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'1A Both the question to be included on the ballot paper and any statement to precede the question must first have been approved by each House of Parliament in a procedure where the question and statement shall have been capable of amendment by each House.'.
Adam Price: Amendment No. 31 seeks to give the National Assembly for Wales the right and responsibility of setting the wording on any future referendum under the provisions of clause 102. As the Library has pointed out, it is unusual for the wording of a referendum question not to be set out in a Bill. Indeed, there is only one other example of this not happening. We had a lengthy discussion recently on the uniqueness of Wales vis-à-vis Northern Ireland. Only in the Northern Ireland Act 1998 is there another example of the wording not being set out in the legislation.
The Conservative amendment, which we do not support, would provide the opposite solution to ours, namely that the wording should be set out by Parliament. We believe that the people of Wales should decide on these matters, and that their representatives should decide on the wording of the question in a referendum on the extension of the principle of democratic sovereignty. As we know, timing is a key parameter of success when it comes to calling a referendum. We had a lengthy discussion on such issues in our debate on the last few amendments.
The other key parameter is the wording on the referendum ballot paper, which can influence the likelihood of success. As opinion pollsters know, the wording of a question can affect the level of support that a proposal attracts. We have seen that in relation to questions of devolution over the years. I suggest that a question asking the people of Wales whether the National Assembly for Wales should have law-making powers would be more likely to succeed than a question
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asking whether it should have more power, in an open-ended way. These are subtle differences, but they can affect the likelihood of success.
The referendum in question, as with every other referendum, will be subject to the provisions of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, which will mean that the Electoral Commission will pronounce on the intelligibility of the question and produce a report, according to its guidelines, to ensure that the question is clear, concise and impartial. Nevertheless, the power to set the wording of the referendum question is an important one, and it should properly reside with the elected representatives in the national representative institution of the people of Walesthe National Assemblywhich is what our amendment seeks to achieve.
The Welsh Affairs Committee's report suggested that the wording should be set out in the Bill in the interests of clarity. However, the Government's response rejected that proposal, saying, rather mysteriously, that the wording should reflect the circumstances and the timing of the question's being put. That almost suggests that the referendum might happen in some future century, when the English and Welsh languages might have evolved in some way. The Government's response proves my point that subtle differences can be introduced into the wording of a question. The power to set the wording is therefore an important one.
The other issue that the Welsh Affairs Committee was trying to resolve in its way, and that we are trying to resolve in ours, is that of the lack of clarity as to how the wording will be decided. This could become a major political issue. As we have seen, the issue of where the power to decide the wording lies became a major issue in Quebec following the 1995 referendum there. Even now, we can see the jostling between Ottawa and Quebec for the proper constitutional authority over that issue. Ottawa has passed the Clarity Act to give itself the constitutional authority over the wording of any future referendum question, but the Quebec Government insist that they still have that power. We, too, need clarity, because we do not have it at present in this regard.
Mr. Llwyd: My hon. Friend is making a powerful point, and I fully agree with him. Let me take him back a few sentences to when he said that the procedure proposed in the Bill would mean that the Government here would decide on the wording, and that that would be overseen by the Electoral Commission. Does he agree that this Government's track record of listening to the Electoral Commission is not all that good, given that the commission has said that there is no case whatever for banning dual candidacy?
Adam Price: As ever, my hon. Friend has made a strong point, which constitutes a trenchant criticism of the governing party. Presumably the Electoral Commission could produce a report criticising the wording, and its independent advice could be ignored again.
Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) (SNP):
As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Arbuthnott commission, appointed by the Secretary of State for Scotland,
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considered this very subject. It decided that the attempt to ban dual candidacy was undemocratic, and the work of a political party that did not understand the process.
Adam Price: The hon. Gentleman has made another excellent point. The Government do not have a very good record of listening to independent commissions when the results of their inquiries do not accord with their own narrow party advantage. That is why we do not propose that the wording should be decided by an independent commission. We should remember that the Government did not listen to the Richard commission.
The solution is clear: if the Secretary of State wants the referendum to work on the basis of party consensus, he should take account of the consensus that would have triggered the referendum in the first place. The National Assembly should decide this important matternot this House or the other place, not English, Scottish or Northern Irish Members of Parliament, but directly elected Assembly Members in Wales.
Mrs. Gillan: My amendment No. 194 is straightforward, so I shall not detain the Committee for long. The amendment requires both the question on the ballot paper and the statements preceding it to be amendable and approved by both Houses of Parliament.
It seems only right to me for Parliament, when preparing to devolve primary powers, to have the right to approve and/or amend the essence of questions about the process being put to the public. That would help to ensure scrutiny of what is a bit of a political hot potato, and I do not believe that the Government have provided for it in the Bill.
I heard what was said by the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price) and I admit that I have some sympathy with it. Like him, I hope that the spirit of consensus that the Secretary of State keeps dangling before us will come home to roost one daythat he may agree with something that Opposition Members say, and incorporate it in the Bill. I doubt it very much, but we live in hope. I shall listen carefully to what the Secretary of State has to say.
Mr. Hain: Despite the honourable and valiant attempt of the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) to build consensus with Plaid Cymru, there are two separate points here. The first is that Parliament is ultimately in charge, and has to be. I do not think that amendment No. 31under which the Assembly would be in charge, and Parliament would simply rubber-stamp the wording on which it had decidedis acceptable.
Clause 102(6) requires the Secretary of State to consult widely, and those consulted will obviously include the Assembly. The Secretary of State will also have to consult the Electoral Commission on the referendum question in the draft Order in Council. That procedure was established by section 104 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. As the draft Order in Council will have to be approved by at least two thirds of Assembly Members, I put it to the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price) that the Assembly's support will be needed. Consensus will be built into the whole process. I think that the Bill would handle the matter much better than either amendment No. 31 or amendment No. 194.
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It is not in the interests of the Government, when about to embark on a referendum to trigger primary powers for the Assembly, to create controversy around the question. There will be enough controversy around the issue at the time. Through the consultation requirements with the Electoral Commission built into the Bill, the requirements of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 and consultation with the Assembly, a consensus will emerge that it is in no one's interest to disturb.
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