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James Wharton MP: Today we learn who really believes the people deserve a say on the EU

Wharton JamesJames Wharton is the Member of Parliament for Stockton South.  Follow James on Twitter.

Today MPs will debate my Private Members' Bill to put into law a referendum on the EU with a simple question - in or out, with a legal deadline for it to happen before the end of 2017.

It has been nearly 40 years since the British people last had their say on Europe - and most of us have never had a say on Europe at all. I wasn't even born at the last referendum. In that time, so much has changed - the countries involved and the powers the EU has, as well as the benefits and costs of membership. People feel that the EU has been heading in a direction they never signed up to. This question about our membership is already there and ignoring it will not make it go away. These concerns deserve to be heard and acted upon.

If my Bill is passed it would be legally impossible for a future government to ignore it and, when you think about it, politically virtually impossible to reverse it too. The Bill says that the government - any future government - must by the end of 2016 have set a date for a referendum by the end of 2017. So any government that dared to try to ignore this law and deny the people a vote could be taken to court by anyone. Of course, if after the next election there's a majority in Parliament against a referendum - and what a tragedy that would be - a different Government could try to pass a new law to scrap the referendum, but that is a fundamental rule of our ancient constitution. So, of course, if you want to be sure of having your say on Britain's place in Europe, then vote Conservative at the next election. But even so it would take a Prime Minister and a Government of astonishing arrogance to vote down a referendum that was already the law of the land.

Since the Conservative Party doesn't have a majority, the numbers suggest that the Bill will struggle to pass. But the soundings I have taken suggest we could be on course to clear the first hurdle towards putting the referendum on the statute books. We have the backing of the Democratic Unionist Party. We just need a few Labour or Liberal Democrat MPs to support the Bill. This isn't about playing politics - it's about letting the British people have their say on one of the most important issues of today. I would encourage them all to ignore the dictat of their leaderships, listen to their constituents and vote for the Bill. I know there are MPs in other Parties who want to. They need not fear their leaderships. Ed Miliband and Lib Dem high command are running scared - why else would they have told their MPs to stay away from Parliament today? A leaked order from Ed Miliband's office said that only MPs who can be trusted to ridicule the referendum bill should turn up - we will note their names and I think the public will too.

To those MPs who wish to scupper the Bill and block a referendum I would say: do so if you wish, but don't think we won't let your constituents know about it. You will have voters to answer to in 2015. I know that my constituents would certainly take a dim view of those who would deny them a say on such an important issue.

I also appeal to my fellow MPs who back a referendum not to try to change the Bill with amendments. I understand just how strongly they feel about this issue. But this is a historic opportunity to write an in-out referendum into law. The best chance of the Bill going through and us getting that referendum we so want is to help the Bill go through unchanged - anything else will just help the anti-referendum camp use parliamentary rules to talk the Bill to death. This is a Bill capable of uniting the great majority of our country on how we handle the great question of Europe - first, let's take the time to see what kind of new deal we can negotiate in Europe and then let every voter make the choice whether we're going to be in the EU or out.

Today marks the beginning of our attempt to make Britain's first referendum on Europe for 38 years happen. With a bit of help from MPs from all Parties, my Bill could write an in-out referendum into law by the end of 2017, the chance to finally let the British people have their say and decide our future.


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