HL Deb 10 June 2003 vol 649 cc125-8

2.59 p.m.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they have concluded that referenda are in principle unsuitable for major decisions on European Union matters.

The Minister for Trade (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, there is no decision in principle about all European Union matters. That the next European treaty will be dealt with through our system of parliamentary democracy is entirely consistent with the way in which all previous EU treaties have been laid before Parliament and subjected to vigorous scrutiny and debate by Parliament before ratification. I look forward to that debate.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry

Yes, my Lords, quite. I think that noble Lords will share my view that it will he difficult to forget the pained look on the Prime Minister's face yesterday and his anxious consideration as he listened to the Chancellor put pro-euro trimmings on to an anti-euro speech.

In that context, does the Minister accept that, whatever happened in the past, the new European convention to be announced this Friday potentially has greater political implications for this country than the debate on the five economic tests? On that basis, does she accept the view that we need an extensive public debate on the issue, not just a lot of propaganda from either side or phobic fury? Because of that, will the Minister at least keep an open mind about the possibility, if there is to be a paving Bill for a referendum, that the referendum should first be on the new European convention and then on joining the euro?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I cannot agree that the political implications of the discussions going on at the convention are of greater moment for us than a decision about the euro. The euro is a once-in-a-lifetime decision. The discussions in the convention at present have not yet been completed. We hope that they will be completed towards the end of next week and that the convention findings will then be published at the end of next week. But, as the noble Lord will know, thereafter there will be an IGC, at which a unanimous decision will have to be taken about the way forward, and, after that, the drafting of any treaty.

The noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, has got rather ahead of himself on the issue. We cannot judge what the implications will be, first, until the convention reports, secondly, until an IGC unanimously decides the way forward, and, thirdly, until there is ratification on a treaty. It would be sensible to look at the issues then.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, nobody wants to get ahead of themselves. We can all understand the Government's reluctance to commit themselves to a referendum on the convention and its proposals at this stage. But why has the door to a referendum on possible constitutional developments been closed completely for all time? I would be grateful if the noble Baroness could explain that mystery. Why is it being closed when it is almost certain that there will be constitutional implications of some kind from the convention, when eight other member states will have referenda, and when Brussels officials say that the forthcoming constitutional treaty will be more important than Amsterdam, Nice and Maastricht combined? Why is the door being closed so soon?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I deliberately did not close the door on all possible changes ever. That is why I said in the first sentence of my Answer that there was no decision in principle about all European Union matters. But I must say to the noble Lord that this Government today are as reluctant as the party opposite was when it was in government to have a referendum on the Single European Act or the Maastricht Treaty.

I have been subject to a little insomnia recently, and I have done some very interesting night-time reading. I was reading a biography, from which I shall quote: For all the rhetoric of sovereignty and nationhood, by her"— that is, the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher— agreement to the documents that were to be enshrined in the Single European Act she transferred more sovereignty to the European Community (as it was then known) than anyone has done before or since". The Prime Minister or the Foreign Secretary did not say that; it was the former Deputy Prime Minister, Michael Heseltine, now the noble Lord, Lord Heseltine.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester

My Lords, leaving aside the fact that the Oxford English Dictionary states that the correct plural of "referendum" is "referendums" and not "referenda", which is a gerundive rather than a gerund, did my noble friend hear the interview given by Kenneth Clarke on "The World at One" on 27th May? He said: If parliament can't analyse the ultimate version of this treaty, which we all knew was going to come once we enlarged the union, then parliament isn't much use for anything". Is that not entirely consistent with what the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, said in his interview in the Financial Times a couple of days later? He said: Referendums should be a rare exception if we are not to weaken still further our system of parliamentary democracy".

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend for his guidance on the use of "referenda" and "referendums". I did not hear "The World at One" on 27th May. I suspect that I was preparing for Questions in your Lordships' House on that occasion. I agree with what Mr Clarke and the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, said. We have a sophisticated system of parliamentary democracy in this country. It has been my experience, when debating in your Lordships' House the treaties that have gone through—the Nice Treaty and, before that, the Amsterdam Treaty—that they attract a great deal of very knowledgeable discussion. I believe that it is through that parliamentary debate that we shall find a way forward on any possible future treaty coming out of an IGC.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is no longer satisfactory to contemplate the prospect of a referendum vis-à-vis the convention in isolation, and that it must be considered in context? Is it not true that the political context in this country of matters relating to sovereignty in the European Union is of profound public mistrust about the manner in which Parliament has dealt, and continues to deal, with those matters? Is it not fair to say that there is a constant sniping match, a partisan battle, going on between the Conservative and Labour parties about who has done worst vis-à-vis the holding of referendums? Will not the Government please seriously contemplate how public trust in government in this country can be restored, perhaps by having a referendum on the convention, in view of the crucial importance of the issues to the future of this country in Europe?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am bound to say that, if the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, thinks that a debate on a referendum would of itself stop parties arguing about who has done better and worst, I am afraid that we live in very different political worlds. The noble Lord, Lord Howell, was right in saying that there must be a public debate. There should be a public debate about all matters European. Indeed, that is what the convention is being designed to do. It is why we have had parliamentary representatives as well as government ones. We have been well represented in this House in that respect. Doing this through our parliamentary democracy on the basis, in the other House, of those who are elected, and, in this House, of people with considerable experience, is the right way forward for this country.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean

My Lords, can the Minister help me by saying what are the political tests that the Government decided to apply when considering whether the British people have their say on any question? We know that referenda will be allowed for local mayors and regional assemblies. The Minister said that the EMU was a once-in-a-lifetime change. Can we take it, therefore, that if the European convention's work results in a once-in-a-lifetime change, there will then be a referendum? What are the criteria? For some of us, it is beginning to look as if there is a political test of whether the Government get the voters to say what they want to hear.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

No, my Lords. The question is whether the issues that we are confronting significantly change how the people of this country are governed. That is the political test. It is appropriate that the resulting new treaty is scrutinised vigorously by Parliament in the way that I have indicated. In contrast, the noble Lord raises the issues of devolution for Scotland and Wales, or perhaps the creation of regional elected assemblies or mayors. Those are changes in how this country is governed by putting in an extra layer of government; therefore, it was deemed appropriate that there should be regional or local referenda about whether that was appropriate.

As the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, pointed out last week, on the question of the euro, the Conservative Party also said that, had it been in government when the euro question would have been considered, that is the view that it would have taken and there would have been a referendum then. On this question, we do not believe that the outcome of an IGC will fundamentally affect how the people of this country are governed. It will certainly have no more effect than any of the other treaties on which the other side of the House did not hold a referendum.

Lord Tomlinson

My Lords, would my noble friend not find it much more helpful if, rather than call for a referendum on an outcome that is as yet unknown because the IGC has not yet begun, those with so many views to express on the process of ratification said something about the substance once in a while?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I believe that that would be enormously helpful. I would point out that, of the many opportunities that have been put forward in order to allow Members to do so, not all Members have been as enthusiastic as they might have been to take up those opportunities.