Stuart yesterday spoke in the Chamber on a debate regarding the timing of the EU Referendum, suggesting that calls for changing the timing of the referendum are 'patronising' to his constituents:
I congratulate the Democratic Unionist party on this debate, which is obviously of interest to many of us, but clearly not to the Labour party, given that its Benches are all empty.
I come at the issue having always supported a referendum. Dare I say it with the Government Whip on the Front Bench, but I was one of the rebels that voted for a referendum back in the day. I was four when the people of this country last had an opportunity to have a say on our relationship with Europe. That relationship has clearly changed over the past 40-odd years, and many of my constituents want the opportunity to discuss the matter and have their say again. That is backed up by evidence; in 2008, an organisation called Open Europe organised an all-postal ballot in my constituency, asking people whether they wanted a referendum and whether they supported the Lisbon treaty. Even though it was a voluntary postal ballot, more than 13,000 people took part in it, and more than 11,400—some 88% of those who took part—voted to say that they wanted to have the opportunity for a referendum on Europe. There is a clear appetite for such a referendum.
Many people have expressed to me their frustration about the fact that the referendum could be as late as 2017. They want to get on with it, regardless of which side of the argument they are on. I suspect that if there was a further delay because of the issues that have been raised in the motion, many of my constituents would view that with some scepticism.
When the European Union Referendum Bill was going through the House, I had sympathy with the views about the referendum being held on the same day as the 6 May elections. I am glad that the Government responded to the pressure that was applied, because those two things needed to be very separate, but to suggest that a longer period of separation is needed is, frankly, patronising. As others have said, it is not as though the Europe debate has not been going on for years and years. All who are for or against our partnership in Europe have made their points eloquently over the past four decades. In addition, the Government have also committed to allowing at least a six-week period between the elections and the referendum. I believe that that is more than adequate. Frankly, if those campaigns cannot get their message across in six weeks, perhaps they, and not my constituents, need to ask themselves some serious questions. My constituents are more than able to understand the issues that are being debated.
The truth is that there is history here. The previous European referendum was held only one month after the completion of the legislation. With the alternative vote referendum, there was plenty of time to discuss the issues. I know from being on the doorstep that many people understood what was being asked of them. When it comes to separating the issues, I refer back to my point about being patronising. Yes, the elections in May are incredibly important. In Wales, people will be elected to the Assembly, and in Scotland to the Parliament. There will be mayoral elections and the Northern Ireland elections. In my constituency, people will have to vote for their local councillors and for their police and crime commissioners.
I know my constituents, and I know that they are more than capable of separating those issues and campaigns, particularly because they will be at least six weeks apart. Last May, they were able to distinguish between electing a Member of Parliament, their local councillor and their parish councillor, all on the same day. My constituents knew that each candidate would hold a different office, and they fully understood that difference.
In addition, those who call for a delay because people will be confused assume that they are thinking only about the next election and the next referendum. I envy such people; my constituents have got lives to get on with and other things to think about. They are not obsessed with the referendum, as we may be. Six weeks-plus is plenty of time. Our constituents will be able to make a decision on what they want their future relationship with Europe to be. If the period was to be prolonged, I fear that that would switch many people off.
I come here as someone who was born in Wales, whose father is a Scotsman and whose mother is English. I respect every part of this nation, and I know that every part of this nation, just like my constituents, understands the difference. The 88% of people in my constituency who voted in favour of a referendum should be given the opportunity to have one. Who am I—who is anybody in this Chamber—to deny them that opportunity? I credit them with the ability to separate two very different voting responsibilities.