Mr. Prentice: My hon. Friend has to qualify her remark about an extra layer of politicians, because although the regional assemblies will have a membership of between 25 and 35, we will lose an awful lot of councillors. Should regional assemblies be set up, the number of elected people will contract. That would be the result of what the Government have presented us with.
The short answer to the question of whether my Bill is unusual in imposing a turnout requirement is: no. There are special majority requirements in many countries that use referendums. I referred to the Library paper earlier; another paper on which I have drawn was written by Mads Qvortrup of the Initiative and Referendum Institute in Washington DCI am sure that there is a copy in the Library and I recommend it to hon. Members. The Italian constitution stipulates that turnout in a referendum must exceed 50 per cent. if the result is to be valid. There are turnout requirements in Portugal and in many of the new democracies in eastern Europe, including Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia.
For an example from a mature western democracy, we can turn to Canada. In 1998, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that a majority requirement was needed should a narrow majority of voters in Quebec vote to secede from the rest of Canada. The court left it to the politicians to determine what constituted
Does this have relevance for us in the United Kingdom? It is not entirely fanciful to suppose that at some point in future there may be a majority Scottish National party Government in Edinburgh with what they would claim is a mandate to seek independence. Would 50 per cent. plus one on a turnout of 45 per cent. be regarded as the settled will of the Scottish people? I do not think so.
There is no need for anyone, and certainly not the Government, to feel frightened of my Bill. If a referendum is to be a way of conferring the ultimate legitimacy on a proposed policy or course of action, it is right that we seek to persuade at least half the electorate to turn out to vote.
Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) on introducing the Bill, which we think is an admirable measure. For my own part, I can immediately accept the suggestion that if his Bill had been in place, the only referendum that we have had so far that would have been declared null and void would have been the one setting up the Greater London Authority and the Mayor for London. If that had happened, we would all have been much happier in my constituency and we would have all saved a lot of money.
The hon. Gentleman touches on voter apathy, and that is really what we are talking about. If we want a referendum to have a clear result, we must ensure that voters are interested enough to consider the given question and to vote for or against it.
I can remember a rather interesting play that was shown on television many years ago. The fictional Government decided to become much more in favour of democracy, and so they had referendums on everything. Rather pre-dating what happens these days with reality television and voting, they gave everybody a television and a box to record their vote. The people thought that it was a marvellous, absolutely wonderful idea because they had been complaining about politicians taking decisions that they did not think were right. The Government were regarded extremely highly.
That was until real matters were involved. As we know in the House, sometimes statutory instruments, although many are fine and interesting, do not catch the imagination of every hon. Member. In the play, one
The Prime Minister of the day decided to have one final vote. He said, "Would you like to give the power to me to vote for everything for you?"by this time, the Members had all been got rid of. Funnily enough, the people voted in favour of the Prime Minister taking all the decisions and that was how dictatorship was established in this country.
I am not assuming or even presuming to suggest that the fact that we have so many referendums these days is a plot by the Government to lull everybody into a false sense of security. However, in my opinion there seem to be a huge number of referendums, and there could be more and more. The more that there are, the less interest there is. As the hon. Gentleman said, only 34.1 per cent. of people voted in London for the Greater London Authority being set up and the London assembly, on a day when there were the local elections as well. The Government tried to make the election as interesting as possible, but they failed miserably, and nobody in their right mind would regard it as a vindication of the setting up of that authority.
The hon. Gentleman's Bill would provide politicians on both sides of an argument with an incentive to instil enthusiasm in people and achieve an increased turnout. At the moment, there is no such incentive. In fact, if one was of a suspicious nature one might say that the more difficult the question and the boring it seemed to the electorate, the less likely they are to vote. Consequently, one could get all kinds of strange things through using referendums. The Bill is therefore a great step forward, and would make sure that referendums are not called just when the Government fancy doing something. I cannot speak for the regions, and can only speak about what happened in London, but the hon. Gentleman and many of his colleagues are wise to be extremely cautious about setting up assemblies. If the Bill were passed, the Government would have to work hard to prove to the electorate that regional assemblies were needed. They would have to do so not just in the case of the referendums covered by the Bill but for all referendums, which would be a good thing.
Yesterday, I attended the Hillingdon branch of the UK Youth Parliament. Interestingly, those young people felt hard done by, because votes in the House on two issues about which most of them had strong feelings had gone the wrong way. One issue was Iraq, and the other top-up fees, and they said that they would like a referendum on both of them. However, as with all such issues, would they be prepared to vote? The measure should therefore be in place for all questions that are put to a referendum, as that would make us all work a lot harder. I shall conclude my speech, as I want to hear how the Minister will prove that he is in favour of democracy. The Opposition thoroughly support the Bill, and hope that the Government see the sense of it too.
Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): The hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) gave an interesting introduction to the Bill. I share his scepticism, and my beliefs about the preparation of the Government's proposals on devolution are on the record. The regions where the Government propose to devolve power are not proper regions, so the appropriate devolution of power, a policy that I fundamentally support, is unlikely to gain support. There is clear popular support for the Government's proposals, but it is also clear that support for devolution has been created from synthetic Government zones. Many soundings, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, demonstrate derisory levels of interest and enthusiasm for taking things a stage further, which only embellishes the point.
The Minister for Local and Regional Government, when dealing with amendments and arguments that a threshold should be established, argued that the Government would not proceed in circumstances in which support for a regional assembly was derisory. However, the responsibility for determining that level of support would rest entirely with the Secretary of State, and the only recourse to the people of this country would be the recourse of law, which is entirely unsatisfactory. I am not certain that in its present form the Bill is necessarily the answer, but the hon. Gentleman initiates an important debate. The Bill deserves further consideration, even though it puts far too much power into the hands of the Deputy Prime Minister to determine whether the level of support is derisory. Judging from the way the debate is going, I fear that in those regions the vote may well be derisory
Andrew George: That would be insufficient and would raise serious questions about the way in which the Government proceed with the policy of devolution. I wish the hon. Member for Pendle well in raising an important issue, although I do not necessarily agree with the figure that he suggests.