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Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords, if I were the Minister I would welcome the amendment because it would formalise my discretion. Having my discretion formalised would mean that, if subsequently I took a decision it would not in fact be discretion because it would be in the Bill and I would not have to argue for it, but I would be in a position where we had established the way in which the vote should be decided in the case of a low poll. It would be a high poll in the local government election and one would probably finish up somewhere in the middle of the range.

The fact of the matter is that 21.7 per cent of the electorate can bring about a major constitutional change if only 35 per cent vote. If 30 per cent vote, 20 per cent can bring about major constitutional change. Below that, it is 20 per cent and 13.2 per cent. On a 10 per cent poll, 6.66 per cent of the electorate can bring about major constitutional change. That is the effect of my noble friend's amendment.

I would have thought that the Minister might find that a reasonable limit on his discretion. I want to say to the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, that this is not the right time to introduce this change. We have had a number of referendums in this country and the big problem we have had—and it goes back to when we

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were discussing the Scotland Bill—is that we had no formal procedure for them. If we had acted at that stage, we would not be having this argument now .

However, having started down this road, there is an argument that says that this is not the right time. It will never be the right time. If it is never the right time, we will never do it, but we should have done it long ago.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, we in this country are suffering from a bout of "referendumitis". In this Bill, not only have we set up arrangements for a referendum on whether we should have regional assemblies, but we have also extended the range of referendums by having one on local government boundaries. We seem to be making it up as we go along.

At the same time, the Government are refusing a referendum on what might be the greatest constitutional change we shall have. That is the result of the Convention on the Future of Europe where there are far-reaching proposals for a change in our constitution and that of other countries. I do not know where we are going on referendums, but it is certain that where constitutional change is involved a simple majority is not good enough. Any golf club which wants to change its constitution must have a 66 and two-thirds majority. Indeed, any organisation worth its salt before it changes its rules and constitution will need far more than a 50 per cent majority. Even the National Union of Mineworkers has a 55 per cent majority rule before people can go out on strike. It is therefore clear that when we want to change the constitution we must have an overwhelming majority. Indeed, if a building society or other business wants to sell its business, it needs a 75 per cent majority.

Here we are, in our great Parliament, talking about changing constitutions with a mere 50 per cent when perhaps only 40 per cent of the electorate are voting. The people who say that we need to get to grips with this problem are right. Whether the amendment gets to grips with it, I do not know. It needs to be considered.

In the House of Commons in 1979—the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, will remember it as well as I do—some of us introduced an amendment to the Scotland Bill which provided that 40 per cent of the total electorate voting yes would constitute a majority. It may well be that that simplistic arrangement might work better than the convoluted arrangement in the amendment before us.

I believe that if we are to establish referendums, and if we are serious about it, we should lay down rules which, as regards referendums on constitutional matters, will be standard and understood and will ensure that constitutional change is supported by the large majority of the country.

6.15 p.m.

The Earl of Caithness: My Lords, we have had a much more interesting debate than occurred in Committee when we discussed an amendment in my name similar to that of my noble friend Lady Hanham. Some people on the Labour Left-wing and the Liberal

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Democrat Party by negating the amendment wanted to reduce debate at this stage, but clearly they have only increased the quality of the discussion. This has been a much better debate and a better-argued one.

I was particularly taken by what the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, said, based on his experience of another place. The amendment I tabled in Committee was relatively simple in comparison to the effort my noble friend Lady Hanham has made to try to achieve a working compromise for a sensible Bill. But I like the proposal put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, because it is equally simple.

It is clear that, despite the letter of 3rd April kindly sent to me by the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, in reply to the comments I made in Committee, this is a matter that we need seriously to address. It is a key issue in the Bill because we are dealing with a constitutional change. It is a change for which the Government are not taking responsibility: they say that they do not want to change local government and that it is a matter for those who take part in the referendum. If there is a referendum, however small a percentage of the electorate vote, the smallest majority of that will effect a constitutional change. There is no option for those who live in a two-tier system.

I hope that we will read with care what has been said today—there have been many good arguments—and come back at a later stage with a final amendment.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: My Lords, I was not intending to speak, but I am provoked by the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, from the Liberal Democrat Front Bench. I am sorry to say that because I am very fond of her. She and I have been and are colleagues in other enterprises. I take exception to what she said in her speech on two counts.

Her doctrine was essentially that of unripe time. I echo what my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith said on that matter. I remember the period in another place between 1997 and 2000 when the Government made up the referendums as they went along. I remember challenging Miss Glenda Jackson who was then in charge of a particular Bill on the Government Front Bench. I asked her when the Government were going to put together a formula which would be consistently followed in each of the referendums. She said that those matters were outside her purview and would have to be decided by people greater than she.

We then experienced the results in the Welsh and London referendums and saw relatively low levels of interest in both. Only in 2000, when all those referendums were out of the way, did the Government come around to formalising matters in the 2000 Act. Therefore, doctrine of unripe time does not in my view apply. It seems perfectly proper that we should examine these matters if that is the example which the Government set in the first instance.

I have a second reservation about what the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, said. It was that the Liberal Democrat objection to parties being elected to power at

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Westminster when the party achieves only 43 per cent of the vote seems to run counter to the objections that she is raising to these patterns today. I merely make the remark philosophically and temperamentally.

Yesterday the Minister said (at col. 101 of the Official Report) that the electorate is now much more savvy about matters such as the ones we are discussing today. However, a turnout of 25 per cent, based on the results in Wales and London, seems to be a perfectly reasonable supposition as regards the kind of vote we shall see in these referendums. Twenty-five per cent is not a respectable total vote for introducing massive change, particularly when one goes down to what would be the even majority. It is right that the hurdle should be higher, as my noble friend Lady Hanham has proposed in her amendment.

Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, I wish to make a minor point. I shall say very clearly the name of my noble friend Lady Maddock. I am sure that she will be grateful if noble Lords take note that she is not plural; she is very singular indeed.

Lord Dixon: My Lords, I wish to speak briefly on this issue. I hope that a referendum will be held in the North East. How are we to explain to people living in the north-east of England, close to the Scottish Border, that restrictions will be placed around the numbers of people voting for or against, when the Scottish Assembly has been set up next door which was not subject to those kinds of restrictions?

What the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, said was perfectly true. If these were the first ever referendums, then possibly there would be a stronger argument, but certainly not at this point. It would be totally unfair to the people of the North East if they do decide to hold a referendum. I hope that my noble friend will resist these amendments.

Lord Rooker: My Lords, to get it out of the way, I shall declare an interest. In 1978 I voted for the 40 per cent rule. I did so for a reason. Some of my noble friends in this House may well have been in the Chamber in another place that night. It was one of probably only two occasions during my 27 years in another place where one speech made to a full House changed the vote. It was the speech made by George Cunningham, who moved the amendment. That speech was an absolute classic. The place was packed and most Members were against the proposal because it looked so arbitrary.

I shall not go into the details, but George Cunningham's speech completely changed people's minds on how they would vote that night, and I was one of them. So I plead guilty. The result was a botched referendum in Scotland, which resulted in a "Yes" vote that could not get over the hurdle. That may have been the other side of the coin referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch: we paid the political price for it and learnt the lesson.

We are now in the position where we are following the precedent set in Scotland, in Wales, in Northern Ireland and in London. It would be absolutely crazy

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and unfair if we were to change the rules for any proposed regional referendums when we have already held referendums in so many other areas of the United Kingdom.

It is true and I can confirm that the referendums would be advisory. There is no issue about that. When we originally discussed this matter in Committee I also remarked that if the turnout was very low—I cannot put a figure on it—and the majority was very small—again, I cannot and will not put a figure on it—the Secretary of State would have to consider the result and think long and hard about the way forward. On the other hand, because the referendum would be advisory—

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