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I wish to bring another issue to the attention of the House; it has already been mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont. The Bill was a government manifesto commitment and a couple of weeks ago we were treated to the amazing sight of the Government Front Bench leading the lobby in order to drive a coach and horses through their own manifesto commitment. We all understand the reasons for that, but the fact is that it is no longer a manifesto Bill and there is an element in this House--a maverick fringe--which believes that it now has a licence to vote against the Bill on Third Reading. Therefore, I suggest that the Government consider accepting the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Campbell because it would cut the ground from under that maverick fringe. I believe that the Government should think about it.
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, perhaps I may begin by saying a few words about the point raised by my noble friend Lord Elton and the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, on the amount of publicity which the Government are giving to the issue of whether the Royal Commission is succeeding in enhancing the value of public debate. I congratulate the Royal Commission and my noble friend Lord Wakeham, first, on deciding to go outside London and, secondly, on having some hearings in public. Therefore, I am disturbed to hear from my noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, that there is a view that sometimes such hearings are undertaken in conditions of secrecy.
I am sure that the Government will say that they have no responsibility in this matter because it is up to the Royal Commission. That is fair enough as regards the Royal Commission. But as a matter of public policy, they have a responsibility to extend public debate. No doubt they will have seen, in the evidence given to the Royal Commission by the Conservative Party, that a strong case is made out for maximising the publicity surrounding the issue. We do so in order to ensure that the kind of House the country ends up with is the best possible, with the maximum authority and the widest public acceptance.
Turning to the amendment, I am pleased that my noble friend has simplified it in comparison with that tabled in Committee. The current amendment merely requires a referendum before the Act comes into force. No doubt that will remove the objection which the Government made to the Committee stage amendment: that it would cause delay. That amendment sought to delay any referendum until after the report of a joint committee on the findings of the Wakeham commission. This amendment does not do so. I believe that that is wise, although I believe that the Government should not have come forward with the Bill until they had heard the wise words of the Royal Commission.
However, there is one thing about the amendment which I regret. It is the omission of any requirement for a referendum to be conducted on the lines of the Neill recommendations. I do not believe that this House,
I must also ask my noble friend what is meant by "the people of the United Kingdom". Would a simple majority of the electorate be enough? If fewer than 20 per cent of the electorate turned out, as happened in the recent European elections in the North-East, would my noble friend consider 50 per cent of that 19.6 per cent an adequate majority to abolish this House? How much fewer than 10 per cent of the electorate constitutes "the people of the United Kingdom"? I wonder whether my noble friend might not give the issue further thought if he decides to return once more to the charge on Third Reading.
Turning to the general thrust of the amendment, I agree with much of what my noble friend says. The House of Lords, this House, appears to be the only matter on which the Government are not prepared to entertain a referendum. We have had recent referendums on Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London. We are promised, although now with less enthusiasm, which is not surprising, referendums on proportional representation and the euro. Is this House, and the future of Parliament, any less important than those? Yet Parliament is being left out of the process of referendums.
I ask again the question I posed in Committee. What are the Government afraid of? Surely it cannot be the popularity of hereditary Peers. Perhaps it might be. Perhaps the Government are hearing the cry that I and my noble friend Lord Ferrers have heard; that no change is better than this change. Who was right over the issue of the disastrous closed lists in the European elections which caused the Government to fall flat on their face? Was it the House of Commons? No, it was this House which stood for democracy in those weeks and, whatever one's view on Europe, would that it had been heeded.
If my noble friend's amendment were carried today, I should not count on winning a referendum. But if the matter were ever put to the test, we might find that the public saw rather more sense in this House than the Government do. If asked to buy a pig in a poke policy, the policy of the wanton destruction of the old House, without spelling out any plan on how to create a new one, the public might be no more enthusiastic to trust the Government than they were last week on the matter of the euro. I would counsel the Government against counting their chickens on this matter.
I have also taken the trouble to look carefully at the debate on this issue in Committee. There the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, in a typically rousing speech from the Liberal Democratic Benches, said that all amendments to this Bill were unnecessary. At that time, the noble Lord also said that he thought there would be a low turnout in a referendum. He has said very much the same today and that, therefore, a referendum should not be held. I thought then that it was curious reasoning and
The whole Liberal Democratic case against this referendum, coming from a party that calls itself the party of consultation, openness, fairness and democracy, and so on, was riddled with inconsistency. It was peppered with an assumption that the people of this country do not care about their Parliament and that it can all be left to the politicians to sort out behind closed doors. Therefore, I welcome the words of the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury. However, he may find that they do not echo the feeling of his Front Bench.
I turn to the arguments of the noble Baroness the Leader of the House. I find these even more surprising. They came down to two matters; that is, that the proposals were in their manifesto and the people, she said, have spoken precisely on this issue. That canard has been exploded by the poll taken by the pressure group, Common Sense for Lords Reform. It found that only 2 per cent of the public was aware that it had voted for such a thing. If only 2 per cent was aware, how have the people spoken precisely on this issue? If one believes they have spoken precisely, what fear is there in asking them to voice their opinion directly on the matter?
The noble Baroness was less than convincing in explaining why a referendum should not be held on a House of Parliament whereas it had to be held on an assembly for London. I may be romantic--I have sometimes been accused of that--but I happen to believe that this House is and should be rather more important than the London assembly. The noble Baroness referred to the fact that the manifesto did not state that there would be a referendum on this House whereas, as she stated, the policy of the Labour Party has always been for a referendum on Scottish devolution. At that point my noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish explained that "always" did not mean for a very long time.
I have said that there are certain flaws with the amendment tabled by my noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway. The definition of "the people" should be tightened. The question may need to be reviewed to express more simply the idea behind my noble friend's amendment; namely, that stage two should be clear and agreed before stage one is put into effect. We would have to weigh carefully whether, given the Government's resistance to any change in the Bill, we would be wise to put the referendum above any other of our priorities to improve the Bill.
As an Official Opposition, we have priorities. We wish, for instance, to contain the patronage available to the Prime Minister. We wish to require the replacement of the membership of the Weatherill 90 by by-elections, and we wish to ensure that there is an extra hurdle for
My noble friend's amendment deserves rather more constructive response than it has received from those parties that claim to support the principle of referendums. I hope at this stage my noble friend will not press his amendment, for the technical and practical reasons I have given. I could not support him if he did so.
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