Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Simon of Glaisdale: Does the noble Lord accept that the converse is true also?

Lord Sewel: The only thing I have said is that there is a high correlation between those who want to introduce the totally anti-democratic principle of a threshold and those who oppose the idea of devolution itself. The noble Lord has been trying to blind us with science. I refer to a sliding--

Lord Campbell of Croy: Can the noble Lord explain why the Labour government in 1978 accepted, upon the recommendation of a Labour Member of Parliament, the 40 per cent. threshold that went into the Bill?

Lord Sewel: On this occasion I am incredibly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, for indicating that at that time the Labour government were totally opposed to it. It may have been put into the Bill but not with the enthusiastic support of the government of the day. We want simply to hear the views of the people of Scotland and Wales. A simple majority vote will send a clear enough message to us and to Parliament.

I refer to a few more figures. Let us assume, for example, using the formula of the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, that with an electorate of 1 million there is a 60 per cent, turnout; that is, 600,000 votes. The vote required is 51 per cent.; that is, 306,000. However, the turnout was not 600,000 but 600,001. The vote required was 300,001. What happens if there is a turnout of 600,000 and the vote in favour is 305,999? There would be a great feeling of being cheated because if one more person had taken part the measure could have been approved and would have passed the so-called threshold. To act on such a figure would be regarded not only as cheating the people of

7 Jul 1997 : Column 467

Scotland but as a cheap way of dealing with the people of Scotland. It would in itself contain a recipe for instability which would mean that the people of Scotland would return to this issue, I suspect with some degree of bitterness. It is important to avoid that. They would feel that they had been denied.

6.30 p.m.

The Earl of Onslow: Is the noble Lord stating that on 3,001 as opposed to 2,999--on two votes--he would accept the ruination of the constitution of the United Kingdom? I find that hard to stomach.

Lord Sewel: They were not my figures; I was using the figures in the formula produced by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish. The nonsense is the nonsense created by the noble Lord and not of my making.

The threshold, as we have demonstrated, is one of the most dangerous introductions into the democratic process that has been engineered. We should not allow a repeat of the 1979 situation when those who sat at home and did not vote had a significant influence on the outcome of that referendum. Quite simply, we will not have a backside referendum. It is surely right that those whose views should count are those who express their views through the time-honoured process, and that those views should not be modified by those whose interest is so little that they stay away from the poll.

I cannot understand the logic of allowing those who are either too apathetic to vote or who abstain for other reasons to affect the decision taken in any ballot. The referendum should not be about people sitting on their backsides but about people exercising their democratic entitlement. If the people of Scotland and Wales want to vote for our proposals, they will go to the ballot boxes and do so. If they want to vote against our proposals, they will do that. We should not allow the non-votes of the uninterested or even the deceased to count automatically against the requirement. The views of the people of Scotland will be clear without a threshold.

There is one other important argument. The noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, has been utterly scrupulous in his contribution at Second Reading and in the points that he has made during Committee in recognising that the Government have the endorsement of their manifesto. He has not sought to oppose the principle of the Bill. In that context, it is important to read what the manifesto says on this issue:

    "A simple majority of those voting in each referendum will be the majority required".

I weigh my words very carefully in this Chamber but Members should reflect upon the point that the question of threshold and majority was put to the people in the general election and overwhelming endorsed in the

7 Jul 1997 : Column 468

United Kingdom as a whole and in Scotland specifically. I hope that the noble Lord will therefore withdraw his amendment.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour: Before the noble Lord sits down, can he remind me whether the Labour Party said in its manifesto that it would be an advisory referendum?

Lord Sewel: It says:

    "Popular endorsement will strengthen the legitimacy of our proposals and speed their passage through Parliament".

We have never claimed other than that this is an advisory referendum. That is why it is a pre-legislative referendum.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I am grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in this interesting debate. I must say that the best argument of the noble Lord, Lord Sewel--indeed, perhaps almost his only argument--was his last one. I was well aware of the sentence in the Labour Party manifesto to the effect that a simple majority of those voting in each referendum would be the majority required. That is his best argument; I do not think his other arguments were very good.

I was a little disappointed that Members could not get away from this referendum to the point of principle which I was trying to establish about all referendums. That particularly applies to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Sewel. I shall check his complicated arithmetic over the 600,000 voting and the suggestion that, if one or two do not vote because they are "no" voters, that could mean on this table that the majority might fall. I think he is probably right because of the steps; but I offered him as an alternative to that a formula which gets around that problem. If that is his only objection--in addition to the manifesto--I can easily get round that with an amendment about the formula.

I appreciate the comments that he made about the Commission's report. It highlighted the point about thresholds being difficult to ascertain, and I quoted the beginning of the chapter on that matter. I still find difficult to understand that, if the Government are saying that the referendums are to establish the level of support in Scotland and Wales, they do not seem to be able to answer the question what an inadequate level of support would be. Is it conceivable that there will be an inadequate level of support based not on the fact that the "yes" proposition obtained a majority but that the majority was very low? The noble Lord did not address that point; he homed in on the hope that the referendum in Scotland and Wales would have a high turnout and he assumed that they would have no trouble. If he is right about that, he could happily accept my amendment because above a 60 per cent. turnout a simple majority works. I begin to think that Members on the Benches opposite may be protesting a bit too much and perhaps they are not nearly as confident as I read in the press they are about the result. We shall see what happens.

I am trying to get behind the matter. What happens if we have a number of referendums as the years roll on and the vote begins to go down to the kind of level

7 Jul 1997 : Column 469

I read out earlier in the Committee, the kind of turnout that they have in Switzerland? Are we happy about that? I return to the point which was surprisingly not addressed by any Member who spoke. Even if the referendum is advisory, imagine the situation where a majority on a low turnout assent to the proposition and then Parliament says, "No, we are not going to bother with that because we do not think enough of you turned out to vote". I think that that would be unstable. I commend to the Government the proposition that before we move on to the next referendum, and the next one and the next one, they should give some serious thought to this issue.

Although I believe that what my noble friend Lord Beloff said about having compulsory voting gets round the problem, I am not entirely sure that that is part of our tradition. But neither am I entirely sure that referendums are part of our tradition. One national referendum in 1975 to get the then Labour Government out of deep trouble and divisions on the European Community does not seem to me to be a great British tradition. The argument that thresholds are not a great British tradition can be added to by saying that neither are referendums. But, if we are going into referendums, then we are in a new game and I suggest that we ought to look at some new rules.

The noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, went back to 1910 and 1911. I suppose that was one better than the only Liberal Democrat amendment we had, which took us back to the pre-1707 Parliament. I was grateful for the fact that, with perhaps the exception of one or two comments from the noble Earl, Lord Russell, he said about the first mildly critical thing I have heard from his Benches about the Labour Party. That, I suppose, is a step forward and I look forward to his saying some more.

Perhaps I may say to the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, and to others that my "fancy" formula does take care of people saying that not voting is the same as "no" voting. That is why I formulated it in this way. Nobody has argued against that, and I was grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, for underlining the point that I was not imposing huge thresholds on a popular opinion if that were a proposition in a future referendum.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page