Maastricht referendum vote still a possibility

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Indy Politics
MEMBERS OF Parliament were last night optimistic of forcing a vote on a referendum on the Maastricht treaty, despite an early rebuff on the issue as the Committee Stage of the European Communities (Amendment) Bill got under way.

Tony Benn, Labour MP for Chesterfield, told the committee: 'At the outset of this Bill, the British people are entitled to know whether they have any rights at all or not in determining whether this treaty goes through.'

Some 370 amendments and 40 new clauses have been tabled for the Committee Stage so far. In a series of points of order lasting 83 minutes, critics of European union on both sides of the chamber protested to Michael Morris, the Deputy Speaker, that none of the amendments which, if passed, would have required a referendum had been selected for debate.

But Mr Morris encouraged the MPs by suggesting they 'keep trying' and see if they could table amendments which would not be ruled out of order because the Bill does not propose raising any money to meet the cost of a referendum. Mr Morris told Sir Teddy Taylor, Conservative MP for Southend East: 'If he shows his usual ingenuity and continues with his usual degree of creativity . . . he may yet succeed.'

Ken Livingstone, Labour MP for Brent East, apologised for leaving the chamber because, he said, a constituent had been 'so distressed by Mr Morris's ruling against a referendum that she had been reduced to tears'.

Emma Nicholson, Conservative MP for Devon West and Torridge, complained: 'There seems to be a small but vociferous minority who are attempting to impede the Bill.' Her colleague Stephen Milligan, MP for Eastleigh, added: 'Thousands of jobs are at stake if we unnecessarily prolong the debate.'

Dennis Skinner, Labour MP for Bolsover, said: 'When the two front benches are in agreement . . . then the views of backbenchers are treated with disdain, even though they represent a massive majority of the people outside.' His allegation that the chair generally went along with the front benches was attacked as 'outrageous' by Sir Edward Heath, the former prime minister.

On the principle of the Bill, Tam Dalyell, Labour MP for Linlithgow, said 'the decisions of the Labour Party conference which were distinctly and overwhelmingly in favour of Maastricht'.

When debate on the amendments began, Sir Russell Johnstone, for the Liberal Democrats said the Government was proposing 'ratification a la carte, picking which bits of the treaty to accept. Most of the other countries had a simple Bill to which the whole treaty was attached.' Most of the night belonged to Bill Cash, leader of the anti-Maastricht Friends of Bruges group. Helped by numerous interventions, mainly from allies, he spoke from 7.38 until the committee adjourned at 10pm, to resume again today, still on the first amendment. The Stafford Tory said national parliaments were being asked 'to commit voluntary euthanasia'.

As his speech passed the one- hour mark, Edwina Currie, pro- European MP for Derbyshire South, asked Mr Cash if he was 'trying to filibuster and delay the Bill'. 'I absolutely and totally deny that,' Mr Cash retorted. 'That is a dreadful slur.'

Views outside the chamber were equally divided. Paul Channon, the former secretary of state for transport, said of the treaty: 'This is the least worst alternative. When John Major came back with it last year he was greeted with enthusiasm, and a lot of the rebels who are threatening to vote against it congratulated him on what he had achieved.'

David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist MP for Upper Bann, said: 'The Maastricht treaty is a giant step towards a federal European union and the things the Prime Minister is clinging to, such as subsidiarity, are meaningless.' The Ulster Unionists would support a referendum.

But Gerald Kaufman, the former shadow foreign secretary, said the referendum had been overwhelmingly rejected by the Labour Party annual conference and therefore not party policy.

'Conference policy is sacrosanct,' he said. That was a clear reminder to the anti-Maastricht left-wing Labour MPs, who, when Mr Kaufman was in the Shadow Cabinet, regularly protested whenever the Labour leadership failed to accept conference policy.

Clive Betts, the former Labour leader of Sheffield city council, said: 'I am pro-European. We have to move towards closer union, both economic and political, in Europe . . . I think it would be extremely dangerous for Britain and the Labour Party to obstruct the Maastricht treaty. The rest of Europe would carry on without us and the Labour Party is still treated rather sceptically about our European commitment. It would be the final proof for many people.'

Sebastian Coe, the Olympic gold medalist and Tory MP for Falmouth and Camborne, said: 'I am absolutely unrepentent - I am a European. Everything I have done - I am one of the student rail pass generation - the whole of my competitive career, was based in Europe. I don't want to be romantic about it, but my links are closer with Europe than they are with the Commonwealth.'