HL Deb 02 June 2003 vol 648 cc1046-9

2.59 p.m.

Lord Blaker

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will hold a referendum on the proposals resulting from the European convention.

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, as the Prime Minister has made clear, the Government see no case for having a national referendum on the proposals for a constitutional treaty for the European Union. A new constitutional treaty would require to be ratified in accordance with the individual constitutional arrangements of each member state. The Government are committed to our system of parliamentary democracy in Britain, whereby Parliament rigorously scrutinises any new treaty before it is ratified. Or, to be succinct, no.

Lord Blaker

My Lords, does the noble Baroness recall that, in rejecting the proposal for a referendum, the Government described the work of the convention as a tidying-up exercise? Is she aware that the distinguished president of the convention, Mr Giscard d'Estaing, an ex-president of France, has described the convention as in his view being comparable to that of the founding fathers on the constitution of the United States of America?

Is the noble Baroness also aware that three members of the presidium of the convention are ex-prime ministers of European countries, and two are ex-foreign ministers of European countries? Does she think that, if they had been told that they were going to take part in a tidying-up exercise, they would have accepted, or would they have insisted that it be something much more important?

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, the Government take the work of the convention extremely seriously. As noble Lords will know, the convention is looking at ways to identify how the EU can become more effective and able to deliver with a membership of 25 and more countries. We do not dismiss the work of the convention in any way, as I rather thought was implied by the noble Lord's follow-up question. The Prime Minister himself said of the convention: The objective for Britain, from the Convention, should be a Europe that is strong, effective and democratic".

We are very positive about the work of the convention. In this House, with the noble Lords who are actively involved in the convention, we have an embarrassment of riches.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, does the noble Baroness understand the Question as meaning that the Conservatives would like to have a referendum on the outcome of the convention, and then another on the outcome of the inter-governmental conference after the further negotiation? Would the Government not provide greater help to public opinion if they were to make sure that there was a worthwhile information campaign on proposals as they come out from the convention? When may we expect a White Paper and some very thorough parliamentary scrutiny of the outcomes of the convention over the summer?

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, I absolutely agree with the noble Lord on ensuring that we have a treaty that is not complex and overlapping but simple and clear, and that can be a very important information document in itself. That is an important aim of the Government. I am sure that there will be a good information campaign, but we are at a very early stage. The draft treaty will be put to the summit in Thessaloniki later this month. It will then be discussed at great length, I am sure, by the inter-governmental conference later this year and into next year. Then it will be scrutinised by both Houses of Parliament. It is early doors.

Lord Carter

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that a number of us are rather puzzled by the newfound Conservative enthusiasm for a referendum on the European convention? I believe that there was no referendum on the Single European Act or the Maastricht Treaty. My memory is not as good as it was. When did a Conservative government, or indeed a Liberal government, last allow a constitutional referendum?

Baroness Crawley

Never, my Lords.

Lord Lamont of Lerwick

My Lords, on the very point that has just been raised, would the noble Baroness not admit that the previous Conservative government promised a referendum on the single European currency, which was the most important outcome of the Maastricht Treaty? To say that that government did not promise a referendum on the Maastricht Treaty is therefore completely untrue.

What is the Government's reply to the remarks of Mr Dini, a former prime minister of Italy, who this weekend said that if Mr Blair says that the convention is merely tidying up he is trying to deceive the British people?

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, I am afraid that I did not hear the remarks to which the noble Lord refers, so I cannot respond to them. On his becoming slightly aerated about the record of former Conservative governments on the issue, I am sure that noble Lords appreciate delivery rather than promises.

Lord Hogg of Cumbernauld

My Lords, does my noble friend recognise that, on these not-quite-so-radical Back Benches, there are those of us who are pro-European but none the less in favour of a referendum on this important matter, recognising that the Government have set precedents for referendums? There were referendums ahead of devolution in Scotland and Wales, there are proposals for referendums on regional authorities, and we are promised a referendum on the euro. Has the precedent not been set that how the people are governed, and the arrangements for government, are put before the people in a referendum? Why have the Government changed their mind?

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, my noble friend obviously feels very strongly on the issue. However, I have to say to him, as I said to the noble Lord, Lord Blaker, in my original reply, that in Britain a national referendum is only for exceptional changes to our system of government. We had referendums so far as Scotland and Wales were concerned, as my noble friend mentioned, but that was because there was a considerable and fundamental change in the way those new nations were to be governed.

Noble Lords


Baroness Crawley

My Lords—if I can make myself heard—there is no suggestion that the draft constitution being debated by the Convention on the Future of Europe will lead to significant changes in the relationship between the European Union and its citizens.