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Lord Acton: Before my noble kinsman sits down, I followed his remarks with care but could not fully understand them. Did he say that the power should be given to this Chamber after stage two is complete or to the current transitional Chamber?
Viscount Cranborne: My noble kinsman always reproaches me when I am not as clear as I should be. I apologise for not being clear. My feeling is that such a power would really only be sensible after a full reform had been implemented, when it was clear that this Chamber had been given as much authority as the electorate wanted it to be given. I suggest that it would be sensible for a measure fully reforming this Chamber to be the subject of a referendum.
Lord Goodhart: We should all be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Owen, for tabling this amendment. It is an important subject which requires an airing. The noble Lord made a characteristically thoughtful and well-reasoned speech in putting forward his proposals. I regret, therefore, to say--I think that it will not surprise him--that we on these Benches are unable to support him.
We have had only one referendum which was a referendum throughout the United Kingdom: the 1975 European referendum. We have had a number of sub-UK referendums. We have had two each in Wales and Scotland. I shall not refer to the Northern Ireland situation because I understand my noble friend Lord Alderdice, wishes to speak on that. However, the fact that we have had referendums does not mean that we
We have the difficulty of deciding what is a Bill of first-class constitutional importance; and of deciding whether there is a significant division of opinion on it. If we consider only the Bills which have been brought forward during the current Parliament one has to say, obviously, that the Scotland Act and the Government of Wales Act were Bills of first-class constitutional importance. They were plainly controversial. One effect of the noble Lord's amendment would be that the referendums on Scotland and Wales would have had to be held not only in Scotland and Wales but across the United Kingdom. The noble Lord shakes his head but the constitutional implications seem to me not in any way confined to Scotland and Wales. They plainly apply to the United Kingdom as a whole. If the Scotland Bill (now an Act) had been rejected by a majority entirely resulting from English votes, while it was supported by a substantial majority of Scottish votes, the consequences would have been horrendous.
Other Bills have been of first-class constitutional importance. The House of Lords Act was one. Others may have been more doubtful. The European Parliamentary Elections Act substituted a new and previously untried form of voting. The Human Rights Act was a matter of major constitutional importance. The Freedom of Information Bill now before your Lordships' House is a matter of arguably first-class importance. The Bill we are debating is probably of first-class importance, particularly in so far as it seeks to impose limits on the election spending of political parties and third parties. I believe that there would be far more referendums than the noble Lord contemplates.
There is a more fundamental question. We are a parliamentary democracy. The classical theory has always been that we elect our Members of Parliament to govern the country. It is for them to take the decisions; and if they get those decisions wrong it is for them to face the consequences at the following general election.
It is impossible now to continue to say that there is no place for referendums in our political system. There clearly is; we have had a number of them. We have been promised by the Government, with the support of this party, that there will be a referendum before this country joins the euro. There would have to be a referendum before there was a change of the electoral system throughout the country. But it is plain that referendums need to be used sparingly. For one thing, a referendum should be held only on a single, simple issue that can be answered by a straightforward "yes" or "no". It would be wholly inappropriate to have a referendum on this Bill, even if it is regarded as being of major constitutional importance. It is even more obvious that it would be inappropriate to have a referendum on changes in European treaties, many of which are very complex and do not present a single question that can be answered "yes" or "no". Some aspects of the treaties are welcome and some are not.
It would be wholly wrong to impose a mandatory requirement to have a referendum in certain circumstances. It is for Parliament to decide when there should be a referendum. It should not be laid down for all time in a statute. The issue should be decided on each occasion. A referendum is a useful servant. It should not be made a master of the political process. That is why I regret that my colleagues and I are unable to support the amendment.
Lord Norton of Louth: I oppose the amendment. I have always had a principled objection to referendums. The fact that they may be held has not shifted my principles. The fewer referendums we have, the better. In an ideal world we would not have them.
I do not intend to rehearse the principled arguments about referendums. If anybody wants the best arguments on principle, they need look no further than Margaret Thatcher's first speech as Leader of the Opposition in the other place. It was an excellent exposition of the case against referendums. The arguments that she advanced then have not changed. Unlike some, I intend to stick to the arguments.
The amendment is flawed in two important respects. The first has already been touched on in part. There is a difficulty in defining terms on two levels. First, there is a distinction to be drawn between issues of first-class constitutional significance and those of second-class--or even upper-second-class--constitutional significance.
Some measures would clearly be recognised as being of first-class constitutional significance. Others might be constitutional measures which are clearly not first-class. That is not the problem. The issue is where the line is drawn between first and second class. That is difficult. The noble Lord, Lord Owen, says that the criteria will be related to controversy. That is not adequate. There have to be objective criteria for determining what is of first class constitutional significance.
The noble Lord, Lord Owen, has introduced a further difficulty by saying that the issue must be controversial. Where does a controversial issue stop and an issue that is widely debated but not controversial start? Where is the precise dividing line between that which is controversial and that which is hotly debated but not controversial? How far does the controversy have to extend? The noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, referred to the Government of Wales Bill. It was controversial in Wales but it may not have been a pubs and clubs issue in the rest of the UK.
The amendment is fundamentally flawed in its definitions. To some extent the amendment itself recognises the problem because the determination has to be made by somebody else. It will not be obvious what is a first-class constitutional issue, so there will have to be a figure who decides. The amendment confers that duty on the Speaker of the House of Commons, who is by reason of office a neutral figure. The Speaker is meant to transcend politics, not get involved in political issues. Determining whether an
It is quite correct to say that in the other place decisions as to what matters should be dealt with on the Floor of the House are made depending on their constitutional significance. Such decisions are not based on a objective test; they are political decisions taken between the parties. I do not believe that such a decision could be hived off to the Speaker; I do not believe that the Speaker would want that to happen because it would serve to undermine the neutral role of that office.
I understand the argument advanced by my noble friend Lord Cranborne, who believes that the House of Lords may be the best body to handle the matter. I understand the argument for that. I can see that the House has the expertise to decide such an issue: it may be more detached and may be able to look at the matter more objectively. However, a fundamental practical problem lies in that route. Giving the House of Lords the power to decide when referendums will be held is one way to ensure that this amendment will not be acceptable to the other place. Therefore, in practical terms, that idea will not get far.
I believe that the amendment itself is fundamentally flawed. Wider issues or other problems may be raised. A problem also exists in that, if a referendum is triggered in relation to Bills that may be controversial, none the less they may not be issues which persuade people to get on their feet and take part in a referendum.
I take as an example an issue which is close to home--the House of Lords Bill. That Bill was certainly controversial within the Palace of Westminster. It may be determined that it was somewhat controversial outside. If the matter is considered objectively, it was a Bill of first-class constitutional significance. However, in all honesty, I do not believe that, if that issue were put to the country in a referendum, there would be a massive turnout on either side of the argument. It was a vital and important issue and was properly debated here. However, I do not believe that Parliament would do its reputation any good by allowing such a matter to be dealt with in a referendum. That would be my response to the argument advanced by my noble friend Lord Cranborne. I do not believe that one enhances the reputation of Parliament by handing over its responsibilities to other bodies.
Therefore, I believe that the amendment is fundamentally flawed. If we are to have referendums--and, for the reasons that I mentioned at the beginning, I prefer that we do not; but I recognise that as a fact of political life we may do--it should be
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