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Mr. Letwin rose--

Mr. Howarth: I shall give way briefly to the hon. Gentleman, but I do want to make some progress.

Mr. Letwin: I am grateful to the Minister, but the idea that he wants to make progress is risible. I offer him the opportunity one last time in the progress of the Bill to give the assurance that would give us, and democracy in the United Kingdom, so much comfort--that the Government will not hold referendums on major issues before the provisions are implemented.

Mr. Howarth: The hon. Gentleman has asked me the same question over and over again, and I have given him the same answer over and over again. I will not play this silly little game with him. If the hon. Gentleman wants to waste time this afternoon, that is his business. I am not prepared to take part in that.

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2.15 pm

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): I have not asked the Minister the question before, so may I try? I have the permission of my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan), the Bill's promoter, to take a little time to try the question again. Will the Minister give a simple undertaking that no referendums will be held until the provisions of the Bill are embedded in our law?

Mr. Howarth: For the benefit of the right hon. Gentleman, the assurance that I have given in the past is that it is most unlikely that there will be a referendum on the single currency or on the electoral system before the provisions are on the statute book. However, I cannot give him any greater assurance than that for various reasons which he, as a member of a previous Government, would recognise. I cannot predict with any certainty what will happen, for example, on European integration and progress on the single currency, so it would be absurd for me to give such an assurance. We do not expect that that will be the case.

We hope to have an electoral commission established and new controls, including those on the conduct of referendums, in place before the next general election. The hon. Member for Blaby knows that the Government's position is clear on the timing of possible referendums on the single currency and on the voting system for the House. There is no immediate prospect of either of those referendums being held.

If the hon. Gentleman is serious about what he says, he would welcome new clause 3. Under the new clause, the Bill would come into force on a day prescribed by order. As a result, it would be possible to hold back on the appointment of a referendums commission until a referendum was in prospect. Consequently, the commission would have a real job to do. Such an arrangement would preserve the hon. Gentleman's insurance policy, but it would also ensure that taxpayers' money was not used as a premium to pay for setting up a referendum commission in the interim. My hon. Friend's amendment is worthy of support.

Mr. Letwin: If the Minister genuinely believes that the amendment is worthy of support, and--leaving aside what I regard as his spurious argument--if he genuinely intends that there should be no referendum before proper rules are in place, there is a course of action open to him in the next 12 minutes, by association with his colleagues, the Whips. That, I believe, would be wholly acceptable to my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) who has worked so hard on the Bill, to me, to many other hon. Members and to many outside the House who care about such matters.

The Minister should withdraw the new clause and the other new clauses and amendments, and give the Bill a Third Reading so that it is on the statute book in a form that enables the Secretary of State to determine when it will be implemented. That would be a great step forward in our legislation.

I admit that initially I was not optimistic about the speech of the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore). I know that he speaks eloquently and at length, but generally not to the purpose of improving the Bill. However, what he said this afternoon was illuminating and it increased my education. It helped to show that,

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although the Bill would not be perfect, if it were accompanied by good will on the part of the Government, it would be an improvement on the present situation. It would be by no means as good as a Bill without the new clause, for the reasons that the hon. Member for Hendon gave, but it would be a great improvement.

That course of action is open to the Minister. If, by stating his expectation, the Minister means honestly to suggest that the Government do not want to hold referendums without the legislation, he should adopt such a course of action. We have the basis as a House and as a country for judging whether we should or should not have the trust in the Government that the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) suggested that we should have.

I have always believed that the Minister, and very probably the Home Secretary, intended to do the right thing. I have always seen the Minister as a democrat. However, I am deeply suspicious of the motives of the Home Secretary's colleagues in Cabinet. They have tried to jettison the Bill through the new clause and the many amendments that are to come. I am deeply suspicious because the future of our democracy and its reputation depend on not holding another major referendum without having in place the necessary rules. I suspect that, in their hearts, all Labour Members know that. An opportunity has been granted to us by my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby, who has introduced the Bill, and by the Minister, who says that his intentions are based on good will. I hope that we shall see the Government and their Back-Bench Members behaving with good will this afternoon.

Mr. George Howarth: I think that the hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) is being playful. I wrote to the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan)--the hon. Member for West Dorset received a copy of the letter--on 17 March. I set out clearly the Government's position. I see no point in entering the debate that the hon. Gentleman is trying to create. Nothing has moved on since 17 March. The Bill received its Second Reading and it was debated in Committee in great detail. The Government's basic position is no different from that set out in the letter of 17 March, a copy of which I have no doubt he cherishes and reads every night before he goes to sleep. That is where we stand on the matter.

The hon. Gentleman knows full well that I have said from the beginning that he should wait until we publish a draft Bill on the Neill proposals before the summer recess. That Bill will set out fully where we intend to go with our proposals for an electoral commission. If the hon. Gentleman accepts the case for an electoral commission, it is nonsensical to go forward with a referendums commission, when we are so near to establishing something that would embrace all concerns.

Mr. Letwin: If the Minister means what he has just said, the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) has offered him a route to an irenic solution. There would be no need to establish the referendums commission in advance of the electoral commission if the electoral commission had been established before a referendum and if, as the new clause suggests, the Secretary of State had not implemented the Act. Surely the Minister should be willing on his own logic just

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espoused to accept the new clause, and then to urge his hon. Friends to withdraw the rest of the amendments and give the Bill a Third Reading.

Mr. Miller: I have listened to this great debate with much interest. I am particularly interested in the lawyers' club axis that is developing between my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) and the hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin).

I want to simplify the process. I want to test the will of the House on this matter. If my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon wishes to oppose the new clause, let us see whether he has the support of Opposition Members.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:--

The House divided: Ayes 3, Noes 0.

Division No. 195
[2.23 pm


Brand, Dr Peter
Burstow, Paul
Flynn, Paul

Tellers for the Ayes:

Mr. Andrew Miller and
Mr. Tony McNulty.


Tellers for the Noes:

Mr. Andrew Dismore and
Dr. Alan Whitehead.

21 May 1999 : Column 1419

It appearing on the report of the Division that 40 Members were not present, Mr. Deputy Speaker declared that the Question was not decided, and the business under consideration stood over until the next Sitting of the House.

Mr. Butterfill: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It should be shown on the record that the only reason that the Division was inquorate was that Opposition Members were not prepared to take part in a charade put up by Labour Members, who voted against their own new clause--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. That is not a matter for the Chair.

21 May 1999 : Column 1420

Remaining Private Members' Bills


Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question [14 May] on consideration of Bill, as amended in the Standing Committee.

Amendment No. 36 proposed to the Bill, in page 2, line 20, at the end, to insert the words--

Question proposed, That the amendment be made.

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