By Tim Montgomerie
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The House of Lords is becoming a problem. Inspired by such premier league Yellow B**tards as Lord Oakeshott the Upper House is overstepping its reforming, amending role and is in danger of becoming a roadblock to important Coalition reforms, including with respect to the NHS and elected police chiefs.
Yesterday, in alliance with pro-EU Conservatives, Liberal Democrat peers helped amend the European Union Bill to ensure that the referendum lock expired at the end of this parliament. The whole point of William Hague's referendum lock is that it ensures all future parliaments cannot make significant transfers of future powers to the EU without the consent of the British people. The usefulness of the lock had already been questioned by Eurosceptics and it looks much more vulnerable today.
The anti-Hague amendment was passed by just 209 to 203 votes. Among the 209 were the biggest beasts of the pro-EU Tory years, including Leon Brittan, Lord Debden (formerly John Gummer), Lord Heseltine, Baroness Howe, and Lord Jopling. They were joined by many Labour peers but also Liberal Democrats including Lord Oakeshott, Baroness Williams, Lord Maclennan and Lord Steel.
Lord Risby (formerly Richard Spring MP) unsuccessfully opposed the amendment:
"The whole point about this Bill is that it is meant to provide an enduring framework or umbrella under which future important EU decisions can be made. It comes back to this fundamental question, which is one of trust. People need to feel that they have a longer term guarantee of that sense of ownership of these procedures if we are to give away powers to the European Union. That is simply at the heart of this Bill. A sunset clause would give a limited time frame—providing perhaps for a time when we do not expect a referendum, or taking that right away when there might be a treaty change. That is the possible danger. But I might use the analogy of saying to the noble Lord, “Here is £5, but you can spend it only between four o’clock and six o’clock in the afternoon, otherwise I am going to take it back”. That is the essence of what this is all about."
Lord Brittan used his intervention to oppose referenda as a matter of principle:
"My Lords, I support the amendment. I start by saying that I am an unashamed opponent of referenda and always have been. It is not therefore surprising that anything that limits the operation of referenda inherently attracts me, as the amendment does. It is entirely reasonable that this piece of legislation, if it is to be passed, should be regarded as being wholly exceptional—which it is constitutionally—because it extends the range of obligatory referenda on a massive scale and fundamentally alters the balance of the constitution in that important respect. The Bill should be regarded, if it has to be passed, as a provisional experiment. I would regard it as a rather dangerous experiment that is subversive of the normal principles of parliamentary government."
Addendum from Jonathan Isaby:
Yesterday's defeat was not the first during the Report Stage in the Lords of the European Union Bill.
Last week an amendment was successfully introduced by Lord Willamson of Horton, a former secretary general of the European Commission, to make any referendum taking place under the Bill's auspices subject to a 40% turnout threshold. This was passed by 221 votes to 216, with the backing of seven Lib Dem rebels and five Tories, namely Lord Deben, Lord Forsyth of Drumlean (no Europhile, but a consistent backer of threshholds in referendums), Lord Howe of Aberavon, Lord Swinfen and Lord Tugendhat (like Brittan, a former Euroepan Commissioner).
And on Monday, Lord Hannay of Chiswick, Britain's former ambassador to the EU, successfully introduced an amendment to reuce the number of issues whcih could trigger a referendum over tha transfer of powers from 56 to just three – joining either the euro, the Schengen common travel area or a common defence policy. This was also passed by a majority fo five (212 votea to 207), with the support of three Tory rebels, Lord Garel-Jones, Lord Howe of Aberavon and Lord Hurd of Westwell, and eight Lib Dem peers defying the whip to boot.