HL Deb 30 June 1992 vol 538 cc660-4

3.3 p.m.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will make arrangements for a referendum on the Maastricht Treaty before the European Communities (Amendment) Bill makes any further progress in Parliament.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Chalker of Wallasey)

No, my Lords.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

Oh dear, my Lords. Is the Minister aware that her reply will cause great disappointment not only among the huge majority of British people who want a referendum but also among many people in the Conservative Party, many of whom are extremely senior? Is the Minister further aware that there is no mandate for the Government to go ahead with the Maastricht Treaty as the matter was not discussed during the general election and indeed the treaty was not available to the general public? In regard to the approving remarks made yesterday that it is only demagogues and dictators who go in for referenda, do the Government believe that the leaders of Denmark, Ireland and France are demagogues and dictators?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, this is the first time I have ever heard the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, be concerned for the welfare of the Conservative Party. However, he is rightly concerned for the good health and long service that I know my noble friend Lady Thatcher will give to this House as she has done to another place and to our nation. I believe the noble Lord mistakes the attitudes of the Danish people, because the Danish people sought by a narrow majority to defeat that referendum for a wide variety of reasons. Many thought the measure did not go far enough.

Our Government sought repeatedly during the recent general election to raise the profile of Europe as an election issue. The fact that that issue did not receive prominence is no doubt because most people were at least content with the Government's handling of the vital issue. As regards this country not having a referendum, I must say that we live in a parliamentary democracy where government is accountable to Parliament and where Parliament is accountable to the electorate. That is our system. We had a general election on 9th April. I know views differ, but they differ on many other issues. I shall not offer other quotes but I say simply that I believe our parliamentary democracy is strong enough to survive without referenda.

Lord Harmar-Nicholls

My Lords, is it not reasonable for the Government to say there are no immediate arrangements to hold a referendum? However to say or imply, as the brevity of my noble friend's reply did, that we would never hold a referendum is a great mistake. No government should allow, even by implication, the word "never" to appear in their vocabulary if they are a wise government.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, my noble friend is mistaken. I did not say there would never be a referendum. I simply said no to the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, if Denmark persists in the decision it took in the recent referendum, and given that every state in the Community must subscribe to ratification if it is to take place, will the Minister say what advice the Government will proffer to the other states in the Community when Britain assumes the presidency tomorrow?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, as the noble Lord well knows from the report on the discussions in Oslo shortly following the Danish referendum, we have neither proffered advice to the Danish Government nor have we sought to press other member states of the Community to do so. We believe that the Government of Denmark need time to reflect, to consider and to consult. That is exactly what the Government of Denmark are doing. We wish them well and we hope they will soon resolve their problems.

Lord Barnett

My Lords, is it not a fact that the Maastricht Treaty is so complex that it is even possible that one or two Members of your Lordships' House may not fully understand it? In those circumstances would it not be rather difficult to put to the public at large a simple question that requires a yes or no reply, especially when the other much simpler question on whether we should enter a single market was put through both Houses without a referendum? Will the Minister give a more categorical assurance that there will not be a referendum?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, the noble Lord teases me slightly but he knows that, as an ex-market researcher, I can only agree with him. There is no single question that could adequately sum up the Maastricht Treaty. We have a system of government in which the people vote for their elected Members. Those elected Members become Members of Parliament and the party with the most seats forms a Government. I believe that it is for the Government to take the decisions.

Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that a referendum is a device of recent origin and is almost certainly of foreign origin? As my noble friend the Minister has indicated, the British way is to operate through the representatives of the people as moderated by the influence of your Lordships' House.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, my noble friend puts the question and answers it himself.

Viscount Tonypandy

My Lords, when we had a national referendum about joining the European market we were assured that the question of our sovereignty would not arise. The principle of a referendum was accepted by this country when we had that referendum in the 'seventies. When it was a question of a piffling little change in the constitution of Wales and the establishment of an assembly without legislative powers, we had to go through the trauma of the very thing that the Government now say they are not prepared to allow—that is, a referendum. Will the Minister, who in my experience is not an unreasonable person, change her mind and at least say that the Government will consider the matter further?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I would be misleading your Lordships' House if, when we have agreed that we should ratify the treaty in accordance with the constitutional requirements of each member state, I said that we were about to embark on a referendum programme. We have no such constitutional requirement. Only France, Denmark and Ireland have opted for a referendum. All other member states will proceed by parliamentary procedures alone. I believe that that is what is right for our constitution and that is what we should do.

Lord Hooson

My Lords, does the noble Baroness not agree that, however important the European Communities (Amendment) Bill is, it is not as important a landmark as the Single European Act and there was no proposal that we should have a referendum on that?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, the noble Lord has made a very important point. I remember that some of those who today are seeking to defeat a measure which they do not like by the system of a referendum were the very people who helped to achieve the Single European Act by means of the European Communities Act some years ago.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that her last stricture certainly does not apply to me? In view of the fact that the Government have spent some £38,000 to produce 75,000 copies of a pamphlet entitled The UK Presidency of the European Community, and in view of the inevitability of a referendum whether she likes it or not, will she take steps to ensure, by means of the issue of a suitable pamphlet on the lines of that of the Danish Government, that the British people are thoroughly informed as to what Maastricht is about?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, the noble Lord offers me a tempting opportunity to continue in publication. It is always right that we explain what we are doing when we take responsibility for the Community presidency from tomorrow. That is exactly what the leaflet does. It will provide a great deal of informative material for young people and others. Whether or not it is necessary to explain the words of the Maastricht Treaty in a similar form to that adopted by the Danish Government is a matter for debate. No doubt that debate will follow on Thursday and again two weeks later.

Lord Monson

My Lords, does not the noble Baroness agree that the main argument for a referendum is that for the first time British subjects are being told, in Part II, Article 8 of the treaty, that whether they like it or not they are to become citizens of a European union, and shall be subject to the duties imposed thereby", including by implication the duty of loyalty to the aforesaid European union? Is it not right that people should be consulted as to whether they wish such obligations to be imposed upon them?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I sincerely hope that Members of another place consulted their constituents on these matters, as I always did. That cannot be done in one simple contact; it has to be done over a period of time. That is what representation in our Parliament is all about.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, the noble Baroness made an important point and it would be helpful if she were to enlighten the House. She said that discussion would take place in the debate on Thursday and two weeks later. Can the noble Baroness explain what takes place two weeks later?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I had understood that it was the wish of the Select Committee of this House to debate its report on enlargement. If that is not the case I may have erred but I believe that that is what is envisaged.

Baroness Elles

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that one of the great strengths of the democratic countries in Western Europe is the diversity in the way in which we practise democracy? Would not those who have such pride in our own Parliament be amazed that some are seeking to undermine our parliamentary representative system by having a referendum?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, my noble friend could not have put it better. She is exactly right. Our Parliament has withstood many strains and stresses both here and in another place over many years and I am certain that it will withstand this quite well without a new system.

Lord Grimond

My Lords, I am no great supporter of referenda, but would not the case against them in general be stronger if the other place was more representative of the votes cast in this country?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I know the noble Lord's love for a system of proportional representation, but as we do not have one at the present time I do not believe that anyone can truly answer his question.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, can the noble Baroness tell the House why it is that a referendum, which at one time the Government's predecessors commended to the House as a step involving consultation of the British people, has now suddenly become a step undermining the British people?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, it was not this Government who recommended referenda to the people in the first place.