During the fifth day of the committee stage of the EU Bill, Bill Cash made the following interventions:
New Clause 11
PROVISION FOR FURTHER REFERENDUM
Mr Bone: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel), who made such a powerful speech. I hope that I am able to tempt her into joining us in the Division Lobby later tonight, given what she said about new clause 7. It would be wrong of me not to pay tribute to the Whips' Office for allowing me this time tonight, and for arranging matters so that my amendment 48 was not debated last week, when there clearly was not enough time for it. Now, we have absolutely hours and hours to discuss new clause 11, and I congratulate the Whips on that.
The new clause, which stands in my name and those of other hon. Members, reads:
"In order to meet the referendum condition referred to in section 2, section 3 and section 6 of this Act, the Act providing for the approval of-
(a) a treaty under the terms of section 2; or
(b) a decision under the terms of section 3; or
(c) a decision or draft decision under section 6 shall also provide for a further binding referendum to be held on continuing United Kingdom membership of the European Union, if the majority of those voting in a referendum held under the terms of the relevant section are opposed to the ratification of the treaty, decision or draft decision, as the case may be."
What does that actually mean? For the first time, this Parliament would have an option to debate whether we should have an in/out referendum on the European Union. In other words, there would have to be a binding in/out referendum on our membership of the European Union if the new clause were passed and two hurdles cleared: first, a referendum would have to be triggered under the European Union Bill, owing to a proposed transfer of competency; and secondly, the British people would have to vote against such a transfer of power.
Jacob Rees-Mogg: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, but I think there is a slight confusion. If we have an in/out vote, and it is won by the pro-Europeans, it is a vote for the EU as it exists and with all the powers that it has. Those of us who support this referendum lock Bill do not want further powers going to the EU or to get accidentally into a situation in which we sign up to things we probably opted out of. That is the complication of having an in/out vote that is won by the "in" side but not on the issue discussed and subject to the referendum lock. That is the danger; that is the unintended consequence.
The unintended consequences go further than that. Should there ever be a Labour Government again-I am sorry to say that there probably will be, although possibly not in my lifetime-those of us who support the Bill would want them to accept it and ensure that the referendum lock held as an important constitutional change. We would also want any change to the powers of the Europe Union to be subject to a referendum of the British people. However, if the Government concerned were unpopular, as happens to Conservative Governments too-and even, possibly, to coalition Governments-and felt they had to sign up to some marginal European treaty requiring a referendum, but knew that it could result in an in/out vote, they would be more likely to repeal the Bill lock, stock and barrel and say, "Look, we cannot do that because we would then have a vote against us at the second stage". The second unintended consequence, therefore, is that we would weaken the whole effect of the Bill by making it less likely to become the accepted constitutional practice, which is what I would very much like to see.
Mr William Cash (Stone) (Con): Does my hon. Friend accept that this is in fact a debate about an ingenious device-I hope I am right in thinking he mentioned the word "genius"-and that it is about the principle of continuing membership? Does a question not then arise that has not yet been answered-namely, membership of what?
Jacob Rees-Mogg: My hon. Friend always puts his finger on the nub of any European matter. I agree that the new clause is a device concerning a strong principle-that is the genius and anger I was talking about. The problem is that in its anger, it could achieve the wrong result. We do not want to set our firm principles on a weak base and a new clause that would actually undermine what those of us who are supporting the Bill wish to see achieved.
I agree with many hon. Members that there may well come a time when we would want an in/out referendum, but it needs to come when it has been the subject of important and urgent debate up and down the country; it needs to come when the British electorate are marching to say, "Now is the time to decide whether we should stay in this rotten institution, corrupt as it is, or whether we will put up with it in spite of its corruption, its inconvenience and all the problems associated with it, because there are some marginal trading advantages and we have got a few sanctions against Iran-or whatever the other arguments are in favour of it." We need to have the referendum at the right time, as a matter of a discussion of and about itself, not as a result of the random collision of atoms and following a debate on something completely separate-for example, a minor extension of some European power or competence.
Neither should an in/out referendum suddenly follow a referendum in which 20 people or 20% of people-let us be generous-have voted. Suddenly, we would have thrown all the balls in the air without any proper consideration or deliberation, and without having set out the framework for the debate we want. Those of us who are broadly Eurosceptic should oppose the new clause, because it undermines exactly what we want to achieve, and should support the general thrust of the Bill, which is designed to protect this country from further sacrifices of our authority and the people's power. We should rightly remember-it being a referendum lock-that it is not the power and mystique of these green Benches that are being given away, but the power and mystique of the British people themselves. They are the people we should trust. We should trust them with a referendum lock, and not rush headlong out of anger into a confusing and mistaken new clause that would undermine this lock that we are giving to the Great British people.
Mr Cash: Can my hon. Friend think of a single reason why we should not have a clear and positive policy to repatriate those laws that are now within the European Union, which are deliberately and wilfully destroying the British economy?
Mr Hollobone: I cannot think of a single reason-a straight answer to a straight question-and my Kettering constituents would greatly welcome the repatriation of powers that we have given away all too freely. Another example is the disgraceful common fisheries policy. I notice that a Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minister is now on the Treasury Bench; he is doing his best in Brussels to try to end the scandal of fish disregards, but it is like pushing water uphill. We are not going to get anywhere with Brussels because it will not see sense on these issues. If I were to ask my Kettering constituents whether we should repatriate our powers over Britain's fishing waters, there would be an overwhelming vote to do just that. We have given all these things away.
Mr Cash: For me, the debate is not about the wording of the new clause, but about a question of principle. It is also about whether we are a democratic nation. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr Shepherd) pointed out, and as many of us have argued for so many years, the question of why we are here in this House, ultimately, is entirely dependent on our relationship to the electorate. This is about democracy, not government.
We began our proceedings on the question of sovereignty some time ago, when we debated clause 18. In that debate, I made it clear-I believe that we won the argument-that the real question was whether this country would be able to govern itself or would end up being increasingly governed by judicial supremacy, and the European Scrutiny Committee report clearly demonstrated that point. For those of us who watched, for example, the recent BBC 4 programme on the Supreme Court, there is no doubt at all about the attitudes of some of the Justices in the Supreme Court and of many senior academics who are deeply influential in the Foreign Office and elsewhere. I know that the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), understands that extremely well; I have heard him say so.
There are serious questions about whether the judiciary seek to undermine-not deliberately, but by their language-the sovereignty of this House. So a referendum is about whether sovereignty-the ultimate authority for the government of this country-belongs to the Government, the Prime Minister, No. 10 Downing street and the like, who are elected and accountable to this House, which in turn is accountable to the electorate. Of all those different components of our constitutional arrangements, untidy as they may be, the most important is the sovereignty of the people.
Indeed, under our constitutional arrangements, we cannot even have a referendum unless it is endorsed by Act of Parliament, but that is the moment when the people of this country speak to their representatives, who by mutual accord reply, "This issue is too big for us. We have dithered for too long. We have not resolved these questions. We have allowed your self-government and your Parliament to be subsumed into and absorbed by the decisions that other countries take, by majority vote, so that the laws passed by this House are no longer passed exclusively by Members of Parliament, but by the process of the Whips, the process of government and by the acquiescence and the Europeanisation of this country, which nobody can deny."
Anybody who has listened to these debates over the past few days will be in no doubt that, whatever this Bill purports to do-the window-dressing that it represents, the aspiration to hold referendums after this Parliament-there is a continuing process of Europeanisation on criminal law, criminal procedure, civil matters, the whole immigration process and the issues of citizenship. They are increasingly being taken away from this House and transferred to the European Union. It is a policy of transfer.
The talk is of the transfer of competences and powers. What about the political transfer that takes place on a daily basis? Only this afternoon, I was in a European Committee on the stabilisation mechanism. A total of £8 billion of British taxpayers' money has now been committed to the prospect of bailing out Portugal and Spain, for no other reason than that, during the interregnum between two Governments a few months ago, the outgoing Chancellor entered into an unlawful agreement and the incoming Chancellor effectively endorsed it. For the British people, £8 billion is now at risk in times of austerity.
The question is, who made those decisions? I wager that the people responsible include those in the Treasury. The legal advice that I asked the Minister to provide and the other advice from the Treasury has been denied to me. The answer will be published tomorrow. It was given to me only 20 minutes or so before these proceedings began, and it effectively states, "You can't have the answer to these questions, because if we give them to you it will be inconvenient for the running of government."
Mr MacShane: The hon. Gentleman says that the previous and current Chancellors entered into an unlawful act. Is he saying that the current Chancellor of the Exchequer is a criminal?
Mr Cash: That is an absurd comment. I am speaking in terms of the vires of the treaty. It is a different question; it is nothing to do with what the right hon. Gentleman has said. It was a serious misjudgment. It was an agreement that cannot be justified by the legal base. The European Scrutiny Committee said in its report that the agreement on that particular mechanism was legally unsound. That is what I mean. It has exposed the British taxpayer to a very significant sum of money.
However, that is just one example. The real question, ultimately, is one of democracy and trust. It is a matter of principle, and that principle is demonstrated by what happened in respect of the Lisbon treaty. We stood here in this House, month after month, debating the Lisbon treaty. I tabled perhaps 120 or 130 amendments. We united the Conservative party: for the first time since 1972, we had complete unanimity. Of those with a different view, only one is still in the party now-the others have all fled to other parties-and he is the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice. He is entitled to his view and I respect him for the consistency with which he pursues it, however much I may disagree. The Conservative party was united in opposing every aspect of the Lisbon treaty and united for a referendum, and we voted accordingly. For reasons that have been put forward, but which I simply do not accept, that promise of a referendum was torn up.
Other promises with regard to the European issue-promises made in our manifesto-have not been sustained. These are serious matters. It is no surprise that the people of this country lose faith and trust in their politicians if such decisions are taken. This applies just as much to the Labour party or the Liberal Democrats. Broken promises are broken manifesto promises. Manifesto promises are the basis on which people ask to be elected and get into this House to represent the interests of the people who vote for them in the polling booth. If we break our promises, it is hardly surprising if the people of this country begin to feel a sense, first, of unease, and then of contempt for the political system.
This is constitutional reality, but also practical reality: it affects people in their everyday lives. We heard from the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) about the working at heights directive. We heard from the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) about the posted workers directive. We have heard about the working time directive, the nurses agencies directive, and so on. The EU affects every single corner, every single nook and cranny of our lives, and we appear to be powerless to do anything about it.
A few days ago I got the figures from the Library on the balance of trade between ourselves and the European Union. They are alarming. In relation to the 27 member states, between 1999 and 2009-it has got very much worse in the past 18 months-we had an imbalance of £5 billion. With the rest of the world, we have had an improvement of £11 billion. There is a message there: you cannot trade with a bankrupt organisation if you are a successful company. The European Union, with its low growth, its riots and protests, and its failure, demonstrates why a referendum is required, as the new clause says, on the question of
"continuing United Kingdom membership of the European Union".
For me, this is not just a question of in or out, but of to be or not to be a democratic nation state. This is not a matter to be trifled with.
I have profound views about the manner in which the coalition Government are dealing with this issue. As the Minister for Europe said in the debate last week, the Government have a European Affairs Committee, two thirds of which is Conservative and one third of which is Liberal Democrat. I pointed out to him that that Committee clearly could not have a vote, because we would win every time and we would have the policies that we stood on in our manifesto. So who is wagging the tail? It is clearly the one third of the Committee that are Liberal Democrats, combined with the instincts of those on our side of the equation who want more Europeanisation, although they disclaim it. That is another problem for us.
In Prime Minister's questions a few weeks ago I asked why it is that at every turn, whenever an issue of integration comes up, we always go in the wrong direction. Why has repatriation been rejected? It is the repatriation of powers, using the well-known formula-notwithstanding the European Communities Act 1972-that would enable us to re-grow our economy and answer the question that is now before the Chancellor of the Exchequer: why is our economy not growing? We can tell him that it is not growing because 50% of our trade is with the European Union, which is itself in deep trouble and has low growth. At the same time, we cannot grow our economy because we are strangled to such an extent by the red tape of Brussels. Those two situations can be retrieved only through a new relationship between us and the European Union.
This is not just a constitutional argument, but an argument of practicality. It is an argument of to be or not to be a democratic nation state, a great sovereign state and a successful country that represents the interests of the people we serve-not ourselves. As I have said so often, it is not our Parliament, it is their Parliament. They are entitled to know that if things have not gone right-things certainly have not gone right with Europeanisation-we have an absolute obligation to ask them for their opinion. That is democracy, that is trust and that is what will restore integrity to this House and the British political system.
Mr Bone: I am grateful for the Minister's kind words at the beginning of his comments, and I am genuinely disappointed that the Government have not accepted my new clause, which would have moved things forward for this country. There is little between us on this issue, so it is a shame that the Minister could not accept the new clause. I will seek to divide the Committee because of what we have heard today. This has been a good debate; indeed, I am surprised that it took off. I was expecting the Division, if we were going to have one, at about 6.30 pm, so at this appropriate juncture I again thank the Whips for arranging for this debate to take place and for allowing so much time. If it had not been for their help last Monday, that would not have happened.
We have heard from a number of hon. and right hon. Members. Let me deal first with the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane) and the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann), who both made their points powerfully. I disagreed with them, and I entirely hope that they are not in the same Lobby as I am when the Division occurs. Right at the beginning of the debate-it is some time ago now-we heard a powerful and thoughtful speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood (Mark Reckless), who set the tone for the proceedings. We also heard a good speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), whose remarks cheered me up enormously.
The right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) is always worth listening to, and again he did not fail the Committee this evening. He took a principled view-he is greatly in favour of the European Union-that we should have an in/out referendum. An equally able parliamentarian, my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone), took exactly the same view that we should have a referendum, but a completely different view on whether we should be in the European Union.
My hon. Friend the Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) took the opposite view to that expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg). I thank my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans, but I think that my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset expressed the most important concern in his thoughtful speech. I disagree with his conclusion that the new clause would be more likely to lead to a transfer of powers, but the issue, as developed in today's debate, has not mainly been about that technicality, but about whether we support an in/out referendum. If hon. Members support such a referendum, I urge them to vote for new clause 11.
Once again, the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) made a remarkable speech. The particular point I took from what she said was that an in/out referendum would revitalise politics. As she rightly said, there would be public meetings up and down the country and the people would be involved in the issue again.
My hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr Shepherd) kept the flag flying yet again, as he has done over the years. His speech went to the heart of the issue, but I will reserve my last comment for my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash), who has fought and fought again on this issue over many years. He summed it up very nicely when he explained that this is not an "in/out" referendum, but a "To be or not to be?" referendum. Are we to be or not to be a democratic nation state?
I urge all Members to make up their minds on the basis of whether they are for or against an in/out referendum. If they are for it, I urge them to vote for new clause 11. I also urge the Whips to allow this to happen, as promised in our manifesto.
Question put, That the clause be added to the Bill.
The Committee divided: Ayes 26, Noes 295.