HC Deb 26 April 1996 vol 276 cc732-40

Order for Second Reading read.

1.54 pm
Mr. Bill Walker (North Tayside)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I am grateful to the House for giving me an opportunity to present my Bill for Second Reading today. I also place on record my thanks to the Clerks for their help in drafting my Bill.

As I stated during my ten-minute Bill speech, the Bill seeks to address the political and constitutional problems that may develop from some of the constitutional proposals being discussed currently. The Bill's objective is to provide for consultation with the people by way of referendum before implementing any constitutional change that is approved by Parliament. In other words, after a Bill has completed its passage through both Houses of Parliament, it must be put to a national referendum in order to decide whether Parliament's proposals will be accepted. There are precedents for that in the Scotland Act 1978 and in a different form in the European Communities Act 1972.

I have news for Sir James Goldsmith: my Bill is not a response to his public statements and actions. In my case, he is about 25 years too late. However, I welcome converts to my cause—even if I have doubts about the wisdom of their tactics.

My Bill, and particularly clause 1, reflects the view that I have held for most of my adult life and follows the line that I took during the public debates in the early 1970s and during the constitutional debates and discussions in the late 1970s. Although I was on the losing side in the 1975 referendum, I support the view that it was constitutionally correct and proper to hold such a referendum.

Clause 1(1) states clearly that any change, redirection or transfer of Parliament's powers agreed by both Houses of Parliament must be put to the people in a referendum. This Parliament, with all its shortcomings—it has a number—is still the finest democratic Parliament anywhere in the world. A cornerstone of the unwritten constitution is the fact that no Parliament can bind future Parliaments. In recent years, constitutional change has undermined that cornerstone. I believe that proposals now under discussion will continue that process.

I believe that Members of Parliament hold the leasehold for our unwritten constitution during their time in this place. While it is in their care, they may make changes that can be altered next week, next year, in five or 10 years or at any time in the future. However, they should not alter the constitution in such a way that it may be impossible for future Parliaments to change it back if they so wish. Hon. Members hold only the leasehold; I believe that the freehold for the unwritten constitution of the United Kingdom is the property of the people. Only the people should change the constitution. Sometimes that is called sovereignty: the power of Parliament. The right to create and repeal legislation, to raise taxes, to borrow and to spend, and the right to block supply are powers of Parliament.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Cash), wrote in the March issue of The European Journal, the journal of the European Foundation: I launched the Maastricht Referendum Campaign, MARC—which ran from February to July 1993 under the patronage of Lady Thatcher. This meshed with a parliamentary rebellion of a number of colleagues and myself which involved a relentless effort to amend the Maastricht Bill. MARC organised a popular petition to the House of Commons with over 280,000 signatures—no small achievement for an organisation that had to start from scratch without the support of any political party or trade union or any other body with a ready-made national membership and administration. Although it did not succeed in its immediate objective of obtaining a referendum on the Maastricht Treaty, the campaign did generate huge media interest and began the process of swaying public opinion. This is now—The Sunday Times has shown—80 per cent. in favour of a referendum on monetary union, which is now the key issue … Lastly let me rebut the silly suggestion that a referendum should be advisory rather than binding. The issue to be decided, let me repeat, is whether we are to continue as a parliamentary democracy or not. That decision cannot be taken by a single parliament for all future generations, any more than a board of directors can merge a company without reference to a general meeting of their shareholders. The source of sovereignty and legitimate authority is the people. I agree.

Nobody who has studied that which monetary union would involve throughout Europe denies that if Parliament decides to join the single European currency there would be a massive shift to Europe of areas of decision making—that if we signed up for the single currency, there would be a substantial change to the constitutional decision-making powers of this Parliament. Clause 1(1) would ensure that the people would have to be consulted in a referendum.

Part of the problem when discussing the single currency is that the debate is against the background of the UK agreeing that it would not oppose other EU member states going ahead with monetary union. I mention that because, as with many European matters, the negative as well as the positive often has an impact on what may or may not happen.

Another cornerstone of the unwritten constitution is the right of Members of Parliament to ask questions and have them answered. That right, coupled with parliamentary privilege, means that hon. Members can raise matters on behalf of constituents without the risk of action outside Parliament, and all that is done at no direct cost to constituents. Powers ceded by Parliament or given away affect that cornerstone. Again, the unwritten constitution and the citizen's rights and freedoms are affected. I will say more about that aspect later.

Another constitutional area under discussion is the proposals for or assemblies in Edinburgh, Cardiff or Belfast. I will confine my remarks to the proposal for Edinburgh, although the problems and principles apply to all three. Clause 1(1) would ensure that any proposal put before Parliament will be debated against the background that whatever is decided by Parliament will have to be put to the people in a referendum. That means that if, heaven help us, we ever had a Labour Government, its Front Benchers would be led by a Scot educated at a fee-paying selective Scottish school. It would have a Cabinet in which the majority of the key posts, such as the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Foreign Secretary, Secretary of State for Scotland and Patronage Secretary—who has been in and out of the Chamber all morning—will not only be Scots but be from Scottish constituencies. In addition, many of the Ministers of State will be Scots from Scottish constituencies. English Members, representing 83 per cent. of the United Kingdom population, would be right to say that the Scots were running the United Kingdom Parliament. Consequently, clause 1(1) would force that subject to be at the forefront of the debate.

The debate would probably run as follows: the Scots would be running the Westminster Parliament, yet they would also run Scotland separately. English Members would be unable to vote on matters devolved to Scotland, yet Scottish Members would be able to vote on English education, law and order, local government, transport, the environment and other purely English legislative proposals. Scottish Members would be unable to ask questions or to have debates on matters that have been devolved to the Scottish Parliament or Assembly. They would become part-time Members of Parliament and probably should be paid part-time salaries. The cry would be throughout the country: "Is that fair?" Fair, it will not be. The constitutional change would be substantial, which is why clause 1(1) would properly require the matter, after it had been decided by Parliament, to be put to the people in a referendum.

The United Kingdom constitution is not cast in stone. It has evolved since 1707 to meet the needs of the times. Its great strength has been its ability to change. It has changed because Members of Parliament have introduced change, and they have done so by consultation and agreement and in the knowledge that a future Parliament could not be bound by their decisions. There is no consultation or agreement about laws imposed on us by Europe, especially by the European Court of Justice. Is it any wonder that there is ever-increasing concern in the country?

Any proposal to change the way in which we vote in general elections may also be caught by clause 1(1). If so, any proposal for a change to a proportional representation system of voting may have to be put to the people in a referendum.

Claus 1(2) would determine the way in which the question would be asked in a referendum. Parliament would have debated the proposed change, in both Houses, and those debates—from the experience of previous constitutional debates—would be fairly protracted, lengthy and contain considerable detail. I imagine that they would have been fully reported by the media, so no one would be able to claim with any confidence that the issue was too complex to be put to the people. The people would have followed the debates with interest and, as in the Scotland Act 1978 and the Referendum Act 1975, the question put in the referendum would be Do you think that these changes should be brought into force? The changes would be clearly stated, whatever they were, so the people would be asked, for example, "Do you wish to set up a Parliament in Edinburgh: yes or no?" or "Do you wish to join a single currency: yes or no?" The clause would address the point that many constitutional experts have made about the difficulty of asking a clear and simple question. In my experience of the Scotland Act 1978 and the following referendum, it was easy to explain what that was about. I say that because I was not on the losing side in that referendum, although I was on the losing side in the 1975 referendum.

Clause 2(1) deals with the conduct of a referendum. It sets out clearly how a referendum should be carried out. There would be no problem, because we have already had the experience of the referendums that I have mentioned. I will not go into detail because the process would be fairly straightforward. Clause 2(2) provides for the conduct of the counting of the votes, and gives details of the counting officers' duties.

Clause 3 is important. It provides that no court shall entertain any proceedings for questioning … the numbers … or the validity of anything done or purporting to be done under the Bill if it becomes an Act. That is to prevent unnecessary interference through the courts.

Clause 4 cites the name of what will become the Act. The schedule sets out the form of the ballot paper.

It would be wrong of me not to draw attention to the final part of clause 1. I want to draw particular attention to it. Subsection (7) reads: If it appears to the Secretary of State that fewer than 40 per cent of the persons entitled to vote in the referendum have voted yes, he shall lay before Parliament the draft of an Order in Council providing for the repeal of the provisions which were the subject of the referendum. That is important. That was set out in the Scotland Act 1978, and the provision worked superbly. About one third voted for, about one third against—with those voting for slightly more than those voting against—and one third did not vote. As we in Scotland say, "They didna' care". Of course, they had already been told that if they did not vote their potential vote would be treated as a no vote. That was explained. I think that some lessons were learnt.

I know that my hon. Friend the Minister would like to say a few words about my Bill. That being so, I shall not detain the House too long. However, with constitutional change of the sort and magnitude that I have described, I have taken the precedent of the 1978 Act as my guide. It worked well at the time and I believe that it would provide the right levels of checks and balances that are normally expected when substantial constitutional change is to be workable and acceptable. The alternative might create severe political instability.

I believe that my Bill is a necessary measure. Something of its sort will have to be put on the statute book because of the instability that we are experiencing, caused largely by public debate and the pressures that have been mounted by Sir James Goldsmith and others who wish to interfere with the way in which we run things in Parliament.

I make no apology for defending Parliament. I believe that this is the finest Parliament anywhere in the world. We do not get everything right and we do not have all the correct procedures. Only a fool would suggest otherwise. I can say, however, that if my grandchildren inherit what I inherited—the unwritten United Kingdom constitution and all the protections to which I have referred—I shall have passed on to them an extremely valuable inheritance.

If we continue to allow the erosion of Parliament's decision-making powers and if we shackle future Parliaments, or if we seek powers in a way that means that Members can no longer ask questions affecting the rights of their constituents, as is happening progressively, we shall have undermined the cornerstones of our unwritten constitution. That would be foolish and unwise.

It would be foolish and unwise of the Scots, with less than 9 per cent. of the United Kingdom population, to expect to run Parliament and to run a parliament at Edinburgh at the same time, without that process producing a massive constitutional backlash. Against the background of pressures from Europe and those for constitutional change that have not been thought through adequately and fully, and the instability that could ensue and risk the break-up of the United Kingdom that I visualise if the Scots were to be foolish enough to think that they could have their cake and eat it by having the running of this place in their hands—and the running of a parliament in Edinburgh—I have introduced the Bill. I firmly believe that we need such a measure to ensure that we move forward sanely and sensibly on the basis of consultation and consent.

2.15 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Timothy Kirkhope)

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for North Tayside (Mr. Walker) for today giving us an opportunity to consider the arguments for and against the principle of referenda as possible tools in the machinery of government that are available to the Government of the day. Regardless of how this debate might develop and of how the wider discussion of these issues may progress outside the House, I should like to take this opportunity to pay tribute on a more fundamental issue.

The Bill seeks to put in place a statutory requirement for consultation through the referendum process. But consultation—a readiness to be open to the advice of the electorate and the responsibility of representing the views of the electorate—is the very business of the House and of Members of Parliament. The role of the constituency Member of Parliament is the very bedrock of the system of representative democracy that we have created in this country over very many years, and we are responsible for maintaining it as an effective and valued service.

I acknowledge—as I am sure that other right hon. and hon. Members do—the example set for us all by my hon. Friend the Member for North Tayside, and the conscientious and assiduous manner with which he has represented the views, needs and aspirations of his constituents since he was first elected to the House, in 1979, for the constituency of Perth and East Perthshire. The role of the constituency Member of Parliament, as he well knows, is not an easy one—we can all testify to that—but it is a vital one if our constituents and the electorate more widely are to continue to place their trust in us faithfully to represent their views and interests.

There is no question but that the issue of referendums has been much in the minds of some people. It has, of course, been even more in the minds of an even greater number of journalists and other members of the press and media. Their efforts to talk up the role of referendums has been of more than passing interest to many of my right hon. and hon. Friends. It is therefore useful for us to have a chance to air—or in some cases, I hope, to put in perspective—the benefits that might be expected to flow from a use of referendums that is different from what we have previously known in this country.

I have been struck by the way in which hon. Members have occasionally been seduced by the propaganda about referenda. There is a tendency to think that a referendum will provide an instant "fix" when Governments are faced, as they must be on occasion, with difficult decisions. This Bill takes as its starting point the fact that the system of parliamentary democracy that the United Kingdom enjoys is somehow no longer robust enough to ensure that decisions taken in this House and in another place will properly reflect the people's consent.

It is right that I should make it clear from the outset that I do not accept such a viewpoint. Parliamentary democracy, as practised in the United Kingdom, is precisely about the need to ensure that decisions are taken by Governments in the light of and with the mandate of the population. That mandate is exactly what is tested at every general election, when the people of the United Kingdom are invited to consider clear statements of policy set out in the party manifestos. We hope that there will be clear statements of policy from the Labour party in due course.

Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South)

You'll be lucky.

Mr. Kirkhope

Indeed; as my hon. Friend says, I might be lucky.

People then make their choices and elect a representative whose job it is to represent their views and give effect to the policies that he or she was elected to follow. That is certainly a role that has been performed admirably by my hon. Friend the Member for North Tayside over the years.

The process of electing representatives and, through those representatives, of formulating a Government is central to the way in which these islands are governed. The general election campaign provides the electorate with the opportunity to test the policies of competing candidates and their parties and proposals. They may do that not on one isolated issue considered apart from the realities of the broader national requirement, but on the full range of concerns which a Government must be prepared to address.

By comparison, a referendum can be a pale and limited thing indeed. That is not to say that a referendum may not engender excitement. Indeed, I see that the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) is getting excited.

Mr. Donald Dewar (Glasgow, Garscadden)

Not very.

Mr. Kirkhope

I must urge him not to get too excited in view of the time available.

We must be clear, however, that excitement and involvement of the people are not necessarily the same thing. The experience of the 1975 referendum undoubtedly caused a great deal of noise and excitement, as some of us may recall, but is interesting to note that the turnout at the poll did not reflect any great improvement in the extent to which the attention of the electorate was engaged. Indeed, at about 64 per cent., the turnout was considerably lower than we have come to expect at a general election and, if repeated at a general election would, I suspect, be considered a condemnation of the policies and personalities being, put to the electorate.

A distinction is often made between referendums and plebiscites. "Plebiscite" is. of course, much the older term, going back—if they will forgive me—to the vote of the plebs in Rome in the 4th century BC and it was used for the popular consultations in France from 1793 onward. "Referendum" in its current sense appeared in English only in the 1880s, although the Swiss cantons had decided issues ad referendum 200 years earlier.

Eighty years ago, "referendum" was the term used by reform movements throughout the English-speaking world to denote the idea of putting issues directly to the electorate. "Plebiscite" was the term used to describe the efforts by the League of Nations to settle boundary disputes on the principle of self-determination after the first world war. It was also used by the Nazis when they sought endorsement for their hideous policies. The word "plebiscite" has tended to be applied to an ad hoc reference to the people of a specific question and, in particular, of one involving approval for a man or a regime. However, there is no agreed usage.

Referendums as a means of making government decisions or giving legitimacy to them have a history that is almost as old as democracy itself, but they have been invoked only sporadically. A few admirable democratic societies have never tried the device while some authoritarian ones have grotesquely abused it. In the populist progressive upsurge at the beginning of this century, referendums were welcomed by some as a liberating force and as a way of purifying government by enlisting the people against the politicians.

Before the first world war, the most significant development of the referendum as a political institution—[Interruption.] I am hoping that the hon. Members for Garscadden and for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) are listening carefully to this. I am sure that it will at least be instructive to them in relation to the constitutional changes that the Labour party may be foolishly considering.

Before the first world war, the most significant development of the referendum as a political institution undoubtedly occurred in Switzerland and the United States. Since 1848, and still more since 1870, the Swiss have accepted the principle that almost every major national decision could become the subject of a popular vote but, in the 1930s, Hitler's plebiscites—with their 99 per cent. affirmatives—cast a cloud over the whole idea of referring specific questions to the voters.

Of course, referendums continued to be used. They have been used continually in Switzerland as well as in California and other states in the United States of America and intermittently in places where they had become a prerequisite of constitutional change. I emphasise that, because Labour's plans for constitutional change may well mean that it will want to investigate the matter much further.

The overwhelming bulk of referendums outside Europe and the old British Commonwealth have been attempts to seek endorsement for a new regime and its constitution, or to demonstrate approval for an established one. Such attempts almost always seem to be successful. Australia stands out as the only country in which referendums have been defeated more often than not. Even in Europe, Denmark, Estonia, France, Ireland, Luxembourg, Norway and Sweden—and, of course, Switzerland—are the only countries in which there have been Government-sponsored referendums that failed to secure a nationwide majority.

Mr. John Marshall

My hon. Friend said that referendums were nearly always successful. Will he cast his mind back to 1979, when there were Government-sponsored referendums in Wales and Scotland? In Wales, a majority were against what the Government wanted; in Scotland, the number voting for the Government's wishes was far lower than the number required by the House of Commons. Does that not demonstrate that in those two countries there is no enthusiasm for the policies that Labour presented then, and still presents today?

Mr. Kirkhope

That was a marvellous intervention, which underlines the point that we are making. It will put the Labour party in an enormous quandary. If its members were sensible enough to listen to my hon. Friend's comments, they may now want to review their position and, perhaps, abandon their unwise and negligent approach to the constitution.

Western democratic states have not been eager to exploit the referendum as a serious decision-making instrument. Switzerland stands out as the only country that has become addicted to the referendum. I shall return to that point later, because it is a useful example of what is wrong with the referendum process when it is used as a palliative in place of firm government.

Apart from Switzerland, countries that have solved one problem by referendum have shown no observable tendency to use the device repeatedly. Switzerland and Australia offer evidence for the proposition that referendums are essentially conservative in nature, although the lesson from the American states is less clear. Particularly in federal societies, voters are cautious about giving new powers to the central authority. Nearly all the negative votes have been repudiations of change. The 85 per cent. vote against right-hand driving in Sweden in 1955 is the most spectacular example—I think the House requires some examples—of rejection of an innovation on which the establishment was agreed; and the way in which the establishment later circumvented that awkward vote is one of the most intriguing commentaries on the limitations of referendums—along with the helpful remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Marshall).

Mr. Bill Walker

I am reluctant to intervene on my hon. Friend. Let me point out, however, that my Bill is exclusively about constitutional change. Let me also point out that, given that this week we have considered a Northern Ireland Bill one of whose clauses concerned referendums, I think it legitimate for me to say that my aspirations are not unrealistic.

Mr. Kirkhope

I did not mean to suggest for a moment that I was critical of my hon. Friend or any of his aspirations. I was merely trying to give the House the historical background to constitutional reform, as I think that I am obliged to do. It is important to establish the nature of referendums, the way in which they have been prepared and proposed and the way in which they have operated.

The great majority of referendums have taken the form of a single question put to the elector in an isolated context. Occasionally, more than one question has been put on the same issue. Examples are the referendums on land reform in Denmark in 1963, constitutional change in France in 1945 and electoral reform in Ireland in 1968. But Ireland in 1972, New Zealand in 1949 and 1967 and Italy in 1978 offer the only examples of entirely separate issues being put on the same day—except, of course, for Switzerland and Australia, where a battery of questions has been common. However, even they did not reach the Californian record of 47 different propositions on a single ballot. Several separate questions can be merged into one question, as in France in 1969, and occasionally the elector has been faced with a multiple-choice question.

Of course, when a voter is asked to approve a constitution his single yes or no applies to a host of propositions about the management of his country. As I have said, in general elections under our constitution electors make a choice based upon a wide range of propositions. That is part of the democratic system that we normally pursue.

The wording of a referendum question can also be a matter of controversy. Obviously, if the question is on a large battery of issues, perhaps read for the first time by the voter in the polling booth, the phrasing can have a decisive influence on the result. But when the issue stands by itself and is well publicised—

It being half-past Two o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed upon Friday 10 May.