The draft European Union (Referendum) Bill (available on the Conservative Party website, complete with Henry VIII clause) does not affect issues of law and religion directly; however, the issue is very important in view of the fact that EU legislation impacts on many areas of religion law in the UK. (And in addition, we have argued previously that the fact of the UK’s membership of the EU not only means that EU law takes precedence over domestic law but it also ties us in to the provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights.) The publication by the Conservative Party of the draft Bill highlights the political posturing involved: neither was the Bill was announced in the Queen’s Speech nor was it included in Parliament’s list of Draft Bills for the 2013-14 Session – it simply arrived out of the blue.
Though the Bill was viewed as a means of heading off Conservative opposition to the absence of any reference in the Queen’s Speech to an In/Out referendum on EU membership it was not entirely successful. On 15 May the Commons voted on an amendment to the Queen’s Speech, tabled by the Tory Eurosceptic (or, more accurately, “Europhobe”), John Baron, “expressing regret” that proposals for an EU referendum were not included in the Government’s plans for the coming year. Though the amendment was defeated by 277 votes to 130, a total of 116 Conservative MPs supported it.
Subsequently, James Wharton, Conservative MP for Stockton South and another “Eurosceptic”, came top in the ballot for private Members’ Bills and announced that he would take up the Conservative Party’s draft Bill. It now looks as if the Bill will have its second reading debate on Friday 5 July – the first private Member’s bill day of the current session. It also looks as if the Conservatives will impose a three-line whip in support of it.
In his blog, Mark Elliott suggests that, even in the unlikely event of it being enacted (given that it is not going to attract any Lib-Dem support), orthodox constitutional theory suggests that Parliament cannot bind its successors in such a way as to make legislation incapable of being repealed. Therefore, assuming that it could command a parliamentary majority, any new Government in 2015 would be free to secure the repeal of the European Union (Referendum) Act, thereby removing any legal obligation to hold a referendum. Elliott concludes that
“the proposed legislation, notwithstanding all the talk about enshrining an EU referendum “in law”, is ultimately about nothing more than politics”.
No surprise there, then. Or as Obiter J puts it, much more bluntly: “political shenanigans”.