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10.28 am

Mr. Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South): Despite a leaflet being put through the letter box of every house in London, and despite the Minister for Transport in London handing out scratchcards at tube stations encouraging people to vote in the London referendum, there was a derisory turnout. Only 35 per cent. of the public voted, and about 75 per cent. either said no or expressed no opinion. In my opinion, the London referendum lacked legitimacy: its result cannot be considered representative of the overall view of Londoners. If we are to continue to have referendums as a matter of course, there should be a threshold.

On Report on the London Referendum Bill, the Opposition tabled an amendment calling for a 50 per cent. turnout, so that at least half the electorate should express a view on the proposals before them.

Mr. Allan: Is the hon. Gentleman therefore of the view that all London borough councillors should resign, since there was a similar turnout at the local elections?

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Is he also aware that 75 per cent. of the voters in Westminster did not vote for the Conservative council there?

Mr. Ottaway: The hon. Gentleman's intervention brings me to the second part of my point. I have no idea how many people voted for him at the general election, but I understand that it was not very many.

Mr. Allan: It was more than 50 per cent.

Mr. Ottaway: Then I wish the hon. Gentleman the best of luck.

If a proposal is of such extreme constitutional importance that it is the subject of a referendum, that raises it above the tone of normal council or parliamentary elections. If we are to change the constitutional basis of our country, surely a 50 per cent. threshold is appropriate.

Mr. Salmond: The hon. Gentleman proposes a 50 per cent. turnout, but the threshold that the Conservatives tried to introduce in the Scotland Bill involved not a 50 per cent. turnout, which is normally easily surpassed--for example, in Scotland in 1979--but 40 per cent. of the total vote. Why do the Conservatives propose one threshold for London and another for Scotland and Wales?

Mr. Ottaway: The hon. Gentleman should consider our proposals as alternatives. We are an Opposition party putting forward our ideas. I am not that familiar with Scottish affairs, but I think that a 40 per cent. yes vote was a feature of the 1979 referendum, so it would seem not illogical that the Scottish team should make a similar proposal. It is a different matter in London.

Mr. Home Robertson: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Ottaway: No. I am very short of time, and I have already given way twice.

I do not find it illogical to suggest that more people should express a view than not for a proposal to become binding.

My second point was touched on by my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) and relates to the representation of the people legislation. If a television broadcaster running a London current affairs programme supported one side of the referendum, should he come off the airwaves?

In London, Mr. Trevor Phillips, the presenter of a programme called "Crosstalk", was an active member of the yes campaign. Indeed, it is rumoured that he will be a mayoral candidate for London. I make no criticism whatsoever of Mr. Trevor Phillips--indeed, I have much praise for him. He conducts his programme in a genuinely neutral way, and when I have been interviewed by him, I have never felt that his party allegiance has in any way prejudiced what he has to say. However, there was nothing in the London Referendum Bill that gave any guidance on whether he should be allowed to stay on the airwaves.

I referred the matter to the Independent Television Commission, which has a code of conduct on such matters. Its view was that the principles enshrined in the

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representation of the people legislation should apply in a referendum. I do not know how it happened, but within a matter of days, Mr. Phillips came off the airwaves. However, it should not be left to Opposition Members to raise such matters with the ITC. They should be dealt with in the Bill. The position of the representation of the people legislation is far from clear. If nothing else happens, it should be incorporated into future referendum Bills.

My third and final point is whether or not there should be funding for a no campaign. In London, some £3 million was allocated to a so-called awareness programme, including the leaflets to which I referred. There was an awareness programme on the radio, and leaflets were put through every door, but there was no funding whatsoever for those who wanted to make counter-proposals or to express outright opposition. The Government believe that their proposals were put forward in a neutral way, but they were actually saying, "This is what we think--take it or leave it. Say yes or no in the referendum."

There is no justice in that attitude. It is like a jury at the Old Bailey being asked to make a judgment after hearing just the case for the prosecution, not the case for the defence. In truth, it is impossible to be neutral about a positive set of proposals. Therefore, I believe that a no or counter-proposal campaign should have the opportunity to express a view, given that so much taxpayers' money is being spent putting over the positive set of proposals.

We have had four referendums so far, and on the strength of their results, the Government believe that they have a mandate for action. There are at least two more to come--on monetary union and electoral reform. The issues require clarification. There should at least be some legislation setting up an organisation, so that they can be addressed.

10.36 am

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole): Referendums are becoming very much a part of our political life; they are much more common than they were, and the practice of treating the electorate as an opinion poll sample is likely to continue in future. That is dangerous in our constitution, especially as there may be a big question mark over the future of the House of Lords. A two-House system provides a check on the Government, and if the other place is weakened, watered down or abolished, the referendum may become a far more dangerous constitutional innovation.

In many nations, referendums result from citizens' action and petition; the referendum is a bottom-up procedure. In the British political context, however, it is a device of the majority party. Governments institute referendums; they decide the wording and the timing. With all the temptations of power and of government, that is pretty dangerous.

I shall not dwell on what has happened in the past; it is more important to look to the future. It is important to establish an independent commission, or at least a code of conduct, so that we all know where we stand. That is a matter not only for the Opposition but for the Government, as the majority of today may be the minority of tomorrow, and a future Government may well use the lack of rules to reverse or change the position or to promote a very different agenda.

It is sensible that rules that we all understand should apply to the body politic. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) said,

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we make almost a fetish of rules for parliamentary elections, and agents spend all their time telling us what we can or cannot do. Yet referendums are open season: there are no tight rules.

Referendums must be seen to be fair and legitimate. If we are to face the expense and upheaval, it is in everyone's interests that they are seen to be so; that requires the establishment of a code of conduct or an independent commission.

Certain questions need to be addressed. Who may initiate a referendum, and on what issues? We must not forget that referendums can be very bad news for minorities--and in a democracy it is important to protect minorities. Who will decide the wording--the Government or a special commission? How many questions should be asked? How will the referendum be organised and financed? How should money be raised, and should there be expenditure limits? What constitutes approval? Should it be by a majority or by a percentage of the electorate? Can a question be put again? Denmark, for example, was forced to hold a second referendum, having given what might have been thought the wrong answer. Should a referendum be pre-legislative or post-legislative? Finally, what rules should govern television and media access?

Those are all important subjects. Since we started to hold referendums, many academic conferences have been held on how they should be structured. We in the political class should set ground rules that are clear, transparent and widely accepted. Then we will know when people are cheating and when they are not. If referendums are to be held, they must be fair, legitimate and accepted by all participants at least as a democratic exercise in which everyone has a chance to put their point of view.

10.40 am

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset): I find myself in an unaccustomed position. Luckily, the organ grinder is here should the monkey fail.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed) on bringing an enormously important subject before the House. Now I come to think of it, I am amazed that we have not debated it many months, or even years, before now. This is a useful and timely debate.

My right hon. Friends the Members for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), and for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) and my hon. Friends the Members for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mr. Fraser), for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) and for Poole (Mr. Syms) all made significant points.

I can summarise the consistent theme that has run through the debate in five points. First, a range of questions clearly remains unanswered. There is no doubt that there are issues that have not been resolved concerning the holding of referendums. Secondly, it is abundantly clear--for this we also have to thank hon. Members from other parties--that there needs to be cross-party agreement on a framework; the issue should be raised above party politics.

Thirdly, there needs to be an independent commission to conduct referendums. As several of my hon. Friends said, it is implausible that a fair referendum--or at least one that would be seen to be fair--can be conducted at

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the behest of a Government who are necessarily a participant in that referendum and in the arguments within it.

Fourthly, there needs to be a set of rules governing access to the media, as there is for general elections, although the rules will have to be different, because equal access to the media needs to be provided for the yes and the no campaigns--which may be a quite different proposition from equal access for political parties. For example, all political parties could be on one side in a referendum, but the other side should be equally represented in the media. Finally, there needs to be a settled decision--the will of the British people--about what should constitute a fair threshold for a result.

None of that is new; the issue has been studied by a group of people, under the aegis of the constitution unit of University College London and the Electoral Reform Society--not, as the Home Secretary's phrase, a relatively independent group, but a genuinely independent group. It is chaired by Sir Patrick Nairne and includes Dr. David Butler, representatives of all the political parties, and a number of distinguished academics.

That group sat for some months and considered the issue in great detail. Its findings have been much spoken of in the other place. It recommended, among other things:

If an independent commission has reached such a conclusion, if there is broad cross-party agreement that such rules are necessary, and if--as the Home Secretary graciously came close to telling the House yesterday--the Government impose an orderly procedure on the referendum on proportional representation, we have every reason to hope that, in just a few minutes, the Minister will tell us that the Government have at last concluded that it is necessary to impose such order on referendums generally.

I want to take the debate one step further and ask a question that has not been sufficiently explored--why is all this so important now? Why was my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire right to raise the matter today? One point that has been raised, by implication, in the debate is the dizzy speed of constitutional change under this Government. Indeed, constitutionally they are the most radical Government since 1688--

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