I beg to move, that the Bill be now read a Second time.
Mr Speaker, this is a simple, but vital, piece of legislation. It has one clear purpose: to deliver on our promise to give the British people the final say on our EU membership in an in/out referendum by the end of 2017.
Mr Speaker, for those who were present in the last Parliament, today’s debate will be tinged with a sense of déjà vu: we have, of course, debated this Bill before.
So before I start, I would like to pay tribute to my Hon friend the Member for Stockton South. His European Union Bill in the last Parliament was passed by this House, but sadly blocked in the Other Place by the parties opposite: He deserves the credit for paving the way for the Bill we are debating today.
Let me also pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Dobbs who sponsored the Wharton Bill in the Other Place, and to my Hon friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst who reintroduced the same Bill in the following session. The commitment on this side of the House to giving the British people their say has deep roots.
Mr Speaker, it is almost four decades ago to the day that I and millions of others in Britain, cast my vote in favour of our membership of the European Communities.
And like millions of others, I believed I was voting for an economic community that would bring significant economic benefits to Britain, but without undermining our national sovereignty. I don’t remember anybody saying anything about “ever closer union” or a single currency.
But, Mr Speaker, the institution that the clear majority of the British people voted to join has changed almost beyond recognition in the decades since then.
Treaty after treaty - the Single European Act, Maastricht, Amsterdam, Nice and Lisbon…
…individually and collectively, have added hugely to the European Union’s powers, often in areas that would have been unthinkable in 1975.
And that change has eroded the democratic mandate for our membership to the point where it is wafer-thin and demands to be renewed.
Mr Speaker, to many people, not just in the UK, but across Europe, the EU has come to feel like something that is done to them, not for them. Turnout in last year’s European Parliament elections was the lowest ever - dropping to 13% in Slovakia.
But Mr Speaker, the fragility of the European Union’s democratic legitimacy is felt particularly acutely by the British people.
Since our referendum in 1975, citizens across Europe, from Denmark and Ireland, to France and Spain, have been asked their views on crucial aspects of their country’s relationship with the EU in over 30 different national referendums.
But not in the UK.
We’ve had referendums on Scottish devolution, referendums on Welsh devolution, referendums on our electoral system and on a regional assembly for the North East. But an entire generation of British voters has been denied the chance to have a say on our relationship with the European Union.
Today we are putting that right. After fighting, and winning, the General Election as the only major party committed to an in-out referendum - in the face of relentless opposition from the parties opposite - today we are delivering on our promise to give that generation their say.
Mr Speaker, we have long been clear that the European Union needs to change…
…and Britain’s relationship with the European Union needs to change. We believe that Brussels has got too much power. And we believe that some of those powers need to be brought back to national capitals.
In a world whose centre of economic gravity is shifting fast, Europe faces a serious challenge. If we are to continue to earn our way in the world and to secure European living standards for future generations, then the EU needs to focus relentlessly on jobs, growth and competitiveness: bluntly, it needs to become far less bureaucratic and far more competitive.
And with the European electorate more disenchanted with the EU than ever before; with anti-EU parties on the rise across the Continent, it’s time to bring Europe back to the people; ensuring decisions are made as close to them as possible, and giving national parliaments a greater role in overseeing the European Union.
These are issues that resonate across all Member States; change that is needed for the benefit of all, to make the EU fit for the purpose of the 21st Century.
But the British people also have some particular concerns, born of our history and our circumstances.
We are not part of the single currency zone. We’ve made that decision because we will not accept the further integration - in our fiscal economic, financial and social policy, that will inevitably be required to make the Eurozone a success. So we need to agree a framework with our partners that will allow further integration of the Eurozone, while protecting Britain’s interests and those of the other “Euro-outs” within the EU.
And because we occupy a crowded island, with a population that is growing even before net migration, and a welfare system which is more accessible than most, and more generous than many in Europe, we are far more sensitive than many Member States to the impact of migration from the EU, and the distorting effects of easy access to benefits and services and of in-work welfare top-ups to wages that are already high by comparison with many EU countries.
So [the Government is] committed to negotiate a new settlement for Britain in Europe. A settlement that addresses these concerns of the British people and sets the European Union on a course that will benefit all its people in the future. The Prime Minister has already begun that process, meeting 15 European leaders, and at the European Council in June he will set out formally the key elements of our proposals.
There are, of course, those who will say that this process cannot succeed. That Europe will never change. That our negotiations will not be successful.
In the last Parliament, we showed what can be done. We showed that through a tough negotiating stance and a laser-like focus on our national interest, change can be achieved.
We cut the EU budget for the first time ever, saving British taxpayers billions of pounds
We took Britain out of the Eurozone bailouts - the first ever return of powers from Brussels.
We vetoed an EU Treaty that would have damaged Britain’s interests.
And we brought back control of over 100 police and criminal justice measures and secured exemptions for the smallest businesses from EU regulation.
Mr Speaker, our record in the last five years shows that we can deliver change in Europe, and change that is in Britain’s national interest. Of course, negotiating with twenty seven Member States will not be easy. And it will not happen overnight. But we expect to be able to negotiate a new deal, which will address the concerns of the British people about Britain’s relationship with Europe - which we will put to them in the promised Referendum.
This Bill provides the mechanism to do that.
It sets in stone our commitment to hold the referendum before the end of 2017. Of course, if the process is completed sooner the referendum could be held sooner. So the Bill allows for the date of the referendum to be determined by regulations, made by affirmative resolution.
The Bill provides for the wording of the referendum question on its face.
In 2013 the Electoral Commission assessed the referendum question posed by the Wharton Bill.
The Commission recommended two possible formulations. This Bill specifies the simpler of the two, “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union”, with a “Yes”/“No” answer.
The Electoral Commission will of course report again in relation to this Bill and we look forward to their assessment.
Mr Speaker, the Bill sets out the entitlement to vote in the referendum.
Since this is an issue of national importance, the Parliamentary franchise is the right starting point. It means that British citizens in the UK, or resident abroad for less than 15 years, and resident Commonwealth and Irish citizens can take part.
The Bill extends the franchise in two very limited respects: to Members of the Other Place who meet certain qualifications, and to Commonwealth citizens resident in Gibraltar.
Members of the other place cannot take part in elections to this House, on the grounds they are already represented in Parliament. But it is clearly right that the franchise be extended to them in this referendum.
And Gibraltar will be deeply affected by its outcome. It is part of the European Union. And its economy is closely bound to its relationship with the EU. Gibraltar, of course, already takes part in elections to the European Parliament, as part of the South West region of England.
During debates on the Private Members’ Bill in the last Parliament, there was cross-party support for Gibraltar’s inclusion. I hope that will remain.
But we will only extend the franchise to Gibraltar with the consent of the Government of Gibraltar. My right honourable friend the Minister for Europe has already agreed the principles for achieving this with the Chief Minister.
Wherever possible, this Bill leaves it to the Gibraltar Parliament to make provision to implement the referendum in Gibraltar. The Government of Gibraltar intends to introduce its own Referendum Bill, which will be complementary to the UK legislation.
Mr Speaker, some will argue that we should extend the franchise further. To sixteen and seventeen year olds, perhaps. Or even to citizens of other EU countries resident here.
We do not agree. This is an issue of national importance about Britain’s relationship with the European Union. And it is right that the Westminster Parliamentary franchise should be the basis for consulting the British people.
I concede that there are those in the House that will wish to debate whether that franchise itself should be extended to 16 and 17 year olds. The Government is not persuaded, and this is a debate for another day. It would be wrong to include 16 and 17 year olds in this referendum as an addition to the Westminster franchise.
I reject, too, the suggestion that EU citizens living in the UK should be included. This referendum is about delivering a pledge to the British people to consult them about the future of their country. It would be a travesty to seek to include EU nationals whose interests may be very different from those of the British people.
Mr Speaker, although the central issue at stake in this Bill is simple, and the three key variables: the date, the franchise and the Question are dealt with in the first two clauses of the Bill, running a referendum is not a straightforward matter. The remainder of the Bill, which includes 38 pages of schedules, deals with three important, but technical, areas.
First, it establishes a power in section 4(1) to set the conduct framework, which will determine how the referendum will be run.
Secondly the Bill creates a power in section 4(2) to set more detailed “conduct rules” and “combination rules” to determine how this vote would be run alongside other electoral events, should the chosen date coincide with any.
Finally, the Bill will establish the detailed campaign rules, updating the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 where necessary, taking into account the lessons of both the Scottish Independence and the Alternative Vote referendums and the recommendations made by the Electoral Commission. Mr Speaker, it also disapplies Section 125 of the Act and as this aspect has received some media attention, I will elaborate the Government’s logic for doing this.
Section 125 places statutory restrictions on Government publications in the final 28 days preceding the poll. There are operational and political reasons for disapplying it in this referendum. If left unaltered, Section 125 would stop the Government from “publishing” material which deals with “any issue raised by” the referendum question.
In the context of this referendum, that is unworkable and inappropriate.
It is unworkable, because the restriction is so broad, that preventing publication in relation to “any issue raised by” the referendum could prevent ministers from conducting the ordinary, day to day business of the UK’s dealings with the European Union.
And inappropriate, because this referendum will take place as a result of a clear manifesto commitment and a mandate won at the General Election. That mandate is to renegotiate the terms of the UK’s relationship with the European Union and to put those terms to the people in a referendum.
In light of the outcome of those negotiations, the Government expects to take a position. And if we have been successful, as we expect to be, the Government will want to explain what has been agreed and how the British people’s concerns have been addressed. We will want to make a recommendation on where the national interest lies and Government Ministers will want to be able to continue making the case up to Referendum day, without being constrained by fears that, for example, the posting of comments on twitter accounts could constitute “publication”.
Clearly Mr Speaker it will be for the Yes and No campaigns to lead the debate in the weeks preceding the poll. These campaigns will be designated by the Electoral Commission and will receive a number of benefits, including a public grant, eligibility to make a referendum broadcast and to send a free mailshot to voters.
I can assure the House that the Government has no intention of undermining those campaigns and is not proposing to spend large sums of public money during the purdah period prescribed by Section 125.
A vibrant, robust debate, in the best traditions of British democracy, is in all of our interest.
Mr Speaker, few subjects ignite as much passion in this House, or indeed in this country, as our membership of the European Union. The debate in the run-up to the Referendum will be hard fought on both sides of the argument.
But whether you favour Britain being in or out, we surely should all be able to agree on the simple principle that the decision over our membership should be taken by the British people.
Not by Whitehall bureaucrats; certainly not by Brussels Eurocrats; not even by Government Ministers or parliamentarians in this Chamber.
The decision must be for the common sense of the British people. That is what we pledged. And that is what we have a mandate to deliver.
For too long, the people of Britain have been denied their say. For too long, powers have been handed to Brussels over their heads. For too long, their voice on Europe has not been heard.
This Bill puts that right. It delivers the simple in-out referendum we promised and I commend it to the House.