UK Politics

New Conservative EU referendum bill clears first hurdle

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Media captionSpeakers in the Commons debate calling for a referendum on Britain's EU membership

The Conservatives' second bid to enshrine an EU referendum into law has cleared its first parliamentary hurdle.

Conservative backbencher Bob Neill's bill - which provides for an in/out referendum by the end of 2017 - was unopposed at second reading.

Mr Neil said the bill was all about giving the British public a choice.

Similar legislation foundered earlier this year in the House of Lords when it ran out of debating time amid Labour and Liberal Democrat opposition.

Although some Labour MPs spoke out against Mr Neil's referendum bill during Friday's four hour debate, no votes were recorded against it as 283 MPs voted in favour.

The bill, which is backed by the Conservative Party leadership, would create a legally-binding commitment to a referendum.

David Cameron has said he will seek to renegotiate the terms of the UK's membership of the European Union if he remains in power after the election, prior to holding a referendum in 2017.

The prime minister has argued the UK needs a "better deal" on issues such as immigration, welfare and financial regulation although he is under pressure from Tory MPs to spell out what powers he will seek to claw back and what he will do in the event of not getting the concessions he wants.

'Fundamental'

Opening the debate, the MP for Bromley and Chislehurst said his bill was "about choice".

"It's about giving the British people a choice of something that is fundamental to our constitutional arrangements and fundamental to our future," he told MPs.

Image caption Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said no change was "not an option"

Labour eurosceptic Kate Hoey, who believes her party should back a referendum, said: "I just do not understand how anyone can make a reasoned case for not supporting this bill."

Supporting the bill, Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond drew parallels with the referendum on Scottish independence held last month, saying it was right to give British people a say.

'Superstate'

The European Union had "morphed from a common market into a putative superstate", he said.

"Ever closer union has led to ever greater disillusion," he said, adding that the issue needed to be settled "once and for all for the sake of Britain".

Conservative backbencher Peter Bone said that while he supported the bill, it had "no chance" of getting on the statute book because of the parliamentary timetable.

And while backing a referendum, former Conservative minister Damian Green said it would be a mistake for the UK to leave the EU.

He said: "The rest of the world would first of all be completely bemused that here was an advanced prosperous democracy telling 27 friendly democratic neighbour countries that we no longer want to act with you, we can no longer be in an organisation with you."

'Smoke and mirrors'

For Labour, shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander said holding an EU referendum on an "arbitrary date", which "puts jobs and investment at risk", was not in the national interest.

Instead, he said a future Labour government would legislate so more powers could not be transferred from Britain to the EU without an in/out referendum.

Former Conservative Douglas Carswell, who recently became UKIP's first elected MP, said he supported the bill but criticised what he said was the prime minister's "smoke and mirrors" approach to European renegotiation.

"The game plan was to secure the illusion of a new deal in the hope that others would vote to stay in. It's all about not changing," he said. "It's once I realised that that I did something about it."

Labour MPs largely stayed away from the second reading debate, giving Conservatives an opportunity to air their concerns over a range of European matters, including the UK's adherence to the European Arrest Warrant amid reported Cabinet tensions over its future.

Arrest warrant

Amid reports of a likely rebellion on the issue, Conservative MP Graham Brady, who chairs the backbench 1922 Committee, said he would press for the government to opt out of the warrant ahead of a decision next month.

"We should not be ceding powers to the European institutions," he told Radio 4's World at One.

With a general election just over six months away, Mr Neill's bill could go the same way as James Wharton's proposed legislation on the same subject earlier this year.

This bill passed the Commons but was dropped after becoming stalled in the Lords - amid Conservative accusations of Labour and Lib Dem filibustering.

Mr Wharton told the BBC that if the bill is not fundamentally amended if could become law this time around without being approved by peers through the use of the Parliament Act.

The Lib Dems say there is no need for the referendum bill because a law passed in 2011 guarantees a vote in the event of a new treaty or change to an existing treaty resulting in a shift of powers.

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