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Referendums (Scotland and Wales) Bill

3.28 p.m.

Lord Sewel: My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

Before I begin on the substance of my speech, perhaps I may say how much I am looking forward to hearing my noble friend Lord Shore of Stepney and the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood, both of whom will be making their maiden speeches in this Chamber during our debate. I am sure that they will both make distinctive but, I suspect, somewhat different maiden speeches. Both of them of course will enrich this House, bringing, as they do, their considerable parliamentary experience from another place. I am sure that the whole House will wait with anticipation to hear their contributions.

The years of waiting are coming to an end. Today this House begins the process that I am sure will lead ultimately to the establishment of a parliament for Scotland and an assembly for Wales.

Today's debate is not a Second Reading debate on devolution. This debate is about the principles and mechanics of holding the referendums, as set out in the Bill. It is not about the merits of a Scottish parliament and a Welsh assembly--those are matters for another day, and we will debate them in the many days that lie ahead. The Bill before us is simple and clear in its intent--to allow the people in Scotland and Wales to have their say on a Scottish parliament and a Welsh assembly. This is a test to determine the will of the people in Scotland and Wales. This Bill makes no judgment on the issues and the arguments about devolution.

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This Government were elected on their manifesto commitment to introduce a comprehensive programme of constitutional reform specifically to hold referendums in Scotland and Wales on our proposals for a Scottish parliament and a Welsh assembly before bringing forward the main legislation. The people have spoken. Their views could not have been clearer. Accordingly, the Government's comprehensive programme for constitutional reform is now under way.

The first phase of that programme is the Bill under consideration today. This Bill will allow the people of Scotland to vote in a referendum on our proposals to establish a Scottish parliament with law-making powers, firmly based on the agreement reached in the Scottish Constitutional Convention. The detail of our proposals will be set out in a White Paper to be published shortly. Subject to this Bill being passed, we expect the referendum to be held by early autumn.

Viscount Cranborne: When the time is right.

Lord Sewel: My Lords, the time is always right. On the basis of what I expect to be a popular endorsement of our plans, we shall then immediately bring forward legislation to create a Scottish parliament.

At the same time, the Bill provides for a referendum to be held in Wales on our parallel proposals for a Welsh assembly to provide democratic control of the existing Welsh Office functions. We shall be publishing a separate White Paper on our detailed plans for Wales. Immediately following a majority in the Welsh referendum, legislation will be introduced to implement these plans.

The introduction of the Bill so early in this Session of Parliament, indeed so early in the lifetime of this Government, is a measure of our commitment to provide the people in Scotland and Wales with an opportunity to express their views on our proposals for a Scottish parliament and a Welsh assembly. The Bill was the first to have its Second Reading in another place this Session and was considered in Committee on the Floor of another place before receiving its Third Reading there with a majority of almost 200. The Bill is an essential step towards delivering a Scottish parliament and a Welsh assembly.

It might be helpful if I remind the House of the expected order of events; the process that lies ahead of us. Subject to the Bill being given its Second Reading in this House today, the remaining stages will be taken over the next month or so. Orders in Council will provide the detailed rules for the conduct of the referendums. Copies of the current drafts of those orders are available in the Library. We would welcome any comments from noble Lords on the draft orders. The final drafts will have to be debated in this House and in another place.

White Papers setting out our proposals for a Scottish parliament and a Welsh assembly will be published well ahead of the referendum so that the people voting in the referendums will have ample opportunity to consider the issues involved. We will also ensure that this House has the opportunity to debate the proposals in

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the White Papers before we rise for the Summer Recess. Referendums will be held by the autumn, in advance of the major party conferences.

Following popular endorsement of the Government's proposals, the substantive legislation will be introduced before the end of the year, with elections to the new Scottish parliament taking place as soon as practical after the main legislation receives Royal Assent. I believe that we can have a Scottish parliament and a Welsh assembly in place to welcome the millennium.

It is a demanding timetable, moving in such a short time to a defined settlement, workable and efficient, accepted and endorsed by Parliament and by the people. But I believe that we can hold to that timetable. We owe it to the people in Scotland and Wales to do so.

The principle of holding a referendum is not new. Referendums were held in 1975 and 1979, both concerned with fundamental constitutional change. What we seek is a broadly based consensus for change. The aim is simply to put the popular mandate for these proposals beyond dispute; to test the settled will of the people of Scotland and Wales.

The establishment of a Scottish parliament and a Welsh assembly will affect everyone living in Scotland. That is why we chose the local government franchise--it is closest to the residency test. While the election result already shows that there is a strong demand for constitutional change in Scotland and Wales, we believe that it is important to consult on such an important single issue; to establish beyond doubt that there is support in the two countries for our proposals. Once we have established that support, on the basis of a simple majority of those voting, we will bring forward the necessary legislation.

Popular consent will add legitimacy to our proposals--in a sense it is the way to build the settlement into the system--to give it roots. Our manifesto commitment made it quite clear that we would consult the people in Scotland and Wales at this early stage, and that only with their support would we move to bring forward the substantive legislation which would establish a Scottish parliament and a Welsh assembly.

Parliament will, of course, remain sovereign. It will be for the Government and, ultimately, Parliament to reflect on the result of the referendums. That is why the insertion of any form of threshold would be inappropriate. The only purpose behind such a threshold would be to seek to tie the hands of the Government and, more importantly, Parliament as to its future conduct. This is an exercise in democracy which everyone should support, regardless of their views on devolution itself. It provides an opportunity to spell out our proposals and to engage in debate. All sides will be able to have their say on the merits, and it will be for the people to decide.

The Bill before us today is relatively simple in legislative terms. It provides for the propositions to be voted on in the referendums. It stipulates the electorate, the funding arrangements and the basis of the count. It also provides for the technical detail for running the referendums to be set out in secondary legislation.

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Finally, it authorises the funding of any necessary preparatory work on the establishment of a Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly. This is a prudent measure to ensure that suitable accommodation is available for a Scottish parliament or a Welsh assembly. It would, and I stress that it would only, be used following a positive referendum result.

I would like to take a few moments to explain the provisions of the Bill in more detail. Clause 1 of the Bill provides for a referendum to be held in Scotland on the establishment and tax-varying powers of a Scottish parliament. It authorises the date of the referendum to be appointed by Her Majesty by Order in Council. It stipulates that the propositions to be voted on and the front of the ballot papers should be in the form set out in Schedule 1 to the Bill. It further stipulates that those entitled to vote in the referendum will be those who would be entitled at the date of the referendum to vote in a local government election in Scotland.

It also provides for the appointment of a chief counting officer for Scotland by the Secretary of State and for the appointment by the chief counting officer of a counting officer for each local government area in Scotland. Each counting officer is to be responsible for the counting of the votes and for the certification of the numbers of ballot papers counted and votes cast for each proposition in the relevant local government area. Finally, Clause 1 provides that the chief counting officer will certify the total of the ballot papers counted and the votes cast for each proposition for the whole of Scotland.

The House will appreciate the great care that has been taken in framing the propositions. We have taken expert advice from returning officers. We have endeavoured to achieve clarity and above all fairness in the forming of the propositions. We have been scrupulous in avoiding leading questions.

We also aim to reduce the potential for spoilt ballot papers. Expert advice is that the yes/no formulation should be avoided, as experience from 1979 suggests that it increased the risk of confusion and misinterpretation. There were a significant number of spoilt ballots in Lothian alone in 1979 which were the result exclusively of the yes/no formulation and the confusion that that caused. We are providing for two ballot papers in Scotland to enable people to vote independently on each question. Two separate ballot papers will also aid the counting process.

I turn now to the franchise. We have taken residency as the key criterion for eligibility to vote. Those who are to be most directly affected by the proposals are the people who should determine the outcome of the referendums. Use of the local government electoral register will allow resident Peers--123 of us--and European Union citizens who are on the register to vote and will exclude overseas voters. Use of the parliamentary electoral register would have excluded resident Peers and EU nationals while allowing overseas voters to vote. That would clearly not satisfy our key criterion of residency. With exception of the EU citizens, our proposals effectively replicate the 1979 franchise.

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As for any suggestion that the franchise should be extended to Scots and Welsh living elsewhere in the United Kingdom, the establishment of a Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly will most affect people living in Scotland and Wales respectively. It is therefore reasonable to base the franchise on residency rather than, for example, any idea of ethnicity. I am sure your Lordships would agree that it would be extremely bad practice to have a test of ethnicity entering into a decision about who should participate in electoral practice. Clause 2 makes similar provisions in respect of Wales.

Clause 3 provides for the detailed arrangements for the referendums to be made by Order in Council. The Orders in Council will specify the date of the referendums. As I have said, the current draft Orders in Council are available in the Library, and we shall be pleased to consider comments on them before formally laying the final orders before Parliament. No recommendation may be made to Her Majesty to make such an order unless that order had been approved in draft by resolution of each House of Parliament.

Clause 3 also provides that staff of any county or county borough council in Wales shall be placed at the disposal of the returning officer and counting officer for that area. Equivalent provision for Scotland in ordinary elections is already made by Section 25 of the Representation of the People Act 1983, which will be applied, and modified to apply to counting officers as well as returning officers, by Order in Council.

Clause 4 provides that no court shall entertain proceedings for questioning the results declared by counting officers or by a chief counting officer. This applies both to the number of ballot papers counted and to the number of votes cast. Thus, in particular, the normal procedure at parliamentary elections whereby an election can be challenged by Parliamentary Election Petition will not apply in the referendum. Clause 4 has precedent from 1975 and 1979. It should thus provide a safeguard against the opponents of devolution trying to delay implementation of our proposals following a yes/yes vote by calling into question the mandate provided by the referendum through spurious, but lengthy, litigation.

Clause 5 provides for expenditure in connection with the referendums and with preparation for the establishment of a Scottish parliament or a Welsh assembly. It provides for the bulk of the expenditure in connection with the conduct of the referendums to be charged on and paid out of the Consolidated Fund. That covers expenses of returning officers and counting officers and the processing of poll cards and ballot papers. This is consistent with the practice for normal parliamentary elections.

It also provides for expenditure of the Secretary of State in connection with the referendums to be paid out of money provided by Parliament. This will cover expenditure on matters such as publicity on absent voting arrangements. The clause also provides for expenditure in preparation for the establishment of a Scottish parliament or a Welsh assembly to be paid out

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of money provided by Parliament. This will allow necessary preparatory work to be carried out in advance of the main devolution legislation receiving Royal Assent, but this power will not be exercised unless there is a positive outcome in the referendums. Expenditure under this provision will be subject to the normal parliamentary scrutiny of supply. Estimated costs are set out in the Explanatory and Financial Memorandum to the Bill. The estimated cost of the referendums is £5 million in Scotland and £3 million in Wales. The maximum cost of the preliminary work for the Scottish parliament is estimated at between £18 million and £25 million, and for the Welsh assembly is estimated at between £5 million and £15 million.

People in Scotland and Wales should be given the opportunity to vote on the Government's proposals for devolution. They should be given a direct say on whether or not we proceed. This Bill will give them that opportunity.

I should like to repeat once again our assurance that the proposals for devolution will be set out in White Papers well in advance of the referendums and before the House rises for the Summer Recess. There will be ample opportunity for our proposals to be evaluated, considered and debated before people come to vote on them. I have no doubt that we will receive the support of the people. This will provide a helpful backdrop against which Parliament will be able to scrutinise the main devolution legislation.

The legislation itself is simple, clear and fair. It is the first step in making the government for Scotland and Wales more directly and democratically accountable to the people of Scotland and Wales. I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.--(Lord Sewel.)

3.49 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I am sure that the whole House is grateful to the Minister for explaining the purposes of the Bill. The Minister and I are at one when he says that the Bill is not about devolution; indeed, it is not. But interestingly enough, the Bill and, if the referendum succeeds, the devolution Bill to follow will be extremely significant in a number of regards. One is that those Bills will be the last two Scottish Bills to be brought before your Lordships' House. Indeed, they may mark the last appearances of a Minister from the Scottish Office in your Lordships' House. The noble Lord, Lord Sewel, may be the last in a distinguished line of Ministers who have answered for the Scottish Office from the Dispatch Box opposite.

The significance of this Bill is that it is the first of three--or perhaps it is four or five--that we are promised on referendums. I gather that they are to be called "referendums". I suppose that that is due to the new standards of education that the noble Lord's party wishes to bring forward. I agree with the body set up by the Constitution Unit and the Electoral Reform Society, the Commission on the Conduct of Referendums. It said that before we actually start on the referendums, we ought to have a general

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referendums Act. That body had some very interesting people serving on it. The noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton, sitting opposite was one of them. The noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, from the Liberal Democrat Benches, was also on it. I commend the report to anyone who is interested in the subject of referendums. The report says:

    "A generic Referendum Act could establish an Independent Commission and a statutory framework for the efficient, fair and consistent conduct of referendums ... Established guidelines, accepted by all political parties, can ensure that referendums, relating to different issues and whenever held, are conducted efficiently, fairly and consistently".

My first point of criticism for the Government is that I believe that that is what they should be doing now. They should not be starting us off with one of the specific referendum Bills. That inevitably means that we will be discussing general issues as well as specific issues relative to the referendums in Scotland and Wales. Although the draft orders drawn to our attention by the Minister answer a considerable number of points, I must advise noble Lords that they will need at least two Acts of Parliament and a good deal of a day in the Library of the House in order to work their way through what will be the rules governing this referendum. It would certainly have been far better if all the material had been brought forward in a proper referendum Act.

There are still some points left unanswered. Will there be a free post delivery, as is the case in general elections? Will there be a balance in broadcasting? The commission had something interesting to say about that. It said:

    "A balance should be maintained between the 'Yes' and 'No' viewpoints rather than between the different political parties. Broadcasters should be encouraged to provide a limited amount of airtime for setting out the arguments for each option on the referendum".
In his reply later today, I hope very much that the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, will address that particular problem. I also hope that he will address the other problem; namely, whether a letter will go to every household from the Government at public expense outlining the case for and the case against. The commission recommended exactly that. It said:

    "Every household should receive a publicly funded leaflet giving general information on the holding of the referendum and statements of the 'Yes' and 'No' cases relating to the referendum question".
As I said, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Williams, will address that issue.

The other point that the noble Lord might address is why the Scottish and Welsh people are to be asked to vote on different days. Why can we not have a referendum on the same day? It seems to me that the reason may possibly be that the Government are very uncertain about the Welsh and, as they are a little more certain about the Scottish, they hope to be able to persuade the Welsh on the basis of a coat-tails argument. However, perhaps my suspicions are wrong.

Why are we having these referendums? After all, as regards 1st May, the Minister says that the people have spoken. I do not exactly approve of the way they spoke, but I accept that they certainly have spoken. I repeat: why are we having these referendums? Perhaps one should go back a little in time. Last

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February the Labour Party had a very clear policy: it was very opposed to referendums. Mr. George Robertson, the then shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, said:

    "We have no proposals for a referendum because we want to legislate early and quickly for this outstanding commitment and that is the clear party policy".
Actually, it was not quite that clear because, five years before, the party had a different view. I shall come to that point later. Mr. Robertson went on to say something to which I really want your Lordships to listen. He said:

    "There is no question of the Labour Party supporting calls for a referendum on a Scottish Parliament".
That was Mr. Robertson speaking on 12th February 1996. Indeed, Mr. Tony Blair, now the Prime Minister, said that he was,

    "actually not a great exponent of government by referendum".

I now turn to September 1996 when the same Mr. Robertson said:

    "The people of Scotland will be asked to endorse the proposals in an early referendum to pave the way for legislation".
I am sorry, I said September; that was in fact said on 28th June. I quote from the Scottish Daily Express. Nevertheless, that is a fair old turnaround. The reason behind it was the confusion that the party got into about tax. Indeed, it got into even more confusion because in that U-turn, if I can be maritime in my metaphors, the party lost at least two people overboard. One was its constitutional spokesman, Mr. John McAllion, and the other was the noble Lord, Lord Ewing of Kirkford. I look forward to hearing whether the noble Lord has managed to find a lifeboat and get back on board.

However, that was not the end of the story. I move on to September 1996 and another proposition--namely, that on the assumption of a double "Yes" and with devolution coming about before the Scottish assembly can actually impose any taxation, there is to be another referendum. In Scotland on Sunday on 1st September, Mr. Robertson said:

    "I think that the people of Scotland want to be asked. They should be asked twice".
Not everyone agreed. Indeed, a passenger was lost overboard in that instance; namely, Mr. Dennis Canavan--but perhaps he has always been overboard so far as concerns the Front Bench of the party opposite. He said:

    "It is the politics of a madhouse and I honestly wonder how on earth a group of intelligent people can sit down and botch something so completely".
However, the endorsement was there right up to the top. Mr. Blair did not agree with Dennis Canavan--indeed, I do not suppose he has ever done so--but he did agree with George Robertson, saying:

    "I welcome this mature and sensible decision".
It was indeed mature. It was so mature that it lasted only six days. On 6th September Mr. Robertson said:

    "I am saying today ... that a second referendum is not necessary and will not be pursued by the Labour Party".
That is the confused history of how we have come to be where we are today with a pre-legislative referendum. I am sure that many noble Lords will today suggest that, if we are to have a referendum at all, we really ought to

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have one after the legislation has been passed and the detail has been made known. Indeed, I pray in aid no less a person than Mr. Ron Davies, now the Secretary of State for Wales. He said on 28th June last year in the Scottish Daily Express:

    "The problem with a pre-legislative referendum is that there are so many questions which you cannot answer".
Exactly. I must tell the Minister that I was grateful to hear his comments about the White Papers. I welcome his assurance that we will have a debate in this House before we rise for the Summer Recess. It is rather a pity that we could not have had the date of publication for the White Papers. Will it be before we reach Committee stage? Will it be between the Committee and Report stages? Will it be between Report and Third Reading? Alternatively, will it be after the Third Reading debate and perhaps just in time? While I am at it, perhaps I may ask a question which is in the interests of all your Lordships; namely, when is the Summer Recess? That question is a little like asking how long is a piece of string.

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