Joint Committee on Human Rights Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 180-189)


28 JANUARY 2008

  Q180  Chairman: That is the point. By extension, I am taking some of the more complicated issues where you are looking at a whole range of things. Ultimately, you come back to saying that in the end it is a representative democracy and they are deciding it.

  Professor Smith: Are you trying to make a distinction here? I do not necessarily think a referendum undermines representative democracy. What you are saying is that, for one decision, we are having a referendum. I do not think there is a tension there. This may not answer your question but it goes back to the earlier question. The interesting thing about British Columbia was that those people who did know about the citizens' assembly were more likely to vote in favour because they knew that a group of citizens had come together and deliberated. The polling evidence there suggests that the more people had known about the assembly the more positive was the result. Those people who knew about the citizens' assembly were much more positive about electoral reform. Those who did not were not. That is my point about people being aware of it.

  Q181  Chairman: Is the consequence of that perhaps that a referendum should never be seen as binding but as informative for the representative democracy in the end to make the decision?

  Professor Smith: That is our way of doing things. People mistakenly think that the fact that the Scots voted for devolution was the reason they were devolved. It was not. It was because there was an Act of Parliament.

  Q182  Earl of Onslow: They voted after the Act of Parliament.

  Professor Smith: Parliament had to enact it afterwards. As far as I am aware, all referendums in this country have been advisory. The government has said that it will respond but they have been advisory. We do not have a Californian or Swiss approach to this.

  Q183  Earl of Onslow: Is that simply because whatever it is no parliament can be bound by anything outside parliament?

  Professor Smith: Yes. It is the nature of the system.

  Q184  Earl of Onslow: That is a Magna Carta right.

  Professor Smith: It is the nature of our political system, yes. I am not sure it mentions referendums in the Magna Carta.

  Q185  Chairman: It does not mention elections either.

  Professor Smith: We have to be realistic. Any referendum is advisory in this country. If the Labour Party had not enacted devolution it would have been in all sorts of trouble. There was a political will there. I do not want to argue the case that there should not be a referendum. I am just thinking about how it is structured and the fact that referendums only work well when people are informed. Around Europe at the moment people are not necessarily well informed and you have to think very carefully about how you do that.

  Q186  Chairman: Can you, no matter how hard you work, create sufficient information to the public to make a decision through a referendum on an incredibly complex issue? The Lisbon Treaty is incredibly complex. Could you ever get to the stage where the public is sufficiently well informed to make a decision on it as opposed to the representative democracy model where in theory at least we have to go away and do our homework and make sure we know what we are voting about?

  Professor Smith: One of the problems I was trying to get at with the idea of a Bill of Rights is that there are so many different reasons why people might be against a Bill of Rights. A referendum is a fairly insensitive way of dealing with it, unless you offer two or three different alternatives. Are people informed enough? Are politicians informed enough? I sometimes wonder. That is one of the reasons why something like a citizens' assembly is interesting because at least it gives you a sense of informed opinion. Citizens can look at this assembly and say, "These are my peers. They spent however many months deliberating over this issue. They believe this. There are good reasons why that would also be what I would believe." It is a different kind of input. It is not the kind of input we are used to.

  Q187  Lord Dubs: Going back to the other methods of consultation and deliberation you have been talking about before we talked about a referendum, how would you judge whether such a process had been a success or not?

  Professor Smith: For a referendum?

  Q188  Lord Dubs: No, not for a referendum. I am talking about the process of consultation that you have talked about before we got on to the question of a referendum, which I think is your favoured approach. If you want to answer by way of an example using Victoria, please do so.

  Professor Smith: Where we can see that whoever is undertaking the consultation has gone out of their way to engage the different sections of the community, where we have had a process where the scope of consultation is clear to citizens who are engaging in it, those are the sorts of criteria I would use. One of the problems with consultation in the past is people do not know why they are engaging and very often we do not hit the hard to reach groups. Has it been a process that has been inclusive? Have we managed to reach different black and minority ethnic groups, groups of different age, groups of different gender etc? Were they clear about what they were being engaged on? If you are going to go down the commission route, the idea of charging a commission to go and do that is clear. The success of that is that people who felt they wanted to say something on this issue were able to. And people who did not know they had a view on it were able to as well.

  Q189  Chairman: Is there anything you would like to add to the discussion?

  Professor Smith: No. I wish you great success with your deliberations.

  Chairman: Thank you very much.

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