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EU Constitutional Treaty

2.56 p.m.

Lord Marlesford asked Her Majesty's Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): My Lords, Article IV-444 asks national parliaments for a single view on whether to support a particular change in the voting rules. Although it may often be the case that your Lordships' House and the Commons agree, that will not invariably be true. In that event, the Government take the view that it is for the elected House to make the final judgment.

Lord Marlesford: My Lords, I am not sure that that is good enough. The passerelle clause will enable, for
 
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example, British taxation policy to be moved from unanimity to qualified majority voting without any further treaty change, which would sweep away the Government's cherished red lines. That is one of the most controversial proposals in the new EU constitution, so is it not an important safeguard that that use of the passerelle clause be subject to the approval of all 25 national parliaments? Why, therefore, are the Government downgrading the British Parliament into a single Chamber? Do they recognise that, if they seek to disenfranchise the House of Lords, they need a specific constitutional Bill to do so rather than slipping it in in an underhand way in the European Union Bill?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, the noble Lord will be astonished to hear that I completely reject the idea that we have slipped it in in an underhand way in the European constitution Bill. He will know that that Bill will arrive in your Lordships' House, and that there will be ample opportunity to debate the Government's proposal in Clause 2 to pursue the passerelle agreement in that way.

The noble Lord might also recognise that there has been a huge victory in the constitution in what Britain has been able to achieve by determining that the incredibly important issues of moving from unanimity to qualified majority or co-decision must be agreed by 25 parliaments—parliaments of sovereign nations. Noble Lords have felt passionately about that; it is to be applauded. We have addressed the question put to us of how to give a single view. That is our proposal in the Bill.

Lord Barnett: My Lords, will my noble friend reconsider her answer and, instead of using the passerelle clause, allow the whole of Parliament to decide rather than bothering with a referendum? After all, some Members of Parliament—at least, there might be a few in your Lordships' House—might read the 511 pages of the treaty. That would save the public a lot of trouble in reading the document before they decided on how they would vote. If she disagrees with that, can we have an assurance that the document—it costs £47—will be issued to every elector before any referendum, together with the 493 pages of Foreign and Commonwealth Office commentary? Perhaps that will make her appreciate how much better it would be not to bother with the referendum.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I am sure that the Foreign Office document is exquisite—all 493 pages of it.

A Noble Lord: It is.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My noble friend agrees with that and I am sure that noble Lords will have read most, if not all, of it. We are fully committed to a referendum; we have made that clear. It is important that the people of this country debate the issues, not least due to the misinformation that has been put around about the treaty. Whether they read all the document or not—I am not sure that sending it to every household would
 
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meet peoples' requirements—we want to ensure that there is an opportunity to understand what a good treaty this is, how important it is and what a good job Britain has done.

Lord Grenfell: My Lords, perhaps we may return to the Question. I am not in the habit of leaking the deliberations of the European Union Select Committee, but we looked closely yesterday at Clause 2 of the European Union Bill. We came to the unanimous conclusion that an initiative for a decision under Article IV-444 should have the approval of both Houses of Parliament. Will the Government take the time that is now available to them before the Bill comes to the House to reflect very carefully on that?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for indicating the work of the committee. The Government have already reflected carefully on the provision. As noble Lords will recognise, we are charged with finding a way to ensure that a single view comes from our Parliament—which is unique within the 25 nations, in terms of the make-up of the two Houses.

We have proposed in the Bill that your Lordships' House would be asked for its opinion, but that the final decision would rest with the elected Chamber. Noble Lords, as I have indicated, will have many opportunities during the passage of that Bill to debate the question and to make their views known both to Ministers in this House and in another place.

Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, of course I hope that fairly soon we will have a different government, so that none of this may arise. However, if, by some mischance, the noble Baroness's colleagues are still in office when the Bill comes forward again, would it not be reasonable to convey to her colleagues that we have a bicameral, not a unicameral, system and that your Lordships' House should not be treated as a second-rate think tank to be consulted on these matters? Should not the Bill go through the proper processes of full approval by both Chambers of our Parliament?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I recognise that that is the noble Lord's view. My view is that the will of the people will be that we will, indeed, be the Government, come 5 May, and that we will be debating these important issues in your Lordships' House—due to the importance of our role within Europe and the importance of ratifying this treaty. I have made it clear in all of my answers that there will be an opportunity for your Lordships to debate the Government's proposal.

I reiterate that we are a unique bicameral institution. Twelve member states have bicameral parliaments, but none has a wholly unelected Chamber, such as ours. We must ensure that we put forward a single view. Our proposal is in the Bill, it will come to your Lordships' House, it will be debated and I am sure that your Lordships will make their views well known. We all look forward to those debates.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, is the Minister aware that when my noble colleague and friend
 
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Lord McNally saw this Question on the passerelle procedure, with the strength of the excellent French that he learnt at school, he asked why the European Union was so concerned about umbrellas?

In view of the excellent report from another place, published only a few weeks ago about strengthening links between the two Houses in the scrutiny of European business and the potential establishment of a parliamentary European committee, does the Minister not agree that this is another area in which the two Houses should be working together, rather than the Commons pursuing this on its own and leaving the Lords, which does excellent and detailed work on European scrutiny, out of the picture?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I am glad that the noble Lord put his noble friend right on parapluie.

It is important that the two Houses work together. We are describing an approach on how we would achieve that. I am sure that the noble Lord will make his views well known during the passage of the Bill. We believe that our proposal does give your Lordships' House the opportunity to make its views well known and I hope that we will reach agreement, either through the usual channels or through our discussions and debates. On the questions of secondary legislation, the powers of your Lordships' House and so on, we have said that if we are to deal with these issues, it must, in the end, be another place that makes the final decision.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry: My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of my noble friend Lord Grenfell's Select Committee, does the Minister realise that she has made a quite remarkable statement? She rests her case on the fact that the Government are being asked for a single opinion. Why did the Government not fight against that? What are the precedents for treating us as a unicameral parliament? As far as I know there is none. If this proposal is to be passed, it will be a very substantial change in the nature of parliament at Westminster.


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