Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, with the leave of the House perhaps I may briefly respond first to the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Elton. I believe that some of the same points were addressed by the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury. Although I have to say to both noble Lords that I am not entirely sure of their direct relevance to the amendments under discussion, they were points which the noble Lord had wished to raise.

Perhaps I may say to him, for the purposes of information, that I understand that the Royal Commission has taken a number of steps to publicise the public meetings it is holding in various places around the country, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. I gather this has been reported widely in the local media, both on radio and television news programmes and in the local press. However, some meetings have been better attended than others. I understand from a conversation that I had with those responsible for the organisation that the reason for the variance is not immediately clear. However, I would say, as the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde suggested I would, that the detail of the organisation and, indeed, the policy of undertaking this kind of consultation, is in the hands of the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, the chairman of the commission, and it is not for Government to intervene. However, I hope that that is helpful on his initial inquiry.

We have had a lengthy debate today, both on the principles and practice of referendums, as indeed we did in Committee. However, I understand that the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, feels that he has seriously argued this afternoon that the reason for returning to this subject is partly because he feels that the situation on a referendum has changed fundamentally since he originally proposed it. That was before the House, then in Committee on Amendment No. 31, considered what was then the Weatherill amendment and has now become Clause 2.

I have to say that I am inclined to agree with the noble Lords, Lord Goodhart and Lord Peyton of Yeovil, and other noble Lords who have contributed. Passing the Weatherill amendment, as it then was, by 352 to 32 in your Lordships' House has weakened rather than strengthened the case for the referendum, as both noble Lords, Lord Goodhart and Lord Peyton of Yeovil, clearly explained. I am also inclined to agree with their pessimistic predictions about the size of a poll in such a referendum.

However, the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, has clearly taken note of some of the points which were made in gentle criticism of the referendum

15 Jun 1999 : Column 163

amendment which he proposed in Committee. As he suggested in moving the amendment today, the new variation does not require the findings of the Royal Commission to be known, nor does it require the joint committee to have come to its conclusions before it is held. So, the delay which was inherent in the earlier amendment has, to some extent, been removed. That said, I am afraid the Government find the amendment still unacceptable. The problem that we have with it is the underlying principle. We were elected on the commitment to end the automatic right of hereditary peers to sit and vote in your Lordships' House and we are honouring that commitment.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, for his clear exposition of representative democracy and its implications in this particular argument. I am also grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, for reinforcing those points with his vivid story of Hermann the Irascible, which was all, indeed, entirely relevant to the argument. The noble Earl, Lord Onslow, with his typical, pithy comments on the responsibility and duty of government being to govern, seemed to me to put it at its shortest and sharpest.

Following this lead on the responsibility and duty of government to govern, I simply repeat what I said in Committee. The Government's position on a referendum is that when we feel that a referendum is required on any significant change, we will say so in advance in our election manifesto. We did this on the subject of devolution in Scotland and Wales and on the elected mayor for London, as the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, pointed out.

We did not propose this method on the Human Rights Bill, although as my noble friend Lady Gould said this was of very great, long-term importance. If I remember correctly, we did not face any concerted demands from your Lordships' House or anywhere else that a referendum should be held.

I would also gently remind the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway--the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, has already done so--as I pointed out in Committee, that he argued against a referendum on the Maastricht Treaty which could be regarded as of extreme constitutional significance, in precisely the same way as noble Lords have suggested is the Bill before us today.

Perhaps I may say to the House that the Government's attitude on referendums is not about the relative importance or otherwise of constitutional change but whether it is seen in policy terms to be relevant and necessary on a specific proposition. On the proposal regarding Scottish devolution, many points were of such detail that we were unable to include them in the manifesto. The Bill giving effect to the Scotland Act ran to over 100 clauses. I do not need to emphasise to your Lordships' House how the Government see the present Bill as simple and extremely clear, not to mention extremely short.

On the Scotland question, we published a comprehensive White Paper setting out the proposals in much more detail than we were able to do in the manifesto or during the election, and then we had a referendum.

15 Jun 1999 : Column 164

However, the subject of reform of your Lordships' House is quite different. It is, as I say, a simple measure. The relevant passage in the election manifesto of 1997 is longer than the main clause, Clause 1 of this Bill. Our intentions were then clear and remain clear.

I would also suggest to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, that the clause is technically deficient. It suffers from what he himself described during the debate on the Scottish and Welsh referendums as a lack of ground rules. It fails to make sufficient provision for the conduct of the referendum. As the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde said, who is to be allowed to vote? Who are the people of the UK referred to in the amendment? As I recall, in the Committee stage the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, was grateful for the amendment to the amendment he tabled which attempted to define the electorate as the majority of the parliamentary electorate in the United Kingdom.

There does not seem to be a sign of that particular stipulation which I believe the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, regarded as helpful, in the existing proposal, nor does this present amendment deal with the question of funding; nor does it say when the referendum would take place. I would suggest that acceptance of this amendment would, as my noble friend Lady Gould suggested, mean a new Bill which would be required to allow for the referendum. If there were a new Bill there would of course be new delay. Obviously, for those who cannot accept any reform, delay is to be encouraged, but I am glad to say that as I understand the position of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, that does not include the Opposition Front Bench. At least I think that is the case.

The Government, for their part, intend to proceed with this Bill without delay and I urge the House to reject this amendment should the noble Lord ask for the opinion of the House.

Lord Campbell of Alloway : My Lords, I should like to thank all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate, both for and against the amendment. I hope I will be forgiven if I do not seek to reopen the argument at any great length because we have had a very full debate.

The amendment is commended in principle and has been redrafted to reduce it to principle so that details such as ground rules, funding, thresholds and so forth could be dealt with if this is approved in principle at a later stage on Third Reading. One of the reasons why the provisions were removed as to ground rules was to avoid any hint of pre-emption of the government legislation which is to produce, as I understand it, generic ground rules before too long. This is really put forward as a matter of principle.

There seem to be in essence but three main objections. One is that you cannot have it because you have got to sustain the position of those who made the deal. I do not think I ought to comment further on that save to say that it does not appear to me--and it may not appear to your Lordships--to be a very cogent reason for not having a referendum. The second is that if we have a referendum it will be, I thought the noble and learned Lord said but I accept that he meant will be represented as, Peers against the people. That is such a misrepresentation that I think

15 Jun 1999 : Column 165

most of your Lordships would be prepared to accept that. It is a question of seeking to recognise the representations of the people in this House when they are not being recognised by the Government or by the majority in another place.

The third objection--this is the last one of substance (I was trying to take a note of the objections)--was, well, nobody is interested in this place. What on earth do we want to have a referendum for? The public will be bored with it. In any event there is no need to do it. I agree with noble Lords who say that a small turnout is not the point. The point is, as the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, and the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, and indeed my noble friend Lord Strathclyde said, that there is a need for a wider debate and the sooner it is had the better.

I agree with my noble friend Lord Cranborne when he said that it all comes down to a matter of judgment. I think that is right. My noble friend also said that this referendum process must be used with care. There again I agree with him. Where we disagree, a matter of judgment, is as to whether it should be used on this occasion or not for the reasons that have been given. On that matter I must seek the judgment of your Lordships' House.

5.17 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 2) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 83; Not-Contents, 232.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page