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House of Lords

Wednesday, 5th March 2003.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Rochester.

The Lord Chancellor: Leave of Absence

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Irvine of Lairg): My Lords, before business begins, I take the opportunity to inform the House that I shall be undertaking a ministerial visit to Paris on Tuesday 25th March and Wednesday 26th March when the House will sit. Accordingly, I trust that the House will grant me leave of absence.

New European Constitution

2.36 p.m.

Lord Blackwell asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they will make a commitment to holding a referendum as part of the ratification process for any treaty which gives effect to a new European constitution.

The Minister for Trade (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean): My Lords, a new constitutional treaty would need to be ratified according to the individual constitutional arrangements in each of the member states. This Government are committed to the existing system in the United Kingdom of parliamentary democracy rather than public referendums. Any new treaty would have to stand up to rigorous scrutiny by Parliament before the United Kingdom would ratify it.

Lord Blackwell: My Lords, I thank the Minister for her Answer. Can she confirm that the Prime Minister has already accepted a number of significant constitutional proposals put forward by this convention, including the recognition of a European legal entity with its own constitution and with significant additional powers that amount, in the words of the Prime Minister, to a transfer of sovereignty to Europe? Does she recognise that there is a case to be made that such constitutional issues are at least as important as a number of other matters on which the Government have chosen to hold a referendum, including devolution to the English regions and the question of the euro? If not, can she explain to the House how they differ? Finally, does she accept, as part of parliamentary scrutiny, that this House has a right and, indeed, an obligation at the right time to take a view on whether it is appropriate to insist on a referendum before any treaty is ratified?

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Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Blackwell, has had a good run for his money. I counted about five questions. A number of those issues are being considered, not only by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister but also by Mr Hain, who is leading the government side in the discussions on the Convention of Europe. The noble Lord is right in so far as a number of the constitutional issues under discussion are significant, but no more so than those dealt with under the treaties of Maastricht, Amsterdam and Nice and the Single European Act. There is no fundamental shift in the nature of the relationship that is being contemplated that Her Majesty's Government believe would be of such an order of magnitude as to merit a referendum. I have been responsible for taking a number of Bills of this nature through your Lordships' House. There is no shortage in this House of either enthusiasm or, indeed, expertise on these issues. I am sure that we shall see that exercised on this Bill.

Lord Lamont of Lerwick: My Lords, why, then, is a referendum justified for the single currency?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, the single currency is a once-in-a-lifetime decision. Noble Lords on the other side of the House cannot have it all ways. If the noble Lord felt that what may come forward under any new treaty is of such importance, he has to explain why when he was in government he did not advocate holding a referendum on the Maastricht Treaty.

Lord Rees-Mogg: My Lords, can the Minister explain to the House why, if the Government disapprove of referendums as being contrary to parliamentary democracy, they hold so many of them?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, we do not disapprove of referendums as such, but we exercise our judgment—in my mind quite rightly—as to when to hold such referendums.

Lord Goodhart: My Lords, in view of the fact that the convention is very much in draft form at present and it is far from clear how fundamental the changes will be when it is finally agreed, does the Minister agree that it is premature to consider at this stage whether there should be a referendum?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: Yes, my Lords. I believe that is a point. Indeed, that was the judgment reached in judicial review held on this matter in the past few days. As matters stand, Her Majesty's Government do not believe that these matters significantly change the shift in a constitutional position in the way in which Europe organises itself to the extent that they merit a referendum on this issue. That is entirely different from what I described a moment or two ago as the once-in-a-lifetime decision on the euro.

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Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, is the noble Baroness correct that merging our sovereign constitution with a higher constitution is no different from past treaty arrangements? Surely, this is a completely different order of treaty, which cries out for a referendum. Is she right in saying that these matters are only being considered when the communique from the Prime Minister's meeting with Mr Aznar last week agreed that there should be a new constitution for Europe? It is not being considered; it has been decided. Finally, does she not consider it extraordinary that your Lordships' House, which is supposed to be the guardian of the constitution, has had no full opportunity to debate this matter? Can she quickly send a message to her right so that we can have a debate in government time?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, in his usual skilful way, the noble Lord has also managed to ask a great number of questions. There has never been any doubt that we were looking at what the noble Lord has described as a constitution for Europe. The Government made that clear from the beginning. However, in such a constitution we are looking to simplify and clarify what is already in the treaties. We have discussed that as well. The noble Lord says that the issue is of such an order of magnitude that it merits consideration in a referendum. I do not think that it is of any greater order of magnitude than what was discussed in the Maastricht Treaty, which included the laying down of the stages for progress towards economic and monetary union, to come back to the point about the euro raised by the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, citizenship of the Union, and extending Community action in at least eight different fields. If that was not a matter for a referendum, when the Conservative Party had the ability to decide whether to hold one, I do not see why it is so keen when it is out of office to urge one on us.

Lord Barnett: My Lords, given how few people inside or outside the House will have the faintest understanding of the five economic tests, would it not be sensible to cancel that referendum?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, we are committed to a referendum on the euro. I am very pleased that my noble friend has raised the five economic tests. My right honourable friend the Chancellor will give us the benefit of his considerable expertise on those five tests: on convergence, on the effect on investment in the UK, on flexibility of the economy, on the position of the City and on employment. Those are all very important issues that people will have to take into consideration if and when there is a referendum on the euro.

Lord Elton: My Lords, in the light of what the Minister has said about orders of magnitude, does she not find it at least a little strange that the Government should require a referendum to decide whether there should be regional government for one of the English regions but not to decide whether the whole of the

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United Kingdom should be locked into Europe in a constitution that is a different expression from what has been put in the treaty?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, the noble Lord poses his question in terms that I would not use about Europe. We have been considering a whole new tier of government for the regions. It is right that those directly affected, who would be able to vote for that new tier of government, should be consulted.

Yorkshire: Unemployment Rates

2.45 p.m.

Lord Hardy of Wath asked Her Majesty's Government:

    By what proportion unemployment has fallen in the county of South Yorkshire and in the Yorkshire region in 2002 and since 1997.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Baroness Hollis of Heigham): My Lords, in the Yorkshire and Humberside region, claimant unemployment has fallen by 48 per cent—nearly half—since 1997. In South Yorkshire, unemployment has fallen by 53 per cent—more than half—since 1997. Employment and unemployment rates in the Yorkshire and Humberside region are similar to the UK average. Every local authority district in that region has an employment rate above the EU average.

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