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Today is not the day or the time to argue for or against a referendum. That principle has already been conceded and I have already made my view on that concession, and the fact that I do not entirely approve of it, quite clear. However, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister changed his mind. I have already regretted his change of mind. We are now all going to have a referendum with or without the assistance of the noble Lord, Lord Blackwell. What does his Private Member's Bill seek to do? It seeks to take over some of the fundamental roles of government in relation to the referendum. It seeks to fix the date, to prescribe the question and to determine another statement that will be placed on the ballot paper preceding the question.
I was very impressed by the noble Lord's profession that he was helping the Government: helping the Government quite clearly from the standpoint of rejecting the treaty, as he himself went on to say. I am sure that is the kind of help that the Government will value. I could say to the noble Lord that with this Bill he is being opportunistic, a mischief maker and arrogant in seeking to usurp to himself the role that is properly that of the Electoral Commission in fixing the
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question and the way that it is put. However, I would not dream of saying that to the noble Lord. I merely say to him that this morning he has shown that he is suffering from an excess of zeal in his ambition to help the Government, albeit from the negative perspective to which he has already confessed.
One of the questions that the noble Lord has not properly addressed in trying to help the Government is how some of his proposals will damage the process of achieving an informed public debate. If we are going to have a referendum, the essential prerequisite of trusting that decision to the people is that we have a full, wide and informed debate. I look forward to hearing from my noble friend the Minister today of the progress that is being made in the Foreign Office on proposals made to ensure that we have an informed debate. What progress is being made on a neutral but clear statement of the fundamental principles in the treaty that can be widely disseminated across the United Kingdom? What progress is being made on my request, made when we last discussed the outcome of the intergovernmental conference, for a single text annotated at the margin? With the merging of four treaties into one, we can then see how the bulk of that new treaty is totally unchanged from the present wording, with cross-reference to original treaties, and the public can see exactly where any changes have occurred. Those are essential prerequisites of having an informed debate.
However, the noble Lord has decided that more important than an informed debate is the process which he commends to us takes place in four months from the publication of the final words of the treaty; that is, four months from 29 October. So we have the prospect of campaigning in November, December, January and February as an alternative to looking to Christmas and an alternative to considering the Queen's Speech, in order to entertain the public and make them fully committed to reaching a decision in relation to the convention. I say to the noble Lord that parties of all political persuasions have largely sought to avoid that time of the year for determining more important questions such as the outcome of a general election, and certainly simpler questions such as who people might vote for in a general election, because of the difficulty of campaigning during dark nights and cold weather. To prescribe that period to campaigning for a referendum strikes me as absurd.
The other point that I would make to the noble Lord very clearly is that in his speech he asserted the constitutional importance of the new treaty without arguing the matter. Those who are saying that there is something of such significant constitutional importance (particularly opposition Members speaking as supporters of past Conservative governments) should tell us why it is important to have a referendum now and why they resisted it so strongly at the time of the Single European Act and the Maastricht Treaty when there was similarly badly argued pressure for it and as many transfers of what they would call sovereignty; that is, moves towards qualified majority voting, in even more significant areas than the present constitutional treaty covers.
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During the debate on the constitution, all kinds of people have told me that it gives Europe control of our common, foreign and security policy. However, as I read the text, the language on which the British people will be invited to vote in the referendum is exactly the same language as that which was incorporated in former treaties by the noble Lord's noble friend Lady Thatcher when she was Prime Minister. Therefore, I hope that when he comes to conclude the debate he will not just speak in terms of asserting constitutional importance but will argue specifically where it lies.
In my opinion, what the noble Lord is doing in this process is underestimating the importance in the constitution of what has been done to return power to both national parliaments and national governments through their representatives in the Council of Ministers. If you examine the balance of power in decision-making institutionally and do your league table of winners and losersthat is not necessarily something of which I totally approvequite clearly, the winners are the Council of Ministers: the people who are directly accountable to national parliaments. Clearly, there is an increase in the power of national parliaments and at the same time there is a decrease in the centralising power of the Commission. I believe we have a balanced constitution which, properly explained to the British public, is both capable and worthy of being supported by them. But at the moment, even well respected neutral bodies such as the Royal Institute of International Affairs have attempted to give us an overview of the treaty. It has now distilled that overview to 29 pages of very close type. The responsibility of the Government, not of Private Membersnot of Back-Bench legislationis to get the distilled wisdom of the treaty agreed in neutral form, capable of being widely disseminated, together with the annotated copy of the treaty so that we can see precisely where changes take place. I hope that we will hear from the Minister on that later.
The noble Lord told us that if we got a quick decisionone that he hopes is "No"we would be holding a trump card. That is the most optimistic definition of the Nice Treaty that I have ever heard, because that is precisely what we will have. We will have rejected the new constitutional treaty and will be left with the Treaty of Nice. In holding that trump card, he then holds up the spectre of what he described as the single European state, something that appears nowhere from the constitutional treaty. If that is the tendentious nonsense that he wants to peddle over the dark months of the winter to the public, in the hope of sneaking a result through when most people do not want to go out and campaign, it is an additional reason why that should be rejected.
The noble Lord referred to central and eastern European countries. Eight former communist countries of central and eastern Europe did not valiantly overthrow the centralised tyranny of communism in order to surrender power to the European Union in Brussels. They were our key allies all the way through the convention. They were very close collaborators with the views put
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forward by British parliamentarians and the British Governmentthe views that finally prevailed in the treaty. If the noble Lord follows that course, in his indecent haste to get a "No" vote by trying to sneak it through in the months of winter, he will be ill serving the interests of those eight central and eastern European countries, which are some of our closest allies in the European Union.
Lord Laidlaw: My Lords, becoming a Member of this House is very like becoming a new boy at school. There are lots of written rulesas a diligent new boy I have tried to read all of thembut, as your Lordships know, there are an equal number of unwritten rules. Some of those rules must be obeyed, and some may be safely ignored. The difficulty is deciding which are which. Life would have been even more difficult if I had not been helped in my first few weeks in the House by noble Lords from all sides. Indeed, I would probably still be standing at the Peers' Entrance, wondering which way to turn, if it had not been for their kind assistance. I would particularly like to express my appreciation to the staff of the House, who have been immensely helpful at all times.
I shall say a few words about my background. I have spent most of my life starting up, building and acquiring small and medium-sized businesses in 45 countries around the world. That has involved travelling continuously and, regrettably in some ways, living the past 22 years outside the UK. The companies that I have founded have all been service businesses, largely in business training, information and education. That has led me to believe that educationwhether at schools, universities or in lifelong learningis vital to the lifeblood of a country, and that no country can remain successful without extensive education, particularly lifelong education.
The future success of the UK will be based on knowledge, technical skills, research and being at the forefront of new developments. To accomplish that, we need a highly educated and highly skilled workforce; that is the responsibility of both the Government and employers.
I have to declare my interest as a provider of business training. However, that financial interest coincides with my deep belief in the need for continuing education. Lifelong learning is essential in enhancing and maintaining skills, as well as giving us the skills on new technologies that we alleven Members of this Houseneed today.
I also hope to show noble Lords in future that, contrary to what some people believe, the broadening experience of living and working in the Americas, Europe, the Far East and Australia, as well as in the UK, can bring a different and valuable perspective to issues before the House.
Turning to the Bill before us today, I must commend my noble friend Lord Blackwell on bringing forward such a timely Bill. I also commend the Government on agreeing to have a referendum on this hugely
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important issue. The constitution not only affects how Brussels runs, but will also change the very fabric of UK society. Romano Prodi said:
It is not enough to announce a referendum at some distant point in the future. We must, as soon as practical and sensible, ask the voters their opinion on the subject. A long delay in having the referendum will result in the matter being considered less important. That will result in fewer people voting. Whichever side one takes on the question, surely noble Lords believe that a high turnout of voters is critical.
We are the most populous country, with the most registered voters, to be holding a referendum. It is therefore important that we are either the first or among the earliest to vote. Doing so allows the people of the UK to make their decision independently, without the inevitable influence of earlier results from member states. The UK should give direction in Europe, rather than being led by smaller groups of voters.
The Prime Minister has said that Britain should be in the centre of Europe. I agree with him. Surely scheduling an early referendum would provide tangible evidence of providing that leadership in Europe. The Prime Minister has also said that we will still have a referendum even if another country does not ratify the constitution. I hope that the Government stick with that statement. However, how much better it would be to hold our referendum within four months of the final treaty being published and show the will of the British electorate regardless of how other countries vote.
I am not at all convinced that the constitution as presently written is highly desirable. But that is not the matter before us today. I join my noble friend, Lord Blackwell, in encouraging democracy through a timely referendum while the matter is still active in the minds of the voters.
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