The Tory plan for a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union cleared its first hurdle in the House of Lords last week. The Bill was given an unopposed second reading after a lengthy seven-hour debate in the Lords, in which more than 60 peers spoke.
But there were warnings from Labor and Liberal Democrat backbenchers that the legislation, which guarantees a vote on EU membership in 2017, could be delayed and fail to make it back to the House of Commons in time to become law. The backbench peers intend to table a series of amendments to the European Union (Referendum) Bill, meaning it could run out of parliamentary time.
Tory James Wharton, the backbench MP who brought forward the legislation as a Private Member’s Bill, said there was a chance that he or other Conservative Euro-skeptics would try again next year if this happened.
It is customary in the House of Lords for Bills to be given a second reading and the legislation will now progress to committee stage, where it is highly likely a number of amendments will be tabled. If any amendments are made to the Bill which MPs want to reverse it is going to have to return to the Commons by February 28, the last sitting Friday when the legislation can be debated in the lower chamber.
Tory MP Philip Davies (Shipley) asked whether the Government would bring forward what is known as a carry-over motion, which would allow the Bill to make further progress in the next Parliament. But this only applies to Government legislation, meaning the Bill has to make it through parliament in this session.
There is one other option, that the Government can ask for further sitting Fridays beyond February 28. But the Liberal Democrats are not supporting the Bill.
Labor and Liberal Democrat peers were joined by the odd dissenting Tory voices who insisted the Bill needed further detailed work as they raised numerous concerns, including on the 2017 date for the vote, the wording of the question and the economic impact of the plans.
Former European Commissioner Lord Mandelson claimed Foreign Secretary William Hague and Prime Minister David Cameron had been “taken hostage by the militant tendency” within the Tories.
The Labor peer also told the Conservatives to stop grandstanding for the UK Independence Party (Ukip) vote by demanding a referendum, adding talk of leaving the EU only created uncertainty for investors and would threaten British jobs.
Lord Oakeshott insisted an in/out EU vote was the “coward’s way out” of political problems and an “abdication of responsibility”. The Lib Dem, who is an ally of Business Secretary of Vince Cable, pledged to introduce amendments.
Criticism from Tory peers included Lord Garel-Jones, who questioned the motives behind the plans, even suggesting it could be an attempt to win British National Party (BNP) voters. He insisted his party should not “pander to Ukip” but instead “confront them with a barrage of facts”, and said the European Union (Referendum) Bill was unnecessary.
But peers also heard arguments that their unelected status and the support from MPs and the public for a referendum did not give them the authority to kill the Bill, despite them possessing the power.
Lord Strathclyde broke his 12-month silence since stepping down as Tory leader of the Lords to warn it would be “comprehensively damaging” for the upper chamber’s reputation if rumors were true that some peers wanted to block the Bill by using delaying tactics.
He said nobody outside the Lords would understand why peers were “deliberately denying the people their say on this issue”.