Millions of Britons want vote on England's membership of EU, claims MP
Millions of people across the country want a vote on the United Kingdom's membership of the European Union, the MP behind a bid to introduce a referendum on the issue said today.
Tory MP James Wharton said it was an honour to bring forward the European Union (Referendum) Bill at second reading in the House of Commons.
Bringing forward the Private Member's Bill, the backbench MP for Stockton South, said: "It is an honour for me to put forward a Bill that at its heart, the heart of our democracy - that powers should reside with the people."
He added: "In proposing this Bill I speak for many here, I speak for many millions outside because it was in 1975 of course that the Labour government gave the British people a say on our membership of the European community.
"How things have changed? Politics has moved on and the European Union has moved on."
Mr Wharton added: "As I will explore in my comments today, it is important that we secure the best possible deal from the European Union and put a real choice to the British people and it is sensible that we set a timeframe in which that is done.
"That is what this Bill does and that is why I am bringing it forward."
He added. "This is about giving the British public a real say, a real choice between a best possible deal we can get from the European Union and if the public choose to leave, if that is what they want to do.
"That is what we are offering. I think (Labour) should consider their position very carefully indeed because at the next general election, the public will not forgive Members who do not trust them.
"There is a debate to be had about whether our national interest is best served by being inside the European Union or by coming out. That debate is not for today, this is a debate about a Bill that... I am bringing forward and which I am proud to bring forward."
Prime Minister David Cameron was on the front bench along with Chancellor George Osborne and other Cabinet ministers including Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers.
Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith and Justice Secretary Chris Grayling stood at the entrance to the chamber.
More than 150 Tory MPs were in the Commons, along with more than 40 Labour MPs.
Mr Wharton received support from Labour MP Dennis Skinner, who said there should be a vote before the next general election.
Intervening on Mr Wharton, the veteran MP for Bolsover said: "In 1971, I voted against the then Common Market and I voted for a referendum in 1975. Sadly, the country didn't follow my advice or we wouldn't be doing what we are doing here today.
"However, there is one thing deficient in this Bill - it doesn't ask for a referendum until 2017. What we need is a referendum before the next election. Will you give that guarantee?"
Mr Wharton replied: "I do, for the first time, agree with part of your comments. I do wish more people had listened to you in 1975.
Mr Wharton said European unity was not the same as the European Union.
He said: "Those who voted 'Yes' in 1975 believed they had bought a ticket to a clear and certain destination, to a free trade area that would benefit Britain's economy without undermining our sovereignty.
"They did not buy a ticket for a never-ending journey to ever-closer union, destination unknown."
Liberal Democrat deputy leader Simon Hughes said he voted enthusiastically 'Yes' in the 1970s and he could not envisage a situation where he would change his vote.
He said to Mr Wharton: "Why do we need this Bill when we have already legislated for a referendum anyway? And I hope your constituents like mine believe the priorities are jobs and growth and investing and not putting the whole of the European investing links at risk."
Mr Wharton replied: "It never ceases to amaze me - and I hope that my colleagues on the Government benches will allow me this indulgence - how the Liberal Democrats change their position as the wind blows.
"On this important matter Liberal Democrat MPs campaigned at the last election to offer the British people a referendum. They have now changed their minds as it looks a real prospect.
"I hope they may change their mind again and agree with what some of us are trying to achieve."
Mr Wharton said Britain can and should secure a better deal with the EU that is further in line with the national interest.
But he said it would be "farcical" not to have a referendum on such an important issue for so many people.
"We are in the age of the referendum, we have had so many referendums on so many things, it would seem farcical to then try to deny the referendum on such an important thing that matters to so many people," Mr Wharton said.
He went on: "The Bill makes provision for a referendum by the end of 2017, I believe it is right that we should look to secure that better deal, that we should go to Europe and negotiate a settlement that is better and more suitably in the British interest.
"I believe it is possible to do that, there are those that say it cannot be done, but I believe the reality is that the Germans will want to continue selling us cars and the French will want to continue selling us wine, just as much as we want to continue to trade with them.
"I think a deal can be achieved and it can be a great improvement."
Several Labour MPs called for a referendum before 2015, which some have seen as a tactical move to scupper the Bill.
But Mr Wharton said the British people needed a "real choice" between a renegotiated role for the UK in the EU and coming out.
"I believe that we need to put a real choice before the British people between a Europe that is the best possible Europe we can get and coming out if that is what they choose to do," he said.
"I believe that that can be delivered, I believe we can return powers, I believe we can renegotiate, I believe we can get a better deal.
"But I also think it would be to cheat the British people to deprive them of the opportunity to benefit from that better deal.
"This is about serious politics, it's about delivering a real choice, not just playing party political games as some members seem keen to do."
It has been reported that Labour may table an amendment calling for a pre-general election referendum.
Mr Wharton said MPs should not misuse parliamentary procedure to table "wrecking amendments" to the Bill if it receives its second reading today.
"I am conscious though and it's a point that has come up earlier - this is a private member's bill," Mr Wharton said.
"It has limited time, any amendments, any changes, anything that lengthens it will give those minority of members who wish to wreck it not by force of democratic argument but by misuse of parliamentary procedure too much opportunity to do so."
Labour's Mike Gapes (Ilford South) raised a point of order, asking Speaker John Bercow to clarify whether it would be "perfectly in order" to table amendments.
Mr Bercow said it was a matter for debate.
Raising his point of order, Mr Gapes said: "Mr Wharton said that MPs who put amendments to the Bill would be misusing parliamentary procedure.
"He said it would be misuse, and I would like your clarification Mr Speaker, it would be perfectly in order would it not for any member of this House to put many amendments to this Bill if it gets its second reading?"
Mr Bercow replied: "The situation that you described in your point of order will arise if the Bill gets a second reading.
"What I would say is I heard what Mr Wharton said, and I think if I may say so, and I do, it's a point of debate.
"That's what it's about, he was making a point of debate to which others can respond if they wish."
Labour MP John Denham (Southampton Itchen) said he would not be voting on the Bill later today but said he found it extraordinary to see a Prime Minister forced by backbench MPs into backing a Bill on a Friday.
He said: "Our Prime Minister, in the eyes of Europe, has been humiliated by his own backbenchers.
"This is a Bill about the private problems and the private political difficulties of the Conservative Party. It's not surprising so many of them are here today but, really, these matters don't affect the rest of us very much - except the damage being done by the antics within the Conservative Party to the interests of this country.
"This is a private matter for the Conservative Party - whether they believe their Prime Minister is trustworthy or believable is primarily a matter for them not for the rest of us.
"If they wish to humiliate their party leader, that's up to them."
Tory Eurosceptic Bill Cash (Stone) said Labour MPs are neglecting their duty to their constituents by ignoring the Bill.
Mr Cash said it was "incoherent" and "absurd" to have both UK and European parliaments and governments covering the same subject matter.
"That fact is that 35 million people, I think it is estimated, 35 million voters, have effectively been disenfranchised by this continuous evolution of giving away more and more, not merely powers, but the right to determine the kind of policies, the kind of government that they want, since 1975," he said.
"It has been completely unacceptable."
He went on: "This is about trust. It's about allowing people to have government of a kind that responds to their own wishes, as expressed in general elections.
"That's why we cannot have two governments and two parliaments covering the same subject matter.
"It is complete incoherent, absurd nonsense.
"This is about trust in people. Because we are doing it through a Bill as is required, we're doing it to give authority, through Parliament, to have a referendum, that is what this is all about.
"It's to give the British people their right to have their say. There is no question about it this Bill must go through but it needs to be secured by a vote on both sides of the House and I'm afraid that Labour are neglecting their duty to their constituents if they continue to refuse to support this Bill."
Democratic Unionist Nigel Dodds (Belfast North) said his party would support the Bill unequivocally.
Mr Dodds said it was "high time" people had their say on EU membership, whether they were in favour of staying in the union or not.
"It is time now to give people their say and so, therefore, as a party that does believe in consulting the people and has advocated referendums on a number of occasions in Northern Ireland on a range of constitutional issues and has supported that consistently, particularly in relation to the issue of Europe, we will be voting in favour of this Bill enthusiastically and without any equivocation," he said.
"I know that in so doing we represent the vast majority of the people of Northern Ireland, even those people who would support parties, not our own party, but parties who are in favour of being part of the European Union, because people whether they are for or against the European Union, for or against the United Kingdom's continued membership on whatever terms, they believe it is high time that they had a say in this debate and that it wasn't confined simply to this chamber and to television studios or whatever."
Labour MP Graham Stringer (Blackley and Broughton) said he would join the Tories in the voting lobbies this afternoon.
He said: "The debate isn't going to go away and decrease the uncertainty if we were to oppose this Bill today."