Peers send EU poll Bill back to MPs

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Supporters of a controversial backbench Bill to enshrine in law a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union have suffered a setback in the Lords.

Peers yesterday voted by 245 votes to 158, a majority of 87, to amend the wording of the question that would be put to voters in the referendum in 2017.

The result means the European Union (Referendum) Bill will have to go back to the Commons for further consideration – eating up more of the little remaining parliamentary time for its consideration.

The Bill has already passed its Commons stages. Peers were under pressure to pass it speedily and without amendment to ensure it could proceed before the end of the Parliamentary session.

The vote, after more than two and a half hours of impassioned and sometimes angry debate in the Upper House, came despite a stiff warning from the Bill’s sponsor in the Lords, Tory Lord Dobbs, of “death by a thousands cuts” to the legislation.

He said: “We know some of the opponents of the Bill are determined to use any means to kill it.

“We cannot deny the presence of an elephant in the room and a very large and unreasonable elephant - those who have no intention whatsoever of working to improve this Bill but who are solely intent on trying to kill it.

“If this Bill is to survive and we are to give the people the referendum they want, we have to get this Bill through this House in reasonable shape and very short time.”

As detailed committee stage debate got under way in a crowded chamber and with more than 70 amendments having been tabled, Labour ex-Minister Lord Foulkes of Cumnock branded the Bill a “disgrace” which was “not fit for purpose”.

Lord Foulkes said: “It’s been hastily got together and it shows. It is a Government Bill trying to patch over divisions in the Tory party and outflank Ukip.

“It’s also a disgrace that we are discussing it because the coalition Government chief whip (Baroness Anelay of St Johns) has used her position improperly to put it ahead of all other private member’s Bills.”

But in angry exchanges, Lady Anelay denied this charge, insisting she had followed “precisely the same procedures” as her predecessors and “absolutely followed every rule”.

Former Cabinet Secretary and independent crossbencher Lord Armstrong of Ilminster said the question proposed for the referendum was “inappropriate, confusing and potentially misleading”.

The Bill states that voters should be asked: “Do you think that the UK should be a member of the EU?”

But Lord Armstrong said that might be appropriate if the UK was not already a member of the EU and was applying for membership.

He said the question should be “clear and unambiguous” as well as being in line with that recommended by the Electoral Commission.

Lord Armstrong’s successful amendment said the question should be: “Should the UK remain a member of the EU or leave the EU?”

Rejecting Lord Dobbs’s warning about the future of the legislation, Lord Armstrong said the Lords should not “shirk its duty” to properly scrutinise the Bill and if the Commons was sufficiently keen to see it passed, they could “adjust” their procedures to provide more time

Foreign Office Minister Baroness Warsi sparked protests when she defended the wording of the referendum voting question as “fair and clear”, adding that she was speaking in her capacity from the front bench as a spokeswoman for the Conservative Party.