An EU referendum bill is unlikely to become law in Britain
David Cameron’s EU referendum bill ‘unlikely’ to become law
James Kirkup By James Kirkup, Political Editor4:59PM GMT 02 Jan 2014CommentsComments
The Conservative Party’s bill committing Britain to a referendum on European Union membership is “unlikely” to become law because of delays in the House of Lords, peers have warned.
A House of Lords committee has cast doubt on the prospects of the bill the Conservatives are seeking to use to guarantee a European referendum in the next Parliament.
David Cameron has promised to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with the EU then put the new deal to the people in a referendum after the next election. The Conservatives will make that promise a central part of their campaigning until the next general election.
To answer public doubts about whether that vote will ever be held, the Conservatives are attempting to pass a new law that would commit whoever is in power in the next Parliament to hold a referendum by the end of 2017.
Because the Liberal Democrats have withheld support, the law is being taken through Parliament not as Government legislation but as a private member’s bill.
The bill, introduced by James Wharton, a backbench Conservative MP, has passed the Commons and will this year go to the House of Lords for debate.
In report on the bill, the Lords Constitution Committee said that parliamentary rules and timetables could cause the legislation to fail. It also warned that even if the bill becomes law, any referendum could be subject to court challenges.
If the Lords make amendments to the Bill, those changes would have to be considered again by the Commons. There is only limited Commons time available for such consideration, with the last possible day for MPs to look at the Lords’ changes falling next month.
House of Lords rules “may make it unlikely that the bill would finish the Lords in time for any amendments passed by the Lords to be considered by the Commons on Friday 28 February 2014,” the committee warned.
Failure to get Mr Wharton’s bill onto the statute book this year could expose the Conservative Party to attack from the UK Independence Party at the European Parliament elections in June.
The House of Lords includes a significant number of pro-European politicians, who may attempt to change the legislation, and Conservative backers admit that the upper house could well kill of Mr Wharton’s bill.
Mr Wharton warned that the upper house would be defying public opinion if it thwarted his bill.
He told the Telegraph: “It is ultimately up to members of the House of Lords whether this bill will be successful.
“But it would be very difficult to justify if the unelected House of Lords blocked a bill that has already passed every stage in the elected House of Commons and the purpose of which is to let the people decide on our membership of the EU.”
The prospect of resistance in the Lords has led Conservatives in the Commons to consider means of getting more time to debate Lords amendments Mr Wharton’s bill.
The Prime Minister told MPs last month he is ready to use the Parliament Act to overpower the House of Lords and get an EU referendum bill onto the statute book before 2015
The Act, which has been used only seven times in the past century, is sometimes described as the “nuclear” option of parliamentary process to break stalemates between the Commons and the Lords. It asserts the superiority of the House of Commons by allowing bills that cannot clear the Lords to become law, but is intended to be used only in exceptional circumstances.
However, the Act could not be used on Mr Wharton’s bill because it has already been introduced to Parliament. It could only be used on a new version of the bill introduced by another MP later this year.