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Viscount Trenchard: My Lords, I am sure that certain elements would attempt to represent it as "the Peers against the people" but it would not be that as, I think, the people would recognise. They would recognise that the Peers were seeking the people's opinion on whether they wished the Peers to continue to act as a constraint on the power of the executive until such time as a successor House, stage two, is agreed.
Lord Goodhart: My Lords, the amendment calls for a referendum on this Bill. It is technically a somewhat odd amendment. I wonder how an Act of Parliament can authorise a referendum and specify questions to be asked in that referendum when no part of that Act is in force. However, that is a lawyer's quibble and could no doubt be cured by redrafting.
What cannot be cured by redrafting is the substance of the amendment. The referendum would not be about the permanent retention of the hereditary membership of your Lordships' House. That question was decided in 1910 when the Liberals and their allies won two successive general elections on the platform of "the Peers against the people". Permanent retention of the hereditary membership is not now supported by any political party in this country. Indeed, it is supported by
The referendum would relate only to the transitional stage. When a similar amendment was debated in Committee, the Weatherill amendment had not been passed. In effect, the question then proposed for such a referendum was: should all hereditary Peers be removed from the House of Lords before stage two, or none of them? I said then that even at that stage we did not think that such a question was appropriate for a referendum. Although it was an important issue, we did not think that it was so fundamental as to require a referendum of the entire electorate. I do not want to re-argue that question now because the situation has changed. Indeed, it has changed so as to make the case for having a referendum, such as it was, very much weaker than at that time.
As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, pointed out, the Weatherill amendment has since been passed and accepted by the Government. That changes the situation entirely. The question that would now have to be asked in a referendum is: do you want all hereditary Peers to remain in the House of Lords until stage two, or simply 92 of them?
That seems to be a wholly unsuitable question for a referendum. It is a far less important question than when the Bill did not contain the Weatherill amendment. For better or worse, your Lordships' House will continue to contain a substantial hereditary element during the transitional stage. The question of whether that element should be all 750 or only 92 is of great importance to the individuals affected by it, but it is not an issue of great public importance. It is certainly not an issue that is being discussed in the pubs and clubs--with the possible exception of White's. Referendums should be kept for issues of national significance and should not be devalued by being used too often. If we hold the referendum that this amendment asks for, the turnout for it will make last Thursday's turnout for the European elections look like mass hysteria.
The Government rely on their manifesto; it is not our manifesto. If we thought it right to support a referendum, we would do so. But without regard to the manifesto, we do not support the call for a referendum on its own merits. As it is, we are unhappy with the Weatherill amendment. To add a requirement for a referendum to the Weatherill amendment would, in our view, effectively constitute a wrecking of the Bill. We are therefore wholly unable to support this amendment.
We have heard again talk about the manifesto. That argument has been exhausted and I do not propose to enter further into it. We are all agreed that the Government are perfectly entitled to enact legislation which is referred to in their manifesto. The only point I would make--it has already been made more than
However, on the question of this constitutional change, we have been already advised to look at the record so far. In matters of constitutional change there have been appeals for a referendum on the Assembly in Wales, the Parliament in Scotland, on Northern Ireland, the assembly in London and we understand there is to be a referendum on the question of the common currency in Europe. The question then arises: whether the change now proposed in the Bill is a constitutional change of lesser importance than any of those. In my view it is not. It is a constitutional change of profound importance which is designed to lead--and will lead--to constitutional changes of even deeper significance. Therefore, if it is right to ask the people by referendum about the other constitutional changes, it is certainly right, proper and desirable to ask their views about this one.
Comments have been made that the people are ignorant of the issues; that the turnout for such a referendum would be low. If there is ignorance of the issue in the country, the answer is to remove it. In order to remove that ignorance of the issues from the public mind, we should have a referendum, have it debated and have the issues on both sides fully explained to the people. There is a need for a much wider debate. The noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, said that the matter is not much discussed in the pubs and clubs. It is not; but it should be. We are the people who can make it so. Outside of Parliament, I have found very little knowledge in the country of not only the Bill but the functions of the House of Lords; what it does, when it does it; what it is designed to do and how well it does it. These matters are not known to people generally outside Parliament--except of course for London taxi drivers who, as usual, know more about them than any of us. Leaving taxi drivers aside, there is room for a wide and wide-ranging public debate on the matter.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, said that it would be represented once again as the old issue of the Peers against the people. If it is represented as such a matter by those who are against the referendum, then those of us who are in favour of a referendum should explain that it is not so. If we cannot win the argument then we do not deserve to win the referendum. But we must have argument and debate.
It is often quite rightly said that there is a difficulty about framing a question for a referendum; usually there is. I do not think that argument holds in this case. The question set out in Amendment No. 2 is a very simple one. It has been suggested by other noble Lords that it might be misunderstood. I do not believe that there is a very great danger of that. It is very clear that what the amendment means by a "successor House" is a House which follows the interim House. That is perfectly clear in this draft amendment.
It has been said--not today but at other times during the debate on the Bill--that there are those who are minded to reject the Bill at Third Reading. That would be indeed a drastic step to take; it has all kinds of implications. I would regard that as becoming unnecessary--or, at least, less desirable--if the amendment were passed. It would mean that on a constitutional change, which is, in my view, of the profoundest importance to every person in this country, every person in this country would have the right and the opportunity to say whether he or she wanted it or not.
Baroness Gould of Potternewton: My Lords, perhaps I may briefly intervene. I accept the commitment given by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, on the previous occasion when we discussed this matter, that this was not an attempt to delay. But, whatever way one looks at it, that will be the consequence. I accept that a referendum does not have to wait for the Royal Commission but, nevertheless, there will be delays. A referendum Bill will need to be established and we will have to go through the procedures. That will take time and delay will still be a consequence of accepting the amendment.
Perhaps I may ask the noble Lord a question. When we arrive at the successor House, does he then propose that there should be a second post-legislative referendum in order that the public can say whether they agree with what will be a further constitutional change?
May I make one point on the matter of constitutional change and holding a referendum. There would be more validity in the argument if there had been a demand for a referendum on the Human Rights Bill. I do not recall anyone on the other side of the House requesting one.
My final point relates to the question on the referendum. I find great difficulty with it. Recently in your Lordships' House we had a debate on referendums. It was generally agreed across the House that one of the most important matters was that the question should be simple; that it should be able to clearly have a "yes" or "no" answer; and that it would be understood absolutely. I have had three different interpretations given to me of what the question says. Therefore, I do not think that it is simple. It is not the type of wording for a referendum question. It has too much legalese in its approach, which will cause problems.
The noble Lord, Lord Campbell, said that he wanted the amendment accepted in principle. That is fine, but when one has something as rigid as the question written into the amendment, then that becomes the fact and the principle ceases to be. One then has the wording on the face of the Bill as the wording which will go into the referendum, without any consultation or discussion about what might be in a referendum Bill, who should consider the question and who should consider the details of holding a referendum. As with the previous amendment, I have great technical problems with this one.
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