My Lords, at the outset I apologise for my late arrival at the beginning of the debate. This is an important Bill and it is timely that your Lordships should have the opportunity to debate it. As a tail-ender, I have listened carefully to the arguments put forward by various noble Lords but I am going to remain firm and support this Bill. The Government’s proposals are in concert with many other member states that give their electorates a voice if treaty changes propose a transfer of power to Brussels.
The European Union has delivered strong benefits for the United Kingdom since we joined and we should all be confident in the possibilities offered through free and open markets. Yet there has been a gradual erosion in public support for some other dimensions of what is sometimes referred to as the European project. We have witnessed a huge transfer of powers to Brussels in many policy areas.
For example, although we are not part of the eurozone it has been estimated that approximately 65 per cent of financial regulation affecting the City of London comes from Brussels. As an insurance broker and underwriting agent, I have a long-standing connection with the City of London.
The European Union has changed a great deal since we joined the then European Economic Community in 1973. We all recall the treaties that have come about since then including Maastricht, Amsterdam, Nice and Lisbon. These treaties have altered the nature of the institution profoundly, yet the British people have not had the opportunity to have their say since 1975. Arguably, some of those treaties have featured strongly in general election campaigns and have been grounded in party manifestos.
However, we need to recognise that people feel increasingly detached from European-level decision-making. As the European Union has undergone enlargement, so the distance between the ordinary voter and the European institutions has got that bit bigger.
I am of the opinion that greater efforts should be placed on making the public more knowledgeable about European Union affairs. Apathy is a big problem in local and general elections but is even worse when it comes to European elections. Significant numbers of the population cannot name even one of their three MEPs, yet these politicians are now colegislators in many important areas of policy as a result of the Lisbon treaty. Do the Government have any plans to broaden awareness about the European Union among the British electorate?
I believe that the Bill is a carefully considered measure to seek to reconnect the British people with the decisions made in their name in Brussels, and that is a good thing. Never again should we allow the transfer of powers without adequate consultation and scrutiny.
Our membership of the European Union is important for our economic prosperity, and we should be at the heart of those countries driving the agenda for the future. We need to have an ambition to place Britain at the heart of Europe, steering the agenda firmly. To achieve that, we need to be absolutely clear about our future role, which is the basis on which we will engage and rebuild the public trust and confidence that has been eroded in recent times.
The principle underpinning the Bill is simple, even if the technical aspects require rather more careful consideration. Any action that might affect our lives, as stated in the Bill, should be subject to the consent of the British public, and it is proper that that should be defined in statute. Extending economic opportunities is crucial to our improved well-being, but there has been a growing disconnect with what we signed up to and a lack of clarity about where the European Union is going.
In opposition, the Prime Minister was very clear about ensuring that the principle of sovereignty was enshrined in law. I welcomed that then, and I am pleased to see the Government bringing that forward in the Bill. As a sovereign parliamentary democracy, it is proper that we should be clear that European Union powers are exercised through the consent of the United Kingdom Parliament and, where appropriate, with a referendum of the wider British public. I agree wholeheartedly with my right honourable friend the Secretary of State who, at Third Reading in another place, said that the Bill,
“is an overhaul that is as profoundly needed as it is overdue. It marks a real shift in power from Ministers to Parliament and from both Ministers and Parliament to voters themselves”.-[Official Report, Commons, 8/3/11; col. 847.]
Clause 4 lists the criteria that the Government should take into account when deciding whether a transfer of power would occur and thus trigger a referendum. Clause 4(1)(f) specifically covers extended competences of the EU relating to matters involving economic and employment policies. I particularly welcome this clause as it shows a willingness on the part of this Government to stem the flow of regulation affecting businesses and the City of London.
I will confine the bulk of my remarks to Part 1 of the Bill, which deals with the “referendum lock” concept and places the Prime Minister’s commitments into law. However, that needs to be clearly spelt out and be unambiguous. We know that the basic principle needs to be enshrined in law. There was no referendum on the Lisbon treaty, and the ratification involved no consultation with the British public. That could not happen in the case of this Bill; for any future treaties, a referendum would be mandatory. We need to be clear that the responsibility for our laws rests with the British people and our Parliament.
I accept that changes to the existing treaty framework through the ordinary revision procedure are likely to be limited in number. They depend upon the satisfactory conclusion of an inter-governmental conference. I do not envisage that we will see many of these, but it is proper to ensure that the public are given the opportunity to express their views on each future occasion that this might arise.
The simplified revision procedures in the Bill provide greater scope for changes to be made and changes that might alter the balance in future considerations. Those may appear technical but the consequences could be profound. For example, where the voting procedures in the Council are changed from unanimity to qualified majority voting, this could alter the balance and change a large number of future outcomes. While these procedures are designed to make changes simpler, I welcome the fact that the Government are committed to providing a safety valve for additional scrutiny where these instances occur.
I also welcome the requirement for Ministers to explain the basis of their decision, which will be open to legal challenge. The Government should not have anything to hide in making these decisions. It is a bold and welcome step that Ministers have taken.
This law may be repealed by a future Parliament, giving rise to the view among some critics that the Bill is unnecessary-that it cannot bind a future Parliament. I do not accept this analysis. I recall how aggrieved many people felt at not having their say in a referendum on the Lisbon treaty. However, I would not like any future Government to repeal the solid commitment that is provided in the Bill and I do not believe that they would do so.
Parliaments must be sovereign in the United Kingdom. Our laws are a matter for our Parliament. We have benefited, and will continue to do so, from harmonisation across our trading networks. The European Union offers great potential to champion the free market robustly. However, we are the custodians of our democracy. It is not ours to give away; it belongs to the British public. We have a duty to ensure that adequate scrutiny is applied where powers and competences are transferred. Where appropriate, the British public must be given the chance to have the last word. The Bill does not solve all the problems of the European Union, but it affords us a valuable protection for the future. It enshrines the clear principle that power rests with the electorate.
Since coming to power, the Government have gone to great lengths to give the British public a chance to determine their own destinies through initiatives such as the big society and the localism agenda. The Bill demonstrates an extension of this concept to the European strata. Above all, the Bill strengthens our democracy and provides the British people with statutory reassurance. That is why I support the Bill and commend it to the House.