Bill Cash: without genuine and properly sourced information and proper time, the British people will effectively be cheated

During yesterday’s debate on the draft European Union Referendum, Bill Cash made the following speech and interventions:

The Minister for Europe (Mr David Lidington): I beg to move,

That the draft European Union Referendum (Date of Referendum etc.) Regulations 2016, which were laid before this House on 22 February, be approved.

The statutory instrument before us does a simple, but critical job: it puts in place the necessary legislation to enable a referendum to be held on 23 June this year. It is the last piece of legislation that will be debated in this Chamber to make that vote possible. As such, it represents Parliament taking the final steps towards an historic moment when, for the first time in over 40 years, the British people will be given their say on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced a few days ago his intention to hold the referendum on 23 June, and the Government believe that that strikes an appropriate balance, giving plenty of time for a vigorous and comprehensive debate. Ultimately, however, the date is a matter for Parliament to decide, and as set out in the European Union Referendum Act 2015, it is a decision that must be approved both here and in the House of Lords.

Sir William Cash (Stone) (Con): I am fascinated by my right hon. Friend’s reference to vigorous and open debate, because it is quite clear from the preceding urgent question and from many other matters that have come to light recently that the one thing that everybody needs—information—is the one thing that people are going to find themselves deprived of. If the voters do not have balanced, impartial and accurate information, what are they supposed to do?

Mr Lidington: My advice to any elector would be to look at what the Government are saying and advising, but also at what the various campaign groups and other organisations in this country are saying. I will come later to the designation of campaign organisations. We need this statutory instrument to be approved, among other things, to make it possible for the Electoral Commission to go ahead and designate the campaign groups on each side of the argument, and give them access to the privileges that come with that status, precisely so that they can go out and present their case and make information and argument available to the people to whom my hon. Friend refers.

(…)

Sir William Cash (Stone) (Con): The date is obviously a crucial moment in the development of this referendum, but I have reservations about 23 June. I have not yet decided, and I want to hear what the Scottish National party has to say about this issue, because that will be interesting and may have some impact on the way I vote. I am interested in the democratic side of this issue.

On 3 February, in my response to the Prime Minister’s statement on the UK-EU renegotiation, I said that this is all about voters’ trust, and I went on to give examples of why I thought that promises and principles had been broken. Above all else, I asked whether this will be a political stitch-up by the European Council because the agreement—such as it is—and any other subsequent legal arrangements must be both legally binding and irreversible.

Information was contained in the White Paper published a few days ago, and I have had quite an interesting weekend, given the remarks that were made about me—I need not elaborate on that, and I assure you, Mr Speaker, that it caused me no concern whatsoever. Whether this agreement will be irreversible is a question of trust, and today we had an extremely important urgent question on information. I put a question to the Minister, and tomorrow my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) will interview the Cabinet Secretary on this matter. The real question is about voter trust. On 23 June, will people have enough proper information, based on a fair arrangement between those on both sides of the debate? The Government first insisted on the purdah arrangements that they wanted to use for the whole of the civil service machinery. We drove them off on that, but then they brought in, through the House of Lords, a legal duty to provide such information —if I may say so, they pretended that that had come from other people in the House of Lords, but it was clearly at least half sponsored by the Government.

When we got to ping-pong, I waited until the last minute before it ended, and I got up and asked the Minister—he knows what is coming—whether he would give me a straight answer, yes or no, about whether the information that is due to be published would be both accurate and impartial. He said, “Of course.” He added that it would be perverse if the Government were to do otherwise.

Well, Mr Speaker, I have to say that I am intrigued. On 23 June, the people may not have impartial and accurate information. I believe the Government are probably, if not certainly, in breach of their duty under sections 6 and 7 of the European Referendum Act 2015. Furthermore, despite what the Minister had to say on this today, the words “the opinion of” in this context will not, I believe, be a sufficient safeguard from the potential concerns that they know must already be in some people’s minds that this is not fair and may well not be legal. This is a very, very important matter.

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): I am confused. When the Paymaster General answered the question I put to him, he said that the Cabinet Secretary is not neutral. That I accept, when the Cabinet Secretary is working for the Government. In this matter, however, the Cabinet Secretary may well be working for the people, because it is the people who are going to decide this matter. In my view, it is therefore proper that the Cabinet Secretary, or someone of his ilk, should draft or head up a paper that puts the facts for both sides of the argument, so that the people who are going to make the decision—this is the people’s decision—can make a decision that is based on objective facts.

Sir William Cash: The sentiments my hon. Friend expresses are very relevant to the question of voter trust. In the debate on 25 February, and when the Foreign Secretary gave evidence to the European Scrutiny Committee, which has considered these matters in great depth, I said that the Government are effectively—in fact, I will go further and say definitely—cheating the voters. This cannot be said to be legally binding and irreversible. In the debate on 25 February, I pointed out that the Council conclusions—I ask that hon. Members look at the Council conclusions—refer to the words “legally binding” and there is a common accord with respect to the international law agreement. What they cannot do is say that it would be irreversible. Furthermore, although Mr Tusk, the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have been saying “irreversible”, they cannot prove that that is the case. I will explain why in one second.

On 23 June, a most momentous and historic decision will be taken by all the people in the United Kingdom who can vote. They have a right to know whether the question they are going to be asked, on whether to remain or to leave, can be answered. It is the basis of my proposition that it is impossible for them to know whether it is going to be irreversible for a simple reason. Under the international agreement where the European Court may or may not take into account the question that has been posed by the White Paper, certainly there is no guarantee of a treaty change and certainly there is no guarantee that the mechanics of the international law decision will produce a definite result that the European Court can decide on. Nobody can say that the European Court will or will not accept any treaty change. As a matter of fact, with respect to the question of referendums, there is no guarantee that there will not be referendums.

There are currently at least four Governments of the 28 in the EU, in the great stitch-up in the political decision-making process I referred to, who barely have control over their government at all. There are massive problems in Portugal and Spain, and now in Ireland as well, and there are massive problems in Greece. There is absolutely no reason why anybody should guarantee either that there will be treaty change or that it will be irreversible.

I happened to take part in the referendums that produced “no” votes in other countries, including France and Denmark. To say as a matter of absolute certainty in this disgraceful White Paper that it is irreversible when it is impossible as a matter of fact, let alone of law, for anyone to say that they know what the European Court will do or indeed that there will not be a referendum and what the outcome of that would be, is simply unacceptable.

John Redwood: Is it not also the case that if we read the language of this political agreement after rather difficult negotiations and if we take the example of something crucial such as the protection of our interests against the wishes of the euro, that language says that we can be overridden in certain circumstances, so we will have gained absolutely nothing?

Sir William Cash: Absolutely nothing at all. I think that the British people, who are a great people, are waking up to this. As I said in last Thursday’s debate, Churchill said that we should tell the truth to the British people and they will follow, but they are not being told the truth—that is the real truth, and nothing but the truth.

A comprehensive poll was published in the Evening Standard on Friday on the question of whether the voters trust the outcome of this negotiation. The result is simple to describe: 53% said that they did not trust it at all; only 22% said that they did; as for the balance, the pollsters said that half of those who were undecided tended not to trust it. I know that a poll is a poll, but I also say that on the question of trust, the outcome is either to be trusted or not to be trusted. This whole negotiated package, whether it be looked at from a political or a legal point of view, is not to be trusted.

I say that to the House of Commons because this is where the real issues have to be resolved, but we have quite rightly handed this over to the voters—and they do not trust it. I do not think that anything they will have heard today from the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General, or anything they will hear tomorrow from the Cabinet Secretary, or indeed any of the matters discussed in relation to the component parts of this package, either in aggregate or individually, will provide any reason for anybody to trust this deal.

The question before us today about the date of 23 June must be weighed against the background of whether that date is appropriate. I want to listen to what SNP Members say, as I have a great interest in that. They are elected to stand up for their own views and for their own part of the United Kingdom. I may disagree with what they say, but I saw what happened with the Scottish referendum, particularly regarding the date and the length of time allowed for debate. We will hear from SNP Members how they were stitched up by the BBC and all the rest of it. What I am saying is that this entire question of the date is dependent on the extent to which proper information is given to the voter. As I said in the urgent question earlier, the crucial issue is what reliance the voters can have on the fact that the information they are being given is transparent and honest, and additionally impartial and accurate, which is what the Minister for Europe told me on the Floor of the House it would be.

Simon Hoare (North Dorset) (Con): I rise with some trepidation in recognition that my hon. Friend is an expert in this field. I do not think he will agree with me, but this is my take. For most people, this will be a vote on the principle of whether to remain or to leave rather than on the minutiae of the detail of the renegotiation. That was always going to be case, in my view, irrespective of when the referendum is held. Given that he has argued so cogently for so long that a referendum should be held on this issue, I am inclined to agree with our Front-Bench team that it should be held as quickly as possible and that a date after the Scottish and Welsh elections seems to be the right time. Otherwise, it falls to the autumn.

Sir William Cash: What I would say in reply is very simple. If my hon. Friend were good enough to read the speech and the remarks made by my good right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary on the question of the whole package, he would realise that our right hon. Friend says that we do not want to look at anything other than the whole package. That is what he says; my hon. Friend should read it for himself. It is very strange that we are going to such lengths, with the Prime Minister roaming around the country making all these speeches, with the putting out of all this information, with all this business about the civil service and the guidance, and with all the rest of matters that I have referred to. Why is so much emphasis being placed on this? Why are the airwaves being dominated on such a scale and why is so much paper being used?

This reminds me of what I said to the late Baroness Thatcher when I was invited to lunch in Downing Street. When I went into the room, most of the Cabinet were sitting around the table. She said, “Bill, you sit next to me.” Then she turned to Geoffrey Howe and said, “I’ve brought Bill in to talk about Europe.” Then she turned to me and said, “What do you feel about Europe, Bill?” I said, while looking at Geoffrey Howe, “Prime Minister, I think your task is more difficult than Churchill’s.”

She said, “You will have to explain this, won’t you?” I said, “Prime Minister, Churchill’s task was more difficult than yours for this reason. You are in greater difficulty than he because he was faced with bombs and aircraft, but you are faced with pieces of paper.” It is those pieces of paper that I am worried about, and I think the voters should be as well.

(…)

Sir William Cash: As a veteran of the Scotland Acts, all the way back to when Mr Dewar was Secretary of State at—I believe—the beginning of 1979, may I ask whether the hon. Gentleman recalls the reserve powers? Would they not be an issue?

Stephen Gethins: As usual, the hon. Gentleman has made a very good point. European Union legislation has a significant impact on significant powers that sit with the Scottish Parliament, and the same applies to Northern Ireland and Wales. I have mentioned some already, but energy is another example. On renewables, for instance, the Scottish Government are much more in line with our European partners than with the United Kingdom Government.

Let me now address issues that the hon. Member for Stone raised in what was—again, as usual—a very informed speech. I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon has come into the Chamber, because this is a good time to remind the House that he called the independence referendum 545 days before the day on which it took place. I shall give the Minister some leeway by saying that SNP Members are not seeking quite that number of days. However, we need to have the courage of our convictions, and have a proper debate.

The hon. Gentleman and I will not agree on this particular referendum. Indeed, I am not sure that we will agree on many referendums that may be held during my time in the House. One thing on which we will agree, however, is that a proper debate takes a great deal longer than the seven weeks that we have been given, and we want a proper debate that goes to the heart of this issue. As someone who wants Scotland, and the rest of the United Kingdom, to remain part of the European Union, I believe that our case stands up to scrutiny, and that the Conservatives should have the courage of their convictions and subject it to appropriate scrutiny.

Sir William Cash: Whether or not we agree on the immigration issue, does the hon. Gentleman agree with what I said on 3 February? As everyone knows from the recent figures, the question of immigration—which is actually about numbers and the effect on social services, including those in Scotland—has now been whittled down to a narrow argument about in-work benefits, on which the Government want to go on harping so that they can distract attention from the really big question, which is “Who governs this country, and are we going to be in the second tier of a two-tier German Europe?”

Stephen Gethins: The hon. Gentleman was clearly listening to Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland, when she raised that very point about in-work migrant benefits this morning. I believe that people who are going to live and work in a country, and contribute, have every right to the same benefits, just as 2 million United Kingdom citizens, including 1 million in Spain, benefit from being part of the European Union. (…)

(…)

Sir William Cash: In relation to “Project Fear”, which is very real, does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government should listen to Mervyn King, the former Governor of the Bank of England, who said that it was the euro and Europe that were causing massive unemployment and making Europe so dysfunctional? In fact, the dangers to the UK and to Scotland are also dangers to Europe as a whole. We have only to look at the way in which the Germans treated the Greeks, not to mention opening the doors to immigration, causing dislocation and more barbed wire in Europe today then there was even during the cold war.

Stephen Gethins: When we talk about “Project Fear”, we have to acknowledge that it is taking place on both sides of the debate. There has been a positive debate on the environmental benefits of membership; when Germany was experiencing acid rain as a result of UK industry, for example, we had to formulate a common set of rules. Let us also think about the benefits to the economy when people go on holiday. Also, the benefits to Scotland’s small and medium-sized enterprises of exporting to Europe are worth £2,000 to every man, woman and child in Scotland.

I say to the hon. Member for Stone that I want to have a positive debate, including with him, and I am sure that we will do so over the next little while. Let us not mistake the faults of the European Union for the faults of the member states. This is a mistake that we know only too well in Scotland. Let us have a positive debate, but let us have an honest debate as well.

(…)

Sir William Cash: Has my right hon. Friend had the opportunity to see not only the White Paper that was produced a few days ago but the latest jewel in the crown from the Government, which is entitled “The process for withdrawing from the European Union”? It contains page after page of tendentious remarks, assertions and assumptions that cannot be substantiated. I can see the Minister for Europe wriggling around a bit on the Front Bench, because the bottom line is that he will not be able to answer these questions, but they will be tested before 23 June.

John Redwood: That is why, in my amiable way, I was suggesting that the Government might like to rethink their position on the timing of the referendum. Having seen that piece of work, I agree with my hon. Friend. I was frankly ashamed that such a document could come from the United Kingdom Government. It bore no relation to what the leave campaigns are saying about how we would like the Government to handle the British people’s decision if they decide to leave. It did not give any credence to the idea that we would be negotiating with friends and allies who would have as much interest in a successful British exit as we would, should that be the will of the British people.

Ministers never seem to understand that the rest of Europe has far more exports to us at risk than we have to the rest of the European Union, because we are in massive deficit with those countries. I have had personal assurances from representatives of the German Government, for example, that they have no wish to see tariffs or barriers being placed in the way of their extremely profitable and successful trade with the United Kingdom. To issue a document implying that all sorts of obstacles would be put in the way of such trade over a 10-year period simply beggars belief.

Sir William Cash: May I give my right hon. Friend an example? These documents contain scarcely any serious objective analysis from bodies such as the Office for National Statistics or the House of Commons Library, and their arguments are tendentious. I am sure he will remember, because this is at the forefront of his mind, that in current account transactions relating to imports, exports, goods and services, we run a deficit with the other 27 member states of about £58 billion a year, and that Germany runs a surplus in those same goods, services, imports and exports. If that is a single market, I’m a Dutchman.

John Redwood: I am sure that my hon. Friend is many fine things, but a Dutchman is clearly not one of them. He has, however, revealed an important fact, and it is the kind of fact that we would expect to see in a balanced document setting out the position on trade. I hope that the Minister will leave enough time in his urgent timetable to ensure that those sorts of important facts—

Sir William Cash: With references.

John Redwood: With references and proper statistical bases. Those important facts should be put in front of the British people. Indeed, the Minister would be wise to do that from his own point of view—perhaps I should not help him as much as I am apparently trying to do. The Government have been rumbled on this. The press and a lot of the public are saying that they want factual, mature and sensible information setting out the risks of staying in, the risks of leaving and what it would look like in either case, but that is not what we are getting.

We have had another example in the past few days. We have been witnessing a long-term decline of the pound against the dollar for many months, because we are living through a period of dollar strength. In the past few days, when Brexit was in the news, we were told that the pound was going down because of fears about Brexit, whereas that was clearly not the case on other days when the pound had been going down. However, on those same days, the Government bond market had been going up. The prices of bonds had been rising and our creditworthiness was assessed as being better, but I did not hear the Government saying that the idea of Brexit was raising Britain’s credit standing. We could make that case just as easily as we could make the case that the fear of Brexit was leading to a fall in the pound.

That is the kind of tendentious information that I hope the Minister will reconsider if he wishes to keep up the normally high standards of Government documentation and use impartial civil service advice in the right tradition, which we in the House of Commons would like to see. I can see that a few colleagues are not entirely persuaded that those high standards are always met, but I shall give the Government the benefit of the doubt. I have certainly seen many Government documents that achieve higher standards than the ones on this matter.

I again urge the Minister to make sure that he leaves enough time in the action-packed timetable to produce high-quality, balanced information that includes the risks of staying in and the wild ride to political union that others have in mind, as well as what he sees as the risks of leaving. For instance, the Government should point out that if we stop paying the £10 billion of net contributions—money we do not get back—that will immediately improve the balance of payments by one fifth next year. Would that not be a marvellous advantage? I do not see it being pointed out in any of the current material in order to show some kind of balance.

(…)

Sir William Cash: Is the right hon. Gentleman thinking that the European Union Act 2011, which many of us opposed for all sorts of reasons, should be severely amended and/or repealed with regard to treaty change?

Tom Brake: We have a referendum ahead of us, and I suggest we get on with that before looking at whether to make any changes to that Act.

The Liberal Democrats support the referendum on 23 June. I have been in this House for some time now—longer than some Members but not as long as others—and it seems to me that, in this House and beyond, we have had a very full debate in recent general elections about the EU and whether we should or should not be members of it. As I said in an earlier intervention on the Minister, there is certainly no confusion in the minds of the electors in my constituency between the mayoral and Assembly elections taking place in May, and the EU referendum that will take place, presumably on 23 June. Clearly, it is more difficult for the political parties and the campaigners if one election follows on so relatively quickly after another.

(…)

Sir William Cash: I am so glad that the right hon. Gentleman has referred to “Project Status Quo”, because I am sure he will accept that almost nothing has changed, for example, on ever closer union, or in any word of any treaty or law in relation to the EU. Would he therefore be good enough simply to say that he agrees with us that proper, impartial information should be published, and that the current documents simply do not cut the mustard?

Tom Brake: What I will agree with the hon. Gentleman on is the fact that there is a “Project Status Quo”, but I think he has misunderstood the point I was making, which was that there are people on his side of the argument who would like us to come out of the EU and who claim repeatedly that the basis on which we would be able to trade with the EU would be unchanged. They say, “There is no change. It will be exactly the same. We will get exactly the same terms whether we are in or out.” That is why I referred to “Project Status Quo”.

(…)

Sir William Cash: I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, especially as he is a member of the European Scrutiny Committee, of which I have the honour to be chair. Does he agree that a democratic question lies at the heart of this matter? If there is information on which the voter is expected to make his decision, as was the case with the Scottish situation a few years ago, the bottom line is that, without genuine and properly sourced information and proper time, the British people will effectively be cheated?

(…)

Question put.

The House divided:

Ayes 475, Noes 59.

 

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