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Baroness Rawlings: My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan. I also congratulate my noble friend Lord Blackwell on introducing this timely Private Member's Bill, the main thrust of which concerns timing. Many of your Lordships will have noted that, yet again, it is not the Government but a Member of this House who has led the way on matters of significant national importance. That is particularly welcome as it has given us the opportunity to listen today to two outstanding maiden speeches. I hope that both the noble Lord, Lord Laidlaw, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury, will have the opportunity in the future to lead the way too in bringing important issues to your Lordships' attention. I am confident that, with their experience and expertise, that will certainly be the case.

I echo the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Radice, about the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury, whom I have known and respected for many years. We all recognise her qualities and look forward to the contribution she will make to the House, not least through her distinguished television career at the BBC and Channel 4 and her work for the rehabilitation of addicted prisoners. Her excellent maiden speech this morning underlines why she is held in such high regard.

I should like to reinforce totally what the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, so rightly said about the excellent speech of my noble friend Lord Laidlaw. We are all very much aware of his tremendous support for youth development, education and lifelong learning. He is a most distinguished new Member of your Lordships' House, with a remarkable career of accomplishments behind him. These achievements are all too evident from his outstanding maiden speech today and we all hope that he will play a prominent part in your Lordships' House and that we will hear a great deal more from him on this and many other subjects.

I turn now to the Bill, and I shall address only the Bill and not the constitutional treaty. It has been a fascinating debate. The contributions from all sides have reinforced that this is an issue of great significance. Strong opposing views have been expressed in equal measure from all Benches. These are genuinely held views and, as such, rightly deserve to be listened to and respected regardless of whether they might or might not accord with our own perspectives.
 
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Clause 1 of the Bill calls for a referendum on the European constitutional treaty to be called within four months. Ten of our European neighbours are also set to hold one. Indeed, in July, when President Chirac called a referendum on the treaty, the Minister with responsibility for Europe, Denis MacShane, said that he was,

and yet we are still awaiting the date to be set for our own referendum. The French vote will take place in the second part of next year, about a year before the British referendum is expected.

Noble Lords who have argued for that time scale suggest that it is the earliest practical opportunity. No doubt the Minister will argue that the treaty does not have to be ratified by all member states until the end of 2006, but that completely misses the point. As my right honourable friend the shadow Foreign Secretary said in another place:

And as my noble friend Lord Kalms said in his eloquent speech, "It is not the moment to toss it into the long grass".

It is nonsense to suggest, as many noble Lords have said, that a referendum cannot be held until after the general election on the grounds that there is insufficient time to complete the formalities in Parliament. A general election can be called with only three weeks' notice. This Bill, with its four months' time scale, allows for five times that length of time—surely enough time, as the noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson, said, for a "full, wide and informed debate". Surely it is enough time, as the noble Lord, Lord Sewell, said, "For the role of Parliament in the whole mechanism". Many people believe that the only reason that the Prime Minister wants to delay this referendum is the hope that one of the nine other countries expected to hold referendums will vote the constitution down.

As with the Hunting Bill, which will possibly have a two-year delay between being passed and being enforced, the delay in calling the referendum on the constitutional treaty is a cynical attempt to avoid addressing a contentious issue this side of the general election. It is another example of the Government's shameful lack of courage and conviction to lead from the front. After seven years prevarication, we are now adding another two, and, as my noble friend Lord Patten says, it manifests the Government's frivolous attitude to constitutional change.

This Bill is brought to your Lordships' House with the best intentions of my noble friend Lord Blackwell. Many noble Lords on all sides of the debate clearly recognise the significance of the European constitutional treaty. The people of this country understand that they are being asked an essential
 
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question about their future and, above all, that of their children. That question should be put to the people at the earliest opportunity.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean): My Lords, I am very pleased to have the opportunity to set out the Government's position on this Bill. First, I thank all noble Lords here today for contributing to such an interesting and, I am bound to say at times, entertaining debate. Particularly I should like to thank those who actually dealt with the subject of the debate—that is to say, the Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Blackwell.

I thank the noble Lord for all his efforts to introduce his Bill. Of course, it has given us the opportunity to have two excellent maiden speeches. One was from the noble Lord, Lord Laidlaw, who with his wealth of knowledge gained in the private sector, both here and overseas, has demonstrated what an asset he will be on a wide spectrum of debates in your Lordships' House. I congratulate him and look forward very much to hearing from him again in future. The contribution of the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury, showed all the hallmarks of her impeccable parliamentary and party pedigree, one of which she is rightly proud. Today she demonstrated to us how rightly proud her illustrious predecessors would have been of her. I remind both maiden speakers, however, that not all our debates are quite as much fun as are these Friday debates.

The Government support the general principle behind the Bill but, unfortunately, we cannot support the way in which it is framed. Let me be clear that, as the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, said, we are here to debate this Bill and the provisions that it suggests for a referendum, not the treaty itself—nor, as the noble Lord, Lord Blackwell, argued, for an entirely different treaty. All those issues will be discussed on future occasions, very often and at considerable length.

We are looking forward on this side of the House to putting the EU constitution to the people. As the noble Lord, Lord Blackwell, said, I support the decision on a referendum and I do so wholeheartedly. That is not because the treaty would alter the fundamental nature of the relationship between member states and the European Union. It does not and it will not. Rather, the Government want to hold a referendum because it is time to face the EU debate head-on and to dispel the myths about the constitution. As the Prime Minister said in another place, the people should have the final say on whether Britain is,

A referendum will allow the people of this country to take that decision.

It is apparent that on the principle of holding a referendum on the EU constitution as set out in this Bill, the noble Lord, Lord Blackwell, and I can agree.
 
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I am glad about that, but, sadly, that is where our agreement ends. The noble Lord's Bill calls for the referendum to be held within four months of the publication of the final text of the treaty. Even those noble Lords who have done their best to support the Bill have done so by saying that a referendum is necessary within a reasonable time. The noble Lord, Lord Patten, made a valiant attempt to support the Bill on that basis.

We all want a referendum in a reasonable time-frame; the issue is, what is that reasonable time frame? As my noble friends Lord Sewel and Lord Lea of Crondall pointed out, it is not realistic to hold a referendum within such a short passage of time. Indeed, as my noble friend Lord Sewel said, this proposal is tantamount to calling for a pre-legislative referendum—a referendum held before Parliament, the cornerstone and very hallmark of our democracy, has had the chance to scrutinise the treaty, before there is a considered debate on the final text, and before both Houses have had the opportunity to offer their expertise and wisdom on the issues contained therein. That is the extraordinary proposition that the noble Lord's Bill puts forward.

As noble Lords are aware, the treaty must be ratified by the end of October 2006 if it is to come into force on 1 November, as the constitution envisages. As we have done throughout the convention and the IGC, we want to maximise the opportunities for parliamentary and public scrutiny of the final text. Why have a referendum without having that full and frank debate, and without being aware of all the facts or about the treaty's real implications for the United Kingdom?

The noble Lord, Lord Blackwell, was emphatic that he wanted a proper public debate, a point that was reiterated passionately by the noble Lord, Lord Kalms. But then the noble Lord, Lord Blackwell, went on to put forward proposals which in themselves would curtail the whole public debate. I put it to your Lordships that some on the Opposition Benches are very keen to hold a referendum quickly, within four months of the publication of the final text, because they fear the realities that time and proper debate will uncover. Holding an early referendum based on the myths and untruths currently peddled by some parts of the media would no doubt be a very attractive proposition to those who oppose the treaty. I do not know whether that is what the noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, described as "Conservative skulduggery" in his very entertaining contribution, but I thought that there might be just a hint of that.

The noble Lord, Lord Blackwell, asked for the Government's views on timings. He of course proceeded from the supposition that the Government might see any scintilla of merit in his four-month proposal. We do not, and I am afraid that his questions on timings start from a fundamentally mistaken premise. But even were this Parliament to lose its collective wisdom far enough to agree with the noble Lord's Bill on the four-month clause, it is a frankly extraordinary suggestion that we should hold a referendum in the winter months. As my noble friends Lord Tomlinson and Lord Sewel pointed out, a
 
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referendum in midwinter would do nothing to maximise the vote as the noble Lord, Lord Laidlaw, said was so important.

The noble Lord, Lord Kalms, and I have not had the pleasure of exchanging views on Europe before, but he will find that we go in for very detailed debate on these matters in this House. I look forward to what will no doubt be a very lengthy period of debate, if the period of incubation of the treaty is anything to go by. I hope that he has a great deal of stamina with which to face that.

The noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, was of course disarmingly frank—is he not always?—about his views. I was pleased to see, on this occasion, that he is now at liberty to be as critical of the Conservative Party as he is of the Government. I know that he will be as dogged and determined as he always is when telling us about his views on Europe.

When I am answering a debate, I always try to deal with the questions and points raised by all noble Lords, or at least to mention all noble Lords. But today I felt almost defeated by the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, in his very entertaining address—although it is true, of course, that he did not defeat the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan. The noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, having mentioned the Bill once in his opening remarks, spent the subsequent 10 minutes in what I can only describe as a "Blackwell Bill-free zone", although we did learn a great deal about today's Financial Times. I am bound to say that I am grateful to the noble Lord for keeping us so cheerful; at least I felt quite cheerful about what he said until I heard the apocalyptic views of the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, on those points.

It is, however, unfortunate for the poor noble Lord, Lord Blackwell, that his guns have already been so badly spiked by the leader of his own party who commented in another place, somewhat embarrassingly given the nature of this Bill, that pre-legislative referendums are,

He went on:

To quote the Leader of the Opposition on the timing of referendums and when they should be held, he said that the electorate,

Perhaps he needs to have a word not only with the noble Lord but possibly with Mr Ancram as well.

I heard what the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, said about the Government not having led the way on this debate. I hope that that reflects more of a parliamentary device than a real conviction because, as she knows, the Government have already allowed for unparalleled parliamentary scrutiny of the negotiations on this treaty even before it has been signed. Ministers and officials have attended a total of
 
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15 sessions with committees in the Commons and the Lords on the Convention on the Future of Europe and the IGC, and responded to 17 Select Committee reports. We have discussed the IGC on more than 20 occasions in the past year on the Floors of both Houses and at three sittings of the Standing Committee on the IGC. Therefore, I am at a loss to know how the noble Lord, Lord Blackwell, can sensibly claim that the Government have what he called a "chequered record" on consultation.

The noble Lord, Lord Maclennan of Rogart, was kind enough to remind us that he said in this House on 20 November last year that it was hard to see what more the Government could have done to provide opportunities for scrutiny than the opportunities they provided during the IGC. He said that they were "unprecedented". He also asked:

We shall not reduce these essential levels of scrutiny in the light of the ill advised provisions of this Bill. I do not know whether the noble Lord, Lord Blackwell, availed himself of all those opportunities for consultation but I seem to recall that on his Benches it was only the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, who had an unchequered record in that respect.

We believe that people have a right to know Parliament's view on the EU constitutional treaty before they vote. After all, every Conservative government since 1972 in respect of every European treaty they signed up to have left Parliament to decide whether those treaties should be given effect in UK law. They were not put to the people. We believe in this parliamentary process; something which it appears this Bill is attempting to negate.

My noble friend Lord Radice emphasised the importance of clear information being available to people before a referendum and my noble friend Lord Tomlinson reminded us that the Government have made a number of commitments to set out the facts of this treaty to both Parliament and the people. These include a lay person's guide to the European Union and, as the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, requested, a comprehensive analysis of the existing treaties and of this treaty so that, as he said, the public can see for themselves where the treaty provisions come from. These will be published before the end of this year.

My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has also launched the Government's White Paper on the treaty. He launched it in another place yesterday, and copies are now available to your Lordships in the Printed Paper Office. I read my copy yesterday evening: it seemed to me that it was clear, concise, well set out and, like my noble friend Lord Lea, I commend it to your Lordships.

I need to comment on some other aspects of this Bill. As regards the question on which I hope the noble Lord has consulted the Electoral Commission—I do not know whether he has; perhaps he will enlighten us on that point—he has included a preface drafted in
 
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such a way as to persuade people to reject the treaty. Irrespective of your Lordships' varied opinions about the EU constitution, I am sure that you will agree that the question put to the people for a referendum should be a straight one; it should be a neutral one, and it should be agreed with the Electoral Commission. However, this Bill proposes a blatantly biased preamble to the question. It is a clear indication that the noble Lord believes that this is a tactic necessary to procure the No vote which he so passionately wants.

The Government's own Bill will do two things: provide for the treaty to have effect in UK law and include provision for a referendum. The referendum question will be drafted taking account of the independent Electoral Committee's guidelines designed to ensure that the question is intelligible. Ultimately, the question is a matter for the scrutiny and agreement of Parliament, again something which this Bill appears to be willing to bypass. The referendum question will be on a constitutional treaty but, of course, the implications go much wider than that. The fundamental issues were encapsulated by my noble friend Lord Radice. Are we to have a Britain at the heart of Europe able to play its full part in the European Union or do we take the Euro-sceptic line increasingly prevalent in the Conservative Party and fundamentally change the relationship between Britain and Europe?

The noble Lord, Lord Blackwell, concludes in a paper entitled, What if We Say No to the European Constitution?, written in his role as the chairman of the Centre for Policy Studies, that if the UK rejected this treaty, it could enter into what he described as a,

My noble friend Lord Lea of Crondall was quite right: this is like saying that the United Kingdom could choose on a scale of one to 10 how much involvement we really want with the EU. A country cannot be half a member of NATO or part of a member of the United Nations. Therefore, I am at a loss to know how the noble Lord conceives that some sort of associate membership of the EU would be in the interests of the people of the United Kingdom.

Our membership of the EU is not a vague notion or a set of laws. Europe matters. I do not want this country to end up on its margins, and the referendum and the debate that will lead up to it will give the people of this country the opportunity to form their own position on the EU constitution based on reality not myth.

I look forward to our debates here in this Parliament and to the referendum that will follow, as it should, after proper parliamentary debate and scrutiny.


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