dictate in one Parliament what should happen in the next. I concede that, strictly speaking, the European Union Bill does not bind future Parliaments because, as has been said, those future Parliaments could modify the legislation. Nevertheless, at the very least, the Bill questions that principle and strongly goes against its spirit. I say that because the heart of the Bill will effectively come into operation during the next Parliament.

In the other place, Lord Howell said from the Government Front Bench that the Bill will be “operative” in this Parliament. He cited the Government’s commitment to bring forward an Act of Parliament on the European stability mechanism, the so-called bail-out mechanism, and its inclusion in the treaty. The Minister has just said that an Act of Parliament will be brought forward if Croatia accedes to the European Union. The Government have said consistently that they will not agree to any transfer of sovereignty to Brussels during this Parliament. That is an important qualification. There will therefore be no need to hold a referendum. Of course, we may see a significant transfer if the Government decide to opt in to the European Court of Justice opt-in provisions. The Government are illogically against holding a referendum if they decide to opt in. That reinforces the point that the main intention behind the Bill is to influence future Governments and Parliaments. What happens during this Parliament under the Bill will be relatively small beer. We are talking about a piece of legislation that will have a direct influence on the Governments and Parliaments of the future, after the next election. That is the fundamental point. Despite the qualifications that have to be expressed for the argument to hold up, that is an important and telling point.

Mark Reckless: Is not the key point about the Bill that it makes provision for referendums at some potential future date on various aspects of our relationship with the EU? What the British people really want is a referendum now on our membership or otherwise of the EU.

Mr David: That might be the true voice of the British Conservative party, but it is not the voice of the hon. Gentleman’s Government and it is most certainly not the voice of the Opposition.

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Mr Cash: The little matter that the hon. Gentleman happened conveniently to leave out of that remark was the voice of the British people, was it not?

Mr David: It is important that we recognise that the British people have a voice, which is why we have been clear that it is important that referendums are held on major constitutional issues and the issue of a single currency. It is important that the British people are engaged in the debate about Europe in a way that they have not been for a good time. However, the way to do that is through constructive and rational debate. There is nothing wrong with having referendums on big, important issues, but we are firmly against having referendums on paper clips and minutiae.

Andrea Leadsom (South Northamptonshire) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman regret the fact, then, than when in government Labour did not give the British people a referendum on the Lisbon treaty?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order. We are talking about amendments from the Lords on constitutional issues. I am sure, Mr David, that you were going to come to the Dispatch Box and focus on exactly those issues.

Mr David: I will restrain myself, Madam Deputy Speaker, and follow your strictures.

I shall refocus on the idea of a sunset-sunrise clause. It is all the more important that these sensible proposals from the other place be given due consideration because, as has been said, never before has a Bill been deliberately designed to influence future Parliaments. I am sure that good parliamentarians would not want to undermine or even question the doctrine of free-standing Parliaments, which is why I hope the House will support Lords amendment 15. An affirmative resolution at the start of each Parliament would both ensure the legitimacy of this Parliament in making a decision and reaffirm the doctrine that one Parliament cannot bind its successor.

Charlie Elphicke: I take the hon. Gentleman’s point about an affirmative resolution, but nevertheless, that resolution would depend upon the action of the Executive. Proposed subsection (2) in the Lords amendment states that

“the Secretary of State may by order provide”

that the provision continues, so it would be entirely up to the Government. I put it to him that his point is therefore not a good one.

Mr David: With due respect, I think it is a good one. Purely in terms of procedure, as the Government have conceded, there needs to be an assessment of how this innovative constitutional legislation works in practice. That is a good idea, and I welcome the Minister’s concession on it. However, the logical extension of that is an affirmative resolution at the start of the next Parliament. If the Bill is working well, that resolution should be agreed to. If it is not, there should be an opportunity to reconsider. I therefore hope that the House will look favourably upon Lords amendment 15. It is modest, sensible and pragmatic, and above all else it reflects the principles of parliamentary sovereignty to which we all adhere.

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Mr Jenkin: It gives me some pleasure to speak in support of the Government in opposing these Lords amendments. It also gives me the opportunity to address the remarks of the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr David). From listening to his description of, and support for, the so-called sunrise clause, I thought he advanced some unusual and novel arguments, albeit that they were supposedly supported by eminent people. I suggest that their words may have been a little removed from their context, because the hon. Gentleman is asking the House to adopt the relatively new constitutional doctrine that no legislation should be passed that is in any way an attempt to bind successor Governments. Legislation binds not future Parliaments but future Governments, unless Parliament chooses to change it. I think he gets the terms “Government” and “Parliament” muddled up. Every piece of legislation binds future Governments to some extent, unless they manage to obtain a majority in Parliament to change it.

6.45 pm

It is ironic that the hon. Gentleman advances his argument in respect of this Bill, given that the subjects of the referendums that would take place under it would be matters that really did bind future Parliaments. Why else do we think the treaties mention “irreversibility” and “irrevocability”—rather absolutist, undemocratic language? They are intended to bind member states into something that cannot be undone, even by those sovereign states.

Today’s debate is partly about the fact that we remain a sovereign state, within which this Parliament—and the Queen in Parliament—remains the supreme and sovereign institution of our constitution. This sovereign Parliament is laying down new rules for future Governments that will require them to have referendums on certain issues before more powers are transferred to the European Union.

Mr David: But that is precisely the point. What makes the Bill special, different and innovative is that it departs from virtually all other legislation in that its main provisions are applicable not to this Parliament but to the next Parliament.

Mr Jenkin: But that applies to a great deal of legislation. I do not understand the distinction that the hon. Gentleman is attempting to make. Actually, what the Bill will do is restrict the ability of Governments to give away power and to reach decisions in the EU and present them to Parliament as faits accomplis without reference to the people. That seems to me a thoroughly good and democratic thing.

The hon. Gentleman has given the game away this evening about the future direction of the Labour party’s policy. What he has told the House tonight is that he is quite happy for aspects of the Bill to go through, but he is not happy for its provisions to apply to a future Labour Government. He does not want a future Labour Government to have their hands tied by the necessity of referendums before they give away more powers. He wants to go back to the system to which my hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) referred—of signing up to treaties, promising referendums on them and then ratting on those promises. That was the record of the Labour Government.

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I regard all these Lords amendments as completely unacceptable. Whatever shortcomings the Bill has—I am afraid there are many, because it is limited in scope—the amendments are designed to pull the guts out of this democratising measure. The vote threshold proposed in Lords amendment 3 is not a recognisable one but a perverse one. It does not suggest that unless the number of votes reaches a certain level, a decision cannot be taken. It suggests that if the votes do not reach a certain level, the Government and Parliament can carry on as they like. I thought the whole point of a threshold was to test whether there was a measure of consent for a particular constitutional change. The threshold in the amendment is not about testing whether there is a measure of consent but is more about testing whether there is a measure of resistance, or whether there is apathy.

Unfortunately, the people who have largely guided European policy in this country for the past 20, 30 or 40 years have got away with what they have done largely by relying on people’s apathy and ignorance. The proposed threshold is designed to create an incentive for a Government who wish to transfer more powers to the EU to maintain high levels of apathy and ignorance. I am reminded of my late noble Friend Lord Whitelaw, who during the 1975 referendum accused the right hon. Anthony Wedgwood Benn of going around the country stirring up apathy. The amendment is a charter for going around the country and doing just that. It is completely unjustified and should be given very short shrift.

Lords amendments 6 to 13, to clause 6, are simply designed to rip the guts out of the Bill. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe very properly went through some of the things that Governments in future would be able to do without a referendum if the amendments were not disagreed to. Under the amendments, Governments could, without a referendum, give up the veto over foreign policy and over almost anything else under article 48(7). The amendments would allow the UK to join the public prosecutor and to extend the role of the public prosecutor to any serious crime with a cross-border dimension. We should think about what that means for the criminal justice system of this country. The amendments would allow Governments, without a referendum, to give up the veto over labour laws, taxes and planning, and the multi-annual financial framework and spending of the EU. The Opposition should shed no crocodile tears over how much the EU is spending if they are prepared to give up that veto without proper consent.

The amendments would remove the veto from all the enhanced co-operation procedures, which would enable what is effectively majority voting to come into effect in a whole lot of areas. Clearly, that is an anti-democratic provision. If there is one thing that ardent advocates of the EU should have learned, it is that that structure lacks popular consent. It legislates without popular consent. If there is one thing that true Europeans should want it is that we reconnect the decisions on how powers are exercised with popular democratic consent. The Bill goes some way towards doing that.

The sunrise provision is simply the last gasp of a past generation who are trying to neuter what is today called Euroscepticism. The support of the hon. Member for Caerphilly for Lords amendment 15 gives the lie to the idea that the new Labour party, under its new leader, is flirting with Euroscepticism. It is not. It has no intention

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of following through. It might pretend to be, and to sound, sceptical, and it might even start talking of an in-out referendum, inviting one or two of my more radical hon. Friends to fall into the trap of thinking that that is the way out, when it probably is not. However, the fact is that we need a Government who are prepared to negotiate vigorously, and to do so with the extra leverage and strengthened hand that the requirement for a referendum gives them.

Henry Smith: Does my hon. Friend agree that what we see from Opposition Members is not so much a rebirth of Euroscepticism as referendum cynicism?

Mr Jenkin: I agree with my hon. Friend. I rather like the hon. Member for Caerphilly, who is an engaging and assiduous parliamentarian, but I do not know whether he has given vent to his real feelings on these matters. Unfortunately, if one is speaking from the Front Bench, one’s real feelings rarely matter. One just has to do the bidding of one’s superiors. I just wish to end by—

Mr Cash: Before my hon. Friend ends his speech, would he be good enough to allow me to put one thought to him? The number of occasions when the referendum will be required has been dramatically, drastically and absurdly reduced by the Lords amendment. However, does he agree that the fundamental question is not whether we select what functions might or might not be affected, but the whole business of our relationship with the EU, that completely failed project, which is quite clearly causing enormous damage not only to the UK but to other countries? That is the test on which a referendum should be determined. It should not be determined just on the minutiae of individual questions, including the single currency, foreign policy and so on.

Mr Jenkin: If I follow my hon. Friend’s question, he thinks that we should have a referendum on more questions than are raised in the Bill. I agree with him.

Mr Cash: My hon. Friend is a genuine friend. The referendum should be not on more questions, but the question: the European question.

Mr Jenkin: I know that my hon. Friend does not advocate an in-out referendum, but the general direction of the EU certainly merits a referendum at some stage. I still flirt with the idea that we should have a referendum on the proposed treaty amendment. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe adverted to the fact that four fifths of the British public think that we should have a referendum on any treaty amendment. That seemed to be the substance of the Government’s original commitment, which has been hedged in the Bill.

Perish the thought that I am straying from my support for the Government on the Lords amendments—I would rather stay where I am—but I would finally wish to remark that the authors of the Lords amendments have a track record of their own. The introducers of the amendments are not minor figures. The amendment on the threshold was introduced by Lord Williamson of Horton—he who was secretary-general of the Commission during the passage of the Maastricht treaty; he who was the secretary-general who pushed through the social

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action programme, which negated any effective UK Government opt-out from the social chapter; and he who was one of the architects of economic and monetary union, which is now collapsing around our ears.

In Lords amendment 8 to clause 6, which incidentally completely fails to define, as my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe said,

“a single, integrated military force”,

Lord Williamson is pretending that we should have a referendum on defence matters. However, I would just pose this question: does NATO constitute

“a single, integrated military force”?

I would submit that it probably does not. We could therefore form a NATO-style command structure in the EU, which successive Governments have set their face against, and pass such powers into the treaties of the EU, without a referendum. I hardly think that the British people would vote for that.

The noble Lord Hannay, former permanent secretary at the Foreign Office and former chief negotiator for the UK in the EU—an illustrious and distinguished person—is also an author of the Lords amendments. Do not mistake me: I have great admiration for the ability and sincerity of those people, but I just advert to their track record of advocating policy on the EU. Lord Hannay said quite recently that the single currency would be quite a good thing for the UK, as did Lord Kerr of Kinlochard. As recently as 26 May 2009, the latter delivered a lecture in Edinburgh on monetary union, in which he lamented that we were not trying to join the single currency.

I raise those points not to stray from the substance of the debate, but just to question whether the people who proposed the Lords amendments should not stop trying to get Britain further into the EU, and start apologising for the appalling judgment and advice that they have given to successive Governments. Their advice has put this country into a perilous economic position—because of the state of the EU and the euro—but they have also advised successive Governments to hand over more and more powers. I would not usually criticise civil servants in public, but they are now taking part in the political process having advised successive Governments to hand over more and more powers, as a result of which Governments have been in an ever-weaker position from which to defend our national interests.

The Bill is a small step towards starting to redress the balance in the relationship between the overweening power of the EU and the people in this country governed by the laws it makes.

Mr David rose

Mr Jenkin: I will give way briefly, but I am about to sit down.

7 pm

Mr David: I like the hon. Gentleman as he likes me. However, although we might have disagreements with distinguished ex-civil servants, it is important to place on record that all the individuals he has mentioned have been great public servants and took the lead from the Government of the day.

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Mr Jenkin: Yes, but I am left wondering whether their advice to us from the House of Lords today reflects the advice they gave to Ministers and the policies that Ministers in their day pursued. I am also left wondering whether my right hon. Friend the Minister’s advisers, when they go to the other place, will be advocating the policy he is now pursuing. I think that we are up against the establishment here. The establishment in this country is still wedded to the idea of ever-closer integration and even of joining the euro. I do not think that the British people or the Conservative party, which I think represents the aspirations of the British people on this subject, accept that view. I hope that there is a change of heart in Whitehall officialdom such that when the next generation of civil servants arrives, they will seek to re-establish the independence of the UK within the EU, rather than to carry on weakening it.

Andrea Leadsom: Does my hon. Friend agree that the referendum lock will place a new onus on successive Governments, if needs be, to work harder on any further giveaway of powers so that this and future Governments, rather than giving way to civil service opinion, will have to consider public opinion much more carefully and seek to justify any further transfer of powers? That has to be a good thing.

Mr Jenkin: I agree that it is a good thing, but I wish that the Bill applied to some of the powers that the Government want to give away now through treaty amendments and opt-ins.

Kelvin Hopkins: I will speak on these amendments only briefly because much has been said already that I need not repeat. I took the trouble to spend some time in the Library going through the Order Paper and amendments, and I wrote against each of them, “KH against”—those are my initials, so it meant that I was personally against all of them—which seems to be in line with the Government’s position. I hope therefore that my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr David) will advise Labour Members either to abstain or to support the Government’s position.

The amendments have clearly been moved by people who are trying to undermine and wreck the Bill by making it toothless. It is not a strong Bill but, with the amendments, it would be feeble indeed. To restrict referendums to these three areas only would leave enormous scope for those who want constitution creep to succeed. I do not want it to succeed; I want the Government at least to consider a referendum for any significant change to any EU constitution. As to joining the euro, I think that the Labour Front Bench has become more Eurosceptic. There is no prospect of us supporting joining the euro, and one can see that very few Labour Members are willing to come along and take a strongly pro-euro position, as was perhaps the case under the previous Government and ones before that. I am pleased about that because I have been critical about joining the euro for many years.

The euro is in very serious trouble. As of today, we are talking about Italy—not just Ireland, Portugal and Greece—as being a significant problem. I also understand that the French proposal to roll forward the Greek debt and not to take too strong action has been rejected––I suspect by Germany. The euro faces serious problems,

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and I suspect that before long the euro may unravel and that several national currencies may be re-established to allow countries to adjust to their economic needs and choose their own interest rates and parities with other currencies, including with what remains of the euro.

Mr Cash: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that over the past few months we have been trying to stem a tsunami, and that for practical purposes it all boils down to one thing, which is the European question as a whole? Does he also agree that the invasion of the Italian interest, and possibly the Spanish and others, is proof that the whole project is a total failure and that the British people agree?

Kelvin Hopkins: The hon. Gentleman recently said that the tectonic plates were starting to move. I think that he is right. Senior civil servants have even said in public that the game is over. I have talked about the sands shifting rather than tectonic plates—different metaphor, same thought. The Governments of Europe will now have to listen not just to their own people, who are increasingly Eurosceptic, but to those in the global financial system who now have doubts about the future of the euro.

My hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly said, “We’re not going to have a referendum on paper clips.” Such matters are indeed referred to the European Scrutiny Committee, of which the hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash) is Chair and, on the Committee, we leave no stone unturned, as I am sure he agrees. Paper clips are not a constitutional matter, although some people might argue that we do not want the EU interfering in our paper clips. On constitutional matters, we want to leave things open for Governments to choose when a referendum is appropriate, not to restrict the provisions to the areas in the amendments. There are those who would seek to use every opportunity to extend the EU’s control by skirting carefully around these tight definitions of areas that would require referendums. However, the Committee, led by our Chair, does a good job on non-constitutional matters—several of its members are in the Chamber now and would, I am sure, agree.