Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale: They are not that uncharted; we have been here before. There certainly is no tradition of having any thresholds except in 1979 and we all know that that was motivated by those who were opposed to devolution. If we introduce fancy franchises--with respect to the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy, it is a fancy franchise to play around with something that is completely alien to the British tradition of elections of any kind--people will rightly suspect that those who are making suggestions are motivated in exactly the same way as were the people in the 1970s; they are trying unfairly to weight the ballot against a result which they fear.

6 p.m.

Lord Mackie of Benshie: The noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, must be talking about an entirely different situation from the one I am talking about. I am talking about a referendum in Scotland which has been talked about and voted on; and there is not a single MP of the party which opposes some form of constitutional change in Scotland. Arguments have been put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Renton. He said that people will not go a long way to vote. People in Sutherland used to go miles to vote. In the end, they came miles to vote for my opponent but they also came miles to vote for me. Distance certainly does not deter them.

Lord Renton: It is very kind of the noble Lord to give way. People may travel a long way to vote for him but they may not trouble to travel any distance at all just to vote "No" when they think that that vote can be achieved by not voting at all.

Lord Mackie of Benshie: That is why we do not believe that not voting should have an effect. That is the whole point. The views of people who vote are valid; the views of people who do not vote should not be valid.

In Scotland, there is an immense interest in this matter. There will be a decent turnout. I would bet money with anybody that that will be the case. We have two simple questions and a simple majority is what is required. We shall have a good turnout. We are voting on a simple referendum in Scotland. A simple majority

7 Jul 1997 : Column 460

of the people who vote for what they believe in is what we require. We do not require a formula such as has been put forward in this amendment.

If we were discussing referendums on many different issues, as there are in Switzerland, then there may need to be a formula. But any government who produce referendums in this country which have a 30 per cent. turnout would be turned out themselves shortly afterwards.

Viscount Bledisloe: We all know that you can prove anything by the misuse of figures. But I was still surprised by the noble Lord, Lord Steel, using analogies with general elections and county council elections. I should have thought that a Liberal Democrat, of all persons, would know that in such elections there are normally more than two candidates. If you take proportions when there are a lot of candidates, you obviously get a very different figure from this situation in which there are merely two questions and only two runners in each race.

Some Members of the Committee have said that they find the formula very difficult to understand. If they do, that seems to demonstrate perhaps that the Statement that we heard this afternoon about numeracy in primary schools came none too soon. For those who find it very difficult, perhaps I may point out that if 30 per cent. of the people vote, on the proposition of the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, only 20 per cent. of the electorate is needed to achieve a majority. If 60 per cent. of the electorate vote, only 30 per cent. is needed to achieve a majority. If it is really being said that the entire constitution of this country should be changed, and if it is too much to ask that between 20 per cent. and 30 per cent. of the people in Scotland should turn out and vote in favour before there is a change in the constitution, then those in favour of devolution seem to have little confidence in their case.

Lord Rees: I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, in particular and to the Committee for not having heard the noble Lord's opening remarks. I hope that I shall not cover ground that he will no doubt have covered more eloquently and ably than I could do.

I move to intervene in the debate because various Members of the Committee have attempted to equate this referendum with a general election. As I understand it, that is not the purpose of this referendum. I shall not weary the Committee with my views of whether a referendum is a well-established constitutional parliamentary device in this country. I do not believe it is, but let us leave that aside. There are precedents. I agree that there was a precedent 20 years ago on this very issue. On that occasion, the threshold for a referendum was introduced not by those who opposed that particular piece of legislation from the Conservative Benches; it was Mr. Cunningham from the Labour Benches who introduced the threshold. I thought that that was very proper and that it gave a certain gravity and more sense to the substance of the debates and what was proposed in the legislation itself.

7 Jul 1997 : Column 461

This is not a measure for a legislative referendum. What is decided in this Parliament on the referendum does not establish a Scottish parliament or a Welsh assembly. As I understand it, it has merely been invoked by this Government to give a certain legitimacy to what they propose in relation to amending our constitution. Perhaps I may say to the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, that I agree that this is an extremely important measure. If a referendum is introduced and it goes in a certain direction with no threshold, it will be a very important constitutional measure. The Minister will perhaps confirm that the Government have proposed a referendum to give legitimacy to the proposed Scottish parliament or Welsh assembly which they might not otherwise have.

We all proceed on the fiction that what has been mentioned in the election manifesto of the party which won that particular election, as the Labour Party has done perfectly properly in this case, must be treated as having the support of the electorate. We all know that that is a fiction. It may or may not be true. I do not believe that the question of devolution featured very largely in the debates up and down the country prior to 1st May, but let that pass. As I understand it, the Government are very properly saying, "To ensure that we have a proper test of public opinion, there shall be a referendum". That is the purpose of this piece of legislation.

Therefore, it cannot be equated with an election. It is not the same as an election. It is to test the views of the electorate on a particular measure which will or may be introduced because as we understand it--and we covered this ground on the first day or so of our debates--it is an advisory, and not a legislative, referendum.

The Government can say, "Right, we will have nothing to do with thresholds. It is true that when we last essayed this 20 years ago, we got the wrong answer and we shall not be troubled with thresholds on this particular occasion". It may be that, with the overwhelming predominance which the Government have in the Commons, they can eventually force it through. That may be at a certain price in terms of the time which can be devoted to all those matters, but let that be so.

But the noble Lord who speaks for the Government, with great persuasiveness and balance, must recognise that if there is not explicitly or tacitly some kind of threshold, the outcome of the referendum, if it were to be in favour of what is proposed in subsequent legislation, would not have anything like the same force or legitimacy. Therefore, the Government would not have achieved what they seek to achieve. They could not say that an overwhelming majority in the country as a whole is in support of a Scottish parliament or a Welsh assembly. We do not know exactly what may be proposed but let us hope that that will emerge before too long.

Therefore, if the noble Lord and his colleagues on the Government Front Bench are minded to sweep aside the very cogent points that have been made in favour of this particular measure, and if they proceed with a very small

7 Jul 1997 : Column 462

majority in favour under the referendum, then they will be exposed to the criticism that the country as a whole is not in favour of this particular measure.

Before I sit down, I shall leave one question with the Minister which I hope he will answer. Let us suppose that there is no threshold formally embodied in this legislation. Is there any kind of minimum figure that the Government have in mind if, for example, only 10 per cent. of the electorate in Scotland and Wales voted in the referendums? Further, if the majority in favour of the measure covered by the referendums was, say, 100 in each country--and that is a hypothetical figure--would the Minister then say that the Government had secured the legitimacy and the support that they require to proceed with a further measure for the introduction of a parliament in Scotland and an assembly in Wales?

Lord Thomas of Gresford: The noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy of Lour, said the issue as to whether there should be a threshold is essentially a matter for this Chamber. That reminded me of the position in the Parliament Act 1911. Unfortunately, we have no written constitution. As a result, amendments to the constitution are not passed by any known written machinery and we must look to the past for precedent.

In the January 1910 general election the Liberal manifesto said:

    "The limitation of the [House of Lords'] veto is the first and most urgent step to be taken".

Then, in the December 1910 general election, the Prime Minister wrote in the Liberal manifesto:

    "As lately as January in the present year, I expounded to you in detail, and you approved by a decisive majority at the poll, the present aims of Liberal policy... I ask you to repeat, with still greater emphasis, the approval which only eleven months ago you gave to the proposals of His Majesty's Government".

The Parliament Act 1911 made perhaps the most profound change to the constitutional arrangements of this country. There was no referendum. The mandate that the Liberal Government had received from the people in two succeeding general elections was put into effect. Surely it is that which provides the legitimacy to which the noble Lord, Lord Rees, referred. There is a legitimacy for the Government's proposals because they have a mandate from the people of Wales and of Scotland--and, indeed, with the greatest respect to the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, from the people of England--who voted them in to carry out such proposals.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page