European Union

Posted on June 14th, 2011 in Parliamentary News

Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab): I hope to be as brief as the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy). I came into the Chamber this evening to support new clause 11. That support was underlined by the thoughtful contribution of the hon. Member for Rochester and Strood (Mark Reckless). I was then a little confused by the speech of the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg), because he is very clever and I wondered whether I had the right new clause. However, I then listened to the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole, who spoke about the one factor that will weigh most in my mind, which is the fact that he has not had a chance to vote. We therefore need to have an in/out referendum, to give him the opportunity to do so.

I am teasing the hon. Gentleman. In fact, I believe that it is important that at some stage in the near future-I am not saying that it should be 5 May, when we decide on AV-the British people ought to have an opportunity to deal with this subject. I am confident that, given that opportunity, they will vote overwhelmingly in support of remaining in the European Union. I know that there are those on both sides of the Committee who believe that the British people would do the opposite and that, given the opportunity, they would vote to come out of the European Union. However, I have attended many debates in this House when Members on both sides have been passionate about remaining in the European Union. However, at the end of the day, it should be up to the British people to make such an important decision.

Mr Hollobone: When the right hon. Gentleman says “overwhelmingly”, what does he mean by that?

Keith Vaz: It is 11 years since I was the Minister for Europe. I can well remember the day that I was appointed. I think I got a call from either Alastair Campbell or Tony Blair-I cannot remember which of the two it was, and I have not checked the diaries to see whether either recorded this important footnote in history-to inform me of my appointment. I was completely shocked. I was a junior Justice Minister and was on my way to Blackburn when I got a call to say that I had to go down to Downing street because I was the new Minister for Europe. I remember my first conversation with the Prime Minister. I said, “I know absolutely nothing about the European Union,” and he said, “You are the perfect Minister for Europe,” so I was appointed.

What was interesting about those two years is that my instructions from No. 10 were to make the domestic argument to the British people about the importance of being in the European Union. We therefore had a Foreign Office roadshow, as part of the public diplomacy team. We had a coach that went round various parts of the country. We did not get to Somerset, but we did get to Wigan and other interesting places such as that, to remind the British people of the benefits of being in the EU. At the same time, the then Leader of the Opposition, now the Foreign Secretary, decided to have his own roadshow. He hired a lorry-you may remember this, Mr Evans; I think you were in the House at the time-and went round the country on the back of it, trying to convince people of the need to save the pound. He was convinced that the Labour Government were about to get rid of the pound and make us join the euro.

What was interesting about those visits was that the British people really did not understand enough about what was happening in the European Union. They did not understand what we were doing there, something that has become part of the sub-culture affecting summitry when Ministers have gone to defend this country’s interests, including my successor, the current Minister for Europe. An in/out referendum would give the British people the opportunity to know all the facts about the European Union, so that they did not have to rely on some of the tabloids and some, if not most of the broadsheets; rather, they would rely on Members of this House going into the towns, villages and cities of this country and talking about our membership.

I know that those on my Front Bench will probably be a bit upset with me about this, because they know my record on the European Union. However, I am with the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone), for whom I, too, have great respect, for all the work that he does in this House, and those other hon. Members who support an in/out referendum. Indeed, that is what I thought the Liberal Democrats’ position was. When the question was raised at the tail end of the previous Government, I can well remember the then leader of the Liberal Democrats, now the Deputy Prime Minister, supporting that view in this very Chamber. I think I was sitting where the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) is now-we were in government then-and I remember those very words: “Let us put this to the British people, because in the end it is they who will have to make the decision.”

Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con) rose-

Martin Horwood rose-

Keith Vaz: I give way to the hon. Gentleman.


To read more from Keith in this debate please click here