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Baroness O'Loan: My Lords, this is a carefully reasoned and well evidenced report on the use of referendums. The questions addressed by the committee are very specific and address the range of key issues fundamental to this debate.
"Notwithstanding our views that there are significant drawbacks to the use of referendums, we acknowledge arguments that, if referendums are to be used, they are most appropriately used in relation to fundamental constitutional issues".
The committee went on to give us an indication of what it regarded as fundamental constitutional issues. The list was not definitive, but it was strongly indicative of the boundaries which the committee considered reflect the appropriate use of referendums.
Those referendums which have taken place within the United Kingdom since 1973 fall largely within the definition of constitutional issues, although it is questionable whether they were all fundamental constitutional issues. Perhaps the most significant one for me was the Belfast agreement in 1998, in which 71.1 per cent of those polled gave community consent for the continuation of the Northern Ireland peace process on the basis of the agreement. The road to peace was long and hard, both before and after the agreement, but the referendum and the breadth of the provisions of the Good Friday agreement formed a sound basis on which the community could embrace the proposed mechanisms for peace. Although we continue to be subject to paramilitary activity, the
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The committee noted the claimed positive features of referendums, but was persuaded by the counter arguments to recommend limitations on their use. The limitations are well articulated in the report: that referendums tend to be dominated by elite groups-we have certainly seen that; that they can have a damaging effect on minority groups; that they may block progress, but they do not settle the issue anyway; that they fail to deal with complex issues; that they tend not to be about the issue in question, particularly when the issues are very complex; that voters show little desire to participate in referendums; that referendums are costly-already today several noble Lords have mentioned the £120 million cost of a national referendum; and, most importantly, that they undermine or have the potential to undermine representative democracy.
The committee recommended that, where possible, cross-party agreement should be sought on the circumstances in which it is appropriate for referendums to be used. Yet, as has been said by noble Lords today, we do not have cross-party agreement on the current proposed referendum and I am not even sure that there is coalition Government agreement on the proposed referendums.
There are many complex issues which evoke calls for referendums. For example, in response to rising crime levels there were calls for the return of birching in the 1950s and since. There are regular calls for the reintroduction of capital punishment and for the banning of immigration. There are calls also for a referendum on the issue of assisted dying. These are profound and fundamental questions. Should we have referendums on all these issues as well?
I want to use the issue of assisted dying to explore this matter through the evidence given to the committee. There are opinion polls which regularly indicate that a majority of people would favour a change in the law on assisted dying, but that is not, of itself, a sufficient reason for changing the law. Few would suggest that Parliament's role is simply to legislate in accordance with what opinion research suggests. Obviously, public opinion has to be given due weight by legislators, but like everything else it has to be examined thoughtfully and its significance assessed. When one speaks to the disabled and the terminally ill, they use one word to describe their reaction to the possibility that the state will license killing and that word is fear. They are afraid. Despite the popular calls for euthanasia or assisted dying, none of the disability organisations, and none of the organisations for sufferers from diseases such as MND or MS, has called for it.
In reality, referendums are helpful only in telling us what individuals say in response to a given question. They do not tell us much, if anything, about the respondents themselves, about how knowledgeable they are, for example, on the subject in question and how strongly their views on the subject are held.
Like so many issues, assisted dying is a highly complex issue, transcending a number of specialised areas of expertise, including law, medicine and ethics, on which few people can be expected to have any in-depth knowledge. To say that is not to argue that the opinions of people who have an incomplete understanding of any subject should be of no account. We all have opinions on subjects about which we may know little or nothing, but we cannot seriously expect our opinions to be translated into legislation simply because we hold them. Sound law-making has to be founded on solid evidence and objective assessment as well as on public opinion. It is Parliament's role to examine the evidence on any particular issue in an objective and dispassionate manner and to reach balanced conclusions.
For example, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, took evidence from more than 140 expert witnesses in four jurisdictions before reporting. We also had lengthy debate on the Joffe Bill. That is quite different from the sort of spin and media treatment that issues will receive in the media, which is the source of many people's knowledge of any subject and which will lead, almost inevitably, to a given result in the polls.
The committee examined initiative processes which allow citizens to propose statute laws, constitutional amendments or broad policy principles or to challenge statutes and amendments passed by representatives. The committee was not convinced by the arguments in favour of those initiatives.
Reference was made in the evidence to the experience in Oregon, where assisted dying was legalised, after a lengthy and complex legal process. The Act was first passed in November 1994 by a margin of 51 per cent in favour and three years later it was implemented after extensive and multiple legal proceedings. The committee heard evidence from Dr Tolle of the Oregon Health and Science University Centre for Ethics in Health Care. She said this about the vote which introduced the Death with Dignity Act.
"The day after the vote I wrote an article ... In that article I described the fact that when people voted, and remember you cannot change anything, you vote yes or you vote no on an initiative, many people were voting about a very tragic experience a loved one had had in end of life care and saying, 'I vote for anything different'. Many would say, 'What you have said is too narrow for me, I would include poor pain management, I would include inadequacies in the hospital, I would include poor conversations and planning, I would include much more in the basket and then say yes'. In some ways it was a vote of no confidence about some aspects of end of life care".
The complexity of the arguments in relation to assisted dying is a clear example of why the committee has drawn those conclusions. Complex issues are not amenable to decision-making by a yes/no answer to a question. I am pleased, therefore, to see the government response to the report, which indicates that they will not support the wider use of referendums, but I am a little perplexed that they are holding a referendum which appears to be presenting the people with the
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In conclusion, responsibility for decision-making on why and when we need a referendum is Parliament's, and only those decisions which are of a fundamental constitutional nature should be put to a referendum. For the rest, Parliament should continue to exercise its historic and profoundly important functions.
Lord Wills: My Lords, I rise to welcome the report from the committee, to which I gave evidence when I was a Minister. The report is comprehensive, practical, thorough in its analysis and wise in its conclusions-which is not a surprise given the distinguished membership of the committee, many of whom we have already heard from today. I congratulate my noble friend Lady Jay on assuming the chairmanship of the committee.
It is a timely report, given the new interest in direct democracy. The reasons for that have been frequently rehearsed. There has been a well documented decline of trust in politicians and increasing disengagement from formal democratic processes, and disadvantaged groups and younger people, in particular, are increasingly unlikely to vote at elections. The weakening of old collectivist structures and historic social identities and the rise of a professional political class have all served to undermine engagement with the party politics on which our system of representative democracy depends. Those problems are real and need to be addressed. So it is not surprising that there has been growing interest among commentators and politicians in direct democracy but, as many noble Lords have already pointed out, we need to be very careful to think about improving representative democracy, not replacing it. If nothing else, the history of the 20th century reminds us of the dangers of plebiscitary democracy, and ought to remind us of the virtues of representative democracy.
In the current climate, we cannot take the virtues of representative democracy for granted, so I hope that noble Lords will forgive me if I briefly rehearse what I think they are. Representative democracy allows, through the power of universal suffrage, for the fairest distribution of power among all citizens. It offers space for scrutiny and deliberation on complex issues, and it does so continually as such issues arise, which, in my view, inevitably makes for better policy. Crucially, it fosters the articulation of the needs and aspirations of the inarticulate and the protection of the interests of minorities, all of which are hallmarks of a decent and civilised society.
However, representative democracy can and should be augmented to adapt to new circumstances, and referendums can have their place in that. The arguments for their use are well set out in the report. I share the committee's view that there are "significant drawbacks"
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and I recognise its cogent arguments for defining when referendums should be conducted, but I also read with great interest the evidence from distinguished experts, who laboured to produce such a definition of the terms. For all their wisdom and ingenuity, none of the proposals in the report would be immune from interpretation. In the end, I still believe that, in the absence of a fully codified constitution, it is difficult to avoid a central role for the judgment of politicians on the circumstances in which a referendum should be held.
That is why, incidentally, I think that the committee's approach in drawing up a practical, although not exhaustive, list of instances where a referendum should be held is more helpful than an attempt to construct a theoretical framework. However, I am not as worried as are the committee and many of its witnesses about a central role for the judgment of democratically elected politicians. Of course, politicians will often seek to use referendums for their political ends-that is not a surprise-but they are, in the end, accountable for their decisions. That includes the holding of referendums and their considerable expense-about £100 million, or up to £120 million, if some witnesses to the committee are to be believed. That democratic accountability allows for at least some protection against flagrant abuse.
As the committee concludes, referendums are not a panacea. They are also not the only way of increasing democratic engagement. Some such methods, such as citizens' initiatives, have considerable drawbacks as we have already heard from my noble friend Lord Hart, but I would have hoped that the committee's tepid conclusion that,
New methods of engaging the public in policy formulation through deliberative democracy are potentially very important, in my view, in both engaging the public in politics between elections and improving public policy. Citizens' summits, for example, bring together between 500 and 1,000 people to deliberate on policy, exposing them to a range of opinions and policy options. Those involved are selected randomly but filtered to ensure that they are demographically broadly representative. Such exercises can enable the public to bring relevant knowledge and experience to bear on policy formation that may not be so available to cloistered Ministers and officials. Engaging the public in that way can help to legitimise and entrench policy that might otherwise be unnecessarily contentious.
In a policy paper entitled A National Framework for Greater Citizen Engagement, published two years ago, the then Government set out when they thought that national policy formulation would benefit from greater public participation in such ways. Those circumstances included: where issues will result in significant constitutional change; where individuals themselves need to act in addition to the Government to make a significant impact-for example, on behavioural issues such as obesity or smoking; where there are several policy options on which the Government have an open mind; and where there is public benefit in exploring complex and difficult trade-offs between different policy options-for example, between a personal desire to purchase cheap flights and the societal need to reduce carbon emissions. The noble Lord, Lord Brooke, may infer from what I just said that, although I still stick to my view that the composition and further reform of this House is not a suitable topic for referendums, for some of the reasons that I have already given, I think that it would be wholly appropriate for that sort of deliberative engagement with the public. I will wait with great interest, as I am sure he will, for what the public may decide after due deliberation on the issue.
Any new such mechanisms to re-engage people with democratic processes and improve policy formulation will succeed only if they fulfil five conditions. First, they must register with the public, and that means that they must be regular and pervasive. Secondly, they must be credible-people must believe that they matter. So they should be open and transparent. Participants must be aware in advance how much influence they might have, with a shared understanding of when and how these mechanisms will be used. The Government must not embark on engagement for the sake of it with no discernible outcome. Thirdly, they must be systemic; otherwise people could too easily regard them as a version of the politicians' tactical device that the committee so deplores. Such deliberative assemblies should represent a permanent change to the process of policy development. Fourthly, they must be representative, as accessible as possible and include a broad spread of the population. Finally and importantly, such mechanisms must also be consistent with the primacy of representative democracy. Such new mechanisms should feed into parliamentary consideration of issues, not replace them.
Towards the end of their time in office, the previous Government conducted an exercise, unique in this country, in such popular, deliberative policy-making. It was conducted by TNS-BMRB, a well known market research company, independently of government. This project explored the potential for a written statement of values, perhaps to act as a preamble for a Bill of Rights, the merits of such a Bill and the potential for a written constitution. The results of these deliberations were not always comfortable for the Government and their stated policy and led the debate into areas that the Government had not always expected, but the deliberations were notable for their seriousness, the commitment of those taking part and the good sense of the conclusions. The Government learnt valuable lessons about the conduct of such exercises for the future. The general election intervened before the Government could build on this work, but TNS-BMRB
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Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank: My Lords, as other speakers have said, the Constitution Committee was guided through this inquiry by my noble friend Lord Goodlad. As a member of the committee, I too pay tribute to his calm chairmanship, as on other occasions, and I enjoyed his anecdotes today. I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, who spoke earlier, who persuaded the committee to look into the role of referendums. It was prescient, given the outcome of the general election, but inevitably, on the eve of the dissolution, few future Ministers kept the report by their pillow when it was published on 7 April. The Government's response appeared six months later, only 10 days ago.
I am not easily persuaded to welcome referendums. I did not like the decision to make what became the 1975 Common Market referendum-so far, the only nationwide referendum in the United Kingdom-although once settled, I campaigned for yes. The referendum was clearly a device to hold the Labour Party together and to stay in what became the European Community and then the European Union. The report says it regrets,
The Government are pressing ahead for an elected or partially elected House of Lords. This is certainty a constitutional issue, as it would abolish the House as we have known it, and a referendum would be appropriate. I hope Ministers will confirm that they are considering it for the Bill we expect by the end of the year, although there was no hint of it in yesterday's short debate. We shall listen carefully to what my noble friend says in his closing speech.
The response says that the use of any major ratchet clauses of the Lisbon treaty will be subject to a referendum, as the Foreign Secretary confirmed last week. I will not pursue further European matters-I listened very closely to what the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, said-except to say that in 1975 the turnout was 64.6 per cent. If the Government were faced by ratchet clauses, I would hope to choose a referendum only if the public believed that they were major issues that should override Parliament.
Let me turn to paragraphs 214 and 215 in chapter 7, "Summary of Recommendations"; and the earlier chapter 4. Despite the need to encourage greater citizen engagement, the committee was not convinced by arguments in favour of citizens' initiatives and local referendums. I think the committee tried hard to give them the benefit of the doubt, but when it came to the point, the oral witnesses were not particularly keen. The government response is disturbing. In the current fashion and language, the Government make the point that local referendums can play a role,
I repeat, "on any local issue". In taking oral evidence, we discussed the possible outcome if there was a local referendum on whether to close a hospital. The witness, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Fraser of Carmyllie, said that,
There have been recent campaigns against the closure of A&E and maternity departments. Localism may be attractive, but I am far from happy if the future of the NHS is now to be determined by unrestrained citizen initiatives. New major trauma and stroke services have been developing in London. I am impressed by their progress as it has meant high-quality centres, rather than preserving some very average hospital departments. Inevitably there have been critics, but if the Government are to encourage local initiatives they could mean a set-back to reform.
The July White Paper on liberating the NHS is also about choice and control, sharing decision-making, democratic legitimacy, public engagement, effective dialogue and partnership, and more. But if we are to have referendums on any local issue, I am far from clear that the National Health Service would be better managed and resources more effectively employed. The White Paper states:
Lord Desai: My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers. I too join everyone in congratulating my noble friend Lady Jay on having got the chairmanship of the committee and on introducing this debate. Since quite a lot has been already said, I should like to take a different tack. The argument that referendums are imperfect or that they are not a panacea is not news. Nothing is perfect and nothing is a panacea. Even the representative democracy that we have is not a panacea.
The arguments made that decisions taken at referendums are influenced by other extraneous events or variables can be said about any election. When an election takes place in a constituency, people may vote for person X or person Y on no consideration of reading the manifesto or on knowing the policy or whatever the person may have said, but on the colour of his hair or something like that.
I do not think that we can construct an ideal decision-making system and say, "Referendums are not like this; therefore we reject them". Our difficulty is somewhere else. Not only, as the committee points out, do we not have a written constitution, but we have a particularly highly centralised decision-making system. Despite devolution we are a highly centralised system in which the primacy of the House of Commons allows the party with a majority to more or less dictate when and how it would choose to have a referendum or not. There is nothing that we can do about it.
The argument has been made that the 1975 referendum was to establish peace in the Labour Party. The ruling party had problems and, therefore, it had to have peace established within itself because it wanted to govern for the next three or four years. Things were difficult from the early days for the 1974 to 1979 Government. My noble friend Lord Foulkes said that keeping the Labour Party united was in the national interest and I agree with him.
But let us look at today: the idea that every passerelle has to be put to a referendum is not driven by logic. It is driven by the fact that the Conservative Party is deeply divided on Europe. If it is not divided, the coalition is deeply divided on Europe. When the ruling party is divided it is very convenient not to have to make the decision on the Floor of the House in a Bill, but to have a referendum and give the responsibility to someone else for getting the wrong decision. Then you are out of it, which can be very useful. I do not want to be cynical, but a system which so crucially depends on a cohesive majority in the House of Commons for
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Another point was cogently made by the committee. If we are going to use referendums we should use them for only major constitutional questions. I quite sympathise with that. The committee lists four or five major constitutional topics. During the passage of the regulatory reform Bill a few years ago, the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, added a schedule. The Bill was designed to speed up regulatory reform-cut the red tape and all that. Many noble Lords were suspicious that this way of doing regulatory reform would bypass the legislature and would make major legislative amendments. Therefore, a schedule listed every Act which should not be subject to amendment by the procedure in the Bill. I apologise for forgetting the exact title of the Bill, but I thought that if the noble Lord, Lord Norton, was here, he would tell me. The schedule to that Bill is a good guide to the many different Acts. It is not an acquis communautaire, but almost an acquis Britannique of all the very important Acts. Perhaps we should start with that list of Acts which cannot be touched except by a referendum.
The only argument for having a referendum would be that citizens feel differently from elected representatives. Therefore, citizens' wishes should be consulted on such a question. But if that is the case we have to have some sort of threshold on participation and on the size of the majority. Some noble Lords will recall the George Cunningham amendment; my noble friend Lord Foulkes very painfully remembers it. It put down a threshold as to participation in the Scottish referendum. It would be entirely proper to do that. Unless participation is above a certain threshold, such as two-thirds of the electorate, and the final weighted average of the majority in the referendum plus the rate of participation is at least above 40 per cent, the referendum should be declared void. There is no point in having a referendum with very low participation and a majority which represents not the people's wishes at large, but the wishes of only those who have bothered to come out and vote. That may make the wrong decision. If referendums are to be legislated on, we must insist on a threshold condition on every referendum, regardless of how major or minor the decision at stake is.
Lord Owen: My Lords, my noble friend Lord Pannick is in his place. I accept his definition that a referendum is a powerful, political mechanism to advance a politician's own political agenda. If we are honest, that is what referendums have come to represent. But where I disagree with the tone of this report is that I do not think that it has been generous enough to that powerful mechanism producing some very important political stability. Edward Heath first suggested that there should be a referendum in Northern Ireland. I was against it at the time, but the more I reflected, the more enthusiastic I became for it. I think that it has shown itself to have been a very important element in achieving what we hope will be a lasting peace in Northern Ireland.
As to Europe, I am utterly convinced that the 1975 referendum has been of tremendous benefit for the pursuit of a reasonably consistent European policy
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Before people are too critical of Harold Wilson's referendum in 1975, we should remember that there were two elections in 1974, on both of which occasions the promise to have a referendum was held and therefore in some respects endorsed by the British people. But I have no doubt also that, just as the referendum in 1975 was fundamental in keeping a pro-European policy, so it was a tremendous mistake on the part of the Labour Opposition in 1983 to campaign to come out of the European Community without even a referendum. It was one of the contributing factors to that long suicide note and a really massive defeat.
We come to the question of the euro. Which of us now believes that we should be in the European eurozone? The commitment made under duress by all three political parties in the 1997 election to have a referendum has been a fundamental safeguard in avoiding what would have been a huge mistake, given the precariousness of the UK economy. Sometimes a referendum can have a powerful effect without it actually being utilised, and we need to reflect on that.
No one could deny, and the report does not deny, that changing the voting system of the House of Commons is a major constitutional question. There is no argument: if this is to be done, it should be subject to a referendum. I used to think that we could do it as a party-political fix; I believed that when I was leader of the SDP. In those days, I thought it would have been perfectly legitimate. I think that now that referendums have established their authority and credibility on major constitutional questions, nobody can contemplate a change as a political fix. But, as I have said, most referendums come out of a political fix, so this is what we are discussing.
On the first part of the political fix, I shall address my remarks to my noble friend Lord McNally. First, I believe the coalition Government are making a great mistake in setting a date now when they do not have a clue what public opinion is going to be like by May of next year. Common prudence would suggest making that decision later by order and not getting themselves into this tangle at the moment. On the second part, the Government ought to address an important political question. The leader of the Liberal Democrats has already called this a "miserable compromise", which it certainly is. He should consider when it would be most likely that the British public would agree to even this narrow choice of the alternative vote as opposed to first past the post. It would be if they had seen a coalition work effectively for four years. The natural time for this referendum would be-if we are to have fixed-term Parliaments, which I hope will pass, although it is right for people to say that it is still to be accepted and the legislation still has to go through-in 2014.
My next appeal is to the Labour Party-especially to its new leader, for whom I have high hopes as he comes from a completely different generation-to think
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The deeper question I want to address to the Labour Party both in this House and in another place is that every element of democratic justice calls for at least one other option on the ballot paper, that being proportional representation. There are limits to the choices that can be put forward and I am not going to go into the different systems of proportional representation, but the alternative vote is definitively not a proportional system. It is also a fact that every time this issue has been looked at, the alternative vote has been rejected. It was rejected by the Labour Party's own Plant commission. It was rejected by the Jenkins commission which was set up by the Labour Party, and it was rejected when the Liberals and the Social Democratic Party set up a commission to look at it. So it seems a travesty of democratic justice that the only alternative for voting in the House of Commons is to be the alternative vote. If the new leader of the Labour Party was to make this an issue, not only would he identify himself with every social democratic party in Europe-it would not be a bad start for a new generational Labour leader-he would leave the way open for the Labour Party in the future to form a coalition with a Liberal Democrat party rather than it just being tied endlessly to coalitions with the Conservative Party. Tactically, it would be a rather good position, but it would also be justified by the present situation. We would also then have more enthusiasm for this referendum.
I must say that my fear at the moment is that of nil enthusiasm. I have long wanted this change to the voting system, but I have absolutely no personal enthusiasm whatever. I am not sure that I will even be able to persuade myself to vote because it is such a miserable compromise. Put in a third option in the form of a proportional system and I certainly would man the barricades and fight for it. I believe, too, that a lot of other people would do the same, and that it would be an enthusiastic debate. Further, we do not
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I hope that the issues will be debated fully and I shall finish with these words. Referendums have been good for British democracy, but used too frequently or in a foolish way, they will not work. The safeguard is in the form of both Houses of Parliament; they will decide. On the question of the reform of the House of Lords, personally, I would leave this open. If the parties in the House of Commons can come to an agreement on what House of Lords reform should be, I would not wish for a referendum. The issue that those of us who are not party to the debates should hold over them is that if they come out with some cobbled-up compromise that cannot carry conviction with the three parties in the House of Commons, then the House of Lords would be fully entitled to demand a referendum.
Lord Grenfell: My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Owen. He has given us much food for thought in his authoritative speech, and from the perspective of these Benches I might say some marching orders as well. I liked what he said about the coalition Government walking into what I would call a heffalump trap by naming the date for the referendum. The other reason I think they have made a mistake is that they do not know how long it will take to get the legislation through, and particularly through this House. We know that a serious lead time is needed before referendums can be held.
I join others in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Goodlad, and the committee he lately chaired on yet another first-class report. I congratulate also my noble friend Lady Jay on taking over the chairmanship of this important committee and on her very impressive presentation of this report. It is a measure of the interest in it that some 13 out of the 19 participants in the debate are not members of the committee. As one of the 13, I intervene briefly to address only two matters-referendums on constitutional issues, as discussed in chapter 3, and the question of thresholds, addressed in chapter 5.
I have never been a fan of referendums, and I do not believe I am entirely alone in that among noble Lords. For instance, I noted in the published evidence that my noble friend Lady Quin-who I am happy to see in her place and whose speech I enjoyed-has a strong attachment to fully representative democracy. I take much comfort from that. However, that said, I recognise that despite the many negative features of referendums-not least the almost Napoleonic urge of Governments these days to use a direct appeal to the people for tactical advantage-we are coming to accept that referendums, if used sparingly to supplement, not replace, representative democracy, need not necessarily pose a threat to our democratic system. As the committee concluded, they may become a part of the UK's political and constitutional practice-I rather think
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The noble Lord, Lord Liddle, gave a masterful lesson on the need to avoid resort to referendums on complex issues such as ratchet clauses and so-called transfers of power in the EU. Not long ago I was spending almost all my waking hours locked in communion with the text of the Lisbon treaty, and the nightmare thoughts of submitting it to a referendum occupied my unconscious hours.
The question that preoccupies me is whether or not referendums should be held on constitutional issues. I read with great care and interest the evidence given to the committee on this point, particularly the evidence given by the Government. The argument in the Government's memorandum submitted to the committee that referendums should be used,
appears at first glance to be sensible. However, as many members of the committee and my noble friend Lady Jay noted, it begs two questions: what is a fundamental change and who decides that? These questions were so thoroughly examined, both in the published evidence and in the body of the report, that it would be presumptuous of me to go over that ground in the presence this afternoon of so many of those who participated in the proceedings. Instead, I intervene in the debate to express my profound satisfaction that the committee, while recognising the impossibility of defining precisely what is a fundamental constitutional issue, had no difficulty in including the abolition of either House of Parliament in its non-exhaustive list of those it felt most obviously fell within that category. This is a very important conclusion.
As my noble friend Lord Hart of Chilton recalled, my noble friend Lord Wills, in his previous incarnation-he was a thoughtful Minister in the Ministry of Justice-had stoutly defended before the committee his and the then Government's contention that while a move to an all or mostly elected House could be considered a fundamental change in its composition, the reform as a whole could not be considered of fundamental constitutional importance as it was not intended to involve any change in its powers or functions. Many, including myself, had great difficulty in accepting this contention.
As I have said before in your Lordships' House, the coalition Government and those on other Benches, including where I sit-but not myself-who are calling for an elected second Chamber are not calling for a simple reform; they are, whether or not they care to admit it, calling for the abolition of this House and its replacement with something entirely different. If that is not a fundamental change of far reaching constitutional importance I do not know what is.
In the debate in this Chamber yesterday, initiated by my noble friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, some of us challenged the Government's repeated assurances that a move to an elected Chamber would not bring about a significant change in the balance of power between the two Houses. For reasons which need no airing in a take-note debate focused on a report on
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I have no doubt that the abolition of this House and its replacement by an elected Chamber should be submitted to a referendum. The warnings of the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, and those of my noble friend Lord Hart, are well taken, but I do not think the British electorate cannot be helped to understand what is at stake in such a significant constitutional change.
Finally, and briefly, I turn to the matter of thresholds, discussed in paragraphs 180 to 189 of the report. I note that the evidence the committee received was broadly against turnout thresholds and super-majorities; and that it led, after its careful weighing of the advantages and disadvantages, to its conclusion at paragraph 189 that there should be a general assumption against them. However, the committee recognised in that same conclusion-this is worth recalling-that,
This language is obviously an accurate reflection of the committee's sentiments, but I find it disappointingly weak. There are strong arguments for a voter turnout threshold for referendums on fundamental constitutional changes, as advanced by some of the witnesses. I accept the point made by Professor Butler and others that the no side can defeat a proposal by simply encouraging people to stay at home or to sit on Brighton beach with handkerchiefs on their heads. I accept also the difficulties posed by inaccurate, out-of-date electoral registers-which is not, however, an insoluble problem-but I am not comfortable with the idea that a major constitutional change can be either approved or disapproved on a very low turnout. I am aware of being in a minority in holding this opinion and I have no settled view on where the threshold might be set, but I remain disappointed with the conclusion's words, "may be deemed appropriate" where I would prefer to see, "would be deemed essential".
We will be looking again at many of these issues when the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill finally reaches this House. In the mean time we have to thank the noble Lord, Lord Goodlad, and members of the committee for the excellent report, which will inform our discussions. They have done this House and the whole of Parliament a great service.
Lord Woolf: My Lords, I, too, was a member of the Constitution Committee at the time it was considering this issue, but of course I am no longer a member. I thought the fact that the committee selected the issue of referendums, or referenda, as an appropriate subject for its consideration was indicative of the importance
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The thrust of the report, read as a whole, is clear. It says not that a referendum can never play a proper constitutional part in the workings of our unwritten and unentrenched constitution, but that those occasions should be strictly limited to where it can be done appropriately. If that be the situation, it is inevitable that political considerations will influence the Government of the day when they think that there should be a referendum. All that it is possible to do is develop conventions one by one which ensure that, in espousing a referendum on a particular occasion, we are not further undermining the strength of parliamentary representative democracy, the fundamental basis of which has been that the citizens of this country express their views by voting into power Members of Parliament and, through them, the Government of the day. Each time that people decide that there is a need for a referendum, they are to some extent undermining the commitment of this country to representative parliamentary democracy. For that reason alone, I suggest that we should use it only where we are satisfied that it will contribute to the proper governance of this country to do so.
What are the tests? The committee made it clear that there was no satisfactory single test. It was identified that the obvious situation where referendums may be able to play a part is where significant or fundamental constitutional change is proposed. However, as has been pointed out more than once during this debate, the definition of fundamental constitutional change is an issue on which views can differ. I do not need to remind this House, which will in due course be addressed by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, on behalf of Her Majesty's Opposition, that Governments can make deplorable mistakes as to what is a fundamental constitutional change. The Government of which he was a Minister thought that to change the role of the Lord Chancellor was not a matter that involved a fundamental constitutional change, albeit that subsequent events have shown beyond peradventure that it involved reconsidering and redefining the relationship between the judiciary, the legislature and the Government, all three arms being critical to the proper working of the constitution.
So we should heed the message of the report. If we are to adopt the referendum as part of our constitutional practice, we should ensure that it plays no more part than it should, having regard to the circumstances when it can supplement our basic approach to the governance of this country.
Lord Inglewood: My Lords, as one of those Members of the House speaking who was not a member of the Constitution Committee which has prepared this most interesting and worthwhile report, I should explain that the reason I rise to speak is that much of my active political life was spent in the European Parliament, where I was much closer to referenda than would probably have been the case had I been engaged in domestic politics.
That experience has made me less fond of referenda. My heart says yes; my head says no. Representative parliamentary democracy and the supremacy of Parliament, however foxed they may appear, are nevertheless very important. I am concerned that the political class of which we are all part sometimes seems to assume that everybody wants permanent participatory political revolution, somehow leading to the hegemony of the politically active. A lot of empirical evidence suggests that many people who vote in referenda do not do so on the basis of what is on the ballot paper, in slightly the same way as they often do in by-elections. It was put to me rather graphically by an Irish friend, who said, "It doesn't matter what it says on the ballot paper; they always vote about abortion".
If the point of a referendum is to give the public a direct say on a particular issue, it is not being achieved if the electorate cast their vote for some other completely different reason or simply stay at home on a "plague on both your" basis. As we have seen in the houses past 30 years a widening in the application by the courts through judicial review of the overriding test of reasonableness in Governments' decision-making, I become concerned that the referendum does not necessarily achieve that.
Process is important in decision-making-after all, that is what democracy is all about-but so is the essential character of the decision that is taken. Both matter, because when political decisions are taken, particularly those of the kind that are being considered in the context of this debate about referenda, it is important that the legitimacy of what is decided is accepted. That is particularly true if the outcome is one with which you personally disagree. We all become quite happy, even if we are a bit concerned about political process, if the outcome aligns with what we want to occur. One has only to look at the result of the 1975 referendum on whether we should remain in the European Community. We still find people arguing that the issue is not settled.
I am not sure how important my own personal views on this might be, other than possibly to myself, because we hear from the Government that legislation will be brought forward to bring referenda into our system under certain circumstances. However, if we do that, everybody should know what the new rules of engagement might be. If one looks back at the spectacle of the political debate that took place about whether there should be a referendum on the Lisbon treaty, one finds it pretty unedifying. In my judgment, there was massive posturing, humbug and manoeuvring, ostensibly in the interests of good governance, which, except in a few honourable cases, was basically motivated by partisan political aspirations. That did nothing other than degrade further the relationship that exists
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I was a tiny bit surprised that the committee and the Government seemed to think these should be dealt with on an ad hoc basis by Parliament because it was so difficult to write the necessary definitions into law. Other countries seem to do it perfectly well. Cannot we? Are our judges more stupid or is our law more difficult than other nations? I do not think so. The law courts and in particular the Supreme Court are set up in order to settle difficult points of law and are manned by first-class legal minds who can do it perfectly well.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, has just said that he believes we should evolve a series of conventions to do this. It would be nice if that could evolve over time, but I do not think we have enough time. Anyway, one might say that Parliament is always sovereign so it can rewrite the rules as and when it wants. If we introduce clarity, we will introduce a valuable check on the way that referendums evolve in their application in this country. The most important thing is to make it as difficult as possible for the Government of the day to gerrymander the legislative process in order to implement the policies that they want to get on the statute book.
Lord Anderson of Swansea: My Lords, I join the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, in his scepticism about referendums. I also join the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, in his concern about parliamentary democracy-a theme which has been echoed by many others in the debate. I also join the broad, overwhelming consensus for congratulating the framers and writers of this report. For me, it is like a very good textbook covering all the areas, but with the added element that it is a textbook written by practitioners who know the how of things, and how parliamentarians and the people respond.
The report covers a range of arguments for and against, some of which are contradictory. Referendums settle an issue; no, referendums do not settle an issue. The answer is that you choose your referendum. Some do, and some do not. It could be argued that the referendum on the Northern Ireland settlement was quite decisive and the extremists were unable to mobilise against it as a result. The same might be said about the recent referendum in Turkey on constitutional matters where the military, however tempted, would find it difficult to stand against such a substantial majority. However, the recent referendum in Moldova, which was boycotted by the opposition, solved absolutely nothing. Were a referendum to be held in Sudan next year, one wonders whether the results would in fact lead to closure in respect of constitutional changes within Sudan.
Obviously, if opponents do not like the result of a referendum, they can rerun it-as we saw, for example, in Denmark, where the second referendum, with rather cosmetic changes, was accepted, and also in Ireland. There must be a degree of scepticism.
I join the debate with my personal experiences. Apart from the referendum on Sunday opening in Wales, in which I played a minor part from exile in London, I played some part in the referendum in 1975 on the Common Market. It was clear-who can doubt it?-that the Cabinet wanted to avoid reaching a decision on the issue because it was deeply divided. There were heavy voices within the Cabinet speaking against the European Community, so a "god out of the machine" device-a referendum-was used in the hope of solving the issue. The status quo in 1975 was that we were already in the European Community, so there was a major premium among the populace in voting for the status quo, which was an important matter. But has it closed the issue? It had not closed it by the time Tony Benn and others said, "Let the people decide". The people decisively decided in 1975 and there were no major changes between then and 1983, but Tony Benn and others were not reconciled to Europe. Even now, there may be 60 or 70 members of the Conservative Party in the other place who would withdraw from the European Union tomorrow if that were possible. There is not closure.
I recall speaking with Edward Heath on the yes platform in 1975 against my noble friend Lord Kinnock; and yet I was with my noble friend in a later referendum, in 1979, on devolution in Wales. We were sceptical about the motives of those in favour of devolution and we used the argument of the slippery path to independence and so forth. I confess that we pressed for a referendum and for the 40 per cent floor as a tactical device at that time. Who can doubt that in most of these issues it is tactics that prevail and dominate? The result of that 1979 devolution debate in Wales was a massive majority-four to one-against the Government's devolution proposals. In 1997, however, broadly the same proposals, with some minor administrative changes, were put before the people of Wales and there was a vote in favour.
What had changed? The proposals had not changed. The context had changed. In 1979 there was a highly unpopular Labour Government at the fag end of their life and there was great scepticism among the people. They wanted to give the Government of the day a black eye. In 1997 there was a popular Government led by Tony Blair. All the media appeared to be in favour of the proposals in 1997. Yet, even with all the media attention, there was a 50 per cent turnout and the vote was 25 per cent for and 25 per cent against. Had it been 24 per cent in favour and 26 per cent against, would that have led to closure?
Similarly, although the vote on the Quebec question in Canada was against, it is not a dead issue. The proponents of "Québec libre" will keep seeking a referendum in the hope that one day there will be a narrow majority and then there will be closure.
Of course, the key difference in Wales was who was making the proposal in 1997 as against the position in 1979. Had there been a 40 per cent or 30 per cent turnout instead of 50 per cent, would that have changed the legitimacy of the result? There is no going back in Wales now, but it was on a very narrow majority. It was almost like the Ryder Cup, going to the last tee. It could certainly have gone the other way.
My own experience has also included campaigning for a yes vote in France on the Maastricht treaty. It was clear to me at the time that the details of the Maastricht treaty played virtually no part in the debate. The real issue was whether you liked President Mitterrand. On the platform, I was asked about immigration and various farm subsidies, which were virtually irrelevant to the subject under discussion. Compare that with the French referendum in 1968 put forward by President de Gaulle on an administrative question. The actual subject played little or no part in the result. It was a good opportunity for the people of France to reject President de Gaulle, and he resigned fairly shortly after that. Then there was the first Irish referendum on Lisbon, when the key issues for the no campaign were abortion and neutrality, which had nothing to do with the Lisbon treaty. Of course, much of the debate was dominated by one very rich individual; just as one fears that on a referendum now, Mr Murdoch, a non-citizen, will play a major role.
So what are my conclusions from these experiences? First, referendums do not necessarily settle matters. One thinks of the 1983 suicide manifesto of my own party with respect to Europe. Secondly, even if there is a yes/no question, the debate may focus on irrelevant questions. Thirdly, the referendum may be used, as the committee says, in an ad hoc manner and as a tactical device. It is absurd of the Government, in their rather slim and inadequate reply, to argue otherwise. The referendum may often be a partisan manoeuvre; the result clearly depends on the context and who asks the question and when. In Sweden, in respect of the European Union, there was a fairly fixed majority against joining, but there was one brief window of opportunity, which by chance happened when the referendum took place. So it depends when the question is asked. This is wholly relevant to the question that will be posed next May on the alternative vote; the context is likely to be one of cuts and it is very likely that the coalition parties will lose substantially, particularly the Liberal Democrat party. There will be a fairly half-hearted advocacy by the Government and, effectively, the Liberal Democrats will be taken for a ride. It is very likely that the referendum on AV, because of the timing and the cuts, will be lost and lost massively.
Do these reflections rule out referendums as an instrument for decision making? No, not necessarily. They may be justified when the rules of the game are in question. One thinks of House of Lords reform, which has been a Liberal Democrat obsession for some time. It is likely that if there were to be a referendum on House of Lords reform, there would be very little interest or participation beyond the M25-or whatever is the English expression for beltway. How does one interpret low participation? On further devolution in Wales, there is a commitment, but devolution is a process. Does one have a referendum on each of the incremental changes? The suggestion that there should be referendums on council tax increases is absurd. It would be like turkeys voting for Christmas. Who is going to vote for a council tax increase? As for the surrender of sovereignty argument, it was put forward as a populist gesture. The truth is that QMV has often
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Lord Hannay of Chiswick: My Lords, no one could possibly suggest that this debate, and the report on referendums in the UK that we are considering, are not topical and urgent. For that reason, we owe a debt of gratitude to the Constitution Committee under its two successive chairmen, the noble Lord, Lord Goodlad, and the noble Baroness, Lady Jay. In this Session of Parliament, we are being asked by the coalition Government to approve two major pieces of constitutional legislation that provide for the holding of referendums-legislation on the UK method of voting and that dealing with further transfers of powers to the European Union. By the time this Session is over, we may well have taken two major steps towards embedding referendums in our constitutional practice. As this report recognises, that could have seriously negative consequences, as well as some, at least, of the advantages that their protagonists will advance. Today's debate provides an opportunity to go in some depth into the wider arguments for and against the use of referendums, which should assist our future debates on the specific measures being put forward.
My main criticism of this otherwise excellent report is that it confines its scope to referendums in this country, although there is the odd reference to the use of referendums elsewhere-in Switzerland, for example. In this debate, many of the participants have ranged much more widely, and they have been right to do so. Limiting the report damagingly narrows the field of inquiry and excludes a number of examples that could usefully underpin the arguments deployed for and against-mainly against-the use of referendums. Is it not relevant, for example, that the German constitution makes no provision at all for holding referendums in the light of that country's disastrous experience with plebiscitary democracy in the inter-war period? Should we not be paying some attention to France's experience, in the referendum that General de Gaulle lost and the EU referendum of 2005 on the constitutional treaty? Both were simply votes about individuals. They were nothing whatever to do with the subject on the order paper. The loss of the constitutional treaty was merely a reaction to the unpopularity of President Chirac. Then there is the recent Turkish example mentioned by a previous speaker. All the evidence points towards the vote having been more about the AK Party's popularity and a precursor of next year's general election than a considered view of the actual constitutional changes being proposed. One might also cite the Greek Cypriot referendum of 2004, when the country's president exhorted his people to vote no to emulate the heroic Greek response to Mussolini's ultimatum in 1940. That list is not exhaustive, but it illustrates just how real are what the report calls the "significant drawbacks" to having referendums.
The main thrust of the significant drawbacks is to undermine the crucial contention by the supporters of referendums that they are in some way a superior form of democracy-a test superior to the system of representative parliamentary democracy, for which our ancestors fought and in some cases died. But how on earth can referendums seriously be considered as a superior form of democracy if fewer people turn out to vote than in general elections, if their votes are cast without fully addressing the issues at stake and if, indeed, they are cast more to register a view on the Government of the day who are asking the question than to provide an answer to the question itself? But if the superior test criterion cannot be answered convincingly, what are you left with? It is just another electoral gimmick with uncertain consequences for our constitutional evolution and, possibly, damaging side effects. That is the sort of analysis that would get any new medical prescription banned or at least substantially delayed.
So much for the significant drawback side of the ledger. How about the plus side of it? Many considerations on that side seem to teeter between the threadbare and the counterintuitive. Can it realistically be maintained that a referendum settles a contentious issue once and for all? The 1975 referendum on our European membership certainly did not do that. Within a few years of that decisive two-thirds/one-third vote, one of our two main parties was campaigning to withdraw. Did the referendum vote on Scottish devolution deter the Scottish National Party from pressing for independence? Evidently not. Should the vote in next year's proposed referendum on our voting system produce a very low turnout, as it quite possibly may do, will that not feed the controversy rather than settle it?
Then there is the argument that frequent use of referendums and our system of representative parliamentary democracy can happily live side by side, indeed can strengthen each other. I find that totally unconvincing. Once we start to make regular use of referendums, there will be demands for more of them. More single-issue causes will demand that they, too, should have their day in court. We can already see that in the Welsh claims that their future is more important and more worthy of referendum treatment than our adjustments to EU treaty law; such demands will become steadily more difficult to resist. Little by little, the legitimacy of the system of representative parliamentary democracy will be challenged and leached away. Is that something we can happily contemplate?
I hope that the Minister will be able to respond to some of these concerns when he replies. He and I voted in the same Lobby when we resisted the demand for a referendum on the Lisbon treaty, so I imagine that he is not totally insensitive to them. These concerns are, in any case at least, nothing to do with the subject matter of next year's referendum on the voting system. I will vote yes, for the alternative vote-although I would like it to be made properly proportional-but how much better if that were to be done by an Act of Parliament, just as every change to the franchise, from the Great Reform Act 1832 onwards, was carried forward.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville, said. We suffer a substantial loss in not having Lord Bingham of Cornhill to debate these issues. He was probably the greatest constitutional lawyer of his generation and he died unseemly early. He would have made a great contribution to these debates and I entirely agree with the noble Lord.
I join other Members of your Lordships' House in congratulating the committee on its report. The only criticism that I have detected throughout is the fact that there were not sufficient foreign examples. I am glad to say that the noble Lords, Lord Anderson of Swansea and Lord Hannay, have now put that right with their encyclopaedic knowledge of foreign referendums, including those in Greece, Turkey, Cyprus and other countries in which I know that the House has a huge interest. I believe it to be a very good report. It deals with the matter forensically, sets out the evidence and comes to conclusions that it is hard to disagree with.
In this House, we tend to be self-congratulatory; we tell ourselves how good we are on many topics. Very often, we are not that good on every topic, but on constitutional affairs we are good. We have an important role to play and the Constitutional Committee has made a major contribution, over the years that I have been in the House, in informing that debate. This report on referendums is another in that line, and its effect is to make people ask, "Well, why is it wrong"? If it is not wrong, we should be agreeing with it and acting upon it.
I have the most profound sympathy for the gentleman called Mr Mark Harper, whoever he may be. He had the misfortune to sign the Government's response. I know, from being a Minister, that from time to time you have to sign responses on behalf of the Government. Your problem is generally that you have committed yourself to a particular course of action that the committee's report rightly identifies to be completely wrong and based on no principles at all. You have two methods by which you can deal with this. Either you say next to nothing-in which case the noble Lord, Lord McNally, would have got up to say it is the most insulting response he has ever seen, as it was so short-or you do what Mr Mark Harper does, which essentially is to fly in the face of the evidence. For example, he says that there is absolutely no evidence whatever that these referendums are done on an ad hoc basis for political purposes when, if you read the report, there are pages and pages of that. The noble Lord, Lord Pannick, set out the evidence, which was overwhelming. Poor Mr Mark Harper; I looked up his previous history and I am happy to tell your Lordships that he ran his own accountancy firm from 2002 to 2006. He cites his interests as being, inter alia: work and pensions, law and order, the USA and Israel. His three interests are: travel, walking the dog and going to the cinema-none of which equipped him for the terrible task with which he found himself.
I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Goodlad, who has provided leadership for the committee, and the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, who I have absolutely no
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We now face a major period of constitutional change, led in practice by the Liberal Democrats. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, who is much liked in this House, has a critical role in it. It is none the worse for the fact that it is led by the Liberal Democrats, and I pay tribute here to the support that they provided for the constitutional changes that came through Parliament after 1997-things such as the Human Rights Act, the Freedom of Information Act, the devolution Acts and the reforms to the Lord Chancellor. They supported those consistently throughout and we will, wherever we can, support them consistently.
It is worth pointing out, however, that those constitutional changes emerged from a long process of discussion, led by the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, and the late Robin Cook, in which both parties were seeking to identify the right and the best changes. The constitutional changes that we are now faced with have not come out of a long process where we were trying to come to the right answer. They have come from five days of shambolic negotiations, in which the prize at the end of the five days was not the best constitutional changes but, in practice, ministerial cars for the Liberal Democrats.
On the changes that we are looking at, the first with which we will be dealing is an alternative vote system. On this side of the House, we supported that system and a referendum in our manifesto. Before the noble Lord, Lord McNally, gets up to point it out, we lost the election but no other party supported that particular proposal-and that proposal is the one which the public are now being asked to vote on in a referendum. That is why the timing of the committee chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Goodlad, as it was, is very apposite. On this side of the House, we agree with almost everything that the committee has said. Perhaps I might highlight some of the points.
Referendums, as the noble Lord, Lord Goodlad, candidly said in his speech, occur on an ad hoc basis for politically driven reasons. I adopt all of the reasons from the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, to destroy the unfortunate Mr Mark Harper's rejection of that view. The fact that they are ad hoc and politically driven does not mean that they are wrong and I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Owen, in what he said on the utility that they have produced in our country. In Northern Ireland, referendums have also had a beneficial effect. I adopt what my noble friend Lord Wills said in evidence to the committee: that the fact that they are based on politically-driven motivations does not make them bad. They are now accepted as an occasional part of our constitutional furniture and much as the
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When things start, ad hockery is fine but, as time goes on, if no principles are involved then doubt creeps in and confidence in the political system is reduced. I agree with the committee's approach that major constitutional change will sometimes, if it is not backed by referendums, lack legitimacy. If you use the referendum too much, on the other hand, its abuse and constant use will lead to losing confidence in it as well. In parenthesis, in one of his responses I understand Mr Mark Harper to be saying that it is the Government's intention to introduce mayors in certain places and get the introduction of the mayor approved subsequently by a referendum. Is that right? Does the noble Lord, Lord McNally, think it a sensible use of the referendum power to introduce the change first, then have it approved by referendum?
"Parliament should judge what issues will be the subject of referendums. In its first report, this Committee stated that it would 'focus on issues of constitutional significance' determined by whether an issue raises 'an important question of principle about a principal part of the constitution'. We believe that this provides a useful test, first, of whether an issue is of fundamental constitutional significance, and second, of whether a referendum is therefore appropriate".
I say that that is the correct approach. There are circumstances in which referendums are not appropriate. I completely agree with my noble friend Lord Liddle that a referendum was not appropriate either for the Nice treaty, which the Government then led by Tony Blair said would have a referendum, nor for the Lisbon treaty, which the Government led by Gordon Brown said would not. On neither occasion was a referendum appropriate, because they did not satisfy the paragraph 118 test.
On the question of fundamental change to your Lordships' House, if the change were fundamental-in particular, if you changed the way in which you elect noble Lords-a referendum probably would be appropriate, because that would be a significant change to our constitution.
To allow referendums on a range of local issues, such as excessive council tax increases, would be a dangerous move. I agree with my noble friend Lord Foulkes of Cumnock that that in effect would close yet further the space for good local government, and I would be against the excessive use of referendums in local issues. I am strongly in favour, as are so many noble Lords, of the fact that there are many ways, and more should be developed, to engage the public with their politicians, but that should not include local referendums.
I shall conclude by referring to three particular issues on referendums. First, it must be right that a neutral body should formulate the question. Parliament should definitely approve it, but if we want to have faith in referendums, the question should be formulated by a neutral body such as the Electoral Commission. Why does Mr Mark Harper oppose it?
Secondly, on the timing of the referendum, paragraph 145 of the report makes the case that if the referendum is on the same day as a general election, that will mean that the referendum gets completely swamped. It says that referendums should never be held on the same day as a general election and that there should be a presumption against it being on the day of other elections. The reasoning given in the evidence is that the other elections-the Scottish and Welsh general elections, for example, which will take place on the day-swamp the issue. When there is an election on the same day, the referendum becomes a secondary issue that is inevitably the victim of those other issues. That was the evidence. Will the Minister tell us why Mr Mark Harper rejected that evidence?
Thirdly, the report is generally opposed to supermajorities or voter thresholds, though it says that there is a case for there being a supermajority or a voter threshold where you are dealing with a major constitutional issue. Does the Minister think there is any constitutional issue that is more major than how the first Chamber is elected?
The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord McNally): My Lords, I think the whole House will want to send our sympathy to Mr Mark Harper. Not since Mark Antony outsmarted Brutus has such an orator turned his forensic skills on someone. Here we have the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer-a professional wordsmith, a Queen's Counsel, a positive Cicero-turning all his powers on to an accountant. Now he is appealing for sympathy from the House. I am sure that Mark Harper will survive.
It is difficult to respond to a debate like this. I have a well written 15-minute ministerial response that would cover a number of the issues, but it would not catch the flavour of the debate. I will try to do so instead by responding to some of the questions, but I ask for the understanding of the House. In this debate we have covered Northern Ireland, the role of the Lord Chancellor, links between the judiciary and the legislature, Europe, constitutional reform, local government and elected mayors, and devolution in Scotland, Wales and England. In just some of the speeches, I think there was some rehearsing of Second Reading speeches for future legislation. I will try to respond in the context of the report.
The attitude that I have taken to constitutional reform all my political life is that I agree that one should look for consensus where possible. I agree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer; I still count as one of the most fruitful and useful periods of my political life the time that I spent serving on the Cook/Maclennan committee before the 1997 election, when we hammered out a lot of the ideas that occupied the first period of the Labour Government after that election. We were pleased to give our support to that range of constitutional reforms.
One should look for consensus, however, only if it can be achieved. I have also said in debates in this House that if the Reform Act 1832 had had to wait for consensus, the Member for Old Sarum would probably
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I shall be frank about where I stand on the question of referendums. The noble Baroness, Lady Quin, reminded us where she and I started on this. I was actually in the meeting of the national executive of the Labour Party when Mr Anthony Wedgwood Benn proposed that the party should adopt a referendum on Europe as its policy, and he could not find a seconder for that resolution. That was because most of the parliamentarians sitting around that table expressed the view of referendums that has been expressed many times in this House and, to a certain extent, is reflected in the report-the suspicion that referendums had been used in the past by fascist dictatorships and that they undermine the essential basis of a parliamentary representative democracy. The fact that a year or so later Mr Benn carried his resolution does not negate the point. I suspect that my generation and those who are older probably share the view of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe of Aberavon, that referendums are best kept for Welsh opening hours rather than for more serious matters.
On the other hand and to put it into context, a few weeks ago I expressed these views to one of the younger MPs from my parliamentary party. He fiercely, and with a gleam in his eye, denounced me for such views, saying that if we were ever going to reconnect with the people, we must keep an open mind about the use of different kinds of systems for engaging the public. He was firmly of the view that the use of referendums and some of the ideas for involving people that were outlined in the Power report-such as the new schemes for involving and consulting people via the internet-were the new politics and that we must recognise that.
I read the report with great interest but with a feeling that perhaps there is a generational difference in attitudes to such things. Down the corridor there are people who are willing to look at these issues and challenge some of our more small "c" conservative views about the use of referendums. As the noble Lord, Lord Owen, pointed out, they have been used since 1975, not on a national basis, but frequently and sometimes with good benefit. I take the point that was made about the vote in Northern Ireland, which undoubtedly helped to cement the agreement.
I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Goodlad, and the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, respectively, on the report and on securing time for this debate. It has been an excellent debate-one of those that you are fearful of when it is your job to reply, as you see all the school debating stars coming out for the game. It is a tribute to the committee that, as has been pointed out, so many of those who have spoken today were not members of it. We get used to having debates on reports where virtually all the speakers were from the committee itself. It shows the quality of this report that it has brought out such a varied range of experts in the topics under review. I also say to the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, that I have not found a committee report that has been so much respected by officials and
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However, I know that there have been responses to the report-for example, on the wording of the question -which would certainly not abdicate responsibility. This is the Government's policy. Although it seems that there is a superficial attraction to saying "Hand it across to a neutral party", it is the Government's view that is being put to the people. However, they took notice of what the committee said. I believe that an amendment has already been tabled in the other place, reflecting the Electoral Commission's comments on the question. I hope this will produce the desired result of a question that people find acceptable.
Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: I am very pleased by what the noble Lord, Lord McNally, has said about taking account of some of the recommendations. Will he specifically address the question of holding the referendum on the same day as the Scottish, Welsh and, in England, local government elections? I think the overwhelming view of this Chamber is that that would be a bad thing. Will the Government take serious note of that?
Lord McNally: I am quite sure that the Government will take serious note. One of the things that makes a debate such as this very difficult is the fact that we are talking about legislation that is passing through both Houses. We are talking about legislation which has yet to be debated fully in this House and is at around the midway stage in the other place. I understand that Members have specific criticisms of the ideas. Sometimes they may find to their surprise that the Government are flexible. At other times, as the noble and learned Lord will know from his ministerial experience, the Government will dig in their heels and say, "No, this is the way it's going to be". I do not think there is any evidence that the Government are using a steamroller on this. We are listening and consulting.
I saw Mark Harper's response to the report. To try to get the House at least half on his side, I draw attention to his point that the Government agree that national referendums should be exceptional events, although they do not share the committee's general concern that such referendums have been used in an ad hoc manner or as a tactical device. With such things it is best to leave it to the academics and historians to take a view. I suspect that local referendums, as somebody pointed out, will be rather expensive and, after a while, irritating. Let us just see how this works out.
I will move on to some of the questions that were specifically asked of me, particularly by the noble Baroness, Lady Jay. She asked whether there would be information provision in the referendum and whether some of it should be independent. Again, the Government have already tabled an amendment to the Bill that will give the Electoral Commission the explicit power to provide information on both first-past-the-post and AV electoral systems. I also think-and this was certainly
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I have already mentioned that the Government have taken the Electoral Commission's advice on the wording of the referendum. To the question of who will regulate local referendums, I am given the most helpful response that this matter is being considered. You cannot have better than that. Perhaps more helpfully, on the need for a post-referendum evaluation, about which the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, also asked, we absolutely agree. Indeed, the much maligned Mark Harper also made clear in his response that there would be a proper and full evaluation by the Electoral Commission of the lessons to be learnt from the referendum, and that the Government would take actions following any recommendations that came from that.
I am running out of time to give full responses. I was very interested in the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Wills. I shall certainly look at the work that he did before leaving office. I told him privately yesterday, and tell him now publicly, that he is a hard act to follow, not least as regards some of the work that he was doing on constitutional reform involving outside bodies and interest groups. I will certainly follow up some of that work.
The noble Lord, Lord Owen, came to the help of the pro-referendum side by illustrating how referendums have helped, if not to settle matters, at least to settle them for a time. He warned about fixing the date, but you cannot win in that regard. If you fix the date, you are considered to be opportunistic; if you do not fix the date, you are considered to be opportunistic. We have settled on the date not, as everyone has said in the debate, because those who want referendums pick only the date when they think they can win. Everybody is telling us that the relevant date will not be a very opportune time on which to hold a referendum on the voting system. We will see. As I say, once the two groups come together to put their arguments, it could be a very interesting and exciting campaign.
If I have missed any major questions, noble Lords can leap up. When I gave my list of things that had been covered in the debate, I missed out the coverage by the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, of the Duckworth Lewis method of scoring at a limited-overs cricket match. I agree with him; I still do not know how it works.
The debate has shown the value of these reports. I agree with the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady O'Loan, as regards paragraph 94, which sets out the issues for which referendums are most appropriately used. It states:
"To abolish the Monarchy; To leave the European Union; For any of the nations of the UK to secede ... To abolish either House of Parliament; To change the electoral system for the House of Commons; To adopt a written constitution; and To change the UK's system of currency".
It is not an exhaustive list but it is not a bad one with which to start. We are all indebted to the committee. As I said in the middle of my speech, this report has
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Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, the whole House will be very grateful to the Minister for taking the trouble to give us his personal analysis and description of his reply to the debate. It is very encouraging to hear-as I asked at the outset-that some of the things which were raised in the committee's report have already been adopted by the Government. We understand, of course, the problems of dealing with this kind of "take note" debate while legislation goes through the other House.
I welcome my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer of Thoroton back to the Front Bench. We look forward to his continuing involvement in constitutional issues although the now famous Mr Mark Harper may be less enthusiastic. I congratulate all noble Lords who have spoken in this very distinguished list of speakers we have heard from this afternoon. I am particularly grateful to those who have commented favourably on the quality and timing of the report. However, as I said at the outset, that praise is primarily due to the noble Lord, Lord Goodlad, who I was delighted to note took part in the debate.
As so often in your Lordships' House, this type of debate has attracted an enormously authoritative group of views from people who have had various experiences in different types of referendums, which they have reported very faithfully. I hope that the House will not think it unfair of me to say that most of those contributions reflected the general scepticism about referendums conveyed in the report. I, of course, support that given the part that I took in the committee's inquiry.
We have heard from a large number of speakers-this was also noted by the Minister in his conclusion-who did not take part in the committee proceedings as they were not members of the committee. That has enormously enriched the debate. I go so far as to say that today we have had a very powerful form of pre-legislative scrutiny of the political parties and referendums Bill, which we hope will come to us in due course. I hope that we all look forward to those deliberations. Like the Minister, I think that at Second Reading we shall hear again in one form or other some of the contributions made this afternoon. In the mean time, I hope that the House will accept the Constitution Committee's report on referendums as a timely contribution to our further deliberations.
Lord Fowler: My Lords, this is the last report of the Communications Select Committee which was under my chairmanship until the election. I take the opportunity to thank all the members of that committee for the support which they consistently gave me and for the wide experience that they put at the service of the House. I rode on the shoulders of a range of broadcasting professionals and other media professionals, including religious broadcasting professionals and irrepressible experts on the new media.
Given all the adventures we had setting up this committee -the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, will remember that-I am also extremely glad that it is continuing in this Parliament as it is an important committee and has a great role to play. My only sadness is that my successor as chairman-my noble friend Lord Onslow-is unwell. We all wish him a speedy return to the House.
The case for digital switchover in television and radio is basically the following. Digital broadcast uses less space in the spectrum than the equivalent analogue broadcast, more services are possible and the space freed up on the spectrum by switching from analogue to digital television broadcasting is in demand for other services. The same does not apply as far as radio is concerned. There are many new services. That is why television switchover has gone so smoothly in this country-the public can see the benefit. New programmes are open to them. They may still sit there of an evening wondering what exactly is worth watching, but the choice is there and the process has been managed so far, I think, without substantial hitch, bar one issue: that is, the help scheme for the elderly.
The predecessor of the Communications Committee, the Select Committee on the Royal Charter-one or two members of that committee are present-was in no doubt about how the help scheme should be financed. We said that it should come out of general taxation like other social security payments such as free television licences for the elderly. The then Government rejected that advice and insisted instead that it should be financed by the licence fee-a regressive tax. Our report shows the result. Rather than a 65 per cent take-up, which was the Government's estimate, there has been a 20 per cent take-up. This has resulted in a likely underspend of between £250 million and £300 million. In other words, licence fee payers were charged too much, the BBC was deprived of income which could have gone to other programme making, and the previous Government slightly flaffed about trying to find something else to spend the money on. I hope that if there is a help scheme for radio switchover, at least we will learn the lessons of television and not raise the money in that way.
The main problems on switchover obviously concern radio. It remains a powerful medium in this country. It has defeated all predictions of its demise. Ninety per cent of the population listen regularly to the radio and it boasts some of the best programmes. On radio, the "Today" programme each morning is politically more important than any of its television rivals. Drama on BBC radio goes much wider than anything on television. Classic radio successfully challenged the view of the old controllers of Radio 3, who seemed to believe in the wide appeal of 15th century Mongolian chants.
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Of course, the popularity of radio and FM radio is much of the problem as far as switchover is concerned. The public are well satisfied and they ask, not unreasonably, what the advantage will be of making the change. They know that they will get some new services-Radio 7 and 4 Plus come to mind-but, with the best will in the world, this is not on the scale of television. However, what they are also beginning to understand is that there will be a substantial cost to them for switchover-a financial cost and a cost in inconvenience. Of course they are absolutely right. The best estimates suggest that there are more than 100 million analogue radios in this country, all of which will become substantially useless in the new digital world. The public will get community radio, but precious little else. Thereby, families up and down the land will find that their ordinary FM radios have become redundant. Certainly, judging from my post bag and my experience, we are often talking about three or four radios in a household becoming redundant. If you have a hi-fi receiver and you want to continue listening to music on the radio-the Proms, for example-the cost of replacement is likely to be substantial.
That is not the end of the matter. There are about 33 million cars on the road. Virtually all have analogue radios and will require converters at an additional cost. As a broad rule of thumb, the position is as follows: by the time of the switchover, it should be possible for cars of less than five years old to have garage-fitted converters behind the dashboard and an external aerial. The cost to the motorist is likely to be between £75 and £100. For cars which are more than five years old, the prospect is that the converter would go into the glove compartment and, if you fit it yourself, the cost will be about £40 or £50. I emphasise that this is in addition to the costs of replacements in the home.
Therefore, there is no question that there is a substantial cost to switchover and a substantial cost to the ordinary person. That has never been made sufficiently clear to the public in the lead-up to this process. The inevitable question that arises is: should we go ahead? Is it worth it? To be honest, there are formidable disadvantages to digital switchover for the consumer. If there had been a referendum-we were debating referendums in the previous debate-I very much doubt whether we would have gone ahead. However, the previous Government decided that we should go ahead, for a variety of reasons-particularly the views of the radio industry. That is where we are and that is the position that the new Government have inherited.
The Government announced their policy on 8 July in a digital radio action plan. If I may carp to the Minister about just one point of that announcement, it was made not in Parliament and certainly not in reply to the Select Committee which had received a reply from the Government only a few weeks before. Anyone who looks at that government response will find it full of happy and pretty meaningless generalisations. It could have been written by our old friend, the noble
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and that, in a speech in London, he "will say...". In a previous report, the Select Committee said that it wanted to restore the influence of Parliament and that statements should be made here first, without trailers. It would be a vast pity if the policy of spin was to continue now that the noble Lord, Lord Mandelson, and Mr Campbell have left the scene. It would be a particular pity in this case, because the Government have had some very powerful arguments on digital switchover for continuing with the policies.
I pay tribute to the Government because they clearly took note of our report-particularly our strong advice that the public had to be taken with the process. The Minister, Mr Vaizey, said that 2015 remained the target date. However, he added:
He believed that there would be benefit to the public in multichannel national radio in the same way as in television. To be frank, whether that is right or wrong there is one further and conclusive reason why we need to proceed. Many people have relied on the promise of the previous Government and bought new sets. More than 11 million digital receivers have already been sold, about a quarter of radio listening is already digital and, of course, the radio industry is preparing for the change. The motor industry is preparing to make digital radio standard in all cars by 2013. A U-turn in policy would run the risk of turning public confusion into an utter shambles.
Therefore, the committee agrees with the Government that we should proceed-but subject to a number of steps to help the process. Of these, by far the most important is public information-telling the public what is happening and sharing the knowledge that at present is too often confined to the radio industry and the Government. It is a matter for concern that the public are still buying analogue radio sets, not all of them necessarily cheap, when in a few years' time the plan is to make those sets redundant. The retailers need to explain the position to their customers. It is also a matter for concern that the motor industry has not proceeded faster than it has. The standard fitting of converters by 2013 is perilously close to the 2015 target for introduction. Most new cars can have a digital radio as a fitted extra, and the advantage of that should be spelt out.
More and better information is very much of the essence, as is the development of a scrappage scheme, given that manufacturers and retailers are likely to have something of a bonanza as the switchover date comes nearer. I do not pretend that even with these steps the outlook for the future is perfect-and some will put it rather more strongly than that-but it will certainly be an improvement on what has happened up to now.
My last point is that in this area-again I pay tribute-the Government have not only listened to, but acted on, some of the recommendations in our report. That stands in contrast to what sometimes happened in the past. Earlier, I mentioned the help scheme for television. The previous Government drowned us in words of appreciation for our hard work and skill, and did precisely the opposite of what we recommended, with dire results. I will give another example. We opposed the setting up of the BBC Trust. Again, the previous Government thanked us fulsomely for our report-again, the thanks went on and on-and again they went ahead with a plan that is now almost universally condemned.
My point, as I leave this Select Committee, is that there is a great deal of practical experience on a committee such as the Select Committee on Communications. A wise Government will listen to that advice. I hope that this Government will continue on the path that they have begun, and I hope that they will give the advice the proper consideration that it deserves. I beg to move.
Lord Maxton: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, for initiating the debate on our report. Perhaps more importantly, I also pay a sincere tribute to his chairmanship of the Select Committee for Communications in the last Parliament. He brought a great deal of expertise to the job and was always fair and tolerant in his handling of the members of the committee, even when they were the irrepressible advocates of the new media. I am sure that there were times when I tested his patience and good will, and there were times when we disagreed on issues. However, he always treated me with both tolerance and respect and I thank him for that. Lastly, I thank him for the fact that because of this debate I will be unable to watch Scotland playing Spain on television. That is something for which I owe him serious thanks.
This is a very thorough and thoughtful report, and already many of its proposals, as the noble Lord said, have been either recognised or implemented by the Government or Ofcom. The part of the report dealing with the switchover from analogue to digital television by 2012 is basically non-controversial-with the exception of the one issue that he raised-and it rightly praises those who are dealing with it. In passing, I note that the technology, even in this area of television, is changing rapidly. Sky is now showing some 3D programmes, which one can watch if one has a 3D television, and this may become the norm, particularly if it becomes possible to watch 3D without wearing awful dark glasses. If this happens, consumers yet again will be required to purchase new television sets. More importantly, internet televisions are now on the market, allowing viewers the ability to read e-mails and surf the web on their televisions from their armchairs using a remote control very similar to their present one. This will mean that access to a range of video sites will be available, which will allow viewers to watch programmes from around the world as well as catching up on all the channels broadcast in this country.
I am in some difficulty speaking second because-as I am sure those who served on the committee might expect-I am not going to follow completely the
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As the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, said, the advantages of this switch are not as obvious as those for television. The lack of digital signals in parts of the country, the quality of the sound in some areas, the large cost to the consumer of replacing existing FM radio sets that, unlike TV sets, are redundant, and the cost to smaller community radio stations of obtaining access to the DAB spectrum, even if it is available, are all reasons why the switchover will be difficult. DAB is probably already out of date. DAB+ is being introduced in other countries in Europe, making DAB sets unusable when travelling abroad. As the noble Lord said, DAB radios are not at present being installed in cars, and it may be some years before they are standard. Lastly, the cost of changing the radio transmitters to digital for the last 15 per cent of the population, mainly in rural and remote areas, who at present get FM signals, may prove prohibitive.
Is this debate relevant? Is the only choice between FM radio or digital, whether through DAB or DAB+; or is there an alternative that will be more reliable, give greater choice and in the long run be cheaper? I believe that internet radio is that alternative. I use the term internet radio as shorthand for the ability to listen to thousands of radio stations and other sound streams from around the world using whatever device, mobile or stationary, is available to the listener. After putting this suggestion at a Question Time before the Recess, I received a letter from the noble Lord, Lord Shutt of Greetland. It would be easy to attack him for the ignorance shown in his letter were it not for the fact that the arguments he put were the same as those put by my noble friends who were Ministers in the previous Government.
The first point made in the letter by the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, is that internet radio listening is a one-to-one delivery system and, as the number of users increases, so does the cost to the broadcaster. I do not even begin to understand that point. I have put it to several people and nobody else understands it, either. Radio stations around the world stream their programmes on the internet, and they are available to anyone who wishes to listen to them and has the correct equipment. I cannot believe that the BBC would stream all its stations, both national and local, radio and television, on the internet if every time someone listened to them-and Ofcom research indicates that that could be up to 17 million people in this country daily-it incurred more costs. It would not do it, and nor would any other radio station.
The second argument in the letter is that broadband networks do not have the capacity for everyone who listens to radio to switch from FM or DAB to listening on the internet. Certainly, if everyone who now has a radio at home went out tomorrow and bought an internet radio, threw out all their other radios and listened only to internet radio, the broadband system might not be able to cope. I say "might" because I simply do not know. However, we are not talking
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Broadband capacity has increased enormously, while compression technology has also improved dramatically. I remember that in 2001, in the other place, I asked the then Secretary of State for Trade, Patricia Hewitt, how she defined broadband. Eventually-and it was eventually -she suggested that broadband could be defined as anything between 400 kilobytes and 2 megabytes. Now, less than 10 years later, 20 megabytes is the standard offering of nearly all broadband companies.
BT is on target to provide 100-megabyte cable access for 40-plus per cent of households. Virgin Media is already offering its customers 50 megabytes for a small extra charge and is experimenting with 200 megabytes. Other countries, such as South Korea and Japan, provide not just radio but all their television services down cable. Even in rural areas at the moment, 10 megabytes is not unusual. By 2015, it is inconceivable that the capacity of the broadband network will not have grown by more than enough to cope with it being the main provider of domestic radio use. After all, the Government are committed to ensuring that every household has access to broadband by 2012 and that 90 per cent of households will be able to access high-speed broadband by 2017.
So what about car radios, which account for some 20-plus per cent of radio usage? I proved to myself recently that you can get internet radio on your car radio probably easier than you can get DAB radio. As the noble Lord said, DAB requires the purchase of a specific, relatively expensive device to transform, not very successfully, your car radio from FM. Getting internet radio can be done with a cable and a smart phone with 3G capacity. I have an iPad, which will surprise no one. On it I have a radio app which accesses radio stations from around the world. I plugged my AV lead into the iPad and was able to listen to Minnesota Public Radio as my wife drove me along a motorway in Scotland. Okay, who wants to listen to Minnesota Public Radio? But the point was made. I was also able to listen to BBC Radio Scotland on my iPad while on holiday in Lanzarote.
What other advantages will internet radio provide? It will provide a massive choice of stations of course, a quality of sound at least the equal of DAB-and there are those who argue that it is actually better than DAB-and, once everyone has access to broadband even in the remotest rural areas, using the internet to provide high-quality radio may be both easier and cheaper than changing all the transmitters to provide DAB radio. I am no technology expert but surely providing radio, and indeed television, down a wire-either cable or telephone-uses less radio spectrum than listening to radio or watching television by terrestrial means. Nearly all households have a telephone at the moment and the Government are committed to ensuring that they all have access to broadband by 2012.
Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: Oh dear, my Lords, how does one follow that? I think that I shall just return to the words that I wrote earlier and not try to address the technological forest that the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, has sketched out.
I rise as someone who was a member of the Communications Committee when this report was published and when it was so ably chaired by a man whom I can now publicly call my noble friend-Lord Fowler. No more secrets and no more subterfuge about our relationship-there are good things about the coalition. On a serious note, I am proud to have been a member of the committee, and proud of the many other reports that we published under his expert leadership-a hard act to follow. I also thank our clerk, Ralph Publicover, Rita Logan, the committee assistant, and Papiya Chatterjee, who was our committee specialist. I thank, too, fellow members of the committee, many of whom are here. It was a very convivial group and I hope that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester has not taken personally the exodus of the Liberal Democrats from the Benches around him.
In 1922 when the British Broadcasting Company was set up, it transmitted only radio of course and it had a staff of four people. That admirable series "A History of Modern Britain" had wonderful footage of those pioneering days, when the only choice for listeners appears to have been in the sole gift of a Captain Eckersley, who would, using the words of the presenter Andrew Marr,
Those days when choice for listeners was confined to one man's piano repertoire are long, long gone, and the advent of digital television and radio means change as fundamental as when Lord Reith got rid of Captain Eckersley.
The digital switchover of television is under way, running, it appears, without major problems and to time. Of course London-by far the biggest challenge in terms of numbers-does not switch until 2012, the crucial year of the Olympics. However, one of the factors to have helped with the TV switchover has been the large number of people who, one way or another, already have digital television services, and that number will no doubt be even higher by 2012.
Therefore, where television is concerned, the technology, and the expansion of choice that it has given, has been embraced by viewers. I believe-here I think that I probably differ from my noble friend Lord Fowler-that the same benefits of increased choice and new, innovative ways to enjoy content can and will be equally popular with radio listeners, and that is what the switchover to digital radio will supply.
Our report warned of the potential danger of a very different reaction to radio switchover. My noble friend Lord Fowler went so far as to say that he thought it might cause a "major row". I do not think it is necessary for it to cause a major row. The most
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In July, on launching the government/industry Digital Radio Action Plan, the Communications Minister, Ed Vaizey, made a firm commitment that the future of radio was digital and that the Government would indeed lead in the drive to overcome the remaining barriers to switchover. The Minister believes that it should be radio listeners,
This was welcomed-not surprisingly, exuberantly-by consumer groups, and indeed the opportunity provided for consumer representatives to be actively involved in the process is absolutely right. I think more thought should be given to setting a date and I am sure there will be as we proceed. Talk about a target but not a commitment worries me. Perhaps we are trying to be all things to all pressure groups when in the action plan we say:
My concern is that there may be a horse and cart problem. Retailers have to be convinced that we are genuinely moving toward switchover before they will stop selling, and indeed marketing, analogue radios to people who need to be convinced before they stop doing what they are doing now, which is still buying them in their droves. Car manufacturers are still fitting analogue radios in new cars which, it is said, will stop by 2013, but will it if 2015 remains a target caught between timetable and criteria?
It is greatly to be welcomed that the BBC is increasing digital coverage from 85 per cent to 92 per cent by 2011, through the installation of 61 new national DAB transmitters. However, the fact is that uncertainty is not an incentive for investment in new technology, or for that matter in content which is so much part of the bonus that digital radio will bring.
Another big concern we encountered was about FM, and I am sure we all welcome the decision to retain FM as a platform for small, local and community radio stations. Also a precondition of switchover is the extension of digital radio multiplexes to match that of FM, which means that all existing stations that want a digital future will be able to have one. But there is no point in being able to get digital radio if most of us find it impossible to access and use. Here I agree with the Consumer Expert Group that,
In other words, digital radio needs its own version of the electronic programme guide which allows the viewer to navigate their way easily among the myriad choices on offer through digital television. For the blind and partially sighted-this is not the case for television-that needs to incorporate voice recognition. Returning to the matter of FM, fears about local stations being sidelined can be allayed if the technology that allows seamless switching between analogue and digital continues to be developed.
Finally, I turn to the help scheme. Radio, perhaps even more than television, is of huge importance to the old and the vulnerable. For 91 per cent of the blind and partially sighted, listening to the radio is their favourite pastime. I think we need assurance from the Minister that the Government will implement a help scheme similar to that in place for television switchover. Although the take-up, as my noble friend Lord Fowler mentioned, for the television help scheme was much lower than anticipated, it has been crucial to those it did help.
The evidence about the implementation of the TV switchover help scheme was that it has been largely successful, but inevitably problems have been encountered, things have been learned and there are improvements that can be made. It is axiomatic that the experience of the TV switchover help scheme should be the foundation of the radio switchover help scheme.
I wish to mention a couple of specific points that emerged from evidence we took. The help scheme should be advertised nationally from the beginning, alongside the information campaign for switchover, rather than regionally as it is rolled out. In general, there is a need for greater co-ordination between the help scheme and the digital outreach programme- the latter is run by a partnership of voluntary organisations-particularly in regard to post-installation support, which it is felt needs to go on for longer than under the television scheme. Under the previous Government, the transition to digital for radio was characterised by drift and more drift, but under this Government and their Minister Ed Vaizey, I believe that there is recognition of the need for clarity and for certainty.
Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, despite the late hour, I am glad that your Lordships' House has had this opportunity to review the progress made towards digital switchover, both for television and radio, since our committee's report was published in March and in light of this Government's or the previous Government's reaction, which was produced in June.
Today the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, has already heaped paeans of praise on the noble Lord, Lord Fowler. The terms of office of the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter, and I as members of that Select Committee ran out at the same time as that of the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, although I claim the right to say just how privileged and lucky we were to have him as our excellent chairman from the time we fought-and we did fight, as the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, has already mentioned-to have such a Select Committee established in your Lordships' House. Without any
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Today, I want to spend my time on two issues-probably the same issues as the noble Lord, although my views may be slightly different. The first is the progress that has been and continues to be made as we move towards the final phase of TV switchover in 2012 and, secondly, on the longer timescale envisaged before radio digital switchover takes place. The first thing to say on television is that progress has clearly been made since our report was published and has speeded up since the Digital Economy Bill became law. One illustration of that is that our report estimated that by the end of March, about one-fifth of television viewers would have switched over, whereas Digital UK tells us that, by Christmas this year, it will be one-quarter of all UK homes, which is 7.1 million homes. It is fair to say that most TV viewers have more than accepted the added value that digital will bring to their TV watching. When buying new sets-and that is still happening a lot-and other equipment, they are certainly alert to the technical as well as the other benefits that the industry continues to place in the marketplace.
The outreach programme, albeit within the limitations outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, is, I would have thought, doing pretty well. Digital UK has now commissioned DOL with a total of £6.7 million to complete the cost of its work until the last switchover action is complete. What has been achieved in those regions which have already switched over is, I would argue, value for money. Its approach, as switchover reaches the region, is to brief and embed necessary switchover messages into the routine work of well known and trusted local, voluntary and community-sector organisations. I understand that the new culture Minister, Ed Vaizey, remarked at Digital UK's AGM, when congratulating the voluntary sector on the vital role that they were playing within the DOL scheme, on how well that reflected the Government's big society approach and that this could be a model for other major public change projects. I think it fair also to say that the outreach programme has proved effective in helping large numbers of people, including potentially vulnerable consumers and citizens.
On the digital radio front, it is generally agreed that the point of national switchover to digital will take longer to achieve and, above all, must reflect the consumer/citizen belief that digital radio has reached the stage when it would produce a greater quality as well as a greater variety of radio programmes. As we have heard, our report recommended the 2015 date, if those aims were achieved, and that continues to reflect the majority view of the organisations that have written in. However, although more action is and will be needed, we should not forget, as the Government's Digital Radio Action Plan reminds us, that the UK is nevertheless the current world leader in take-up of digital radio. About 11 million sets have been sold to 35 per cent of UK households, with digital listening
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Equally, as Ed Vaizey has said, certainty for the sector and consumers is key to unlocking potential and building confidence in a digital future for radio. Thus, we already know that switchover can be made only once 50 per cent of listening is to digital, national DAB is comparable to FM, and local DAB reaches 90 per cent of the population and all major roads. It is indeed good news that the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders expects its members to put digital radios in all new cars by 2013, and quite a number of them are doing it already. Clearly 2013 will be crucial as the target year for those-Ofcom, broadcasters, manufacturers, retailers and consumer groups-working together with Government to meet the conditions necessary if it is to be agreed that switchover will happen two years later in 2015.
I hope that the Minister will be able to give us some up-to-date information on how all this is progressing, what remaining funding gaps-which have been pointed out-need to be financed and, in particular, whether the funds needed for the remaining required build-out of the national, regional and local digital infrastructure have been agreed and, if so, who will provide them and pay for it. I believe there are ongoing government discussions with the BBC about funding local digital coverage. If so, can the Minister tell the House when the Government expect to be able to make an announcement on this?
One other recommendation our report made was that a help scheme with special focus on disadvantaged and special-needs groups should be set up through general taxation, as has already been noted, and that it should not be financed out of the licence fee as happened with digital TV. The potential importance of such a scheme for radio switchover must clearly remain on the agenda. We have already heard that the blind, the partially sighted and others will be disadvantaged if they are not helped with these added methods of accessing the digital future on radio in the way that they will need to be helped. Perhaps the Minister will be happy to give us some up-to-date insight on the strategy on this.
The Lord Bishop of Manchester: My Lords, it has been an enormous privilege to have served on the two Select Committees that have been so graciously and knowledgeably chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Fowler. His ability to enable amicable agreement on a range of matters between atheist, humanist and church members has been remarkable. Without exception, the reports that he has overseen have always been enhanced by his experience and expertise and have been of a very high standard. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter, about the conviviality of our meetings, although all I can say about her reference to these Benches is that tonight they are a lonely place. I join noble Lords in wishing the new Select Committee well under the noble Earl, Lord Onslow. I am very glad that my friend the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool, who cannot be in his place tonight, is a member.
As the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, said, the switchover to digital television has, on the whole, been successful. By contrast, the issues facing the radio industry, as the Select Committee report indicates, are much more complex. While the Government's digital radio action plan and last month's consumer expert group's recommendations are welcome steps forward, the case for digital radio switchover still needs to be more compelling if listeners are to be persuaded. The BBC's Trust's July appeal in its strategic review for greater clarity from government in terms of overall policy and the active involvement of the BBC and the commercial sector has clearly been heard. Indeed, many of the Select Committee's carefully argued recommendations have been reflected in the action plan, but there are still areas that require robust perseverance if all this is to be the way forward.
Even though much has been said and written about DAB, a far clearer articulation is needed to communicate effectively and widely that, as part of a multi-platform radio ecology for the future, the UK is now committed to DAB as the digital standard. I hear what the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, said about DAB+ and there is a real need for clarity to help people to understand why it is, if it is to be so, we remain with DAB. I also noted with interest his points about the internet. I recall that when we first sat together on a Select Committee he told me that it would not be long before I would be listening to radio and watching television on my computer. I did not believe him. Scarcely a day goes by now when I am not doing those very things.
Another key part of the mixed ecology is, as other noble Lords have said, the continuance of FM. I welcomed the assurances by the Government on the future of FM when the action plan was launched. In the Committee stage leading to the Digital Economy Act, I made a number of interventions to stress the fact that smaller, local stations, many of which serve their communities extremely well and for which it would be economically unviable to go digital, need to have the security of knowing that the FM band will be open to them for the long term. I very much hope that the assessment, to which the plan makes a commitment by the end of 2012, of the role and character of the small, local and community stations remaining on FM will bear in mind that the FM band could continue to provide a critical platform for small stations, which not only serve geographically defined areas but identity-defined and interest-defined groups as well.
I am glad that the tripartite report from the BBC, Digital Radio UK and RadioCentre recognises that. Although some of those stations may decide to move to digital and expand their coverage, others for very good reasons will need to remain on FM. Those stations are vital to forging the togetherness of local communities, promoting local social action and encouraging democracy. They need to know that their platform is secure.
The radio sector has arguably suffered from some past political ambivalence over the best way to proceed with switchover. The action plan's emphasis on a consumer-led process and a range of criteria, placing the onus on the sector to provide world-class digital radio programmes and woo the listener, is surely a sensible way forward. It is certainly preferable to the
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If broadcasters deliver great radio content on the digital platform and let listeners know that it is there, people will buy the receivers and tune in. Making the case for switchover compelling for consumers will reduce considerably the amount of resourcing required for public information and the switchover help schemes, although not of course completely. As the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, said, there are and always will be vulnerable listeners, including the elderly and disabled, who require help and who must not be overlooked. On that, I stress the importance of the switchover help scheme and the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter. It was also interesting to hear the warnings given by the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, in relation to the TV help scheme experience.
However, none of this emphasis on a consumer-led transition should be an excuse for delay in the Government, the BBC and commercial radio partners exploring together further arrangements for significant investment in the transmission infrastructure for national and local DAB radio. People will not tune in if there is nothing to tune into. And even with the BBC's plans for 61 new national DAB transmitters by the middle of next year that will take coverage to just over 90 per cent of the population-almost 100 per cent within the M25-it would still require several hundred new transmitters to reach the final small percentage of the population. Radio, in particular, provides a very important sense of connection for those in the remote and isolated rural areas, and the truth is that we still do not know when some of the more inaccessible parts will be reached with a reliable digital signal. So there remains much to do on the pathway to a digital upgrade, and the matter of car radios has also been mentioned by several noble Lords as a good example of some continuing confusion.
I welcome the fact that the Government are adopting a detailed, determined and far more pragmatic approach. The noble Lord, Lord Fowler, was absolutely right to emphasise that better communication about the benefits of going digital is required. Perhaps the Government will produce an action plan plus that seeks genuinely to provide incentives towards and enable digitalisation without bankrolling the industry. The plus would involve investment, perhaps through long-term state loans or even-and I was present during the short debate on the licence fee at Question Time-a licence fee settlement that reflects the cost of building up the network to extend coverage at least to match that of the current FM map.
Whatever the solutions, none of the problems around the digital switchover for radio is insurmountable. Continuing contributions from the new Select Committee, concerted efforts by the broadcasters-BBC and commercial-creative responses from radio manufacturers and a convincing lead from the Government which
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Lord Inglewood: My Lords, I should declare that I was a member of the Communications Committee in the last Parliament and that I am chairman of the Cumbrian Newspaper Group, which has some radio stations. I cannot speak for other members of the committee, but when I left for my summer break I put the affairs of the media as far as work in this House is concerned entirely out of my mind, so that when I came back and turned my attention to writing a speech for this evening, I forgot entirely about television. The reason for that, as noble Lords will have gathered from my earlier comments, is that I live in Cumbria, which is part of the Border TV region. We have already had digital switchover up there and, as far as we are concerned, it is all history. I think it is true to say, speaking as an individual, for my neighbours and from the evidence we have received from the experts, that it has been a great success. It has happened and it has worked. What is more, it seems to have worked considerably below budget.
In 1996 and 1997 when I was Minister for Broadcasting, I recall asking one of the officials, "How are we going to do this? We have said that we are going to turn off, so what will happen?". Everyone was rather lost, so I said, "Oh well, we will have to fill their mouths with gold". We have done it, and it has worked even by not giving them very much gold, so it has been a considerable success.
As has been said by others, the important point for radio is that the experiences of television provide a good basic template for a similar process for radio, even though they are not entirely the same. We are right to go ahead with digital radio, even at its lowest level. The world moves on-and it is moving on into the digital era. I see the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, shaking his head and I shall come to his point in but a moment.
The question then is: how do you take it forward? We are at a point where decisions have to be made about whether or not to go ahead with digital audio broadcasting-DAB. I believe that it is right that we should go ahead with it. Some of the debate about whether it should be DAB or DAB+ was coloured by commercial considerations. However, the important thing as far as that is concerned is that the multi-standard chip becomes compulsory. This would allow the simple DAB to evolve into the DAB+ system if that is appropriate.
A number of noble Lords asked about FM and it is right that we should deal with it. There is a whole range of different radio stations-smallish and medium-sized commercial stations and community stations-which will not be able to find a place on digital as it is currently conceived. Exactly what the future for them is I do not know. I have a suspicion that the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, is right and that the moment will come when the existing FM transmitters need replacement and it is likely that these stations will move directly to broadcasting on the internet.
A number of your Lordships mentioned the importance of the timetable for taking forward this process. I can corroborate that because once the television industry was given fixed timetables it then came forward with sets, and when it was done on a large scale the unit costs declined substantially.
However, unlike television, the radio industry has had a series of problems thrown up by car radios. It is right that emphasis is being placed both on ensuring that conversion kits are available at a sensible price and that services such as traffic reports, which are important to motorists, can be received via the digital systems. However, we should remember that if you can afford a car, you can afford a radio to put in it. To put the question of costs into proportion, a digital radio does not cost much more-indeed, it will shortly cost less-than a tank of petrol.
As to the role of consumer groups, one of the great developments since the end of the Second World War has been the rise of the consumer lobby. This has been to the advantage of everyone. On the other hand, one of the lessons of the TV digital switchover is that people are much more adept in the use of changing technology than the prophets of gloom might suggest. Almost by definition, one of the characteristics of the consumer lobby is that it looks for every possible difficulty because that is where it sees it should be coming from. The lesson learnt from the rollout of digital TV and, more generally, from the way in which the electronics industry has developed, is that the industry has been extremely revolutionary. It has introduced systems of controlling these magical devices-they are magical to me-which enable relatively simple people like me to deal with them. I believe that giving the manufacturers confidence will lead them, from their own perspective of self-interest, to find ways of enabling people both to afford and to use the means of locking into the new technology.
As a number of noble Lords have already said, this is the final debate on the previous Parliament's Communications Committee. I add my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, for the way in which he led us, respected our views and enabled us to have a convivial time. I am not sure whether anyone else has said this, but I suspect that he did so in such a way that he got his own way most of the time-and that is the highest accolade you can give a chairman.
Lord Gordon of Strathblane: My Lords, simply because the evidence has been bound into the volume with our report, it looks a more daunting read than it really is. I hope that that does not put off some of our colleagues in the House, because we are all listeners and viewers and digital switchover will affect us all. It is very important that this House at least is well informed as to the effects of digital upgrade, particularly on the radio sector, which I shall concentrate on.
It has already been pointed out that in television everything seems to be going well. In a way, it is not surprising. The digital offer in television is a distinct improvement on radio; there are more services; and the public wanted more than five digital services. The cost of conversion is about 10 per cent of the cost of a
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By contrast, there is absolutely no evidence that the public wanted any more radio stations-indeed, as I shall shortly indicate, we have far too many at the moment. The Government get no money from selling off the spectrum, and the cost of converting an analogue radio set-as has already been pointed out, there could be as many as 100 million of them in this country-is pretty well the same as buying a new digital radio set.
So let us examine how we got into this position, for I concede that the case for digital switchover in radio is not nearly as strong as it is in television. Let us go back to the Broadcasting Act 1990, which introduced the great concept of licences being auctioned off. Smart operators such as my noble friend Lord Macdonald, who is sitting along from me, very sensibly bid about £2,000 for STV's licence. Other people chipped out many millions of pounds and have been feeling the pinch ever since.
There was however a public outcry at the idea of auctioning off television without a criterion of quality threshold. So a quality threshold was introduced for television but not for independent national radio. This meant that independent national radio licences went to the highest bidder. The reason that it was not a pop station was because the House, on the recommendation of the then IBA, said that it would not be. When asked how he defined "pop", the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, who was then the Minister, said, "Thump, thump, thump". It was a very apt description. Showtime won the licence, bidding over £1 million more than Classic FM. It was awarded the licence provided that it could raise the money by 16 August 1991. It failed to do so, however, so the licence went by default to Classic FM.
It is fair to say that the IBA, and subsequently the Radio Authority, was quite proud to be allowed to regulate Classic FM. It was the sort of thing you could talk to your friends about. Their wives might admit that they listened to commercial radio as distinct from saying, "I think my cleaner sometimes listens to it". The authority was very anxious to ensure that that Classic FM would survive. Given that its licence would be up for auction in a few years, all that somebody had to do was come in with £5 more than Classic FM's bid, whatever rubbish they were going to broadcast, and they would get the licence. So the authority came up with the wheeze of suggesting to the Government that the 1996 Act include provision for digital radio and extend the licence of any broadcaster who agreed to broadcast on digital.
I was one of those operators at the time-I regret that it is no longer an interest since my company was acquired in 2005-who, like everyone else, said, "Yes, extend our licences for 12 years and, of course, we'll run a second digital transmission system". We regarded it simply as a tax worth paying for the security of having one's licence, and nobody did very much about it. It is easy to blame politicians, but the honest truth is that the radio industry did not do much about it.
If we fast forward to 2008, a report came out-a report that was unpublished until ours came along-stating that the actual benefit from digital switchover would not appear until 2023. By 2008, the situation for commercial radio had changed out of all recognition. Audience levels were down, advertising revenue was down and commercial radio's share of listening was down. With about 130 stations, commercial radio used to enjoy a majority of listening. It had 51 per cent and the BBC was privately prepared to lose share down to 30 per cent. The Radio Authority and subsequently Ofcom licensed more and more radio stations so with three times the number of radio stations-390-commercial radio's share dropped as it now is to 41 per cent.
A real problem faces commercial radio but at this hour I will not indicate the remedy. It involves a change in the ownership rules. The Government are signed up to that, as were the previous Government, and that will make a difference. Without that, frankly, the future is fairly bleak. We are in a difficult situation and one thing that can be said with absolute certainty is that the independent sector cannot afford two transmission systems. We heard evidence. For example, Michael Betton from Lincs FM said that supporting two transmission systems would literally be the difference between staying in business and going out of business. What do we do? Do we say that we will abandon the digital experiment and say "We're very sorry all you people who bought digital sets when we told you it would be a good idea. We'll just forget about it"? The general feeling in the radio industry is that radio cannot remain an analogue island in a digital world. Although the benefits are not huge, we must go ahead with switchover and make the best of it.
The noble Lord, Lord Carter, was right to set a target date and say that we were pressing ahead. More has happened in the 10 months since Digital Radio UK was set up in response to the target date of 2015 than happened in the previous 10 years. At last, the radio industry has geared up and things are happening. Motor car manufacturers are guaranteeing that they will have digital sets by 2013. That would not have happened if the Government had not given a firm date. As various speakers have said, we all need certainty, particularly those who have been asked to invest large amounts in retooling plant and equipment to install digital radios.
Although I fully endorse the decision to press ahead with digital, like other members of the committee, I believe that it should be done provided certain other things happen. The first thing that I would agree on is a big expansion in coverage. I do not like phrases like 90 per cent simply because I usually end up being part of the 10 per cent. Even 92 per cent sounds great, but I will guarantee that the remaining 8 per cent of the population covers large parts of Britain geographically. Rural areas tend to do that.
Universality of provision is a key ingredient in public service broadcasting. Let us remember that we extended terrestrial television coverage at huge uneconomic expense because we thought that it was something that every citizen should have. We must have the same attitude to digital radio and, I say in deference to my
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The next point we insisted on was that something was done about cars. It has already been pointed out that there will be 20 million old cars without digital radios. Having talked to the digital people yesterday evening, they think that the cost of re-equipping a car when it goes in for an MOT will be around £70 or £80. That is not cheap, but perhaps it is bearable.
The other thing is to have a sensible disposal programme for the useless analogue radio sets. To be honest, I think that we are all right on the DAB versus DAB+ argument. If the Government's ruling is that all sets must incorporate the multichip that will adapt to all services, I think that we are covered on that.
This was my first full report on the committee. I joined part the way through the previous report on the film industry. I thoroughly enjoyed my time on the committee under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Fowler. I greatly valued the assistance that we had from our Clerk and his assistant, Ralph Publicover. The noble Lord, Lord Fowler, was an outstanding chairman. He not only guided us through the meetings, but his contribution to the writings of the report went far beyond the call of duty and the House is greatly in his debt.
Lord Clement-Jones: My Lords, congratulations are due to the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, on two counts. First, I congratulate him on the production of a very impressive report by the committee that he chaired-and I can say that not having been a member at that time of the committee. Secondly, he is going out tonight with something of a bang, with his introductory speech. Certainly, when his report was published it caused quite a stir. The key quotation was:
This report has certainly made quite an impression, not only in public but also in ministerial minds. We have had a very interesting debate tonight. I took the criticisms in the report as being largely of the process, not of the concept of switchover. I was extremely interested to listen to what the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, had to say. Although a lot of scepticism and doubt was expressed, at the end of the day his and the committee's view seemed to be that we should nevertheless go ahead with radio digital switchover. Clearly the criticisms have been taken into account by the new Minister responsible and by Digital Radio UK. I did
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I shall not enter the lists with the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, but although I listened with great attention to his extremely interesting speech I do not believe that internet radio is necessarily the means by which we shall listen to the radio. It is an extremely valuable alternative, particularly for travellers with their iPhones and iPads-and I am the proud owner of an iPad, like the noble Lord-but I believe that digital radio has many advantages beyond those of internet radio. I understand the industry technological and cost arguments, but above all I believe that quality and convenience for the consumer must be the key factors in switchover-and I think they are there, with the sound quality, the ease of switching stations, the ability to time-shift and record and with the sheer variety of stations. Here I disagree with some noble Lords, who seem to believe that we have quite enough stations already. The fact that some of our very popular regional stations can go national is a major plus for digital radio.
Consumers are becoming much more engaged in the process. Let us take the rescue of BBC 6 Music, for example. I do not know how many listeners it had before the campaign started-probably about half a million-but the campaign actually raised the number of listeners to 1 million over a period of time. I am pleased to have taken a small part in the campaign to rescue 6 Music, which shows that digital radio stations are building real loyalty among the public.
The committee, however, was right to point out some of the key flaws in the process and to seek assurance on them. Let us take a few of the major criticisms: the question of information for and communication with the consumer and the lack of public understanding; the need for help schemes to be in place by the beginning of 2012 at the latest; and the fact that the Government should make it clear that DAB should be the standard. Much of this has been met by Ed Vaizey in his announcement and by the digital radio action plan launched in July. He confirmed that the target switchover date will be before 2015; that digital will need to cover the equivalent of FM-that is, at least 90 per cent; and that more than 50 per cent of households will need to have access to digital radio. Those are crucial conditions and, as many noble Lords mentioned today, that consumer-led process is vital.
I disagree with some noble Lords-I believe that this actually builds on the policies set out in the Digital Britain White Paper. I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Gordon, who mentioned the noble Lord, Lord Carter, but he needs to take some credit for having set the ground rules and for the way in which we are proceeding. I believe that this is not a discontinuity of approach but very much the continuity of it. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Evans, will espouse the same continuity when he responds from the opposition Benches.
We now know that under the digital radio action plan there will be a strategic marketing and communications plan which meets some of the criticism
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