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House of Lords

Friday, 10 September 2004.

The House met at eleven of the clock: The CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich.

Constitution for Europe (Referendum) Bill [HL]

Lord Blackwell: My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

I am grateful for the time of the House this morning and I would like to thank in advance all those who are participating. I look forward in particular to the maiden speeches of the noble Lord, Lord Laidlaw, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury.

The purpose of this Bill is to be helpful to the Government in fulfilling one of their most important commitments. I was delighted that, after long debates in this House and outside, the Government and the Minister accepted the case earlier this year for a referendum on the European constitution and committed to hold a referendum before the UK ratified the necessary treaty. That decision properly reflected the crucial importance of this decision to the country. In many ways, a decision on the European constitution represents a crossroads for both the European Union and the United Kingdom.

Following the meeting of the heads of government in June, we now have an agreed proposal for the constitution, with a date for formal signing and publication of the final text on 29 October. As yet, however, we have had no firm proposal from the Government on how they intend to proceed with seeking UK ratification, including the process and timetable for the promised referendum. This Bill is therefore intended to help the Government by providing a mechanism for translating their commitment into an appropriate Act of Parliament and by setting out what I hope is a reasonable proposal for the timing, wording and other arrangements for that referendum.

Of course, I recognise that there may be differing views around your Lordship's House on some of those aspects and I am very open to suggestions that may improve what I have proposed. I hope that the Government themselves will also take this opportunity to set out any alternative proposals that they may favour. However, given the huge constitutional importance of signing up to the proposed European constitution, it is vital that these issues are properly considered and that there is no question after the event that the referendum process was managed in a contentious way or that the procedure was rushed through without proper consultation. The Bill, it is to be hoped, provides an opportunity to engage in that
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debate, and to set out amendments in Committee that will allow Parliament to come to a settled view on the best way forward. So, in that spirit, let me now turn to the substance of the Bill.

The first point, in Clause 1, is the proposal that a referendum should be held within four months of the publication of the final text—in other words, four months from the end of October on the current schedule. My argument for this timescale is to provide a sensible balance that takes account of both the need for proper public debate and the desirability of the UK reaching a firm view as early as it can. I believe that an early resolution of the UK's position would be advantageous, which ever way your Lordships believe that decision should go.

For those of your Lordships who will be advocating in the referendum that the UK agrees to this treaty, there must be a strong case for getting the UK's membership confirmed—and current uncertainties removed—as soon as possible in order to allow the UK to exercise its full weight in shaping the institutions, processes and agenda that will follow the formation of the new Union. With Germany, Spain and other major countries now moving to commit to going through their own ratification processes as early as possible in 2005, the worst of all worlds would be for the UK to eventually sign up at the last moment after a prolonged period of uncertainty when we had once again let others make the running. But I suspect others of your Lordships may be able to make that case better than I can.

For those like me who will be advocating that the UK rejects this treaty, however, the arguments are equally strong that we are better off reaching that conclusion sooner rather than later. For the sooner we can start negotiating a preferred outcome—a preferred treaty—the more chance I believe we have of reshaping the proposals in a way that suits us.

Let me take a minute to explain what that alternative might be. I start with a presumption that, however much the UK population—and indeed much of the continental population—may dislike the drive under this proposed constitution to integrate the countries of Europe into a single European state, the momentum among the political elites of many of our neighbours is such that, unless they are stopped in their own referendums, they will not settle for rolling back Europe to the kind of alliance of nation states that might suit us. If the UK says no, they will, as they have made clear, continue to seek some way by which the core group of EU states can continue down the road to the political integration that they seek without us. Our bargaining power comes from the fact that, as the treaties currently stand, they cannot use the institutions and processes of the European Union as the basis for their more integrated union without our consent; and to contemplate replicating those institutions and the body of laws, case law and acquis that support them in some completely new legal structure would be almost unthinkable in terms of the cost, delay and the loss of the current Community
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momentum. We therefore hold the trump card if we reject this treaty and seek to amend in it ways that better suit us.

Our opportunity, and one I believe we should grasp, is therefore to have a referendum as soon as possible that settles once and for all, I hope, that the UK population will not agree to be part of a single European state, and with that clarity then engage with our partners to negotiate a new settlement for the UK as our price for allowing them to continue with the closer integration they seek. I suspect that many other members, particularly some of the new ones, would join us eventually in that position.

At minimum this new settlement would be a whole array of opt-outs from the political and constitutional provisions of the new treaty. In shorthand, it would be a position where we were part of the common market, but outside the common political and legal structure, and only engaged in other initiatives across Europe when we had agreed to participate on an intergovernmental basis. And I believe that we are more likely to use our bargaining power to achieve that if we seek to bring that renegotiation about early on than if we delay until most countries have gone through the ratification process and have invested huge legal and political capital in treaties that we then want to revise.

Of course, some will argue that we should simply sit back and wait for some other country to vote against the constitution, and avoid the need to take any decision ourselves. I do not think we can rely on that as solution, nor do I think it would resolve our own situation, since we would still be left unclear as a country as to whether we should be putting our weight and effort behind those seeking to put the proposal back together, or using the situation to renegotiate the kind of alternative that I have described. So it is in our interests to resolve the issue earlier.

Why, then, four months? The answer is that it seems to me to be both the minimum and maximum reasonable time period after the final treaty is published. I am assuming—and I would welcome the Minister's confirmation of this—that the first step will be for the Government, if they wish to recommend the new treaty, to put that in front of Parliament to take a view. However, given that the agreed text has been available since early summer, and has changed only on the margins from draft texts that have been debated and discussed in Parliament and the press for over a year, it seems entirely reasonable to me that the Bill to ratify the treaty should be presented as soon as the new Session of Parliament is sitting—presumably at the end of November or December this year.

While the Government may like to gratify all of us today by announcing a very generous timetable for further debate when that Bill comes before us, it also seems likely that, since the substance of the constitution cannot be amended, the passage through Parliament could be fairly rapid. If that were the case, then I believe it would be sensible and desirable to take advantage of the public and press attention that would have focused around the parliamentary debate by
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putting the issue to the country fairly soon afterwards. I have allowed for potentially one or two additional months of campaigning after the parliamentary vote, by which time I would suggest that most people will have had about as much of the arguments as they can absorb.

The danger of allowing the debate to go on much longer is that the public will start to lose interest, and we will be in danger of a vote determined by relative levels of apathy rather than by informed public discussion. As I have said, however, I would welcome the views of the Government and others in this House on whether these arguments and timescales are reasonable, or whether we should seek at Committee stage to consider alternative proposals on their merits.

The second clause sets out the proposed question, and the context in which it should be set. I have suggested what I believe is the simplest and least contentious question; namely,

This is, I believe, also the most factually accurate form of the question, since the issue is not just about whether the United Kingdom should sign up to the constitution for itself, but also whether it should agree to the constitution in its current form replacing the current treaties across the whole of Europe.

The appropriate wording of this question is of course a vital matter and one on which the independent Electoral Commission is required to have an independent voice. Indeed, my understanding is that the presentation of this Bill to Parliament should have already initiated that process, and I should be grateful for the Minister's confirmation of that. However, I believe it important that the final wording should be agreed in Parliament through this Bill, incorporating whatever amendments to my proposed wording as are generally agreed to be fair improvements. Again, it would be interesting to hear the Government's view at this stage on both the wording proposed and the process for agreeing it.

The third clause then links this Bill back to the provisions of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, and acknowledges that the general provisions of that Act will govern the conduct of the referendum unless otherwise amended. For clarity, the Bill makes it explicit that no local or general elections should be held within two months of the date of the referendum. I would not expect that to cause any particular difficulties for the Government, since the four-month timing I have proposed would mean a referendum has to be held before the end of February 2005, which would still make a general election possible at any time after the end of April. However, I would of course be fascinated to learn from the Minister if that constraint was seen as cutting across any current election plans.

There was, of course, extensive debate about some of the provisions of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act when it passed through Parliament four years ago, particularly as it affected the levels of funding available to different campaign groups. I have
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not sought to readdress those issues here, but it is of course open to any noble Lord to take the opportunity, in the light of experience since then, to propose amendments to this Bill at Committee stage that would address any particular areas of remaining concern.

So there we have it, my Lords. I believe that this Bill sets out a very reasonable set of proposals to give effect to the Government's commitment to a referendum, and that it provides a timely opportunity for these proposals to be debated, amended and approved in good order, so as to ensure that we have an agreed process on the statute book through which this major constitutional development can be addressed.

Given the Government's somewhat chequered record in consulting on and gaining consent for constitutional change, I believe that it is particularly important that the process for this constitutional change should be transparent, and that there can be no charge after the event that the timing or handling had been manipulated to affect the result. It seems to me that a Private Members' Bill such as this, which can attract all-party support, is a good route to avoid that charge. I hope therefore, that it will be welcomed by the Government as an opportunity for them to set out their own views on how this process should be handled, and for Parliament to debate and agree the best amendments to what I have proposed, taking into account the views of the Government, other noble Lords and Members of another place during the passage of the Bill. I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Blackwell.)

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