European Union (Referendum) Bill

Lord Armstrong of Ilminster Excerpts
Friday 24th January 2014

(10 years, 5 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Moved by
1: Clause 1, page 1, line 2, leave out subsection (1) and insert—
“(1) A referendum is to be held with the question—
“Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”appearing on the ballot papers.”
Lord Armstrong of Ilminster Portrait Lord Armstrong of Ilminster (CB)
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My Lords, I hope that I can be reasonably brief in moving the amendment. We have a long day ahead of us.

The amendment does not bear on the issue of whether a referendum on United Kingdom membership of the European Union should be held. Nor does it bear on the date at which or by which such a referendum should be held. Thus it does not call into question the principal purposes of the Bill. It is intended to ensure that when a referendum is held, the right question is put to the electorate.

I and other noble Lords who have put their names to the amendment consider that the question proposed in Clause 1(4) of the Bill is inappropriate, confusing and potentially misleading. The wording might be appropriate if the United Kingdom was not a member of the Union but was now proposing to apply for membership, or if we had applied for membership and the Government and Parliament wanted to ascertain whether the electorate would support a proposal to join the Union on terms that would have been negotiated with the existing membership. Then the question for the electorate would be whether they thought that we should forgo whatever might be the advantages and disadvantages of not being members of the Union in order to enjoy whatever might be the benefits and privileges of membership, and incur whatever might be the liabilities and obligations of becoming members.

However, that is not the situation. We are, and have been for more than 40 years, members of the European Union. Therefore, when a referendum is called, the question we should be asking the electorate to consider is whether we should forgo the benefits and privileges we now enjoy, and be relieved of the liabilities and obligations we now incur as members of the European Union, in order to enjoy whatever might be the benefits and advantages and incur whatever might be the costs and liabilities of ceasing to be members. The question put to the electorate should be clear beyond a peradventure that that is the choice on which they are being asked to vote. The question proposed in Clause 1(4) of the Bill as drafted fails to make clear the nature of the choice. It could thus be confusing, and potentially misleading, to some voters.

The question proposed in the amendment is not designed by me or by other noble Lords who have put their names to it. It has been designed by the Electoral Commission, the business of which is to advise the Government and Parliament on such matters. I cannot see why it should be thought to be necessary or right to second-guess the Electoral Commission on this matter. Only that it might sound disrespectful of the commission, which I do not wish to be, I remind your Lordships of the old adage that a man who keeps a dog does not need to bark himself.

The form of words which the Electoral Commission has recommended, and which is proposed in the amendment, provides a question which defines correctly, clearly and unambiguously the nature of the choice which the voters will be asked to make in the referendum proposed in the Bill. I beg to move.

Baroness D'Souza Portrait The Lord Speaker (Baroness D'Souza)
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I remind your Lordships that, if the amendment is agreed to, I cannot call Amendments 2 to 7 by reason of pre-emption.

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Lord Dobbs Portrait Lord Dobbs
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It is precisely that point which I am about to address. If noble Lords would do me the courtesy of listening, they might actually learn a little about what I feel about this, rather than what the noble Lord, Lord Kinnock, feels about it. That is more time wasted. I will get on to the time-wasting in just a minute, if noble Lords will allow me.

As I was about to say, the Electoral Commission had its reservations, of course, and we have already heard much of that from noble Lords. However, I believe that the commission’s concern that some voters might be confused, because they are unaware that we are already members of the European Union, is a little oversensitive. Yet the role of the commission is to be cautious, and I do not criticise it for that. I understand that in the past we have made a habit of accepting the commission’s recommendations about any referendum question, but it is worth remembering that its role in this matter is entirely advisory. It is not an umpire or a judge but, as the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, has just pointed out, a source of advice. At the end of the day, it is up to us. The other place debated almost this exact same amendment as we are dealing with here and, after a lengthy debate, rejected it by a majority of 241.

It is also worth remembering that the commission was not able to offer a clear single alternative question. It is hugely significant that this amendment, which mirrors the second alternative suggested by the commission’s report, has not been properly tested by the commission; it clearly states in its report that it did not have time. So it is entirely possible that if I accepted this amendment, the commission might come back at a later stage and tell us that this wording was not good enough either. That would put us in a most awkward position and embarrass so much of what has already been said here today.

At Second Reading I mentioned other potential weaknesses in the commission’s report. I do not want to go back over too much of that ground but many noble Lords have expressed their concerns today. It is perhaps a pity—I put it as no more than that—that not a single Member of this House expressed any concern while the Electoral Commission was undertaking consultation at a stage that might have avoided the need for this amendment in the first place. Indeed, only 19 individuals and organisations offered any comment whatever. If this is a serious issue, it has been a long time coming.

It is also a fact of life that currently 81 amendments have been tabled to this short Bill. We know that some of the Bill’s opponents are determined to use any means to kill it. While I want to make progress, I hope that the House will allow me a moment to deal with that central issue because it gives a context to all else that we do here. Right from the start, the moment that the Bill came to this House, it has been true that, as the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, who sadly I do not see in his seat, told the BBC—and I am grateful for his frankness about this—the opponents will use every trick in the book to derail it. It was put to him in an interview by Mr Mark D’Arcy that the aim would be to keep this Bill running in one form or another pretty much right up to the election. The noble Lord replied: “What they do not want to do, I do not think anyone wants to do, is to have their fingerprints on the dagger that kills it”. There we have it—death by a thousand cuts, or at least by 81 amendments, and that is what undermines the rights of this House.

I hasten to add that I am not accusing the sponsors of this amendment of any hint of deviousness. Many of them have made their points with charm and eloquence, as we would expect them to. However, we all know what is going on. We cannot deny the presence of an elephant in the room, a very large and unreasonable elephant—those who have no intention whatever of working to improve the Bill but who are solely intent on trying to kill it. They claim to be trying to improve the question but in fact are trying to ensure that no question is ever put.

We all know that if the Bill is to survive—if we are to give people the referendum they want—we have to get the Bill through this House in reasonable shape and in very short time. That timetable is not mine; it is simply another fact of life. It is a further fact that after six days of detailed consideration, the Bill went through the other place at every stage with a huge majority or no opposition whatever. We could all speculate why Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs ran for cover, but the fact is that they did. So, in the belief that what was good enough for Labour and Liberal Democrat geese down the other end of the Palace must surely be more than enough to satisfy their noble ganders, I ask the noble Lord, who is not party to any of these games, to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Armstrong of Ilminster Portrait Lord Armstrong of Ilminster
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My Lords, my modest, innocent little amendment has given rise to a long, interesting and wide-ranging debate, and after more than two hours I do not propose to try to deal with every point. We are being told that the Bill must pass unamended to go back to the House of Commons in order to be concluded in time to be passed into legislation in this Session. As to that, although I am not an expert in procedure, it seems that if the House of Commons is sufficiently keen to see the Bill passed, it can change its procedure as a matter of exception in order to deal with it. I therefore hope that your Lordships will not be put off by that threat.

We are told that the Bill is a necessity as a guarantee or, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, said, an assurance that there will an “in or out” referendum about our membership of the European Union in 2017. With the greatest respect to those who are saying so, I cannot see it. It is impossible for this Parliament to give a cast-iron guarantee or assurance about something that is going to happen after the next election. Suppose that in May 2015, after the next election, there were to be a change of Government and the new Government decided that there should not be a referendum on this matter. The new Government would be free to introduce legislation in the House of Commons to give effect to that decision; the House of Commons would pass it; and then it would come back to this House, and no doubt we should be told that an unelected House ought not to challenge the view of the House of Commons.

I am with those who feel that we should not shirk our duty to scrutinise the Bill and, if we can, improve it, and that, with the greatest respect to the House of Commons, if that House feels that the Bill is so important, it should then adjust its procedures in order to deal with it. I do not think that the Bill provides the kind of guarantee or assurance that we shall have a referendum, because no one can know what will happen in 2015. If it is a guarantee at all, it is so only until May of that year. In fact, the best assurance that the people of Britain can have that there should be a referendum will be the commitment by the present Prime Minister to hold a referendum in 2017. As I said at Second Reading, that is a commitment that he can enshrine in a manifesto. No doubt the manifesto does not have the force of a statute, but at least its shadow stretches beyond the next election and would govern what the new Parliament did. I might almost argue, if I allowed myself to be political, that if the British people thought it so vital to have a referendum, as I am sure they do, their best means of assuring themselves of getting it would be to return Mr Cameron, who has given them this commitment.

The time has come for us to take a decision on this matter. I am afraid that I am not persuaded by the procedural arguments that have been deployed from the Benches here, and I think there is a strong measure of support for the amendment that I have proposed. Without any further ado, I should like to test the opinion of the House.

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Moved by
28: Clause 1, page 1, line 7, leave out subsection (4)
Lord Armstrong of Ilminster Portrait Lord Armstrong of Ilminster
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This amendment is moved as a consequence of the passage of Amendment 1. If this amendment is accepted, Amendment 31 falls and I should not move it.

Amendment 28 agreed.
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Lord Anderson of Swansea Portrait Lord Anderson of Swansea
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My Lords, my name also appears on the amendments. I have one little concern regarding my noble friend Lord Foulkes’s comments: he said that the Gaelic version should appear only in the parts of Scotland that speak Gaelic. If one were to transpose that to Wales, some might argue that in Monmouthshire, for example, where very little Welsh is spoken, at least on the eastern side in the border area, there should be a different ballot paper. In my judgment, if there is to be a Gaelic version it should be throughout Scotland, otherwise there will be enormous problems regarding where to draw the line. To follow up what the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, said, there is, happily, a consensus in Wales in respect of the language. We have managed to avoid the language divisions that have rent Belgium over the years, and that in large part is because of the work by the noble Lord but particularly of Lord Roberts of Conwy. The Welsh Language Act and the equal validity principle are a memoriam to the work that he did.

Lord Armstrong of Ilminster Portrait Lord Armstrong of Ilminster
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My Lords, my knowledge of the Welsh language is even more spectacularly uncertain than that of the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne. Is the language in Amendment 45 a precise translation of the amended version of the question?