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House of Commons

Wednesday 3 June 1998

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


[Madam Speaker in the Chair]

Constitutional Referendums

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Janet Anderson.]

9.34 am

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire): In the last 25 years, there have been eight referendums. Between 1973 and 1997, there were four--an average of one every six years. In the first year of this Labour Government, there have been a further four. It is clear that the Government believe in referendums; we all know that they plan many more. It is essential that the conduct of those referendums is above reproach, or else the suspicion will be that they are being used to direct public opinion for party political ends, rather than to determine public opinion for the public good.

There are three groups of questions which must be answered when considering referendums; why, when and how? First, why hold a referendum at all when we have a parliamentary democracy? Secondly, if the principle of referendums is accepted, when should they be held? Thirdly, if they are held, how should they be conducted?

There are those who say that it is a Government's job to govern, to make decisions and to be responsible for their effect. They argue that referendums are an abdication of that responsibility, and introduce danger and uncertainty, and that therefore they should never take place.

The alternative point of view is held by the Minister without Portfolio, who, earlier this year, said in Germany:

He added that its place would be taken by

    "plebiscites, focus groups, lobbies, citizens' movements and the Internet."

I do not subscribe to either of those extremist wings. I understand why the Government's thought policeman would want to bypass considered parliamentary scrutiny and control, and I deplore it. I agree that the Government alone should be held to account for the effect of their decisions, but there may be times when Parliament will want to consult the people. The question is when.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): The question is not just when. If my hon. Friend is going to argue in favour of referendums, I hope that he will address the question whether we can always reduce a complex issue to a sufficiently simple question to get a legitimate answer in a referendum.

Mr. Sayeed: I am profoundly grateful to my right hon. Friend for his question, which leads me very nicely to my next remark.

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As a believer in representative parliamentary democracy, I am clear that referendums should be used only under certain circumstances. The first is when the matter is of great significance. The next is when its effect will be profound, enduring and not subject to a change of Government. The next criteria is when the detailed facts are widely known, understood and--to answer my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth)--capable of being reduced to a clear and simple single question.

How do we achieve that? There can be no definitive answer, because it depends on the circumstances, but guidelines can be formulated. First, referendums are not a substitute for parliamentary democracy. They must be used only to advise Parliament, not to dictate to or coerce it.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): Is my hon. Friend aware of the situation in Switzerland, where, because of the cantonal system, they prefer the idea of a referendum? Consequently, the most reactionary legislation--

Madam Speaker: Order. I should like to see the hon. Gentleman's handsome face.

Mr. Fabricant: I apologise, Madam Speaker.

Consequently, in Switzerland, the most reactionary legislation has been passed on immigration, women's suffrage and capital punishment--which my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) might welcome, but which does not lead to liberal democracy.

Mr. Sayeed: My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Referendums--such as proposition 13, in California--should be used only extremely sparingly, and not as a substitute for parliamentary democracy. This is the place where we can argue out the issues.

Referendums should be used only on matters of great and lasting significance, and when the consequences are appreciated and the need for change is demonstrable and coherent, and spans party political divides.

Referendums should be used only when all reasonable points of view have an equal chance of being heard. Electors affected by any decision in a referendum should be entitled to take some part in that referendum.

No referendum should occur until Parliament has considered, debated and amended the legislation that would implement the proposals that may be put before the people.

If those guidelines are not followed, referendums might be used--I believe that they are being used--to stifle debate and to bushwhack the Houses of Parliament. Therefore, to forestall any hint of such developments, the Government should, at the outset, clearly state what they consider to be the minimum threshold and participation rate of any referendum.

We should now consider whether the four recent referendums have met any of the criteria that any reasonable person would expect to be applied in a referendum. We should then go on to determine how we can ensure that, in future, conduct of referendums is not only fair but agreed to be fair. If we do not ensure such

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agreement, I believe that the results of referendums will be in dispute and their consequences rejected, and democracy will be held in contempt.

In last year's referendum on Scottish devolution, six out of 10 eligible Scottish electors voted. Three quarters of those who did so voted in support of a Scottish Parliament. As a Conservative and a Unionist, I regret the result, although I accept that it reflected the Scottish view at that time. However, as an honestly conducted referendum, it failed. It was pre-legislative, so the detailed facts were not known. The result is being used to coerce Parliament. Public money was used to promote the yes vote, but there was no similar funding of the no campaign.

In the Scottish referendum, English electors were disfranchised. Yet--after that referendum, and even after the start of the Scottish Parliament--the poorer English regions will continue to fund richer Scottish regions. In this place, Scotland will continue to be over-represented by Scottish Members, with greater powers but fewer responsibilities than their English counterparts.

The referendum in Wales was an even greater fiasco. The result was a flop: the votes of one quarter of the electorate were deemed by the Government to be decisive. Worse still, that pitiful result--which was achieved only with public money given to the yes campaign--was placed in doubt because of allegations about how the ballot was conducted. Although some of the allegations were made by the Secretary of State for Wales's own constituency Labour party, the right hon. Gentleman refused to clear up the mess and establish an independent inquiry. In London, the turnout for the referendum was even lower than it was in Wales.

Unless the Government plan on using referendums as a party political tool--if they do, they must say so--they must mend their ways. I have stated some guidelines that I believe should be followed. The constitution unit's commission on the conduct of referendums has made even more detailed recommendations. Today, I hope that the Minister will give us his considered response to the safeguards that both the unit and I have proposed. Above all, we need today to hear from the Government an acknowledgement that referendums are too important to be entrusted to the self-serving whims of any one political party.

The House will want to hear the Minister accept that, if the results of referendums are to be above suspicion, beyond reproach and not treated with contempt, their conduct should be determined by an independent body--comprising the brightest and the best, encompassing all political parties but dominated by no one political party, and dedicated to the impartial questioning of our political masters, the people.

9.45 am

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): I should like quickly to make a few points, as I am aware that there is little time, and many hon. Members would like to speak in this debate.

As we have no constitution in the United Kingdom, it is doubly--trebly--important that, when we undertake to change our electoral or political arrangements, we have in place proper safeguards. Generally, I am rather happy that, unlike many countries, we do not have a written

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constitution, which tend to be a hidebound way of approaching matters. I think that, over the years and down the centuries, our friends in the United States have come to regret their written constitution.

Nevertheless, as we do not have such a constitution, surely it is incumbent on hon. Members--even more so on the Government--to guarantee that safeguards are in place when contemplating the type of changes described by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed), primarily to ensure that the Government cannot change the rules that govern their own election. Ultimately, that is what we are talking about.

My hon. Friend gave as examples the referendums held in Scotland, Wales and London. However, the background threat is that the Government might eventually propose changes to the very system by which they themselves will seek to be re-elected. That is the biggest danger of all. Today, at the very least, we must receive from the Government cast-iron assurances that they would do no such thing--that, without first establishing proper safeguards, they would never embark on a course leading them to change the rules by which they offer themselves for re-election. Such safeguards are essential.

My hon. Friend also discussed the questions that should perhaps be asked in a referendum. We have some good recent examples of how the choice of questions can go badly wrong.

The example foremost in my mind--I suspect that it is foremost also in the mind of my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway), who is in the Chamber--is the question, or lack of questions, asked in the London referendum. We believe that, at the very least, the people of London were entitled to a say in whether they wanted an executive mayor in London and/or an assembly. However, the Government out-manoeuvred everyone else, and insisted on asking only one question, whereas two quite separate issues were bundled into one question--for the sake of political expediency. The example demonstrates the type of danger that we face.

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have been or will be asked what they want, but England has never been asked what it wants. When will the English be asked a question in a referendum? That question has to be answered. To date, the Government have been able to decide--on the basis of political convenience--what they ask, when they ask it, and whom they ask. What we need to know is, when is the bulk of the United Kingdom's population going to be asked some questions and have an opportunity to give an answer? We might find the answers interesting, if the right questions were asked.

The only other matter I want to mention in this context is European economic and monetary union. It is obvious that the Government are going to wait until such time as they consider propitious for the answer they want before putting the questions, which illustrates all too well the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire.

There is also the issue of reversibility, or, when can we return to the question? New Zealand is the most interesting example available of this issue. A few years ago, the people of New Zealand were asked the wrong question about changing their political electoral system, and they answered that they wanted something different. They got something different--a proportional system, which did not give them the Government they expected,

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because of back-room deals between political parties. Already, only a few years later, serious consideration is being given to asking the questions whether the change has proved satisfactory, and whether they should go back to what they had before.

That raises an important question: does a referendum answer last for ever? Surely not, but that raises the question, at what point can we legitimately return to the issue and say that, although we decided something by referendum, we now believe in the light of experience that we made a mistake, and that we should return to what we had before or move on to something else?

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