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Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords, I intend to raise a somewhat tangential point, but I suspect that, having listened to this debate, the Minister might find himself in agreement with me on it. I rise to say only that we would not be having this debate had we had at some point in the past a Bill setting out a formal procedure for holding referendums. That suggestion has been carefully avoided every time it has been raised.
The fact is that, under the terms of this Bill, half of a small minority plus one can bring about a profound constitutional change in this country. The Minister can do his best to assess the view held in a particular region using consultation, opinion polls and so forth, amounting in effect to a campaign. But, as we saw in Wales before it secured its assembly, despite doing all that, it does not make a great deal of difference as to whether the electorate will turn out to vote. As a separate issue, we ought to put into legislation a form of procedure governing the way in which referendums are held and further governing the number of votes required to bring about any form of major change.
I know that an amendment has been tabled which we shall reach in due course, but this matter is extremely relevant to the debate on the amendment before us. I say that because we would not be considering the concerns that have been expressed on the matter if such a formalised procedure, one agreed by everyone in the first instance, had been set up.
Lord Dixon: My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness who spoke from the Liberal Benches. How on earth do you test public opinion other than by holding a referendum? If you want to test public opinion then you have to hold a referendum about holding a referendum.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. Does he not agree that, during our debates at the previous stage, he went to great pains to intervene in my remarks to tell me that people have been sounded out in his area? He went on to give the results of that sounding exercise. Thus the idea that people cannot be sounded out simply is not true. The noble Lord himself gave evidence that that was the case.
Lord Dixon: My Lords, I shall go to great pains for the noble Baroness once again and repeat what I said in Committee. I sought to make the point that if you want to test public opinion, the only way that that can be done is by holding a referendum.
Lord Waddington: My Lords, surely the noble Lord understands that that is not what the Bill says. He will agree with me that it would have been perfectly possible to have brought forward a Bill in which no provision was made for the Secretary of State to take account of a sounding exercise. However, the Bill states that he must do so. Will the noble Lord please address himself to that and not to a fanciful Bill that does not exist.
I said in Committee that, in the North East, I had been informed that the people who responded were the members of the North East Assembly, local authorities, local MPs and MEPs, private, public and voluntary bodies, political parties, arts bodies, universities and colleges, black and ethnic minority communities, faiths, charities and trade unions, the health sector and transport bodies. Most declared that they were in favour.
The noble Lord, Lord Elliott, referred to the Newcastle Journal. He may have been referring to the newspaper's own opinion poll, but I do not know where the figures came from. However, I have the figures that were released by Durham County Council, one of the two-tier authorities that everyone is trying to protect in case it is forced to accept a unitary authority.
The council released the results of its sounding exercise, which produced 7,000 responses. Support for holding a referendum was 66 per cent in favour; only 24 per cent against. Everyone is trying to save the two-tier authorities from regional assemblies and one-tier local government, but the interesting thing is that support for establishing a regional assembly was 66 per cent; and only 24 per cent were against. As many people as possible have been consulted.
Some noble Lords said that they had not been consulted. I was never consulted as a Member of the House, but I was consulted as a member of a political party, because I attend my party meetings. At one party meeting that I attended, a soundings document
In the run-up to the 1964 general election, there was a Labour Member of Parliament called, I believe, Collins. He constantly asked Home Office questions about prisons and constantly pressed Home Office initiatives. On one such occasion, he argued for the abolition of the roll-call in prisons. After that appeared in the press, one prisoner wrote to the press to say how absurd that was and to ask what would be done instead. The prisoner postulated, hypothetically, the governor and a senior prison officer, walking around the prison grounds and the governor saying in conversation, "I say, Jack, there seem to be fewer prisoners around this week than there were last week".
On the same basis, I postulate the Deputy Prime Minister and the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, travelling through a region such as Yorkshire or the West Midlands and the Deputy Prime Minister saying after a while, "I say, Jeff, I tell you something: there seems to be quite a lot of interest in holding a referendum in this region". As I understand it, that would qualify as considerationthe Deputy Prime Minister would have considered the level of interest and, on that subjective basis, fulfilled the condition in the Bill. However, that does not sound like an an objective test.
Incidentally, Mr Collins' story ended happily: he became Parliamentary Secretary at the Home Office after the 1964 general election. But under the Bill, it seems increasingly likely that the subtle soundings might have been better conducted a little later in the parliamentary process than they were.
Lord Rooker: My Lords, in answer to one question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, I do not have a precise figure, but we have now received more than 5,000 responses, so the figure has slightly improved since Committee, although I do not know the exact figure. We are still receiving results, as we have made clear during the Bill's passage.
A later amendment provides for publishing the results of the soundings. People were told that unless they demanded confidentiality for some reason, the results would be publicly available. We shall publish a summary and, of course, we shall do so for the whole country. The whole point is that the Secretary of State must make a judgment. Please do not hold this example against me, but let us say that he judges that the soundings show that there is interest in holding a referendum in at least one region. In order to say that, he must be able to say that there is not such a level of interest in the other eight regionsor, rather, seven, because London does not count for that purpose. So he will not make a judgment only in the area in which he judges that the soundings show that there is interest in holding a referendum. I choose my words carefully, because that is what is involvedinterest in holding a referendum, which may not be the same as interest in having an elected regional assembly. That goes to the heart of Amendment No. 6, which would amend the condition so that the Secretary of State must prejudge the result of the referendum before he forms a judgment on the soundings.
I repeat that Ministers have not seen any results of the soundings and have no figures at present, but when making a judgment on the soundings shortly after the Bill receives Royal Assent, the Secretary of State cannot be expected to work out whether the referendum would be successful. First, that is not his job; secondly, the public, who will make the final decision on a referendum, will not have the available information because we shall not have had the boundary review, which is, as I said, nine months or a year down the road. So he cannot then prejudge whether there would be a successful, or "Yes", vote in a referendum. Amendment No. 6 is impractical in relation to the process. Given the timing of the Boundary Committee's recommendations, for a start, that does not make sense.
It has been asserted that a regional assembly referendum is advisory, to give an expression of view of those in a region about a regional assembly. The purpose of the referendum is to determine whether people want an elected regional assembly.
The noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, said that we need rules. I was in another department when the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 was passed, so I must be careful to name its title correctlyalthough naturally I voted for it. Along with another place, the House passed that Act, which lays down many ground rules.
As we have made clear when discussing the Bill, although certain duties are left to the Secretary of State, the Electoral Commission, which was set up under that Act, is required to make judgments on questions, the legibility of the argument, the preamble, and so on. So it is not a question of doing it as we want or making it up as we go along. There are ground rules
Amendment No. 6 is the main amendment in the group. The others are consequential. The way that the groupings have been arranged mean that our next debate, on Amendments Nos. 7 and 42, will cover some of the same ground. The noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, constantly referred to the letter that he wrote to me; he never once mentioned that he had received a reply. But he hasI hope.
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