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Mr. Fabricant: On the issue of getting it wrong, does my right hon. Friend not find it ironic that market research companies have found that asking simple questions with yes or no answers results in the most inaccurate response? If the Government have their way, are we not likely to see a drift away from referenda and towards focus groups; and would that not be far worse?

Mr. Forth: My hon. Friend makes a valid point. I suspect that the Government may say that the country is just one enormous focus group, and that endless referendums are an adequate way of consulting the people.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. George Howarth) indicated dissent.

Mr. Forth: The Minister may say no--in any case, it would be interesting to hear his response to that point.

I hope that, at some stage, the Minister will give a strong indication of his view on the extent to which it would be legitimate--indeed, necessary in many cases--to return to the issue once the question had been asked, and in the light of further experience. Any of us who have been to New Zealand know well how bitterly disappointed the people are at having been misled by the question put to them and by the change in their electoral system, and how desperately they want to go back to what they had before.

Mr. Alan Clark (Kensington and Chelsea): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I am most grateful for your allowing me to raise a point of order that relates to the language in which we communicate in this Chamber. Your predecessor once rebuked me for using the language of the Common Market: I said "faute de mieux", for which he immediately called me to order. The word "referendum" is being scattered about, but, although my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) used the correct plural, I have often heard colleagues refer to "referendums", which is an exceedingly ugly term.

May we have from you, Madam Speaker, a ruling, or at least an expression of preference, as to whether we continue to use the Latin word, which many would think historically appropriate in the Chamber, or whether you have no objection to the continual anglicisation of the term and the use of the word "referendums"? Were you to express a preference for the Latin form, which I hope you will, you would certainly be striking a blow for classical revivalism.

Madam Speaker: The right hon. Gentleman raises an esoteric point, albeit hardly a point of order: more a matter

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of taste. I notice that, in the public Bills list, the word "referendums" is used in relation to Scotland and Wales. The word "referendum" was first used in English 150 years ago, according to the Oxford English dictionary, which I have just consulted, and I imagine that, after 150 years, the House is now used to it. The plural is a matter of taste, but I have always preferred the use of the English language to any Latin form; I hope that that provides some guidance.

9.54 am

Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian): Coming from the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Clark), that was a wonderfully communautaire point of order. In France, they have Government bodies that determine how the language should be used, but that is the first time I have ever heard the Speaker of the House of Commons being asked to rule on which words are appropriate to the English language. The House is indebted to the right hon. Gentleman for raising the interesting question of "referendums" versus "referenda", because the subject is a topical one, with several referendums already having been held, and more in prospect.

I take the view that, in general, in a parliamentary democracy, Parliament should decide, but there is obviously a case for saying that it is appropriate to refer major constitutional issues to the people. The risk is that one can get into a la carte choices on which decisions are appropriate to be referred to the people, and which should be left to Parliament.

It should be possible to take such decisions on an objective basis: for example, many people outside would love to have a referendum on whether capital punishment should be reintroduced, but that is a policy issue, which is most appropriately dealt with by Parliament; but there is a case for referring amendments to the constitution and to the way in which the country is governed to the people, as we have done.

The speeches so far have addressed specific concerns that I share about the current status of referenda in our constitution. The idea of having a referendum on the establishment of a Parliament in Scotland was sold as a means of entrenching the position of the Scottish Parliament, but Conservative Members have shown that they cannot wait for an opportunity to overturn the decision of the Scottish people.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): I just wanted to pick up on the hon. Gentleman's use of the word "referenda". Further to the point of order raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Clark), I wanted to point out that "referendum" is the gerundive--in other words, it means "requiring to be discussed"; therefore, in English the correct plural is "referendums", not "referenda".

Mr. Home Robertson: It is quite a long time since I failed my Latin A-level, so I shall not pursue that point.

The questions that require clarification are: what the criteria for holding a referendum should be; how a referendum should be conducted; who should decide which issues are appropriate to be referred to the people by referendum; and, above all, what the status of a referendum result is at the end of the day.

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The hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed) acknowledged that we have just had a fairly dramatic and conclusive result to a referendum in Scotland, on a perfectly respectable turnout of 61 per cent. of the people, 75 per cent. of whom voted yes to the establishment of a Scottish Parliament within the United Kingdom. Politically, that should be the end of the story--the subject was debated for many years, and a conclusive decision has been given, not only in the referendum, but in the results in Scotland at successive general elections. However, constitutionally, it is still technically possible to dismiss that result, and for Parliament to legislate in a different direction altogether.

Speeches from Conservative Members--the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) used the term "reversibility"--show that they are already questioning the validity or the binding nature of the outcome of the Scottish referendum, so I ask my hon. Friend the Minister whether it would be possible to ensure that, when legislation is enacted with the specific endorsement of a referendum, that fact is acknowledged on the face of the Act; and to ensure that any repeal of that legislation is also subject to a referendum.

It would be scandalous if, after 20 years' debate about home rule for Scotland, successive general election results endorsing the establishment of a Parliament for Scotland, and an overwhelming referendum decision to establish a Scottish Parliament, some future Government, simply on a political whim, could turn the whole thing on its head.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that argument would have much greater force if one had post-legislative referendums rather than pre-legislative ones? Is not part of the problem, which casts doubt on what is expressed in referendums, the way in which subsequent legislation often differs from promises made before the referendum?

Mr. Home Robertson: That is an illustration of the sort of problem that I have in mind. If there is any doubt, anywhere, there is always somebody, usually on the Conservative Benches, who wants to nit-pick. Who better than the hon. Gentleman to fulfil that role?

Endorsement of legislation by referendum should be specifically referred to in that legislation. There should be an implicit requirement that any radical repeal of the legislation--I am not saying that it should not be possible to amend legislation--should also be subject to a referendum, so that no future Parliament can repeal an Act that is entrenched by a referendum.

I fear that Conservative Members are doing themselves no good when they call into question the validity of the result of the referendum in Scotland. A Parliament is to be established in Scotland, and we want it to be a success and to play its role in the framework of the United Kingdom. Endless nit-picking can only endanger that settlement.

10.1 am

Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam): I am glad of this timely opportunity to speak on the subject of referenda--the option to my taste--since, under this Government, they have once again become a familiar part

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of our political life. We have had referenda in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which we fully supported as clear issues of constitutional significance.

The referendum on London government was less clear-cut, but, on balance, still necessary as a means of moving to regional self-government. Liberal Democrats shared many of the concerns expressed by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) about the question that was used. We would have preferred two questions, and believe that the Government cheated, to an extent, by using the one-question device.

People continue to be concerned about the use of referenda, mainly because the power to hold or withhold them is still in the Government's hands. There is a complete lack of rules on when or where referenda may or may not be used, although they are perfectly legitimate in an open democratic society with a strong constitutional framework. Indeed, we want it to become mandatory that constitutional change is contingent on support in a referendum. The hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed) described that as the "why" decision on holding a referendum. We would ultimately like that enshrined in a written constitution which sets out conditions for holding such a referendum.

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