Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Peston: My Lords, I, too, do not care much for referendums. However, I know that I am hopelessly out of date and it would be absurd for me to suggest that it is not a good path to go down. I believe in

27 Nov 2000 : Column 1150

Parliament as the place to take decisions and convince the country. But that is an old man speaking, and I shall go no further on the point.

If we are to have referendums, there is one point on which I am not clear after listening to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, and the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne. Is the problem that the Government want a referendum and perhaps they should not have it; or is it that the Government do not want a referendum and perhaps they should have it? I am not clear as to what drives the argument.

Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, I cannot speak for my noble friend; he is more than able to look after himself. My feeling is that it is the latter case, not the former, that presents the difficulty.

Lord Peston: My Lords, as I understand it, the problem that we are asked to contemplate is that there is the need for a referendum and it is not going to take place. That slightly gets me off board as someone who does not like referendums. I am interested in regard to the question of the symmetry or asymmetry and I hope that my noble friend will reply on that point.

Secondly, as someone who does not fully understand these matters, I am interested to know what would be the role of the constitutional committee of this House were it not to be connected with referendums. In what other way would it be of use? I find it hard to believe that in most Bills that come before this House--whether an elephant or not--major constitutional issues arise. If they do, I never seem to spot them. I am intrigued to know what this body would do. It would certainly help most noble Lords if my noble friend the Minister could clarify what the committee will contribute if it does not contribute in a matter of this kind.

The noble Lord, Lord Campbell, is right to have raised this issue. Although it is his decision, I believe it would be wrong to divide the House on this matter. What is required at this stage is clarification on a very interesting point.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Peston, is not alone--as, indeed, he would realise if he had listened to many of these debates--in having a suspicion of referendums. My suspicion is added to when it seems to me that we shall have only those referendums that the Government decide that they want us to have; that is very unfair. It is not symmetrical. If we continue to use referendums, there will at some time in the future be a reasonable and understandable demand for referendums to be held not just on issues on which the Government decide that they want us to have them, but also on issues on which they do not want them to be held. I realise that that is a difficult proposition for government to comprehend, but it is certainly the case. Moreover, I am not sure that that will be limited only to constitutional issues in the future. Therefore, I have some concerns that my noble friend's amendment may not really address the whole of the issue about who decides on referendums.

27 Nov 2000 : Column 1151

I believe that we have made some satisfactory progress on the question to be asked in referendums, but we need at some stage to make progress on who actually decides to have referendums. At present, it is entirely a matter for the Government. I know that people will say that it is Parliament; but, in reality, the Government have such a majority in the other place that they could hold referendums every other month on any issue they wish. I believe that to be wrong in principle, so I do not agree with them. I also think that it would be wrong if the Government alone could trigger them. As I say, my noble friend's amendment does not seem to address that wider issue, but it is certainly worthy of debate; indeed, it is as worthy of debate as the other issues raised during the passage of the Bill.

Lord Bach: My Lords, the Government also agree that the issue is worthy of debate. We are extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, for raising the issue and for his patience with the House on Tuesday of last week when his amendments were called very late in the evening. The noble Lord was good enough to move them then and, indeed, has been good enough to do so again today. We had a interesting debate last week and, if I may say so, an even more interesting debate this evening.

The opposition put forward last time--not least by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, in a most interesting speech, to which reference has been made today--referred to noble Lords' distaste for referendums. Of course a number of noble Lords on all sides expressed their distaste for referendums. It is not the same as saying that there should never be any referendums, but it is probably the same as saying that there should not be very many of them. That is one of the issues about which those who say that they are not very keen on referendums must think and talk. The crucial issue is how often referendums will be used, and not just whether they are ever used.

It was unfortunate that on Report these amendments did not receive the full debate that they merit. The Government's position remains approximately that which was set out late at night last Tuesday. We do not believe that these are issues upon which it is appropriate to legislate in the context of this Bill. That may be a view that is shared around the House. These are important issues, but perhaps not issues for this Bill. Why do I say that? The fact is that this legislation has sought, sometimes with more success than at others, to give effect to the recommendations of the Neill committee with regard to how referendums should fairly be conducted. The circumstances in which referendums are held, which, in some ways is the critical question, is an issue of an altogether different order and one that will certainly need to occupy more of your Lordships' time in due course. Indeed, the House will be grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, for, as he said, having raised the issue in the middle of last year.

27 Nov 2000 : Column 1152

The noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, has pleaded the case for arrangements that safeguard our constitution. The idea that matters of profound constitutional importance should be put to a referendum is no longer a novelty. The Royal Commission on the Reform of the House of Lords (the Wakeham commission) recommended the establishment of a sessional committee of this House to scrutinise public Bills in the light of their constitutional implications. We believe that to be a positive step.

My noble friend Lord Peston asked about the nature of the job of the House of Lords' constitutional committee. I can give the House a quotation from the commission. It is a short quotation, but one which sums up what the commission had in mind. The task of such a committee would be to examine the constitutional implications of all public Bills coming before the House and,

    "to keep under review the operation of the 'constitution'".

That last point seems to me at least to be fairly wide in scope. I very much doubt that the committee will feel particularly restricted when it comes into being.

The noble Lord's amendment puts two and two together, but we are not convinced that making a statutory provision to the effect that the committee's advice on such matters should trigger Parliament's consideration of whether a referendum should be held would be desirable. We are not sure how far it would help such a committee in its work to know that each time it adjudicated on the implications of a Bill, its deliberations might be a prelude to a charged debate--because it would be charged--about the holding of a referendum.

However, in one important sense, the proposal before the House is correct. The decision on whether a referendum should be held would be one for Parliament as a whole to make. On a case-by-case basis Parliament would decide whether a particular constitutional reform warranted endorsement in a referendum. But, to that extent, it is not clear that this proposal would add very much to the present constitutional position. As matters stand, it is already open to Parliament to decide that a particular Bill should be subject to a referendum and to legislate accordingly. It may be thought that it is better to do so by means of legislation rather than by means of a resolution.

Of course, as the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, pointed out on the previous occasion--and, indeed, as has been said again this evening--the chances of Parliament coming to such a decision other than at the instigation of the government of the day are probably, in practice, slight. But we do not see anything in the noble Lord's proposals to make that chance very much greater, as the support of both Houses of Parliament is needed before a referendum can take place.

I turn now to the other aspects of the proposals--

5.45 p.m.

Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, I am most grateful. I do not wish to detain either the noble Lord or the House for very long. However, in the light of what he

27 Nov 2000 : Column 1153

has just said, will the noble Lord accept that the very fact of incorporating in the statute the opinion of the constitutional committee of this House would provide something of a hurdle for the Government and would, therefore, force them to take such matters more seriously than would otherwise be the case?

Lord Bach: My Lords, I would not go as far as that, but it would be something of a hurdle. But how much of a hurdle it would prove to be is a matter of doubt. Perhaps I may refer again to the important speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, on Report. I, too, like other noble Lords, have had the advantage of reading the Hansard report of the debate. I hope that this will in some way explain why I believe that there is some doubt about how high a hurdle it would turn out to be. The noble Lord said:

    "The other problem I mention at this stage and draw to the attention of my noble friend is that the House of Commons is likely to find the provision unacceptable, as it provides that resolutions have to follow advice from a committee of this House. For the reasons that have been advanced I do not doubt that the committee will be highly qualified to comment on the matter. But that is not at issue. It is a committee of one House that would trigger resolutions of both Houses".--[Official Report, 21/11/00; cols. 795-96.]

He mentioned that specifically--

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page