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Mr. Home Robertson: Thank God for that.

Mr. Letwin: I would not echo the hon. Gentleman's sentiment. I regret almost every aspect of the Government's agenda for constitutional change. However, that is not the burden of my argument today. Whether one welcomes it or disdains it; whether one regards it as unsettling to the whole nature of our constitution and our democracy or the best thing since sliced bread is neither here nor there. It has happened and is continuing to happen at a dizzying pace. It is happening by means of something which is itself a constitutional innovation,

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on which we do not yet have a settled view or settled rules. We cannot be confident that fair play will be involved--a necessary tool of any referendum. It behoves the Government, much more than their predecessors, seriously to take this question in hand and do something about the structuring of referendums.

There is a second point, of equal importance. The most important referendum that will be held--perhaps not in this Parliament, but shortly thereafter if the Government have their way--is that on a European currency. Many of us see that as a Rubicon. In that referendum, if none of the action recommended by the independent commission and many of my hon. Friends and other hon. Members is taken, there will be a severe danger that that critical referendum will not be, and will not be seen to be, fair.

In that case, there will be an awesome power of money behind one position. There is a great danger that a Government allied with the European Commission would use taxpayers' funds and a set of rules that did not have cross-party support or national acceptance to distort the likely result. Whether we fall on one side or the other of the argument in that referendum, it is of the greatest importance to all in this country that the result is seen to be fair and to have been fairly obtained.

There is a further point. It is not simply a matter of the European referendum; we were told yesterday that there is likely to be a referendum on proportional representation. In respect of the conduct of this House and the British constitution, that referendum will probably be, in its long-term effects, the biggest issue to be faced in this Parliament. The Home Secretary gave us at least a hint that the Government might impose rules that would establish fairness in the conduct of that referendum. However, that is not enough.

The Government want to seek parliamentary approval--unfortunately, they are likely to obtain it--to constrain the way in which political parties are funded at general elections. We understand that the Government will try to establish a position in which internal political debate, when it is conducted outside the context of a referendum, will be constrained by the amount of money that can be spent by either side. Yet within the referendum itself, there will be no rules to preclude the Government spending not politically raised money, but taxpayers' money, on trying to persuade the public to take one view rather than another.

It is therefore wholly possible under the current regime--although the Home Secretary has assured us that he does not want this--for the Government to issue large-scale information on one side of the issue, in reality propaganda posing as information, in a referendum on proportional representation. If the Government were to act in that way, they would be undercutting the rules on political funding, using taxpayers' money to distort a constitutional outcome. That would seriously undermine the structure of our democracy and people's faith in it.

The Government must translate the Home Secretary's hints of yesterday into the reality of guidelines and an independent commission that would make it clear that taxpayers' money will not be used to distort the critical outcome of a referendum on proportional representation or any other referendum, whether European or domestic. If the House takes heed of that, and if the Minister conveys that to the Home Secretary so that the Government can take heed of it, my hon. Friend the

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Member for Mid-Bedfordshire will live in history as having contributed, through a debate that has hardly been attended by Labour Members, to a major constitutional improvement.

10.49 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. George Howarth): I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed) on securing the debate and on having, for the most part, presented his arguments thoughtfully and interestingly. I also commend him on his timing, as it is less than two weeks since the fourth referendum of this Parliament was held. Each of the constituent countries of the United Kingdom has recent experience of a referendum, and this is a good time to reflect on that experience.

Most of the points made in debate were thoughtful, and I shall shortly say a little about the general principles raised. I should cover two points immediately, however, because they do not fall under general headings. First, the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) asked, under the heading of reversibility, how long referendum results will last and when questions can be reconsidered. It is open to Parliament to reopen any issue on which it has already legislated, whether or not it has been subject to a referendum.

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will accept it in the spirit in which it is intended if I say that I am confident that the referendums we have had have been popular and reasonably successful. I do not think that there will be any immediate demand from the people of Scotland or Northern Ireland--possibly even the people of Wales--to revisit those issues. However, if there is at any time such popular demand, the House will debate the matters, and further action will flow from that. The option is always open.

The second point, raised by several hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan), was the question of thresholds. Different circumstances require different rules, and it is not possible to generalise. In some cases, a threshold may be appropriate, but in others it will not. Even where it might be appropriate, different levels might apply in different cases, as my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton) said.

It was not appropriate to set a threshold in any of the referendums that we held over the past year.

Mr. Salmond rose--

Mr. Howarth: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, but I do not intend to give way often, as I have very little time.

Mr. Salmond: I certainly agree that there should have been no thresholds in the referendums that we have had. However, the Minister seemed to suggest that there might be some reasons for having a threshold. I plead with him not to do that. Thresholds have caused any amount of trouble in Scotland, and if a threshold had been imposed on the London referendum, it would, by any description, have been considered a failure. I want a principled statement from the Government that they will not indulge in any fancy franchise at any referendum.

Mr. Howarth: My point was that I do not want to prescribe the position for every set of circumstances.

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So far, we have seen no case for a threshold. My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea spoke very clearly on the general principle of thresholds, but I would not want to rule them out in every case, because we cannot see what will happen in future.

Mr. Home Robertson rose--

Mr. Howarth: I will give way to my hon. Friend, but I ask him to appreciate that my time is very limited.

Mr. Home Robertson: Yes, but this is a very important point. This is a minefield. A 40 per cent. threshold was imposed in the referendum held in Scotland in 1979, and, although there was a clear yes vote, that artificial rule meant that the decision of the people of Scotland was thrown out. We had to wait nearly 20 years before we got our Parliament. That sort of fancy franchise cannot be tolerated anywhere.

Mr. Howarth: My hon. Friend is quite right, and that is why it was not considered right to set a threshold in the Scottish referendum this time. That supports the point I am making about what is or is not appropriate.

Referendums are not a new device. Indeed, their use can be traced back to Roman times, and we have had an interesting diversion on the origin of the word itself. In the last century and until quite recently, there were temperance ballots in Wales. I believe that the last dry area went wet last year; if I am mistaken on that, no doubt someone will write to me. A so-called border poll in Northern Ireland 25 years ago under a Conservative Government produced a yes vote of 98.5 per cent., but its usefulness was undermined by the fact that it was boycotted by the nationalist community. The very high turnouts in the north and in the south of Ireland in the referendums on 22 May show the progress we have made since then.

In 1975 we had the United Kingdom's first, and so far only, national referendum, when there was a two-to-one vote to stay in the Common Market, as it was then called. That was followed by the first Scottish and Welsh devolution referendums. The recent referendums in those two countries make it possible to measure how far public opinion has moved. In 1979, the people of Wales voted four-to-one against devolution, but by 1997, a majority--albeit not a large one--of those who voted were in favour of the Government's devolution proposals. On the present crop of referendums, we made a clear manifesto commitment that our devolution proposals would be subject to referendums, and they were.

I was remiss earlier in not congratulating the hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) on his first outing at the Dispatch Box. I am sure that there will be many more. His speech was very clear and, though partisan, thoughtful. I have no doubt we will hear much more from him.

The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mr. Fraser) and others raised the question of the single currency referendum. We are committed to a referendum on that. What characterises these subjects is that they involve a transfer of power away from central government, and bringing decisions closer to the people.

The hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire made a key point about the conduct of referendums. Overall, the experience of the recent referendums has been very

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positive and it is a considerable tribute to those responsible for the conduct of elections that everything went so smoothly and efficiently, particularly bearing in mind the fact that the referendums in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland went ahead with relatively little notice, and the poll in London was combined with local elections. I certainly pay tribute to the electoral administrators involved.

The hon. Gentleman also suggested that there would be merit in establishing a permanent referendum commission to oversee the operation of regional and national referendums. I am not wholly persuaded of the merits of that suggestion. It was considered by the Electoral Reform Society and UCL constitution unit. In the recent referendums, we considered it right that Parliament should determine the wording of any question in a referendum being conducted by central Government. The number of amendments tabled to subsequent Bills bore out our contention that that was the right way to act. The polling and counting arrangements were not subject to any criticism as far as I am aware.

The hon. Gentleman suggested, unless I am mistaken, that public money was spent to fund the yes campaigns in Scotland and Wales. I flatly refute that allegation: no public money was spent on those campaigns. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will check the facts and retract that statement.

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