HL Deb 27 January 2005 vol 668 cc1385-8

Lord Howell of Guildford asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is the earliest possible date, following Royal Assent to a Bill providing for a referendum on the proposed new European Union constitution, for that referendum to be held, taking into account the necessary preparations and administrative arrangements required.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, following Royal Assent to a Bill providing for a referendum, secondary legislation will be required to set the detailed rules under which any referendum in future will be held. Further secondary legislation will be needed to cover the detailed rules for this specific referendum, plus further legislation extending the referendum provisions to Gibraltar. Other issues that affect the period between Royal Assent and a referendum, including the referendum period itself, are still under consideration and will be matters for parliamentary decision.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that rather informative and helpful reply. Whether one believes that this massive new constitution is good for the United Kingdom and the future of Europe or bad for them—I admit that I am in the latter camp, like most people—will the Minister at least reassure us, after what she said, that there is no question of choosing a date for the referendum that mixes it up with national or local elections in any way, because to do so would be flouting the advice of the independent Electoral Commission?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am very glad that the noble Lord found it informative; the question of what all the secondary legislation covered certainly took some getting to grips with. The noble Lord's views on the advisability or otherwise of the constitution will not come as a surprise to any of us, but I hope that my answer to his last point will not be a surprise either. The Government will of course take consideration of the advice that is offered by the independent commission.

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon

My Lords, will my noble friend the Minister give me a commitment that in order to combat ignorance and ensure an informed debate before a referendum, the Government will produce factual information on the constitutional treaty to be delivered to all households?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, factual information is available to your Lordships. There is the factual information in the Guide to the European Union which covers how the EU works and what the proposed constitution says; that is currently out in two versions. I can also tell your Lordships that the Foreign Office has produced an estimable document which deals with the question of where the individual elements for this constitutional treaty come from in terms of previous treaties. That is an undertaking that I made previously in this House. Fifty copies of this document are available in the Printed Paper Office, so your Lordships had better rush to get them, though further copies will be available in Command Paper form very shortly. As to whether this document will go to individual households, looking at its volume, I rather doubt it. The question of what will go to individual households is still a matter for discussion among my right honourable and honourable friends.

Lord Maclennan of Rogart

My Lords, bearing in mind the length and complexity of the treaty which is necessary to ensure that actions taken by Union institutions are not the arbitrary exercise of power but are in accordance with rules predetermined and pre-agreed by the member states of the Union, do the Government recognise that voters in the referendum will require time to assimilate the kind of information that the Government are making available and to judge not only whether the document is appropriate to achieve those predictable ends but also what would be the consequences for this country and for the European Union of Britain seeking to become an offshore island?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I agree with what the noble Lord has said. I think that there is still a great deal of confusion about this constitutional treaty. There has to be consultation on the secondary legislation—three parts of it, to which I referred when answering the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford. That consultation will be not only with interested parties here but with, for example, the Government of Gibraltar on their secondary legislation. There is then the question, of course, of the referendum period itself; that is, the phase during which the Electoral Commission receives applications from organisations which want to be designated as official "Yes" or "No" campaigns.

There is also the crucial question, as the noble Lord rightly says, of time for ordinary citizens to consider what they believe is good for this country. It is very important that people have the opportunity to look at some of the myths that are around and see that many of them—one of which was mentioned in the Sun newspaper this morning, about the primacy of EU legislation being introduced by this Bill—has in fact been the case since the 1972 Act. It is a popular myth. I hope that it will be dispelled.

Lord Slynn of Hadley

My Lords, since the constitutional treaty repeats a great part of what is already in the Treaty of Rome as amended from time to time, will the Minister say whether people are going to be told with reasonable clarity what are the new matters on which attention should really be focused?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, yes; I think that that is an important factor. But in addressing the important factor of what is really new in this treaty, we also need to deal with some of what I have just described as the popular myths that have unfortunately taken root and are being peddled by some of our excellent press in this country as newly introduced measures under this treaty, which they most certainly are not.

Lord Howe of Aberavon

My Lords, in the light of the noble Baroness's last sentence, and given that continued effective membership of the European Union is an objective loudly proclaimed by the leadership of every major party in this House, can she tell us what is the earliest date on which we might expect the Prime Minister and his colleagues in government to start expounding the merits and value of that continuing membership as vigorously as they should be doing?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I agree that we all have rather different interpretations of what we mean by "effective membership". I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Howell, wants us to be effective members, and so do I, but our interpretations of what that really means in fact are very different. The implication of the question asked by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe of Aberavon, is that the Prime Minister has not begun to state very clearly what the position of the Labour Party—the party of government at the moment—is on this question. I believe that the Prime Minister has stated that very clearly. I believe that the question needs to be addressed with energy and vigour. In your Lordships' House, while I am able to do so at the Dispatch Box, I shall do so.

Lord Harrison

My Lords, does my noble friend believe that decision-making will become more bureaucratic and time consuming if this constitution is not ratified by the 25 countries of the European Union?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, yes, I believe that that is the case. I can hear some grumbling from the Benches opposite. One of the reasons why we need this constitution is that we are currently running on provisions that were drawn up originally for a group of six which then expanded, as we know, at various points over the years. We now have a group of 25—it may expand even further—but are still running on provisions that have not been fundamentally altered in that respect. This constitutional treaty allows us to address those issues and to dispatch the business of the Community, if it is passed, in a far better way than at the moment.

Lord Dykes

My Lords—

Lord Davies of Oldham

I am sorry, my Lords; we need to move on.

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