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26 Nov 2002 : Column 201—continued

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I am sorry to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman, but the exchanges across the Chamber are not helping the debate.

David Davis: There is a proper role for referendums in constitutional change, but only if done properly. If it is

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not done properly, it can be a dangerous tool. The Chairman of the Public Administration Committee, who is no longer in the Chamber, said that Clement Attlee—who is, I think, one of the Deputy Prime Minister's heroes—famously described the referendum as the device of demagogues and dictators. We may not always go as far as he did, but what is certain is that pre-legislative referendums of the type the Deputy Prime Minister is proposing are the worst type of all.

Referendums should be held when the electorate are in the best possible position to make a judgment. They should be held when people can view all the arguments for and against and when those arguments have been rigorously tested. In short, referendums should be held when people know exactly what they are getting. So legislation should be debated by Members of Parliament on the Floor of the House, and then put to the electorate for the voters to judge.

We should not ask people to vote on a blank sheet of paper and tell them to trust us to fill in the details afterwards. For referendums to be fair and compatible with our parliamentary process, we need the electors to be as well informed as possible and to know exactly what they are voting for. Referendums need to be treated as an addition to the parliamentary process, not as a substitute for it.

Richard Burden: The right hon. Gentleman has described the importance of Members of Parliament debating matters so that electors can make a choice. Is not it more important in this context that people in the regions are able to debate the issue, think about the kind of institutions that they want to create and be able to vote on that? Is not that precisely what is being suggested, not just in the referendum proposal but in the proposal for regional chambers and other initiatives?

David Davis: That would apply only if people could create their own regions in the way that their argument leads them to do. What is being said to them, however, is XYou vote, and we'll decide what sort of region you will have."

As it stands, the Bill is an affront to those principles. It asks people to vote for proposals that are unspecified, untried and untested. I would have relished the opportunity to debate the details of regional assemblies, but, clearly, the Deputy Prime Minister is not ready to have that debate. It is simply wrong for the Government to come to the House and act in this way. If they do, how can we trust them when it comes to the referendum? Major constitutional changes justify the use of referendums because the constitutional rights of our citizens are owned by the people and not by politicians. However, it is important that referendums are not misused simply as a snapshot of volatile changes of opinion, perhaps as a result of pressure of Government propaganda. That is why Donald Dewar and John Smith used to talk about the settled will of the population.

The concept of settled will is that of an idea that has taken root in the minds of the people, has resonance in their daily lives and is a stable part of the way in which they think the country should be run. Because

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referendums are supposed to reflect the settled will of the people, we need to have thresholds below which they do not carry the day.

Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test): As I follow the right hon. Gentleman's argument, he claims so little legitimacy for what the Government suggest in the Bill that I imagine that he would want to abolish any regional assemblies created by the procedure as soon as a Conservative Government, were one to be elected, came to power. Would he abolish any regional assemblies elected by this method? What would he do with the money that had been transferred from the unelected sphere to the elected sphere? Would he set up new patronage bodies to administer that money?

David Davis: The hon. Gentleman has clearly not been listening even to the last few words that I said. I have been describing the grounds on which a referendum provides an acceptable and democratic outcome. Our view is that a reasonable level for the threshold that determines a settled will is that at least half the people vote, and a majority are in favour of the change proposed. That is a reasonable measure of the popular will. If the proposal receives the support of at least 25 per cent. of the total electorate, it should carry the day. That is pretty reasonable. Let us consider the result of the Scottish referendum. That exceeded the 25 per cent. threshold by 49 per cent. The Welsh referendum—

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills): What my right hon. Friend is saying is that, on a free election, if only 25 per cent., or one in four people, supported the proposal, and 75 per cent. of the population does not come out to vote for it, that is an authority by which one proceeds with profound constitutional change. That has never been so in our history previously, until we had new Labour and its contorted and distorted referendums rejigging our constitution. Will not he accept that for our party to have accepted the Welsh outcome, in which 75 per cent. of a free people in a free election did not support an assembly, is an extraordinary turnabout?

David Davis: My hon. Friend deserves a proper answer and I shall endeavour to give it. I know that he views these matters with a passion that is probably unequalled anywhere in this Chamber. We live in a time when referendums are used for constitutional amendment. I take the view that that is correct for the reason that I gave earlier. The constitutional rights of the people belong to the people and not to the politicians whom they temporarily elect. Therefore, we must determine at what level of support a referendum becomes valid.

I do not want to set the threshold too high as that could rightly be dressed up as a bogus argument. I want to make an argument that is appropriate to the level of constitutional change. If this issue carried as much force as the proposals for the Scottish Parliament, I would set the threshold a little higher, but I grant my hon. Friend that it is a matter of judgment. We are now talking about bodies that will hold the powers partly of central Government but mostly those currently held by county councils. On that basis, the level that I have suggested is

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acceptable. I take his point that it is a fine judgment to determine what makes a referendum an acceptable basis for a decision.

Mr. Dhanda rose—

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton) rose—

David Davis: I will not give way as I am coming to the end of my remarks.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) made the point that the figure of 25.2 per cent., which was the one obtained in the Welsh referendum, would have just passed the test. However, there was a great deal of controversy about whether the referendum was appropriate, and I accept that. However, the point that I want to make is that there is no threshold in the Bill. It should not be passed. It contains too many unanswered questions, and the Government have used up their quota of trust.

We reject regional assemblies not because we oppose devolution, but because we support it. We reject them not because we oppose economic development, but because we support it. We reject this Bill not because we oppose democracy, but because we support it. Any Member of the House who claims to support democracy will reject the Bill.

5.31 pm

Mr. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central): The speech of the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) was a thin attempt to belittle what many Labour Members consider to be one of the most exciting proposals for change that we will see in our political lifetimes. I know that some Labour Members and some from my region of the north-west disagree with me, but I have believed passionately in regional government for many years. Although my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister has been accused of being too bold, many of us know that he has had to strike a compromise that he himself recognises as too timid. Nevertheless, I congratulate him from the bottom of my political heart on what he has already achieved in the regions.

This country is probably the most centralised in western Europe, but we have had regional government for all my political lifetime. The problem with that regional government is that it has been government for the south-east by a system of governance that favours that region. That shows up in every facet of our national life. It is shown in the increasing concentration over the years of resources in the south-east, and it is shown in the way in which decisions are taken centrally. In recent times, when there have been degrees of decentralisation, the process has been more equivalent to the system of colonial governors in the former British empire than to the type of modern democratic structure that we would expect. The case for the redistribution of power is overwhelming. We are debating how we democratise the huge numbers of decisions taken by government on a daily basis.

There are different estimates of the resources spent by quangos or non-departmental governmental bodies in the north-west. A low estimate is that the figure is about £1 billion, but massively higher estimates suggest that the spending of as much as £7 billion is determined by

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bodies that operate regionally but that are not accountable to local people. Everyone must face up to a profound democratic challenge if we are to take control of that layer of decision-making. Although it suits the Opposition to oppose the measure as an attack on the power structure of local government, the rationalisation of local government in unitary authorities, which we have had in urban areas for a political generation, makes a great deal of sense. The creation of a regional dimension at last allows the people of our regions, not those outside them, to decide how to allocate their resources.

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