John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): I welcome a fairly early date for the referendum. I do not know about you, Mr Speaker, but there is only so much that I can take of all the stories of the pestilence, famine and plague that are going to be visited upon us by the very European Union countries that the Government say we love and work well with. The Government have this strange vision that those countries would suddenly change and become extremely unpleasant were we to want a relationship based on friendship and trade rather than on the current treaties. I personally think that 16 weeks would be quite enough to do the job that I would love the Government to do, which is to win it for the leave campaign by using this highly inappropriate tone and by constantly slanging off our European partners by telling us just how unpleasant they would be. I would have thought that a Government wishing to encourage us to stay in the European Union would want to be rather more obliging about our European partners and to paint a picture of how things might be better were we to stay in, rather than concentrating only on ascribing false futures to the leave campaign.
I am interjecting in this debate because I am worried that 16 weeks might not be long enough for the Government to carry out all the tasks necessary to fulfil the requirements of the legislation. In particular, I have been moved to that view by listening to my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash), who is often absolutely right about these points and their salience. The Government have an important duty to provide impartial information to the public as part of the task of preparing them for the referendum. Having seen their work so far, I am afraid to say that it fails by all standards. It is not impartial, it is not well researched and it is often exceedingly misleading. I am using parliamentary language, Mr Speaker; I might use richer language were I not inside the House. It seems to me that the Government are going to need a lot more time to work with their ever willing officials to come up with balanced, mature and sensible information about what the future might look like under either scenario.
One thing that the Government have clearly had no time to prepare so far—this is a particularly worrying lacuna—is information on what the future might look like if we stay in. We have had no response from the Government on how they would respond to “The Five Presidents’ Report: Completing Europe’s Economic and Monetary Union” or on how they would handle demands for capital markets union, banking union, full economic and monetary union and political union. Would such a situation immediately trigger a requirement for us to veto the next treaty, would we seek a comprehensive opt-out from it, or would the Government want to work with their partners and agree to some modest treaty changes that would affect the United Kingdom, in the spirit of “The Five Presidents’ Report”? Any such changes would be triggered after about 2017, so probably within this Parliament. Could we then look forward to a second referendum if we stayed in the European Union?
Under the European Union Referendum Act 2015, there would need to be a referendum on any treaty changes made as a consequence of “The Five Presidents’ Report” and the clear desire of our partners to go along the route to political union.
Sir William Cash (Stone) (Con): Has my right hon. Friend had the opportunity to see not only the White Paper that was produced a few days ago but the latest jewel in the crown from the Government, which is entitled “The process for withdrawing from the European Union”? It contains page after page of tendentious remarks, assertions and assumptions that cannot be substantiated. I can see the Minister for Europe wriggling around a bit on the Front Bench, because the bottom line is that he will not be able to answer these questions, but they will be tested before 23 June.
John Redwood: That is why, in my amiable way, I was suggesting that the Government might like to rethink their position on the timing of the referendum. Having seen that piece of work, I agree with my hon. Friend. I was frankly ashamed that such a document could come from the United Kingdom Government. It bore no relation to what the leave campaigns are saying about how we would like the Government to handle the British people’s decision if they decide to leave. It did not give any credence to the idea that we would be negotiating with friends and allies who would have as much interest in a successful British exit as we would, should that be the will of the British people.
Ministers never seem to understand that the rest of Europe has far more exports to us at risk than we have to the rest of the European Union, because we are in massive deficit with those countries. I have had personal assurances from representatives of the German Government, for example, that they have no wish to see tariffs or barriers being placed in the way of their extremely profitable and successful trade with the United Kingdom. To issue a document implying that all sorts of obstacles would be put in the way of such trade over a 10-year period simply beggars belief.
Sir William Cash: May I give my right hon. Friend an example? These documents contain scarcely any serious objective analysis from bodies such as the Office for National Statistics or the House of Commons Library, and their arguments are tendentious. I am sure he will remember, because this is at the forefront of his mind, that in current account transactions relating to imports, exports, goods and services, we run a deficit with the other 27 member states of about £58 billion a year, and that Germany runs a surplus in those same goods, services, imports and exports. If that is a single market, I’m a Dutchman.
John Redwood: I am sure that my hon. Friend is many fine things, but a Dutchman is clearly not one of them. He has, however, revealed an important fact, and it is the kind of fact that we would expect to see in a balanced document setting out the position on trade. I hope that the Minister will leave enough time in his urgent timetable to ensure that those sorts of important facts—
Sir William Cash: With references.
John Redwood: With references and proper statistical bases. Those important facts should be put in front of the British people. Indeed, the Minister would be wise to do that from his own point of view—perhaps I should not help him as much as I am apparently trying to do. The Government have been rumbled on this. The press and a lot of the public are saying that they want factual, mature and sensible information setting out the risks of staying in, the risks of leaving and what it would look like in either case, but that is not what we are getting.
We have had another example in the past few days. We have been witnessing a long-term decline of the pound against the dollar for many months, because we are living through a period of dollar strength. In the past few days, when Brexit was in the news, we were told that the pound was going down because of fears about Brexit, whereas that was clearly not the case on other days when the pound had been going down. However, on those same days, the Government bond market had been going up. The prices of bonds had been rising and our creditworthiness was assessed as being better, but I did not hear the Government saying that the idea of Brexit was raising Britain’s credit standing. We could make that case just as easily as we could make the case that the fear of Brexit was leading to a fall in the pound.
That is the kind of tendentious information that I hope the Minister will reconsider if he wishes to keep up the normally high standards of Government documentation and use impartial civil service advice in the right tradition, which we in the House of Commons would like to see. I can see that a few colleagues are not entirely persuaded that those high standards are always met, but I shall give the Government the benefit of the doubt. I have certainly seen many Government documents that achieve higher standards than the ones on this matter.
I again urge the Minister to make sure that he leaves enough time in the action-packed timetable to produce high-quality, balanced information that includes the risks of staying in and the wild ride to political union that others have in mind, as well as what he sees as the risks of leaving. For instance, the Government should point out that if we stop paying the £10 billion of net contributions—money we do not get back—that will immediately improve the balance of payments by one fifth next year. Would that not be a marvellous advantage? I do not see it being pointed out in any of the current material in order to show some kind of balance.
Mrs Anne Main (St Albans) (Con): My right hon. Friend is making a hugely powerful argument. The answer is quite simple: the Government do not want the facts in there—they do not want the British public to know. The British public will come to that conclusion, and it is not a good conclusion if we are to have a balanced debate on the referendum.
John Redwood: I fear that is right, but I also fear I am beginning to give the Government too much help. Obviously, I would like them to lose on this occasion, because I think we will be much better off if that happens. I will therefore vote with the Government, because 16 weeks is quite enough of “Project Fear” and of people misrepresenting a whole lot of things that are going on by saying, “These are the results of the fears of Brexit.” That will do the job I would like the Government to do and help the case I am trying to make, but the Government have a long way to go in the interests of good government and in meeting the legal requirements that they have placed on themselves to provide impartial information. I just trust that in the next few weeks they can lift their game.