European Referendum Bill needs proper scrutiny

Here is my speech tonight on July 16th 2013 on the European Union (Referendum) Bill (Money)

6.53 pm

Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op):

I wish to speak on the money resolution. This is not the speech that I was not called to give in the debate on 5 July, nor is it the single transferable speech I would have given, had I been chosen to be a member of the Committee, on various amendments that I have tabled. I cannot understand why I was not chosen, given that I am so keen to debate these issues. Perhaps it is because there is a view out there—I had an e-mail this afternoon claiming this—that I am trying to wreck the Bill. I am not trying to do that, and I wish to focus these remarks on some of its expenditure implications.

The Minister talked about the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. However, the Bill makes no reference to that Act, so we must consider the nature of the question that would be put in a referendum. The original draft Bill, which was published by the Conservative party on 14 May, proposed the question:

“Do you think that the United Kingdom should remain a member of the European Union?”

However, the European Union (Referendum) Bill sets out a different question:

“Do you think that the United Kingdom should be a member of the European Union?”

The Daily Mail suggested that Eurosceptic Conservative Members were unhappy about the original wording and that it had been changed because

“anti-Brussels MPs privately protested that the word ‘remain’ would prompt voters to stay in”.

As the Bill proceeds through Committee, I hope that that change will be explored further.

My hon. Friend the shadow Minister referred to the timing of the proposed referendum. The date that is chosen will have implications for the referendum. As the Minister said, if a referendum were held on the same day as local or European Parliament elections, the costs could be minimised and turnout would probably be significantly higher. Perhaps we should consider whether we should have a threshold for turnout, as was the case for the Scottish referendum in the 1970s, but that is not a matter for today.

If we were to hold the referendum on the same day as next year’s European Parliament elections—22 May 2014—expenditure on the referendum and its associated literature would be greatly reduced. Those arguing for leaving the European Union could then presumably vote for the UK Independence party, or perhaps the Conservatives, while voting to leave in the referendum. The cost of the literature put out by the respective parties would then be considerably smaller, although I am not entirely sure what the Conservative party’s literature would say about such a referendum.

The referendum could be held on the same day as the next general election, which will take place on the first Thursday in May 2015. Such an approach would similarly minimise the cost, as well as giving at least one of the coalition parties, or perhaps both, more time to clarify their attitude to the in-or-out question on the European Union.

There are implications of holding the referendum after the 2015 general election, given the rule that a Parliament cannot bind its successor. We are presumably being asked to vote for the money resolution on the basis that a commitment is being made for the future, but it might not be carried through if a different Government are elected at the next general election and they want to take a different approach.

If we are to hold the referendum by 31 December 2017, as is proposed, there might be implications for the British presidency of the European Union, which is due to begin on 1 July 2017. We could hold the referendum on the same day that the United Kingdom takes over the presidency, which might minimise costs because the literature published about the programme for the British presidency could refer to the referendum. If we held the referendum later that year—during the British presidency—it would help to publicise the various events that would be held to celebrate Britain’s contribution to the European Union, so I would look forward to that. The Bill does not deal with those options, but I hope that they will be explored in Committee.

We could minimise costs, and give the Conservative part of the Government more time to renegotiate the special arrangements that they wish to put in place, by holding a referendum on the same day as the 2020 general election. Based on the same arguments as I used before about the 2015 election, that too would be a way to minimise the cost that would be incurred.

The Prime Minister has said that he wants to reduce the cost of politics. It seems a strange way to go about reducing the cost of politics to bring in a referendum which, as the Minister said, will cost millions of pounds, and at the same time try to reduce the number of Members of the House of Commons, but increase the number of Members in the other place.

7 pm

The debate stood adjourned (Standing Order No.9(3)).

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 41A(3)),

That, at this day’s sitting, Standing Order No. 41A (Deferred divisions) shall not apply to the Motion in the name of Greg Clark relating to the European Union (Referendum) Bill: Money Resolution.—(Anne Milton.)

Question agreed to.

Debate resumed.

Main Question again proposed.

Mike Gapes:

I do not wish to detain the House too long because I wish to celebrate later the passing of the equal marriage Bill. I hope that along with all my colleagues on the Opposition Benches and many on the Government Benches—or most of those on the Opposition Benches and some on the Government Benches—we will be able to celebrate the equal marriage Bill. Therefore it is not my intention to divide the House this evening.

Sir Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con):

May I correct the hon. Gentleman? It is not an equal marriage Bill because it does not provide for non-consummation or adultery. Therefore it cannot be described as equal marriage.

Mike Gapes:

I suspect, Mr Speaker, that you would not wish me to get into the next debate so I shall not be tempted to go down that route. [Interruption.] But we could, of course, discuss wider issues—the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is shouting at me from a sedentary position, but I will not be tempted. I remember our exchanges over the Maastricht treaty in the early 1990s and I would much rather debate the referendum with him now.

These are important issues. The Bill needs proper scrutiny. It therefore needs to be considered carefully in Committee, and when it comes out of Committee—whenever that is—in several months, it will need to be properly considered in the House on Report and before it gets, or if it gets, a Third Reading. There are too many important questions to be considered for it to be assumed that the Bill should be pushed through without proper scrutiny and debate. The future of our country in Europe is at stake. Therefore the House and the country expect nothing less than the proper parliamentary scrutiny appropriate for a parliamentary democracy, not a democracy that is undermined by what a former Labour Prime Minister called a device of demagogues and dictators, which was quoted favourably by Margaret Thatcher when she was Leader of the Opposition in the debate in 1975. In that debate she said, and I conclude on this—[Interruption.] I know that Conservative Members were frustrated when they were unable to get their Margaret Thatcher day. At least I will quote Margaret Thatcher—

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con):

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mike Gapes:

Yes, I will, before I quote her.

Tim Loughton:

I have been listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman. He might like to take the opportunity, before he ends, to mention the money resolution which is supposed to be the subject of this debate. So far he has not done so.

Mr Speaker:

It is not necessary to repeat the refrain “money resolution” so long as the content of the remarks of an hon. Member relates clearly to the purpose of the resolution. I have been attending closely to the hon. Gentleman’s expatiations and so far he has met the criterion. I do not want him to depart from the path of virtue as he nears his end.

Mike Gapes:

I would never intend to depart from the path of virtue, Mr Speaker.

Mrs Thatcher said that the 1975 referendum had been introduced as

“a tactical device to get over a split in their own party.”—[Official Report, 11 March 1975; Vol. 888, c. 306.]

Those are the words she used to describe the policy put forward by the then Labour Government, and I believe that they are completely appropriate to describe the policy now being put forward by the split part of this split Government—the Conservative part of the coalition.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD):

I am in broad sympathy with the hon. Gentleman’s remarks, but since he is now repeating things I said on Second Reading, I wonder, given the historic vote on equal marriage that we are waiting to cast, whether it would not be better to stop banging on about Europe just for a bit.

Mike Gapes:

Yes, of course. Had I not taken the previous two interventions, I would have finished by now. I was just about to give the House the benefits of Margaret Thatcher’s words of wisdom in 1975, but I was faced with two interventions, and now I have taken three. I am happy to conclude my remarks and hope to return to these issues later in the year if the Bill reaches consideration on Report.

7.5 pm



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