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Mr. Fabricant: Would the hon. Gentleman say that the Welsh referendum had passed that threshold?

Mr. Linton: I am arguing against the use of thresholds. Thresholds are nonsense, because participation will depend on the degree to which people disagree with the proposition. Often, something put to the people in a referendum sparks little controversy and is passed easily.

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People would go and vote if they thought that the proposition was likely to be defeated, but as it is not they do not bother. That does not invalidate the result.

There are two further arguments about the New Zealand and London referendums. I do not recognise the description by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst about the New Zealand "preferendum". There were two referendums on the voting system. In the first, the people of New Zealand clearly indicated that they wanted a change--[Hon. Members: "Of what?"] They wanted to change the system.

A commission was set up and recommended an alternative--the mixed member proportional, or MMP, system. That was put to the people in another referendum and they voted in favour of it, despite a well financed campaign for the first-past-the-post system. That campaign spent much more money than its opponents could find, but, despite the overwhelming superiority of resources behind the first-past-the-post system, MMP won fairly and squarely. It was clearly the expressed view of the New Zealand people that that system should be used.

The fact that Winston Peters, the leader of the New Zealand First party, allowed himself to be elected as an opponent of the National party only to announce three weeks later that he would support that party, is a function not of the voting system but of the fact that Winston Peters changed his mind. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) should speak for himself.

In the previous New Zealand election, carried out under the first-past-the-post system, Winston Peters would have been in exactly the same situation--holding the balance of power--had it not been for a handful of votes. Only after the final recount under first past the post did it turn out that he would not hold the balance of power. Had he won that vote, he would have been able to do exactly the same after the previous election. That shows that the situation was a function of the behaviour of Winston Peters rather than of the voting system.

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset): Could the hon. Gentleman tell us what that has to do with today's debate, as opposed to yesterday's debate?

Mr. Home Robertson: Does the hon. Gentleman think that he is the Speaker?

Mr. Linton: I look to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. We are arguing about the use of referendums, and the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst said that what happened in the New Zealand referendum showed that the use of referendums was invalid. I am pointing out that the use of referendums in New Zealand was perfectly legitimate. The decision was clearly arrived at, despite the overwhelming superiority of the resources deployed against it. Nothing in the New Zealand experience should disillusion us about the use of referendums; rather, it should disillusion us about the election of politicians who subsequently change their minds.

10.17 am

Mr. Christopher Fraser (Mid-Dorset and North Poole): I am sorry that I was slow to rise to my feet, Mr. Deputy Speaker; I was stunned by the prospect that the debate might be returning to the track on which it started.

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Today the House has the opportunity to reassert its authority. One of its principal functions is to hold the Executive to account. With a Government majority of 179--and, I must add, the comfortable pact between the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats--such issues are left to the Conservative Opposition to raise. They are of vast importance, and I am appalled by the low attendance on the Government Benches.

Not content with the mathematical domination of this place, Ministers, especially the Prime Minister, have decided to ignore the House. They declare that the people should decide. Of course, there is a compelling argument that a Government should listen to the people and consult. Certainly it would be wrong to proceed otherwise on issues such as the single currency.

I believe that my constituents have already made a choice--having heard, questioned and endorsed my views, they sent me to Westminster to decide. Now, however, the peoples of the nations that make up the United Kingdom are being sent to the polls again and again. A referendum was held in London about whether to have a mayor, and the Prime Minister promises that more will follow.

I do not rule out referendums altogether, especially on matters of major constitutional reform, but where does one draw the line? Why, having had referendums on Scottish and Welsh devolution, should not we have a referendum on English regional government? Perhaps the Government draw the line where they fear that they will not win, even though they have the power greatly to improve the chance that a referendum will go their way--they set the question and the programme for the vote, and decide how the vote should be construed. In reality, the people do not decide--the question is rigged, and the answer is therefore open to interpretation.

Leaving aside the point that referendums undermine the power and the authority--and, indeed, the sovereignty--of Parliament, I believe that the time has come to set out some rules. A framework is now needed--that is the point of this debate. There must be firm rules, so that the system cannot be abused. Issues of time allocation and broadcasting must be addressed.

We must tackle four key areas. First, we must decide what subjects are appropriate for a referendum. For example, having voted on a tartan tax, should the people of Scotland--and the rest of us--now have the opportunity to vote on all new taxes? Secondly, should the result of a referendum be binding on the Executive? At what level does a referendum have moral authority--is it 50 per cent. of those who vote, or 50 per cent. of those who are eligible to vote? If a threshold based on those who are eligible to vote is good enough for trade union membership, should not that principle be extended? I hope that the Minister will answer those questions.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan): Many people in Scotland are interested to know why the Conservative party did not call for a threshold in the London referendum, given that it so loudly called for one in the referendums in Scotland and Wales. Why does it not argue that the result of the London referendum is invalid, as no great threshold was reached?

Mr. Fraser: We called for a 50 per cent. threshold, although I shall not dwell on that, as we do not have much time.

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Thirdly, we should ask how the question should be framed to command universal, or near-universal, acceptance. I believe that an independent body should devise the question, so that the charge that the question had been fixed can be avoided.

Fourthly, and most important, has the issue been closely defined? How do the people know, in detail, what the consequences of a yes of no result will be? Has a problem with existing arrangements been identified before the referendum takes place? Has a White Paper been published or a Bill drafted? Unless we deal with those questions, it will continue to seem as though the purpose of the referendum is to short-circuit debate in the House, so that Labour Members can repeat, parrot-like, "The people have decided."

The referendum has been used by every dictator in history. It would be most inappropriate to suggest that the Prime Minister is a dictator--I would not dream of doing so--but one has to question whether the plebiscite is a vehicle for true democracy or a vehicle to dupe the people, so that the Government receive blanket approval to do what they please. I fear that experience since May last year suggests the latter--as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed) said, in Scotland and Wales the referendums were held before Parliament could scrutinise, amend and enact the legislation.

The Labour Government were elected to govern, to make decisions, and to be responsible for the effects of those decisions. Why do they accept the responsibility of government, but avoid the responsibility of making decisions? As Lord Lawson once said, quoting Pierre Mendes France:


10.24 am

Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border): Constitutionally in this country, decisions have been made by Members elected to the House of Commons. The public have never questioned the integrity of the decisions made in the House by a majority of the governing party--[Interruption.] They may question it at times, but they accept the validity of the right of the majority party to implement measures--they know that there are rules to govern the election of Members of Parliament.

There is a brief period after elections when individuals may be challenged on their election expenses, but no one challenges the Representation of the People Acts, which lay down rules governing our election. All the important decisions that are taken in the House have their roots in a system of rules laid down in legislation to deal with how Members are elected, the expenses that may be incurred and the broadcasting of elections. That system has worked exceptionally well.

I do not intend to quibble with the results of the various referenda, although I understand why some people nit-pick--to use the word of the hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson)--the results, given the way in which the Government chose to conduct the referenda. We are moving into a new political landscape--I do not particularly like it, as it has not benefited my party in the past year--but, if that is to involve the regular use of referenda, we must have rules

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to govern how they are conducted, just as we have legislation to govern how we, the current decision makers, are elected to the House of Commons.

As many of my hon. Friends want to speak in the short time available, that is the only argument I want to make today, but the Minister must address it in all seriousness. I regret that this is the second consecutive day when I have had to say that the Home Secretary is an honourable and decent man, but he must see the validity of the argument. If referenda are to become a regular part of the political scene, they must be governed by detailed rules on timing, the question asked and all the other points that have been raised today--whether the referendum should be pre-legislative, whether it should be binding, and whether there should be a threshold.

Even though, God help us, there are already 150 review groups and task forces telling the Government what to do, we need one more. We need a properly independent commission, not the partial--or, as the Home Secretary described it yesterday, "relatively independent"--Jenkins commission.

Unlike the Cookie whitewash inquiry, the commission should be chaired by a properly independent judge; it should comprise not necessarily the great and the good, but those who understand these things and who can recommend the procedures that should be followed. All players in the House will accept the recommendations of a commission only if that commission is independent, with the Home Office acting as an able secretariat; we shall accept referenda only if there are rules, guidelines and legislation to govern how they are conducted.

It is no good for the Labour party to complain that individual Members of Parliament are quibbling about referenda. Of course Members of Parliament from other parties will quibble, as, at the moment, referenda are perceived to be set by Millbank and the Labour party hierarchy--they are phrased, timed and manipulated by the Labour party. I believe that the Government want to use referenda as a legitimate tool of government, but referenda can be a legitimate tool of government only if they are legitimised through legislation.


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