HC Deb 08 July 1971 vol 820 cc1514-6
Q2. Mr. William Price

asked the Prime Minister what reply he has sent to people writing to him asking for a referendum on the Common Market.

Q4. Mr. Raphael Tuck

asked the Prime Minister how many letters he has received since 22nd June making representations against his refusal to hold a referendum before taking Great Britain into the European Economic Community.

The Prime Minister

Precise figures are not available but a number of the letters I receive on the Common Market refer to the possibility of a referendum. The replies have explained that it is Parliament's responsibility to decide this issue and that a referendum would be contrary to our constitutional practice.

Mr. Price

Is it not clear that those in this House who argue for a referendum are not concerned about principles at all but are engaged on a third-rate gimmick based on a belief that they would win? Is it not also clear that the moment public opinion changes, we shall hear no more about the need for a referendum from these self-appointed defenders of the constitution?

The Prime Minister

It is not for me to examine or comment on what may be the motives of hon. Members and others. However, I feel that what the hon. Gentleman said coincides with the view expressed on many occasions both by the Leader of the Opposition and myself.

Mr. Tuck

The Prime Minister said yesterday and today that Parliament must decide. Will he now answer the question he so deftly ducked two weeks ago? In view of the fact that he stated quite clearly before the General Election that it would be unthinkable for Britain to enter the Common Market unless a majority of the British people—not the British Parliament, but the British people—were in favour of entry and as neither the present Government nor the present Parliament has a mandate from the British people either to enter or to oppose entry, will he now honour that commitment of his by testing the opinion of the electorate either in a referendum or a General Election—we prefer a General Election—before taking this irrevocable and most tremendous step in British history, or is he afraid to do so? Let him answer "Yes" or "No", and not wriggle.

The Prime Minister

The answer to both questions is "No".

Sir R. Cary

If a referendum were held, would it not be almost impossible to compile a suitable questionnaire to put before the electors?

The Prime Minister

Those who have studied referenda, and especially the experience of certain other countries, have always come to the conclusion that one of the greatest disadvantages lies in the method of framing the questions. One has seen other countries in which this has quite obviously led to abuse. This has been one of the strongest arguments against the referendum.

There is, secondly, the question whether a referendum is purely an advisory matter or whether it binds Parliament. If it binds Parliament, then Parliament gives up all its powers on what most of us consider to be one of the major issues of the day.

Mr. Harold Wilson

The Prime Minister said that I oppose a referendum, and I agree—I have always done so, as he has. The idea of an advisory referendum was not then put forward, but I still agree with the right hon. Gentleman on this question. But since he said, rightly, that the decision must be taken by Members of Parliament, each of them taking responsibility for his decision in the matter, will he look again at the White Paper which he published yesterday, since it did not give Members of Parliament the information required on a number of questions, of which I am prepared to supply him with a list—questions which I and other right hon. and hon. Members on both sides have put at successive Question Times on some of the key issues on the terms? Will the right hon. Gentleman undertake that in the very important "take note" debate which we are to have later this month, Ministers will be instructed to be as accommodating as possible in drawing aside the veil which still remains in the White Paper and giving answers to the questions which the House has a right to put?

The Prime Minister

The White Paper has set out as clearly as we can all the arrangements which have been reached in the negotiations. I think that the comments of practically the whole of the British Press today have shown that it believes that the matter is set out fully and clearly—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Of course, if the right hon. Gentleman or any of his colleagues have any particular question to ask in the debate, that is the purpose of the debate, which I described in my announcement, quite deliberately, as an exploratory debate. My colleagues and I will do our utmost to answer all the questions which are asked in the debate.

Mr. Harold Wilson rose

Mr. Speaker


Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. The Question deals with a referendum.