I participated actively in the debate on Friday 22 November and made a number of interventions and I also introduced a series of amendments to improve the proposed European Referendum Bill.
Here is a link to the first part of the debate
Here is what I said in my first speech in the debate on the European Union (Referendum) Bill concerning the date or dates for any referendum.
Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome the opportunity to speak to a number of amendments in this group standing in my name. [Interruption.] Given that you ruled on this matter previously, Mr Speaker, I should also make it clear to the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), who is shouting at me from a sedentary position, that these are not frivolous amendments. They are serious amendments. Some are intended to probe the Government’s position; some are amendments that I will wish to put to a vote. In the last few days I have also added my name to two other amendments—amendment 77, in the name of my right hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr Hain) and amendment 3, in the name of the hon. Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie)—because it is important that the House should make clear its views about those matters as well as the others.
I have tabled a number of the amendments in this group: amendments 9 to 13, 21 to 33, and 58 and 59. They cover different aspects of this important debate about the timing of the referendum—if it is to be held—as well as related matters, such as the number of days on which the referendum would be held. The Minister—who I assume was speaking for the Conservative party and not the Government—made it clear previously that he believes there are problems with holding a referendum in 2014. One of his arguments is that the choice should simply be between a hypothetical and at this stage undefined renegotiated position and total withdrawal. However, we do not yet know what that renegotiated position will be.
I have received representations, including from people who disagree with my pro-European approach, arguing that the choice should be between the status quo and complete withdrawal. Rather than buying a pig in a poke, we would at least know what the status quo was. That would mean that those who are hostile to the European Union can vote to leave, while those who support it as it is, but with a commitment to work to change it—there are always changes; it is not constant—will know that what they are voting for is something like what we have today.
Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): I have studied my hon. Friend’s amendments, in particularly amendment 21, which calls for the referendum to be called on 7 May 2015. Would it not be a major error to confuse a European referendum with a general election?
Mike Gapes: It might be, but we do not necessarily need to have a referendum. We could say that those who wish to vote to leave the European Union on 7 May 2015 should vote for the UK Independence party, that those who wish to stay in the European Union and work for its improvement should vote Labour and that those who are unclear what they are doing one way or the other should vote for the Conservatives. That would be much better and would mean that, in effect, the general election was the referendum.
Mr William Cash (Stone) (Con): I am listening carefully to what the hon. Gentleman is saying. On the status quo, given the urgent question that I had to raise about the charter of fundamental rights, for example, as well as many other things, does he agree that we need fundamental change in the relationship and not necessarily nibbling at the treaties? In fact, we do not want nibbling at the treaties at all.
Mike Gapes: I disagree with the hon. Gentleman, just as other Members, including his predecessor as Chair of the European Scrutiny Committee, disagreed with his argument the other day. However, I do not think I would be in order if I went down that route, because that is not the subject before us.
Let me come to the detail of my amendments. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) said in his intervention, amendment 21 proposes that the referendum be on the same day as the next general election. One argument for that is that it would save a great deal of money, because the polling stations would already be there, and the publicity and the campaign could be part of the general campaign. There is also a second argument. Moving the referendum to that date would clarify the debate and resolve the issue at the beginning of the next Government, rather than allowing their first 18 months in office to be dominated by this so-called renegotiation, which would divert attention from their priorities for health, education and housing.
Kevin Brennan: I understand the point my hon. Friend is making, but in practice would it not be confusing for hon. Members to be campaigning on behalf of their political parties one moment, but in another moment having to form alliances with colleagues from other political parties on the issue of Europe? Is that not a proposition that would simply not work in practice?
Mike Gapes: I understand my hon. Friend’s sympathy for those Conservative Members of Parliament who might find themselves having to campaign alongside UKIP, but we know that many Conservative MPs are already trying to reach local arrangements with UKIP so that they will be unopposed at the next general election. My proposal would be a fulfilment, in practice and openly, of what is already happening under the radar.
Mark Hendrick (Preston) (Lab/Co-op): My hon. Friend’s amendment would not only mean some or most Conservative Members of Parliament campaigning with UKIP; it would also raise the difficulty of some—albeit a few—Conservative Members of Parliament having to campaign with us to remain within the European Union. There would also be the problem that if changes were made to the treaty a couple of years later, then whichever Government were in power would be forced to hold another referendum in the UK, two or three years after already holding one, because of our commitment under the European Union Act 2011.
Mike Gapes: I accept that; it is another valid argument.
The second amendment I want to comment on is amendment 3, which was tabled by the hon. Member for Windsor. His position is that the referendum should be held in October 2014, five weeks after the referendum on Scottish separatism. I believe that there are problems with that date, because of the proximity to the other date, but I also believe that he is making the same point that I am making about the futility of having a hypothetical renegotiation. The Government have ruled out renegotiating now—the Foreign Secretary told the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs that there was no intention of starting any renegotiation in advance of a general election. This is therefore a status quo “as we are” alternative to a complete withdrawal. It is similar to the argument I have just made about holding the referendum a few months later, on the same day as the general election.
Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) is more politically honest than what has been put forward by the Conservative party and the Prime Minister in that it would allow people to vote on whether we should be in or out of the EU and might force the Prime Minister to concede to saying which way he would vote in such a referendum.
Mike Gapes: I can see some of the attractions in that. Moreover, the fact that the hon. Member for Windsor added his name to my amendment 22 is indicative of the fact that he is not firmly tied to the date in October 2014; he would just like to hold the referendum before the end of 2014.
Sir Edward Leigh: The hon. Gentleman is perfectly entitled to use parliamentary tactics to pepper this Bill with different dates for referendums, but I would like to know his real view. If there were a Labour Government, does he think there should be a referendum on whether we should stay in or out?
Mike Gapes: The hon. Gentleman is a great expert on Friday debates. I am prepared to listen carefully to him if he wishes to make further interventions, but at this stage of my contribution, I want to concentrate on the specifics of my amendments, not on hypothetical questions—[Interruption.] I will answer the hon. Gentleman’s question, but in my own time, a time of my choosing. As the hon. Gentleman knows, I do not have to disrupt the flow and the eloquence of debate on all the different amendments or the order in which I want to discuss them. I will come to his point later. As an expert on what happens on Fridays with private Members’ Bills, the hon. Gentleman will know that his intervention allows me to give more thought and more consideration to my contribution, perhaps making it a little lengthier than would otherwise be the case.
Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend see a real problem with the situation in Scotland, whereby votes will be given to 16 and 17-year-olds for the separatist referendum, as he calls it, yet those same individuals would not be able to vote on the European referendum that could be held on the same day? Is that not a recipe for conflict and confusion?
Mike Gapes: Yes. The previous set of amendments, on which we have not yet voted, included amendments proposed by a number of hon. Members and were spoken to by many Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra). They were about the importance of considering votes for 16 and 17-year-olds in any referendum on the European Union. Surely if the young people of Scotland, with the consent and agreement of the UK Government—it would not have been possible to do it otherwise—are able to vote in September 2014, they will probably feel a little bit miffed, to put it mildly, if they are not then allowed to vote a few weeks, months or years later in another referendum. That will not encourage the participation of young people, who will feel that they have been given a democratic right on the one hand, and had it taken away from them on the other.
Seema Malhotra (Feltham and Heston) (Lab/Co-op): My hon. Friend, as always, makes an excellent speech. Does he agree with me that to offer 16 and 17-year-olds a vote in one referendum and not in another sends out a confusing message about how mature we believe those 16 and 17-year-olds are to make a decision that is really going to affect their future?
Mike Gapes: I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, but I would not wish to stray back into the debates on the earlier group of amendments. We are now talking about other matters.
I was commenting on the possibility of holding the referendum by the end of 2014, as suggested in my amendment 22. To meet people’s concerns about that issue and about whether to hold the referendum on the same day as the general election in May 2015, I have tabled an amendment to allow for greater flexibility. My amendment 23 would allow the referendum to be held by the end of 2015. That would mean, of course, that the Government would have to give some thought rapidly to how their renegotiation strategy could be developed prior to the general election. I am sure that the Liberal Democrats would, as usual, be very accommodating and helpful to their Conservative partners, as they always are on all matters.
This amendment would at least reduce the period of uncertainty. One of my big fears is that a referendum held a long way away will lead to potential delays or even cancellations of suggestions for inward investment into this country from countries such as Korea, Japan, China or the United States that have other European Union potential host countries such as the Netherlands, the Irish Republic and elsewhere. They might choose to go there rather than here if they thought that, four years down the line, the UK might be exiting from the single market and the European Union.
Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): On that very issue, is my hon. Friend aware of what Nissan said a couple of weeks ago? It said that it would reconsider its investment in the UK if Britain leaves the European Union—and there are 6,500 people employed by Nissan in the north-east. Does not my hon. Friend find that to be an extremely worrying scenario?
Mike Gapes: Absolutely—and it is not just Nissan; it is any major international company that wishes to locate within the European Union to get access to the single market population of 500 million and wishes to be based in a country with a high level of education where large numbers of people speak the English language. Because there is an excellent education system in the Netherlands, that counts as one such country; the Irish Republic would also provide an easy alternative for location if, because of the uncertainty created by a potential referendum and renegotiation leading up to 2017, they chose not to invest in the United Kingdom.
I was dealing with amendment 23, but amendment 24 would allow a little bit more time for the renegotiation. It is not as good as holding it earlier because of the uncertainty and the issues to which I have just referred. Nevertheless, this would allow less uncertainty—one year less uncertainty—than this private Member’s Bill, supported by elements of the Government, would allow.
Given the questions over whether this issue should be properly considered and some doubts about how long the renegotiation might take, I have also tabled amendments to provide an alternative date after the next general election, going beyond 2017. I have suggested—although I shall not press amendments 26 and 27 to the vote—2018 and 2019 as alternatives to allow more time. With 27 other EU states, this renegotiation, if it were to happen, would be extremely difficult. If, of course, the renegotiation is going to be a modest figleaf-type negotiation, it could be done quite quickly. If, however, it is fundamental and has to meet all the demands of the people who want to leave behind all the aspects of the present European Union and go back to being a free trade area or a common market, it would involve a complete disintegration and disentanglement of the UK relationship, requiring an à la carte approach that the other 27 countries are not likely to—I would say, will not—agree to. That would be a problem, so we would need a long time to persuade those other countries of our case.
Mr Kevan Jones: Does my hon. Friend believe that we would be better informed and able to make a more informed decision on his amendments if the Prime Minister and the Government told us and the British people exactly what type of renegotiation they have in mind—whether it be the all-day breakfast, the à la carte or simply a cheap snack?
Mike Gapes: Of course we would. However, as the Foreign Secretary made clear in giving evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee, the Government do not propose that. They have this balance of competences review, which is being denounced on some websites, and by some of the more Europhobic commentators, as a put-up job by the Europhiles who run the FCO. [Interruption.] I am not making it up; that is what is being said.
The Prime Minister’s interesting speech to Bloomberg in January was going to happen in 2012, but was delivered in 2013; according to the Foreign Secretary, he made parts of it on behalf of the Conservative party and parts as Prime Minister of a coalition Government. It would greatly benefit this country’s future if the Prime Minister followed that up with another speech in January 2014, in which he set out in great detail his vision—if he has one—of the kind of green-friendly, environmentalist, European Union that he wished to put forward for the future.
Wayne David: I do not want to pre-empt a discussion that we will have later, but it is noticeable that the Electoral Commission has said during its comments on the suggested question that there is a lack of understanding among the population of the United Kingdom about what the European Union does and is. Does my hon. Friend agree that a slightly longer time scale would give the Government the opportunity to put objective arguments, both for and against, to the British people, so that they were better informed about the European Union?
Mike Gapes: That could happen if the Government were prepared to start putting those arguments. However, as things stand, because the tail is wagging the dog and because the Government are running scared of a party that is polling only 10% or 12%, they are prepared to put this country’s interests at risk and not make the case for European co-operation and the European Union in a positive, regular and consistent manner. Unfortunately, I do not think the issue will be resolved until there is a change of Administration and we have a Government with a commitment to take these issues seriously and put them forward in a positive manner.
Mark Hendrick: I totally agree, although I would have said that the cart was being put before the horse rather than that the tail was wagging the dog. Clearly, the Government are talking about a referendum before deciding what particular competences they want to repatriate.
My hon. Friend has tabled amendments restricting possible later dates for a referendum. I can understand dates earlier than 2017 being up for discussion, but later dates would totally bring into question the likelihood of a new treaty—2019 is six years from now. Given the pressures in the eurozone, a new treaty would be much more likely to happen sooner; it would be fanciful to think that the other 28 members of the European Union could wait until 2019.
Mike Gapes: As I said, I did not table these amendments to push all of them to a vote. However, I would be interested in the Government’s response to my hon. Friend’s points and my previous remarks.
I want to make progress. I have been generous in taking interventions, but I need to allow time for others to speak. I have added my name to amendment 77, tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr Hain). It is an important amendment because, as the Minister well knows, there is a difficulty. Under the rotating six-month timetable, the United Kingdom is due to hold the presidency of the Council of Ministers between 1 July and 31 December 2017.
There will be a period in which the Government—I am sorry; I mean the Conservative part of the Government. I must get that right, but it is very difficult. The Minister, speaking on behalf of the Conservative party from the Front Bench, has said that the preferred date for the referendum is before the end of 2017. Frankly, that could cause all kinds of difficulties and confusions for the United Kingdom presidency. If we had to have a referendum in 2017, it would be logical and sensible to hold it before 1 July. Then, at least, there would be clarity as we went into the British presidency.
If we voted to stay in, the Government would no doubt say, “The British people have supported the European Union. Now we are great Europhiles and go forward in co-operation and friendship, harmony, peace, love and apple pie. Everything is fine.” If, however, there was the question of a referendum in August, September, October or November, we would be in the heat of a referendum campaign in the middle of the British presidency. How could Ministers behave in a governmental role, attending Council of Ministers meetings, chairing meetings and taking part in negotiations and discussions, without taking off the party political hats that they were wearing in their fight in that campaign?
We do not know the terms of the referendum: what, if anything, will have been renegotiated. It is possible that some Ministers will be arguing to leave the European Union, while others—in the same Department or even the same party—will be arguing to stay. What an absurd prospect for a British presidency of the European Union. The best solution is to support amendment 77, on which I hope we can divide the House, through which we can make it clear that the referendum should not be held during the six-month period of the British presidency. It would be absurd to hold it then.
Wayne David: My hon. Friend has made an extremely important point. If there were that element of confusion about where the United Kingdom stood, that would obviously be bad news for the UK and our national interest. Furthermore, it would be debilitating for the European Union as a whole.
Mike Gapes: I agree.
Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD) rose—
Mike Gapes: I will give way briefly, then I must make progress.
Martin Horwood: The hon. Gentleman is making a good point about how absurd it would be for the referendum—or even the campaign—to take place during the British presidency. The best of his amendments is amendment 58, which would appoint a commission to look into the date and arrangements of the referendum. If that amendment were accepted, could we not do away with most of his other amendments, which one might be tempted to think were rather spinning out the debate?
Mike Gapes: The hon. Gentleman makes my arguments for me on amendment 58, so I will not repeat them. There are strong arguments to get the correct date through consultation, rather than there being an arbitrary decision put forward by elements within the Government. Better for there to be a commission and, as my amendment 12 says, for there to be consultation with faith organisations to make sure that the dates do not clash with religious festivals and holidays. We are a multicultural, multi-faith country now, so the Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Jews, Zoroastrians, Muslims and Christians will all need to be consulted.
Mr Kevan Jones: The Zoroastrians!
Mike Gapes: Five years ago, the mayor of my borough was a Zoroastrian. It is a long established, very old religion that came originally from Persia.
Mr Jones: Will my hon. Friend give way?
Mike Gapes: I do not want to give way any more, as I want to make progress. I want to conclude my remarks soon.
We need to avoid the prospect of the date clashing with other elections. Amendment 13 deals with that issue because there are regional, local and national elections, by-elections and other elections. It is important for there to be clarity about the date.
Finally, in amendments 9, 10 and 11, I make the case for us to get into the 21st century. Gone are the days when we should vote on only one day—Thursdays. We no longer live in a world in which there is no flexitime or different hours, and in which most people live and work very close to the same place. Those days have gone. Like other countries, we should get into the modern world and allow voting on more than one day—Thursday, Friday and Saturday, or Saturday and Sunday. We need to be more flexible, more open and more democratic. It is crucial that we take account of the modern age. If we are to have this epoch-making referendum, we should at least consider it reflecting the situation in the 21st century.
I have introduced my amendments. I do not wish to delay the House any longer, but I would like to have votes on amendments 3 and 77.
Later on I spoke again to introduce another group of amendments which I had proposed concerning the question to be asked in any Referendum.
Here is what I said.
Mike Gapes: It is a pleasure to be able to speak to amendments in this group, which is the most important of the three groups, because the question used in the referendum is a fundamental issue. My amendments relate principally to the question, and there are subsidiary amendments that relate to the Welsh, Northern Irish and Scottish situations.
My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) eloquently explained why amendments 35 and 36 have been tabled. The original wording of the question in the draft Bill published on 14 May was:
“Do you think the United Kingdom should remain a member of the European Union?”
That original proposal was subsequently changed, according to the Daily Mail, as a result of lobbying by Eurosceptics. The newspaper said that
“anti-Brussels MPs privately protested that the word ‘remain’ would prompt voters to stay in”
“the wording has been changed”.
The question has therefore been changed at the behest of Eurosceptics, contrary to the original intention and to the very strong advice of the Electoral Commission.
We face a dilemma. We could go for the alternative suggested by amendment 36, which puts both sides of the case. Presumably, the ballot paper could have two boxes and people could tick one to remain in or another to leave. In my opinion, however, the wording of the original proposal in the original draft Bill is preferable and I would like the House to have the opportunity to vote on it, because I think it is consistent with the original intention and clear. As my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West has said, it would deal with the small number of people—the polling evidence clearly shows that there are some—who are not even aware that this country is in the European Union.
Stephen Doughty: Does my hon. Friend agree that this situation underlines why we need the Electoral Commission to provide guidance and expert advice to the public and to arbitrate the process neutrally, and why the comments made by the chairman of the Conservative party were so disappointing and quite sinister?
Mike Gapes: I agree that Michael Green’s remarks were wrong. It is important to remember, as a helpful House of Commons Library note makes clear, that
“the Electoral Commission has a duty to assess the intelligibility of the question”,
that it has published guidance on that, and that it uses
“focus groups and similar techniques to ensure that the electorate understand the question.”
That may not be convenient for those people quoted by the Daily Mail as having lobbied for a particular outcome in the drafting of the question, but the fact is that the Electoral Commission is the expert. It has carried out thorough research and its report is critical of the question proposed and suggests that we at least go back to the original question, as set out in my amendment 35. Incidentally, that was also the subject of an amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood), which, although it was not selected for debate, I think shows that there is cross-party concern about this matter.
It is important that we have clarity, because a referendum on leaving the European Union will have enormous economic and political consequences for our country and its international relationships and for British citizens, including the 1.4 million living in other EU countries, a large number of whom will, according to the Government, be deprived of being able to vote in the referendum. It will also have implications for new Europeans and for British people who have married citizens of new EU countries. Those new Europeans may be living and working in this country and they may have children at school here. They are contributing to our country, but they might not be able to have a say in the referendum. The question must be clear and not leave any room for ambiguity or doubt about the outcome. People should not be able to say afterwards that the referendum was rigged and unfair and that the result should therefore not be accepted.
Huw Irranca-Davies: This is a pertinent and material amendment, because there is a world of difference between the words “be” and “remain”. I would like to be in the Wales versus Tonga rugby match tonight, but that is an aspiration. The word “remain” would allow me to make an argument to my constituents on the basis of the historical facts of the benefits that Wales gets from being a member of the EU. I would not be saying that we may be a member at some time in the future; I would be saying, “We are a member and here’s what we have gained.”
Mike Gapes: I absolutely agree. I do not want to comment on Welsh rugby, on which I am not an expert. [Interruption.] I will certainly not talk about English cricket either, or even the fortunes of my football team, West Ham United, although I hope we do better against Chelsea on Saturday.
We are in an important part of the debate, because we must get the question absolutely right.
Mark Hendrick: My hon. Friend is perfectly correct that we must get the question absolutely right. One thing that over the years has struck me, and I am sure many other hon. Members, is that when I knock on people’s doors, I find that they are confused about whether we are in Europe, the European Union or the euro. Several years ago, there was a big debate about whether we would join the single currency. Any doubt people might have about our being in the European Union would be put right if the question was whether we should “remain” in the European Union, rather than “be a member” of it. Many people need to be reminded of the fact that we are already a member of the European Union, and that retaining that status is not the end of the world.
Mike Gapes: I agree. Some people get very confused about judgments of the European Court of Human Rights, believing that that is something to do with the European Union, rather than the Council of Europe. Indeed, even some Members of the House have made that error, even recently.
We have to recognise that the question is fundamental. If there is a dispute about the question and there is narrow result in the referendum, the issue will not be resolved, as the Government intend, and there will be no cathartic moment. That would simply cause a wound that people will pick at and pick at for years and perhaps decades to come. If we have a referendum, the consequences and the interpretation of the outcome of the vote have to be absolutely clear and certain. There are also other issues relating to thresholds and turnout, but they are not relevant to this debate.
I believe that the choice before us is clear: do we go for the Government’s politically influenced fudge and ambiguity? Sorry, I do not mean the Government, but the Conservative part of the Government. I apologise to the hon. Member for Cheltenham. It is difficult, seeing the Minister in his place, to remember that we are dealing with a private Member’s Bill, but it is important that we do so.
Mr Spellar: That matter was cleared up by Mr Speaker two weeks ago. There were allegations that the Minister was speaking on behalf of the Conservative party, and Mr Speaker made it very clear that whoever speaks from the Treasury Bench at the Dispatch Box is speaking for the Government.
Mike Gapes: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his helpful intervention and clarification.
Martin Horwood: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I think that Mr Speaker stated that if someone speaks from the Treasury Bench as a Minister they are speaking as a Minister, but that does not necessarily mean that they are representing Government policy, and the Minister is certainly not doing so on this occasion.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): The hon. Gentleman has certainly made his point as well, so we can return to Mr Gapes.
Mike Gapes: Clearly, a novel interpretation of ministerial responsibility applies in this debate.
To return to the amendments, amendment 37 concerns having a “version” or a “translation” of the question, about which I intervened on the Minister earlier. There are important implications, because a version is not the same as a translation. A translation would be much closer to the meaning of the words in the original question, whereas a version might be looser and more roundabout or “good enough”. But that is not good enough, because the question has legal and constitutional implications.
Let us say, for the sake of argument, that the people of Wales vote differently from the people of the rest of the United Kingdom and there is a narrow result that is influenced by the Welsh speakers. Would we not face potential legal challenges to the outcome if the people of Wales said, “We wish to remain in the European Union, even though the rest of the UK has left”? That could happen if the votes of Welsh speakers swing the result.
Stephen Doughty: My hon. Friend is making extremely important points. Does he recall that the Government wasted £350,000 on printing English-only versions of the ballot papers for the police and crime commissioner elections? Their record on bilingual ballot papers is not good and they should give the matter much more serious consideration.
Mike Gapes: I agree absolutely. I hope that the Government will give the matter further consideration and realise that amendment 37 is not a frivolous amendment, but a serious one that relates to important issues of concern. It needs to be considered on that basis.
Amendment 38 states that there should be consultation with the National Assembly for Wales and the Welsh Assembly Government. That consultation would be helpful in ensuring that the question in the Welsh language was correct and accurate, and that it was not simply a version, but a translation of the wording being voted on in other parts of the United Kingdom.
Mr Spellar: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. If he had not, I would have raised this matter on a point of order. Further to my previous point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker—
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. I think that Mr Gapes gave way to an intervention, rather than to a point of order.
Mr Spellar: In that case, further to my previous intervention on my hon. Friend, at 10.30 am on 8 November, at column 548 of Hansard, I asked:
“Is it not the case that anyone speaking from the Dispatch Box on the Government side of the Chamber is speaking on behalf of the Government?”
Mr Speaker replied:
“The right hon. Gentleman is correct. That is the situation—a Minister who speaks from the Treasury Bench is speaking for the Government.”
Interestingly, the hon. Member for Cheltenham then said:
“That raises an interesting issue that perhaps the Government—both sides of the coalition—should reflect on. I stand corrected for the second time in the space of an hour”.—[Official Report, 8 November 2013; Vol. 570, c. 548.]
Mr Deputy Speaker: The point has been aired. I am sure that Mike Gapes will get back on track and speak to the amendments.
Mike Gapes: Of course, Mr Deputy Speaker; I would never wish to be off track when discussing these matters.
Amendment 38 requires consultation with the National Assembly for Wales and the Welsh Assembly Government on these matters. Amendment 39 relates to Scotland, where there will be similar issues. It would require a consultation with the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government. It is important to remember that the United Kingdom has a devolution settlement, so we cannot simply magic up the wording of questions for political convenience and to suit those who lobby the Daily Mail. We have to consult the different parts of our United Kingdom.
I have experience of that because I was Parliamentary Private Secretary to my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) when he was Minister for
Political Development in the Northern Ireland Office between 1997 and 1999. I took part in the negotiations in Castle buildings that resulted in the Good Friday agreement. I understand well from that experience the importance of language and identity in Irish politics and within the two communities and faith traditions in Northern Ireland.
Huw Irranca-Davies: Does my hon. Friend agree that amendments 38, 39 and 40, when taken in conjunction with the discussion on amendment 35 on whether the word “be” or “remain” should be used, are vital because we do not know whether the Northern Ireland Executive, the Scottish Government and the Welsh Government have expressed their views on the expert opinion of the Electoral Commission on the correct wording? Because I was unable to intervene on the Minister earlier, I do not know whether the Government have had those discussions.
Mike Gapes: I am sorry, I cannot answer that question either. Perhaps the Minister can, or the Liberal Democrats when they speak on behalf of the Government. I simply do not know the answer.
The issues of consultation and identity are important. Given that the referendum could have different outcomes in different places, it is possible, for example, that England might vote to leave but Northern Ireland might vote to stay in. Given the economic, personal and family links north and south of the border, Northern Ireland might prefer co-operation to leaving. If that were the case, there would clearly be implications if the question were disputed.
We should ensure that we see the potential difficulties coming over the horizon and remove them in advance rather than come across them because of a badly worded question, a lack of proper consultation, or a lack of translated versions or translations, whichever we decide on. If we remove those difficulties, it will make political or legal challenges and difficulties at a later stage less likely. As the democratic Chamber, this House has a responsibility to do that, although I suspect that if we do not, the other place will examine the issue in some detail.
I hope that the Scottish Government and Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and Welsh Assembly Government and the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive will make clear representations on those matters. They have a right to be heard on behalf of the people of those nations and regions of the United Kingdom.
I will end my remarks there because I know that many other Members wish to contribute. The amendments cover vital issues that need proper consideration, and I think we need to vote on the wording of the question.
During the debate I voted several times including voting for Amendment 3 moved by the Conservative MP Adam Afriye to hold a referendum on 23 October 2014. However this amendment was resoundingly rejected by the massed whipped ranks of the Conservative Party and received the votes of only 16 MPs.
The debate will be resumed on Friday 29 November when I hope there will be the opportunity to vote on some of the amendments I put forward already. There will also be consideration of a fourth grouping of amendments where I also have an interest.