I must start by thanking the Backbench Business Committee for providing time for today’s debate. It is an historic debate, and the amount of interest generated in advance of it has surely put beyond any doubt the fact that the public are concerned about this matter. It fully vindicates the establishment of the Committee, and its decision to facilitate the debate. I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron), for Christchurch (Mr Chope), for Clacton (Mr Carswell), for Rochester and Strood (Mark Reckless) and for Wycombe (Steve Baker), along with many others, for their tireless work and support from the very outset. With the leave of the House, my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) will briefly wind up the debate.
The motion reflects the wishes of the hundreds of thousands of people who have signed petitions calling for a referendum on the United Kingdom’s future relationship with the European Union. Opinion polls clearly show that millions of others agree with them: in fact, the vast majority of the British people want a vote in a referendum. The arguments for and against the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union can wait until a future referendum campaign. The motion that is before us today simply paves the way for a referendum to be held on some future, as yet unspecified, date. Therefore, any argument that now is not the right time for a referendum to be held is, quite frankly, irrelevant. Even if the motion is passed today, a referendum is likely to be years away.
One reason for people’s increasing concern about our membership of the European Union is the growing sense that this country, indeed this Parliament, is becoming ever more impotent as more and more decisions are taken in Brussels and then passed down to the United Kingdom to implement, whether we like it or not.
I want to mention one very important example of that from my constituency of Bury North. Before the last general election, the Conservatives pledged that if we won the election we would keep open the children’s department, including the maternity ward and special care baby unit, at Fairfield hospital in Bury, which was scheduled to close under Labour’s plans. Sadly, despite that pledge, and despite massive local opposition to the closure plans, these vital services are still destined to close, and one of the driving forces behind the closure plans is the effect of the European working time directive. Thousands of my constituents feel completely let down, and even at this late stage I urge the Government to keep that pre-election pledge and to ensure these services are retained at Fairfield hospital.
Mr Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): Two weeks ago at the Inverclyde Royal hospital, 23-year-old doctor Lauren Connelly died in a car crash. All her colleagues believe that that was a result of her having worked exhaustingly long hours. We should not mock the working time directive. Although it is sometimes improperly applied in the UK, it is also saving the lives of doctors and patients.
The voters know that the tentacles of the European Union intrude into ever more areas of our national life. Understandably, they are saddened—and, indeed, disillusioned—at being fobbed off, as they see it, by the political elite, who always seem to find a reason to stop them having their say.
More than a decade ago, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary coined the phrase, “We want to be in Europe, but not run by Europe.” The sad fact is that since then we have increasingly become run by Europe. I and millions of others in this country want to be in Britain, and run by Britain.
More than 36 years have passed since anyone had the chance to have their say on this crucial matter, and in that time not a single power has ever been repatriated. I suspect that for some in this House there will never be a right time for a referendum on this issue, but I think that, by anybody’s standards, nearly four decades is quite long enough to wait.
Moreover, almost two thirds of the people of the United Kingdom have never had the opportunity to vote on this issue. Indeed, figures supplied by the House of Commons Library show that approximately 8 million of the people who voted yes to continuing our membership of the common market back in 1975 are still alive today. That is just 16% of the current voting age population, leaving a staggering 84% who have never voted in favour of Britain’s continued membership of the European Economic Community.
Heather Wheeler (South Derbyshire) (Con): Back in 1975, I was engaged in political work but I was also too young to have a vote, so I am very glad that my hon. Friend has raised this important point so early in the debate. The people of South Derbyshire sent me here so that we can have votes on issues such as the one before us.
Mr Nuttall:I thank my hon. Friend. I will now press on.A staggering 84% of the current voting age population have never voted in favour of Britain’s continued membership of the EEC, never mind the European Union. Furthermore, if I were a betting man, I would wager that some of those who voted yes back in 1975 may well have since changed their minds. The Common Market has fundamentally changed in size and powers as it has been transformed into the European Union, and without the British people ever being consulted, of course.
Mr John Baron (Basildon and Billericay) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. The key point is that what this country joined was, in essence, a free trade area, and that since that time we have seen the continual salami-slicing of our sovereignty and the British people have still not yet been consulted on that change. The Government may talk about referendum locks, but that is tilting at windmills, given that no treaty is on the horizon and that key competences and powers are being transferred in the meantime. It is time to consult the people.
Mr Nuttall: The European Union Act 2011 deals with the future, but this motion deals with where we are today. People already feel that too many powers have been passed on. At a time when people pick up their phones and spend their own money voting week in, week out to keep their favourite contestants on programmes such as “Strictly Come Dancing” and “The X Factor”, many will be baffled as to why the Government and all those who oppose this motion seem keen to prevent them from having their chance to vote on Britain’s future relationship with the European Union.
Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): I very much agree with my hon. Friend. Does he agree that people will be even more baffled to understand the position of the Liberal Democrats? They stood on an election manifesto to have an in/out referendum and actually marched out of this House in the previous Parliament because they were denied one, so does he not agree that people will be particularly baffled as to why none of those charlatans over there will be voting for this motion?
Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): The hon. Gentleman will know, as I am sure he read the Liberal Democrat manifesto very carefully, that we committed to an in/out referendum at the time of a fundamental shift. That is why we supported an in/out referendum and proposed one in this Chamber at the time of the Lisbon treaty. Perhaps he can explain why every one of his then Conservative colleagues voted against that motion.
Mrs Anne Main (St Albans) (Con): My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Here it is in black and white—it was in orange. This is exactly what the Liberal Democrats wanted to give the people and I am surprised that they are not honouring it today.
Mr Nuttall: The situation we find ourselves in is rather like that of someone who has boarded a slow train going in one direction and finds, just as they are settling in, that the train starts to career off at high speed in a completely different direction, with carriages being added on left, right and centre, and they are locked in and have no way of getting off. Worse still, the longer people are on the train, the more the fare goes up, but there is absolutely nothing they can do about it because any negotiation with the guards or the driver is almost impossible. This motion would simply allow the train to stop for a while so that the passengers can decide whether they want to continue the journey or even disembark.
John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): A lot of changes are happening throughout Europe. Does my hon. Friend accept that we need to add some junctions to the track in order to identify whether alternative routes are available? Does he agree that we should not wait for a referendum before doing that?
Mr Speaker: Order. May I appeal to the House to settle down? A large number of noisy private conservations are taking place, which add nothing to but subtract much from the debate. Let us hear Mr David Nuttall.
Nadine Dorries (Mid Bedfordshire) (Con): Will my hon. Friend also acknowledge that not only is he moving this motion, but more than 100,000 people have signed an e-petition to 10 Downing street calling for him to do just this?
I am conscious that this is one of the most, if not the most, heavily subscribed Back-Bench debates ever. In conclusion, with the three-largest parties in the House all apparently instructing their MPs to vote against the motion despite what those MPs might individually believe to be the best course of action for our country, the result tonight may not be in very much doubt. Members can vote either to give their constituents a choice on Britain’s ongoing relationship with the European Union or to deny them that opportunity. It is as simple as that. If my fellow MPs join me in voting to give the British people a choice in a referendum, they can do so with a clear conscience, knowing that they will have a very large majority of the British people on their side.
Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Con): Has my hon. Friend had the same experience as I have? In the past week I have had dozens and dozens of e-mails, telephone calls and letters from constituents urging me to support the motion, whereas the only communication I have had urging me to vote against it has been a telephone call from the Whips Office.
Mr Nuttall: We always have to be careful about whether we are listening to the vocal minority or the silent majority. I believe that on this issue we should listen to the majority of the British people, who clearly want a referendum.
Some 40 million people of voting age alive today in this country have not voted in favour of Britain’s membership of the European Union, and this motion would start to put that right. Those who oppose it may well be smiling today, but winning votes in the House using strong-arm tactics does nothing to help to rebuild trust in politicians or to persuade the public that the majority inside the House are reflecting their views. Those who oppose the motion may well win this battle, but they most certainly will not win the war. We should remember the saying that he who laughs last laughs longest. I commend the motion to the House.