Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mike Gapes: My hon. Friend said that his Bill does not cover referendums in local government. Given that he has talked about derisory turnouts, and given that the turnout in local elections is lower than in other elections in this country, why does his Bill not apply to local government?

Mr. Prentice: I wanted to keep the focus very narrow. The Bill could have encompassed local government. As my hon. Friend said, there have been some very low turnouts. The lowest—I am looking at a Library paper written by Oonagh Gay—was 9.2 per cent. in Ealing. The lowest turnout resulting in a yes vote—the vote for the mayor in Lewisham—was 18 per cent. So, yes, those are derisory turnouts. He makes a valid point.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con): While the hon. Gentleman is on the point about the soundings exercise, will he bear in mind the fact that the result of consulting 5.3 million people in the west midlands was even more striking? Of 356 responses, only 58 wanted an assembly. There is merit in what he is saying.

Mr. Prentice: I have all the figures for all the English regions, but I will not embarrass the Minister and my Government by pointing to some of the derisory turnouts in that soundings exercise.

We should not embark on a major upheaval on the back of such flimsy support. The Labour Government should be concentrating on delivering first-rate education, health and public services, and not on rearranging the organisational furniture. I think that that is a complete distraction. We also need to make it clear to people voting in the referendum that a regional assembly will not mean that they will get more cash at

27 Feb 2004 : Column 580

the expense of other English regions. The Government have made it clear that that is not the case, and I would like them to keep on saying it, because there is a feeling among the enthusiasts for regionalism that Balkanising Britain into regions will result in those with assemblies getting a bigger cut of the cake than they would be entitled to.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): The hon. Gentleman has made it plain that he has all the figures for all the regional consultation exercises and that he does not want to embarrass the Minister by reading them out. I do not want to embarrass the Minister by reading them all out either, but would the hon. Gentleman cite the figures for the east of England, because they were truly derisory?

Mr. Prentice: I prefer to concentrate on my own speech. The hon. Gentleman can have a look in the Library and unearth the figures for his region if he wishes.

Referendums are with us and it looks as if they are here to stay; we are in the age of the referendum. I say that despite the fact that we have had only one United Kingdom-wide referendum—that was to join the European Community in June 1975—although we have since had referendums in Scotland, Wales and London. Later this year, as I have said, we are promised referendums on setting up assemblies in the three northern regions of England.

There is also a referendum promised on the euro. I do not know when that will be, but it has been promised. In addition, there is agitation among Opposition Members and, indeed, Labour Members for a referendum on the proposed European constitution. The Labour party has also promised—although it is very much on the back burner now—a referendum on a new voting system for election to the Westminster Parliament. I think that that was stitched up in the old days when the Prime Minister and the then Leader of the Liberal Democrats had a kind of love-in on constitutional issues, but we have moved away from that.

Turnouts in previous referendums have in most cases been respectable, but they have been declining. In 1975, the turnout in the EEC referendum was 64 per cent. In the 1979 devolution referendum in Scotland, the turnout was 63.6 per cent. In the 1979 devolution referendum in Wales, the turnout was 58.8 per cent. In 1997, to bring us closer to the present day, the Scottish devolution referendum returned a turnout of 60.2 per cent. Then we had the Welsh devolution referendum, for which there was a turnout of 50.1 per cent. In London, the Greater London assembly referendum clocked up a turnout of 34 per cent. in 1998. If my Bill had been an Act back then, only the referendum on the Greater London assembly would have been caught by its provisions.

Why do we bother with referendums? They are supposed to give legitimacy. The referendum is seen as the ultimate legitimising device. It is seen as decisive, especially if it is carried by a huge majority, and as expressing the will of the people—the people have spoken. David Butler's 1994 book "Referendums Around the World" covered 200 referendums. Few were decided by close margins. Clearly, if a referendum is decided by a close margin, it raises questions about the legitimacy of the result.

27 Feb 2004 : Column 581

We had a string of referendums in the 1990s. The Danish and French Maastricht referendums delivered results of 51 per cent. against 49 per cent. The Irish divorce referendum in 1995 again delivered a result of 51 per cent. against 49 per cent. The Welsh devolution referendum was close indeed. Curiously, the losers accepted defeat in every case.

Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): Although I share the hon. Gentleman's scepticism about the soundings exercise and the boundaries drawn up by the Government to form the basis of regional devolution, if 49.9 per cent. of the electorate turn out and 90 or 95 per cent. of them are enthusiastically in favour of something, does he accept that his Bill would mean that the proposal could not go forward?

Mr. Prentice: Yes. That proves that the hon. Gentleman has read my Bill, because that is what it does. A 50 per cent. turnout is required—I am speaking slowly.

Some people say that a turnout requirement is fundamentally undemocratic. In fact, quite a few of my colleagues have e-mailed me over the past 48 hours to tell me just that and that it would encourage abstentions.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): Where are they?

Mr. Prentice: Well, they are not here.

Mr. Dismore: I am here.

Mr. Prentice: My hon. Friend is always here on a Friday.

Others highlight technical problems with the Bill, such as ensuring the accuracy of the electoral register. A stipulation that 50 per cent. of the electorate have to vote would mean removing from the register those who have died and those from the region who are in prison, because convicted prisoners cannot vote. My Bill deals with that by making the responsibility lie with the chief counting officer to estimate or decide on a figure that reflects the number and percentage of the electorate who would not be counted.

On abstentions, I looked at the Scottish devolution referendum in March 1979, the one that failed. Although that had a threshold, there is no evidence of a strong abstentions campaign. In fact, the Conservatives were the only major party to urge a no vote. One of the crucial interventions in the campaign came from Lord Home, who supported devolution. He urged those who were against devolution to vote no rather than abstain. It is a curious paradox that the turnout of 63 per cent. in that referendum was higher than the turnout for the 1997 referendum, which carried through Scottish devolution.

Andrew George: I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman appreciates the fact that I have read his Bill, but wonder whether he read my mind accurately when determining the purpose of my previous intervention. Given what he

27 Feb 2004 : Column 582

has just said, does he not accept that election turnouts tend to be higher when the contest is significantly close? When one side is clearly going to win many people do not turn out to vote simply because they accept that the conclusion is foregone. The result is both a low turnout and low enthusiasm for what is on offer.

Mr. Prentice: I get the point, but the responsibility falls on politicians and political parties to motivate and galvanise people so that they are interested enough to exercise their vote. If people are not turning out in the numbers they should, responsibility for that lamentable state of affairs lies with politicians and their parties.

Mr. Paterson: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that to someone who, like me, represents an English seat, the real scandal of the Scottish and Welsh referendums was that 85 per cent. of the population whose constitution was, in effect, torn up were not consulted at all?

Mr. Prentice: The argument can be made from any direction. Should we have referendums on regional assemblies only in the three areas designated by the Deputy Prime Minister, or should the rest of the country be consulted? I do not know. As I said, the Government have stated that having a regional assembly will bring no financial benefits at all to the regions in question, so perhaps in those circumstances it is legitimate to have a referendum only in those regions.

Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Lab): Is it not true that not only will having an assembly not bring an extra penny into the three northern regions, but it will cost people a lot of money because they will have to pay for the reorganisation and the costs of setting up extra bureaucracy and an extra layer of politicians?

Next Section

IndexHome Page