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Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): I heard what the hon. Gentleman said about consulting the people over major constitutional change. He will know that, in Wales, the decision was taken--although only one in four people wanted it--to set up a non-tax-raising assembly. Why did his party try to amend the legislation so that, in future, the Welsh assembly could introduce tax-raising powers, without consulting the Welsh people?

Mr. Allan: The specific measure to which the hon. Gentleman refers was part of my party's open, stated position at the general election--our manifesto commitment. Colleagues in the Welsh team decided to take that forward to air the issue during the passage of the legislation. It is perfectly acceptable if they choose to do so.

Mr. Grieve: Does not that precisely illustrate the point that I was trying to make about the problems of pre-legislative referendums? In, for example, the Welsh referendum, the Welsh people were offered a committee form of government as the great selling point, yet, by the time the legislation had gone through the House, a sort of cabinet government was proposed. How can the wishes of people be reflected in pre-legislative referendums?

Mr. Allan: Although I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman's fundamental point that post-legislative referenda are preferable, there were precedents--Labour and Liberal manifesto commitments and a pre-election agreement--for the legislation that has been taken forward in this Parliament, which meant that the measures would progress quite rapidly. That was made clear at the general election.

Rather than using examples of perverse use of referenda in countries such as Switzerland, which I accept has not been helpful, we should look across the sea to the Irish example. They have a written constitution, which they have successfully amended and updated through the

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use of referenda. They have managed to avoid many of the European arguments that we have had in this country, because every stage of ceding power to the European Union has been accompanied by a legitimate decision of the Irish people through the use of referenda.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): Is it not important that there should be a separate constitutional body to make regulations to control referenda? In the Republic, the funding for both the yes and the no campaigns is equal, whereas, in our situation, Government funding tries to manipulate the will of the electorate. Ministers make promises during the referendum campaign that are not normally fulfilled.

Mr. Allan: The hon. Gentleman must have picked up a copy of my speaking notes. I was about to say that we should have an independent electoral commission to oversee the use of referenda, particularly as we are expecting one on the fundamental issue of moving towards a more proportional voting system, with all that that entails, and--possibly--one on the single European currency, which will be hugely contentious, not least on the Opposition Benches.

We need rules that are accepted by all sides, and an independent statutory commission to oversee them. We have made clear our support for a permanent electoral commission to oversee the administration of elections. Such a body was recommended by the 1991 all-party Hansard Society commission on elections. Parliament could give an electoral commission such responsibility for referenda. The commission would organise matters such as the poll, the count and the declaration of results, as well as overseeing the wording of questions. Parliament could pass primary legislation on matters specific to particular referenda as they arise.

The commission would be a procedural body. It would not help to make the decision about the constitutional status of referenda. We should consider whether referenda are mandatory or advisory. The Government certainly have enough access to private polling and focus groups without the need to transform the people of the United Kingdom into yet another one. I very much agree with the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire that referenda should not be used as focus groups. Their role needs to be clearer.

Given our present lack of a constitution, we need to consider thresholds. I am convinced that they have standing neither in constitutional theory nor in electoral practice. We would all like 100 per cent. of the electorate to vote in general elections. The precise percentage of voter turnout in a general election in no way affects the binding quality of the result. I would be interested to know at what levels hon. Members who propose participation rates and thresholds think they should be set for the House in order to give the Government legitimacy--the same principles apply.

We should like Parliament to set up an effective information campaign on a referendum, and for a decent period to be provided for it. We would suggest three weeks--as there is before a general election--to debate a referendum.

In that time, the electoral commission would ensure that both yes and no campaigns had equal access to resources. It must introduce the kind of legislation that applies to a general election, covering limits on spending and

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broadcasting, and the way in which literature is produced. Having advanced toward a written constitution and an electoral commission, an agreed role for referenda could be established, so that there would no longer be any need to nit-pick over thresholds or the conduct of campaigns, as we have unfortunately seen over the important constitutional referenda since the change of Government last year.

10.8 am

Mr. Martin Linton (Battersea): I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed) on raising this subject. Many points need to be clarified about the use of referendums--starting, of course, with the plural of the word. In our own referendum on the plural of the word, the House is 3:2 in favour of the use of "referendums".

I can report to the House that, during my former employment at The Guardian, a long, almost religious debate took place over many years, before the issue was finally settled in the style book in favour of "referendums". The argument was that the word "referendum" is a Latin gerundive, not a noun, but has been taken into English as a noun, so the Latin plural is not relevant.

Mr. Home Robertson: When did The Guardian ever spell anything right?

Mr. Linton: The days when misspellings frequently appeared in The Guardian are many years in the past. My hon. Friend shows his age by remembering the days of bad proofreading, before new technology arrived. Certainly The Guardian always had an intended spelling--an ideal spelling to which it aspired and which, in the later editions, it usually achieved. Perhaps my hon. Friend, in Scotland, may have read the earlier editions, which were always riddled with literals.

There is a good argument for the use of "referendums", which is that, in Latin, the word "referendum" is simply a heading for a list to be referred. "Est referendum" means simply that something is to be referred. If there were two items, the heading would be "Sunt referenda", but if there were only one--[Interruption.] It is simply a Latin phrase.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree with me that, in Latin, the gerundive is much stronger than in the English language. Its use implies not simply something to be discussed, but something that should be discussed--that the discussion must take place.

Mr. Linton rose--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord): Order. Before the hon. Gentleman responds, may I say that although this is an interesting debate about the origin of the word "referendum" and its plural forms, I should be grateful if we could now return to the substance of the debate? I also remind all hon. Members that many people still want to speak, and if others make their contributions reasonably brief, more will be able to do so.

Mr. Linton: I take the point, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

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My substantive argument is that several features of referendums in this country need to be established. One is the funding of the two sides. Another is entrenchment, in the sense discussed by my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson). Surely a measure passed as the result of a referendum should be repealed only after a subsequent referendum. There is also the question of reversibility, as raised by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth)-although the issue is not always as simple as he made it seem.

On thresholds, I agree with the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) that it is nonsense to try to insist on a particular participation level for all referendums. As we saw in the London referendum, the turnout depends on the level of controversy or opposition to the proposition being put forward.

In a sense, a referendum is a safeguard for the public, enabling them to scream, "No, we don't like that." In London, the issue was, correctly, put to a referendum, because it was assumed that there would be party political controversy, or at least public controversy, on the subject, and there would be a lot of publicity and a high participation rate.

As it turned out, that did not happen. My local authority spent thousands of pounds issuing a glossy leaflet to put through every front door opposing the referendum, but one week later it announced that, as the leader of its party had said that the Conservatives would support the referendum, their opposition was of no avail, and the council tax payers of Wandsworth should forget about the glossy leaflet and support the referendum.

The promised opposition never materialised. Television crews from London Weekend scoured London looking for plausible groups to advocate a no vote, so that they could cover it on their evening newscasts. Without an opposition, the media could not cover the two sides of the debate, so they gave it no publicity. Consequently, although the turnout was reasonable, considering that the referendum was held on the same day as the local elections, it was not very high.

That does not invalidate the result. It simply means that, because it met so little opposition, the issue referred to the people of London did not spark off the kind of debate that would have produced a high turnout. The result should not be condemned on the grounds that the proposal received so little opposition. It would be nonsense to say that, because the turnout did not reach a certain level, the result should not be accepted.

The corollary of that argument would be that only on hotly controversial issues would the turnout pass the threshold. Indeed, that idea affected what happened with the Scotland Bill in the 1970s, when a threshold was inserted.


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