HC Deb 03 June 1998 vol 313 cc277-99

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Janet Anderson.]

9.34 am
Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire)

In the last 25 years, there have been eight referendums. Between 1973 and 1997, there were four—an average of one every six years. In the first year of this Labour Government, there have been a further four. It is clear that the Government believe in referendums; we all know that they plan many more. It is essential that the conduct of those referendums is above reproach, or else the suspicion will be that they are being used to direct public opinion for party political ends, rather than to determine public opinion for the public good.

There are three groups of questions which must be answered when considering referendums; why, when and how? First, why hold a referendum at all when we have a parliamentary democracy? Secondly, if the principle of referendums is accepted, when should they be held? Thirdly, if they are held, how should they be conducted?

There are those who say that it is a Government's job to govern, to make decisions and to be responsible for their effect. They argue that referendums are an abdication of that responsibility, and introduce danger and uncertainty, and that therefore they should never take place.

The alternative point of view is held by the Minister without Portfolio, who, earlier this year, said in Germany: It may be that the era of purely representative democracy is coming to an end. He added that its place would be taken by plebiscites, focus groups, lobbies, citizens' movements and the Internet. I do not subscribe to either of those extremist wings. I understand why the Government's thought policeman would want to bypass considered parliamentary scrutiny and control, and I deplore it. I agree that the Government alone should be held to account for the effect of their decisions, but there may be times when Parliament will want to consult the people. The question is when.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

The question is not just when. If my hon. Friend is going to argue in favour of referendums, I hope that he will address the question whether we can always reduce a complex issue to a sufficiently simple question to get a legitimate answer in a referendum.

Mr. Sayeed

I am profoundly grateful to my right hon. Friend for his question, which leads me very nicely to my next remark.

As a believer in representative parliamentary democracy, I am clear that referendums should be used only under certain circumstances. The first is when the matter is of great significance. The next is when its effect will be profound, enduring and not subject to a change of Government. The next criteria is when the detailed facts are widely known, understood and—to answer my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth)—capable of being reduced to a clear and simple single question.

How do we achieve that? There can be no definitive answer, because it depends on the circumstances, but guidelines can be formulated. First, referendums are not a substitute for parliamentary democracy. They must be used only to advise Parliament, not to dictate to or coerce it.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

Is my hon. Friend aware of the situation in Switzerland, where, because of the cantonal system, they prefer the idea of a referendum? Consequently, the most reactionary legislation—

Madam Speaker

Order. I should like to see the hon. Gentleman's handsome face.

Mr. Fabricant

I apologise, Madam Speaker.

Consequently, in Switzerland, the most reactionary legislation has been passed on immigration, women's suffrage and capital punishment—which my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) might welcome, but which does not lead to liberal democracy.

Mr. Sayeed

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Referendums—such as proposition 13, in California—should be used only extremely sparingly, and not as a substitute for parliamentary democracy. This is the place where we can argue out the issues.

Referendums should be used only on matters of great and lasting significance, and when the consequences are appreciated and the need for change is demonstrable and coherent, and spans party political divides.

Referendums should be used only when all reasonable points of view have an equal chance of being heard. Electors affected by any decision in a referendum should be entitled to take some part in that referendum.

No referendum should occur until Parliament has considered, debated and amended the legislation that would implement the proposals that may be put before the people.

If those guidelines are not followed, referendums might be used—I believe that they are being used—to stifle debate and to bushwhack the Houses of Parliament. Therefore, to forestall any hint of such developments, the Government should, at the outset, clearly state what they consider to be the minimum threshold and participation rate of any referendum.

We should now consider whether the four recent referendums have met any of the criteria that any reasonable person would expect to be applied in a referendum. We should then go on to determine how we can ensure that, in future, conduct of referendums is not only fair but agreed to be fair. If we do not ensure such agreement, I believe that the results of referendums will be in dispute and their consequences rejected, and democracy will be held in contempt.

In last year's referendum on Scottish devolution, six out of 10 eligible Scottish electors voted. Three quarters of those who did so voted in support of a Scottish Parliament. As a Conservative and a Unionist, I regret the result, although I accept that it reflected the Scottish view at that time. However, as an honestly conducted referendum, it failed. It was pre-legislative, so the detailed facts were not known. The result is being used to coerce Parliament. Public money was used to promote the yes vote, but there was no similar funding of the no campaign.

In the Scottish referendum, English electors were disfranchised. Yet—after that referendum, and even after the start of the Scottish Parliament—the poorer English regions will continue to fund richer Scottish regions. In this place, Scotland will continue to be over-represented by Scottish Members, with greater powers but fewer responsibilities than their English counterparts.

The referendum in Wales was an even greater fiasco. The result was a flop: the votes of one quarter of the electorate were deemed by the Government to be decisive. Worse still, that pitiful result—which was achieved only with public money given to the yes campaign—was placed in doubt because of allegations about how the ballot was conducted. Although some of the allegations were made by the Secretary of State for Wales's own constituency Labour party, the right hon. Gentleman refused to clear up the mess and establish an independent inquiry. In London, the turnout for the referendum was even lower than it was in Wales.

Unless the Government plan on using referendums as a party political tool—if they do, they must say so—they must mend their ways. I have stated some guidelines that I believe should be followed. The constitution unit's commission on the conduct of referendums has made even more detailed recommendations. Today, I hope that the Minister will give us his considered response to the safeguards that both the unit and I have proposed. Above all, we need today to hear from the Government an acknowledgement that referendums are too important to be entrusted to the self-serving whims of any one political party.

The House will want to hear the Minister accept that, if the results of referendums are to be above suspicion, beyond reproach and not treated with contempt, their conduct should be determined by an independent body—comprising the brightest and the best, encompassing all political parties but dominated by no one political party, and dedicated to the impartial questioning of our political masters, the people.

9.45 am
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

I should like quickly to make a few points, as I am aware that there is little time, and many hon. Members would like to speak in this debate.

As we have no constitution in the United Kingdom, it is doubly—trebly—important that, when we undertake to change our electoral or political arrangements, we have in place proper safeguards. Generally, I am rather happy that, unlike many countries, we do not have a written constitution, which tend to be a hidebound way of approaching matters. I think that, over the years and down the centuries, our friends in the United States have come to regret their written constitution.

Nevertheless, as we do not have such a constitution, surely it is incumbent on hon. Members—even more so on the Government—to guarantee that safeguards are in place when contemplating the type of changes described by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed), primarily to ensure that the Government cannot change the rules that govern their own election. Ultimately, that is what we are talking about.

My hon. Friend gave as examples the referendums held in Scotland, Wales and London. However, the background threat is that the Government might eventually propose changes to the very system by which they themselves will seek to be re-elected. That is the biggest danger of all. Today, at the very least, we must receive from the Government cast-iron assurances that they would do no such thing—that, without first establishing proper safeguards, they would never embark on a course leading them to change the rules by which they offer themselves for re-election. Such safeguards are essential.

My hon. Friend also discussed the questions that should perhaps be asked in a referendum. We have some good recent examples of how the choice of questions can go badly wrong.

The example foremost in my mind—I suspect that it is foremost also in the mind of my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway), who is in the Chamber—is the question, or lack of questions, asked in the London referendum. We believe that, at the very least, the people of London were entitled to a say in whether they wanted an executive mayor in London and/or an assembly. However, the Government out-manoeuvred everyone else, and insisted on asking only one question, whereas two quite separate issues were bundled into one question—for the sake of political expediency. The example demonstrates the type of danger that we face.

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have been or will be asked what they want, but England has never been asked what it wants. When will the English be asked a question in a referendum? That question has to be answered. To date, the Government have been able to decide—on the basis of political convenience—what they ask, when they ask it, and whom they ask. What we need to know is, when is the bulk of the United Kingdom's population going to be asked some questions and have an opportunity to give an answer? We might find the answers interesting, if the right questions were asked.

The only other matter I want to mention in this context is European economic and monetary union. It is obvious that the Government are going to wait until such time as they consider propitious for the answer they want before putting the questions, which illustrates all too well the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire.

There is also the issue of reversibility, or, when can we return to the question? New Zealand is the most interesting example available of this issue. A few years ago, the people of New Zealand were asked the wrong question about changing their political electoral system, and they answered that they wanted something different. They got something different—a proportional system, which did not give them the Government they expected, because of back-room deals between political parties. Already, only a few years later, serious consideration is being given to asking the questions whether the change has proved satisfactory, and whether they should go back to what they had before.

That raises an important question: does a referendum answer last for ever? Surely not, but that raises the question, at what point can we legitimately return to the issue and say that, although we decided something by referendum, we now believe in the light of experience that we made a mistake, and that we should return to what we had before or move on to something else?

Mr. Fabricant

On the issue of getting it wrong, does my right hon. Friend not find it ironic that market research companies have found that asking simple questions with yes or no answers results in the most inaccurate response? If the Government have their way, are we not likely to see a drift away from referenda and towards focus groups; and would that not be far worse?

Mr. Forth

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. I suspect that the Government may say that the country is just one enormous focus group, and that endless referendums are an adequate way of consulting the people.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. George Howarth)

indicated dissent.

Mr. Forth

The Minister may say no—in any case, it would be interesting to hear his response to that point.

I hope that, at some stage, the Minister will give a strong indication of his view on the extent to which it would be legitimate—indeed, necessary in many cases—to return to the issue once the question had been asked, and in the light of further experience. Any of us who have been to New Zealand know well how bitterly disappointed the people are at having been misled by the question put to them and by the change in their electoral system, and how desperately they want to go back to what they had before.

Mr. Alan Clark (Kensington and Chelsea)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I am most grateful for your allowing me to raise a point of order that relates to the language in which we communicate in this Chamber. Your predecessor once rebuked me for using the language of the Common Market: I said "faute de mieux", for which he immediately called me to order. The word "referendum" is being scattered about, but, although my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) used the correct plural, I have often heard colleagues refer to "referendums", which is an exceedingly ugly term.

May we have from you, Madam Speaker, a ruling, or at least an expression of preference, as to whether we continue to use the Latin word, which many would think historically appropriate in the Chamber, or whether you have no objection to the continual anglicisation of the term and the use of the word "referendums"? Were you to express a preference for the Latin form, which I hope you will, you would certainly be striking a blow for classical revivalism.

Madam Speaker

The right hon. Gentleman raises an esoteric point, albeit hardly a point of order: more a matter of taste. I notice that, in the public Bills list, the word "referendums" is used in relation to Scotland and Wales. The word "referendum" was first used in English 150 years ago, according to the Oxford English dictionary, which I have just consulted, and I imagine that, after 150 years, the House is now used to it. The plural is a matter of taste, but I have always preferred the use of the English language to any Latin form; I hope that that provides some guidance.

9.54 am
Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian)

Coming from the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Clark), that was a wonderfully communautaire point of order. In France, they have Government bodies that determine how the language should be used, but that is the first time I have ever heard the Speaker of the House of Commons being asked to rule on which words are appropriate to the English language. The House is indebted to the right hon. Gentleman for raising the interesting question of "referendums" versus "referenda", because the subject is a topical one, with several referendums already having been held, and more in prospect.

I take the view that, in general, in a parliamentary democracy, Parliament should decide, but there is obviously a case for saying that it is appropriate to refer major constitutional issues to the people. The risk is that one can get into a la carte choices on which decisions are appropriate to be referred to the people, and which should be left to Parliament.

It should be possible to take such decisions on an objective basis: for example, many people outside would love to have a referendum on whether capital punishment should be reintroduced, but that is a policy issue, which is most appropriately dealt with by Parliament; but there is a case for referring amendments to the constitution and to the way in which the country is governed to the people, as we have done.

The speeches so far have addressed specific concerns that I share about the current status of referenda in our constitution. The idea of having a referendum on the establishment of a Parliament in Scotland was sold as a means of entrenching the position of the Scottish Parliament, but Conservative Members have shown that they cannot wait for an opportunity to overturn the decision of the Scottish people.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)

I just wanted to pick up on the hon. Gentleman's use of the word "referenda". Further to the point of order raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Clark), I wanted to point out that "referendum" is the gerundive—in other words, it means "requiring to be discussed"; therefore, in English the correct plural is "referendums", not "referenda".

Mr. Home Robertson

It is quite a long time since I failed my Latin A-level, so I shall not pursue that point.

The questions that require clarification are: what the criteria for holding a referendum should be; how a referendum should be conducted; who should decide which issues are appropriate to be referred to the people by referendum; and, above all, what the status of a referendum result is at the end of the day.

The hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed) acknowledged that we have just had a fairly dramatic and conclusive result to a referendum in Scotland, on a perfectly respectable turnout of 61 per cent. of the people, 75 per cent. of whom voted yes to the establishment of a Scottish Parliament within the United Kingdom. Politically, that should be the end of the story—the subject was debated for many years, and a conclusive decision has been given, not only in the referendum, but in the results in Scotland at successive general elections. However, constitutionally, it is still technically possible to dismiss that result, and for Parliament to legislate in a different direction altogether.

Speeches from Conservative Members—the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) used the term "reversibility"—show that they are already questioning the validity or the binding nature of the outcome of the Scottish referendum, so I ask my hon. Friend the Minister whether it would be possible to ensure that, when legislation is enacted with the specific endorsement of a referendum, that fact is acknowledged on the face of the Act; and to ensure that any repeal of that legislation is also subject to a referendum.

It would be scandalous if, after 20 years' debate about home rule for Scotland, successive general election results endorsing the establishment of a Parliament for Scotland, and an overwhelming referendum decision to establish a Scottish Parliament, some future Government, simply on a political whim, could turn the whole thing on its head.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that argument would have much greater force if one had post-legislative referendums rather than pre-legislative ones? Is not part of the problem, which casts doubt on what is expressed in referendums, the way in which subsequent legislation often differs from promises made before the referendum?

Mr. Home Robertson

That is an illustration of the sort of problem that I have in mind. If there is any doubt, anywhere, there is always somebody, usually on the Conservative Benches, who wants to nit-pick. Who better than the hon. Gentleman to fulfil that role?

Endorsement of legislation by referendum should be specifically referred to in that legislation. There should be an implicit requirement that any radical repeal of the legislation—I am not saying that it should not be possible to amend legislation—should also be subject to a referendum, so that no future Parliament can repeal an Act that is entrenched by a referendum.

I fear that Conservative Members are doing themselves no good when they call into question the validity of the result of the referendum in Scotland. A Parliament is to be established in Scotland, and we want it to be a success and to play its role in the framework of the United Kingdom. Endless nit-picking can only endanger that settlement.

10.1 am

Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam)

I am glad of this timely opportunity to speak on the subject of referenda—the option to my taste—since, under this Government, they have once again become a familiar part of our political life We have had referenda in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which we fully supported as clear issues of constitutional significance.

The referendum on London government was less clear-cut, but, on balance, still necessary as a means of moving to regional self-government. Liberal Democrats shared many of the concerns expressed by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) about the question that was used. We would have preferred two questions, and believe that the Government cheated, to an extent, by using the one-question device.

People continue to be concerned about the use of referenda, mainly because the power to hold or withhold them is still in the Government's hands. There is a complete lack of rules on when or where referenda may or may not be used, although they are perfectly legitimate in an open democratic society with a strong constitutional framework. Indeed, we want it to become mandatory that constitutional change is contingent on support in a referendum. The hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed) described that as the "why" decision on holding a referendum. We would ultimately like that enshrined in a written constitution which sets out conditions for holding such a referendum.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

I heard what the hon. Gentleman said about consulting the people over major constitutional change. He will know that, in Wales, the decision was taken—although only one in four people wanted it—to set up a non-tax-raising assembly. Why did his party try to amend the legislation so that, in future, the Welsh assembly could introduce tax-raising powers, without consulting the Welsh people?

Mr. Allan

The specific measure to which the hon. Gentleman refers was part of my party's open, stated position at the general election—our manifesto commitment. Colleagues in the Welsh team decided to take that forward to air the issue during the passage of the legislation. It is perfectly acceptable if they choose to do so.

Mr. Grieve

Does not that precisely illustrate the point that I was trying to make about the problems of pre-legislative referendums? In, for example, the Welsh referendum, the Welsh people were offered a committee form of government as the great selling point, yet, by the time the legislation had gone through the House, a sort of cabinet government was proposed. How can the wishes of people be reflected in pre-legislative referendums?

Mr. Allan

Although I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman's fundamental point that post-legislative referenda are preferable, there were precedents—Labour and Liberal manifesto commitments and a pre-election agreement—for the legislation that has been taken forward in this Parliament, which meant that the measures would progress quite rapidly. That was made clear at the general election.

Rather than using examples of perverse use of referenda in countries such as Switzerland, which I accept has not been helpful, we should look across the sea to the Irish example. They have a written constitution, which they have successfully amended and updated through the use of referenda. They have managed to avoid many of the European arguments that we have had in this country, because every stage of ceding power to the European Union has been accompanied by a legitimate decision of the Irish people through the use of referenda.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

Is it not important that there should be a separate constitutional body to make regulations to control referenda? In the Republic, the funding for both the yes and the no campaigns is equal, whereas, in our situation, Government funding tries to manipulate the will of the electorate. Ministers make promises during the referendum campaign that are not normally fulfilled.

Mr. Allan

The hon. Gentleman must have picked up a copy of my speaking notes. I was about to say that we should have an independent electoral commission to oversee the use of referenda, particularly as we are expecting one on the fundamental issue of moving towards a more proportional voting system, with all that that entails, and—possibly—one on the single European currency, which will be hugely contentious, not least on the Opposition Benches.

We need rules that are accepted by all sides, and an independent statutory commission to oversee them. We have made clear our support for a permanent electoral commission to oversee the administration of elections. Such a body was recommended by the 1991 all-party Hansard Society commission on elections. Parliament could give an electoral commission such responsibility for referenda. The commission would organise matters such as the poll, the count and the declaration of results, as well as overseeing the wording of questions. Parliament could pass primary legislation on matters specific to particular referenda as they arise.

The commission would be a procedural body. It would not help to make the decision about the constitutional status of referenda. We should consider whether referenda are mandatory or advisory. The Government certainly have enough access to private polling and focus groups without the need to transform the people of the United Kingdom into yet another one. I very much agree with the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire that referenda should not be used as focus groups. Their role needs to be clearer.

Given our present lack of a constitution, we need to consider thresholds. I am convinced that they have standing neither in constitutional theory nor in electoral practice. We would all like 100 per cent. of the electorate to vote in general elections. The precise percentage of voter turnout in a general election in no way affects the binding quality of the result. I would be interested to know at what levels hon. Members who propose participation rates and thresholds think they should be set for the House in order to give the Government legitimacy—the same principles apply.

We should like Parliament to set up an effective information campaign on a referendum, and for a decent period to be provided for it. We would suggest three weeks—as there is before a general election—to debate a referendum.

In that time, the electoral commission would ensure that both yes and no campaigns had equal access to resources. It must introduce the kind of legislation that applies to a general election, covering limits on spending and broadcasting, and the way in which literature is produced. Having advanced toward a written constitution and an electoral commission, an agreed role for referenda could be established, so that there would no longer be any need to nit-pick over thresholds or the conduct of campaigns, as we have unfortunately seen over the important constitutional referenda since the change of Government last year.

10.8 am

Mr. Martin Linton (Battersea)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed) on raising this subject. Many points need to be clarified about the use of referendums—starting, of course, with the plural of the word. In our own referendum on the plural of the word, the House is 3:2 in favour of the use of "referendums".

I can report to the House that, during my former employment at The Guardian, a long, almost religious debate took place over many years, before the issue was finally settled in the style book in favour of "referendums". The argument was that the word "referendum" is a Latin gerundive, not a noun, but has been taken into English as a noun, so the Latin plural is not relevant.

Mr. Home Robertson

When did The Guardian ever spell anything right?

Mr. Linton

The days when misspellings frequently appeared in The Guardian are many years in the past. My hon. Friend shows his age by remembering the days of bad proofreading, before new technology arrived. Certainly The Guardian always had an intended spelling—an ideal spelling to which it aspired and which, in the later editions, it usually achieved. Perhaps my hon. Friend, in Scotland, may have read the earlier editions, which were always riddled with literals.

There is a good argument for the use of "referendums", which is that, in Latin, the word "referendum" is simply a heading for a list to be referred. "Est referendum" means simply that something is to be referred. If there were two items, the heading would be "Sunt referenda", but if there were only one—[Interruption.] It is simply a Latin phrase.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree with me that, in Latin, the gerundive is much stronger than in the English language. Its use implies not simply something to be discussed, but something that should be discussed—that the discussion must take place.

Mr. Linton


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

Order. Before the hon. Gentleman responds, may I say that although this is an interesting debate about the origin of the word "referendum" and its plural forms, I should be grateful if we could now return to the substance of the debate? I also remind all hon. Members that many people still want to speak, and if others make their contributions reasonably brief, more will be able to do so.

Mr. Linton

I take the point, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

My substantive argument is that several features of referendums in this country need to be established. One is the funding of the two sides. Another is entrenchment, in the sense discussed by my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson). Surely a measure passed as the result of a referendum should be repealed only after a subsequent referendum. There is also the question of reversibility, as raised by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth)-although the issue is not always as simple as he made it seem.

On thresholds, I agree with the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) that it is nonsense to try to insist on a particular participation level for all referendums. As we saw in the London referendum, the turnout depends on the level of controversy or opposition to the proposition being put forward.

In a sense, a referendum is a safeguard for the public, enabling them to scream, "No, we don't like that." In London, the issue was, correctly, put to a referendum, because it was assumed that there would be party political controversy, or at least public controversy, on the subject, and there would be a lot of publicity and a high participation rate.

As it turned out, that did not happen. My local authority spent thousands of pounds issuing a glossy leaflet to put through every front door opposing the referendum, but one week later it announced that, as the leader of its party had said that the Conservatives would support the referendum, their opposition was of no avail, and the council tax payers of Wandsworth should forget about the glossy leaflet and support the referendum.

The promised opposition never materialised. Television crews from London Weekend scoured London looking for plausible groups to advocate a no vote, so that they could cover it on their evening newscasts. Without an opposition, the media could not cover the two sides of the debate, so they gave it no publicity. Consequently, although the turnout was reasonable, considering that the referendum was held on the same day as the local elections, it was not very high.

That does not invalidate the result. It simply means that, because it met so little opposition, the issue referred to the people of London did not spark off the kind of debate that would have produced a high turnout. The result should not be condemned on the grounds that the proposal received so little opposition. It would be nonsense to say that, because the turnout did not reach a certain level, the result should not be accepted.

The corollary of that argument would be that only on hotly controversial issues would the turnout pass the threshold. Indeed, that idea affected what happened with the Scotland Bill in the 1970s, when a threshold was inserted.

Mr. Fabricant

Would the hon. Gentleman say that the Welsh referendum had passed that threshold?

Mr. Linton

I am arguing against the use of thresholds. Thresholds are nonsense, because participation will depend on the degree to which people disagree with the proposition. Often, something put to the people in a referendum sparks little controversy and is passed easily. People would go and vote if they thought that the proposition was likely to be defeated, but as it is not they do not bother. That does not invalidate the result.

There are two further arguments about the New Zealand and London referendums. I do not recognise the description by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst about the New Zealand "preferendum". There were two referendums on the voting system. In the first, the people of New Zealand clearly indicated that they wanted a change—[HoN. MEMBERS: "Of what?"] They wanted to change the system.

A commission was set up and recommended an alternative—the mixed member proportional, or MMP, system. That was put to the people in another referendum and they voted in favour of it, despite a well financed campaign for the first-past-the-post system. That campaign spent much more money than its opponents could find, but, despite the overwhelming superiority of resources behind the first-past-the-post system, MMP won fairly and squarely. It was clearly the expressed view of the New Zealand people that that system should be used.

The fact that Winston Peters, the leader of the New Zealand First party, allowed himself to be elected as an opponent of the National party only to announce three weeks later that he would support that party, is a function not of the voting system but of the fact that Winston Peters changed his mind. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) should speak for himself.

In the previous New Zealand election, carried out under the first-past-the-post system, Winston Peters would have been in exactly the same situation—holding the balance of power—had it not been for a handful of votes. Only after the final recount under first past the post did it turn out that he would not hold the balance of power. Had he won that vote, he would have been able to do exactly the same after the previous election. That shows that the situation was a function of the behaviour of Winston Peters rather than of the voting system.

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset)

Could the hon. Gentleman tell us what that has to do with today's debate, as opposed to yesterday's debate?

Mr. Home Robertson

Does the hon. Gentleman think that he is the Speaker?

Mr. Linton

I look to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. We are arguing about the use of referendums, and the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst said that what happened in the New Zealand referendum showed that the use of referendums was invalid. I am pointing out that the use of referendums in New Zealand was perfectly legitimate. The decision was clearly arrived at, despite the overwhelming superiority of the resources deployed against it. Nothing in the New Zealand experience should disillusion us about the use of referendums; rather, it should disillusion us about the election of politicians who subsequently change their minds.

10.17 am
Mr. Christopher Fraser (Mid-Dorset and North Poole)

I am sorry that I was slow to rise to my feet, Mr. Deputy Speaker; I was stunned by the prospect that the debate might be returning to the track on which it started.

Today the House has the opportunity to reassert its authority. One of its principal functions is to hold the Executive to account. With a Government majority of 179—and, I must add, the comfortable pact between the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats—such issues are left to the Conservative Opposition to raise. They are of vast importance, and I am appalled by the low attendance on the Government Benches.

Not content with the mathematical domination of this place, Ministers, especially the Prime Minister, have decided to ignore the House. They declare that the people should decide. Of course, there is a compelling argument that a Government should listen to the people and consult. Certainly it would be wrong to proceed otherwise on issues such as the single currency.

I believe that my constituents have already made a choice—having heard, questioned and endorsed my views, they sent me to Westminster to decide. Now, however, the peoples of the nations that make up the United Kingdom are being sent to the polls again and again. A referendum was held in London about whether to have a mayor, and the Prime Minister promises that more will follow.

I do not rule out referendums altogether, especially on matters of major constitutional reform, but where does one draw the line? Why, having had referendums on Scottish and Welsh devolution, should not we have a referendum on English regional government? Perhaps the Government draw the line where they fear that they will not win, even though they have the power greatly to improve the chance that a referendum will go their way—they set the question and the programme for the vote, and decide how the vote should be construed. In reality, the people do not decide—the question is rigged, and the answer is therefore open to interpretation.

Leaving aside the point that referendums undermine the power and the authority—and, indeed, the sovereignty—of Parliament, I believe that the time has come to set out some rules. A framework is now needed—that is the point of this debate. There must be firm rules, so that the system cannot be abused. Issues of time allocation and broadcasting must be addressed.

We must tackle four key areas. First, we must decide what subjects are appropriate for a referendum. For example, having voted on a tartan tax, should the people of Scotland—and the rest of us—now have the opportunity to vote on all new taxes? Secondly, should the result of a referendum be binding on the Executive? At what level does a referendum have moral authority—is it 50 per cent. of those who vote, or 50 per cent. of those who are eligible to vote? If a threshold based on those who are eligible to vote is good enough for trade union membership, should not that principle be extended? I hope that the Minister will answer those questions.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

Many people in Scotland are interested to know why the Conservative party did not call for a threshold in the London referendum, given that it so loudly called for one in the referendums in Scotland and Wales. Why does it not argue that the result of the London referendum is invalid, as no great threshold was reached?

Mr. Fraser

We called for a 50 per cent. threshold, although I shall not dwell on that, as we do not have much time.

Thirdly, we should ask how the question should be framed to command universal, or near-universal, acceptance. I believe that an independent body should devise the question, so that the charge that the question had been fixed can be avoided.

Fourthly, and most important, has the issue been closely defined? How do the people know, in detail, what the consequences of a yes of no result will be? Has a problem with existing arrangements been identified before the referendum takes place? Has a White Paper been published or a Bill drafted? Unless we deal with those questions, it will continue to seem as though the purpose of the referendum is to short-circuit debate in the House, so that Labour Members can repeat, parrot-like, "The people have decided."

The referendum has been used by every dictator in history. It would be most inappropriate to suggest that the Prime Minister is a dictator—I would not dream of doing so—but one has to question whether the plebiscite is a vehicle for true democracy or a vehicle to dupe the people, so that the Government receive blanket approval to do what they please. I fear that experience since May last year suggests the latter—as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed) said, in Scotland and Wales the referendums were held before Parliament could scrutinise, amend and enact the legislation.

The Labour Government were elected to govern, to make decisions, and to be responsible for the effects of those decisions. Why do they accept the responsibility of government, but avoid the responsibility of making decisions? As Lord Lawson once said, quoting Pierre Mendes France: To govern is to choose. To appear to be unable to choose is to appear to be unable to govern.

10.24 am
Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border)

Constitutionally in this country, decisions have been made by Members elected to the House of Commons. The public have never questioned the integrity of the decisions made in the House by a majority of the governing party—[Interruption.] They may question it at times, but they accept the validity of the right of the majority party to implement measures—they know that there are rules to govern the election of Members of Parliament.

There is a brief period after elections when individuals may be challenged on their election expenses, but no one challenges the Representation of the People Acts, which lay down rules governing our election. All the important decisions that are taken in the House have their roots in a system of rules laid down in legislation to deal with how Members are elected, the expenses that may be incurred and the broadcasting of elections. That system has worked exceptionally well.

I do not intend to quibble with the results of the various referenda, although I understand why some people nit-pick—to use the word of the hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson)—the results, given the way in which the Government chose to conduct the referenda. We are moving into a new political landscape—I do not particularly like it, as it has not benefited my party in the past year—but, if that is to involve the regular use of referenda, we must have rules to govern how they are conducted, just as we have legislation to govern how we, the current decision makers, are elected to the House of Commons.

As many of my hon. Friends want to speak in the short time available, that is the only argument I want to make today, but the Minister must address it in all seriousness. I regret that this is the second consecutive day when I have had to say that the Home Secretary is an honourable and decent man, but he must see the validity of the argument. If referenda are to become a regular part of the political scene, they must be governed by detailed rules on timing, the question asked and all the other points that have been raised today—whether the referendum should be pre-legislative, whether it should be binding, and whether there should be a threshold.

Even though, God help us, there are already 150 review groups and task forces telling the Government what to do, we need one more. We need a properly independent commission, not the partial—or, as the Home Secretary described it yesterday, "relatively independent"—Jenkins commission.

Unlike the Cookie whitewash inquiry, the commission should be chaired by a properly independent judge; it should comprise not necessarily the great and the good, but those who understand these things and who can recommend the procedures that should be followed. All players in the House will accept the recommendations of a commission only if that commission is independent, with the Home Office acting as an able secretariat; we shall accept referenda only if there are rules, guidelines and legislation to govern how they are conducted.

It is no good for the Labour party to complain that individual Members of Parliament are quibbling about referenda. Of course Members of Parliament from other parties will quibble, as, at the moment, referenda are perceived to be set by Millbank and the Labour party hierarchy—they are phrased, timed and manipulated by the Labour party. I believe that the Government want to use referenda as a legitimate tool of government, but referenda can be a legitimate tool of government only if they are legitimised through legislation.

10.28 am
Mr. Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South)

Despite a leaflet being put through the letter box of every house in London, and despite the Minister for Transport in London handing out scratchcards at tube stations encouraging people to vote in the London referendum, there was a derisory turnout. Only 35 per cent. of the public voted, and about 75 per cent. either said no or expressed no opinion. In my opinion, the London referendum lacked legitimacy: its result cannot be considered representative of the overall view of Londoners. If we are to continue to have referendums as a matter of course, there should be a threshold.

On Report on the London Referendum Bill, the Opposition tabled an amendment calling for a 50 per cent. turnout, so that at least half the electorate should express a view on the proposals before them.

Mr. Allan

Is the hon. Gentleman therefore of the view that all London borough councillors should resign, since there was a similar turnout at the local elections?

Is he also aware that 75 per cent. of the voters in Westminster did not vote for the Conservative council there?

Mr. Ottaway

The hon. Gentleman's intervention brings me to the second part of my point. I have no idea how many people voted for him at the general election, but I understand that it was not very many.

Mr. Allan

It was more than 50 per cent.

Mr. Ottaway

Then I wish the hon. Gentleman the best of luck.

If a proposal is of such extreme constitutional importance that it is the subject of a referendum, that raises it above the tone of normal council or parliamentary elections. If we are to change the constitutional basis of our country, surely a 50 per cent. threshold is appropriate.

Mr. Salmond

The hon. Gentleman proposes a 50 per cent. turnout, but the threshold that the Conservatives tried to introduce in the Scotland Bill involved not a 50 per cent. turnout, which is normally easily surpassed—for example, in Scotland in 1979—but 40 per cent. of the total vote. Why do the Conservatives propose one threshold for London and another for Scotland and Wales?

Mr. Ottaway

The hon. Gentleman should consider our proposals as alternatives. We are an Opposition party putting forward our ideas. I am not that familiar with Scottish affairs, but I think that a 40 per cent. yes vote was a feature of the 1979 referendum, so it would seem not illogical that the Scottish team should make a similar proposal. It is a different matter in London.

Mr. Home Robertson

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Ottaway

No. I am very short of time, and I have already given way twice.

I do not find it illogical to suggest that more people should express a view than not for a proposal to become binding.

My second point was touched on by my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) and relates to the representation of the people legislation. If a television broadcaster running a London current affairs programme supported one side of the referendum, should he come off the airwaves?

In London, Mr. Trevor Phillips, the presenter of a programme called "Crosstalk", was an active member of the yes campaign. Indeed, it is rumoured that he will be a mayoral candidate for London. I make no criticism whatsoever of Mr. Trevor Phillips—indeed, I have much praise for him. He conducts his programme in a genuinely neutral way, and when I have been interviewed by him, I have never felt that his party allegiance has in any way prejudiced what he has to say. However, there was nothing in the London Referendum Bill that gave any guidance on whether he should be allowed to stay on the airwaves.

I referred the matter to the Independent Television Commission, which has a code of conduct on such matters. Its view was that the principles enshrined in the representation of the people legislation should apply in a referendum. I do not know how it happened, but within a matter of days, Mr. Phillips came off the airwaves. However, it should not be left to Opposition Members to raise such matters with the ITC. They should be dealt with in the Bill. The position of the representation of the people legislation is far from clear. If nothing else happens, it should be incorporated into future referendum Bills.

My third and final point is whether or not there should be funding for a no campaign. In London, some £3 million was allocated to a so-called awareness programme, including the leaflets to which I referred. There was an awareness programme on the radio, and leaflets were put through every door, but there was no funding whatsoever for those who wanted to make counter-proposals or to express outright opposition. The Government believe that their proposals were put forward in a neutral way, but they were actually saying, "This is what we think—take it or leave it. Say yes or no in the referendum."

There is no justice in that attitude. It is like a jury at the Old Bailey being asked to make a judgment after hearing just the case for the prosecution, not the case for the defence. In truth, it is impossible to be neutral about a positive set of proposals. Therefore, I believe that a no or counter-proposal campaign should have the opportunity to express a view, given that so much taxpayers' money is being spent putting over the positive set of proposals.

We have had four referendums so far, and on the strength of their results, the Government believe that they have a mandate for action. There are at least two more to come—on monetary union and electoral reform. The issues require clarification. There should at least be some legislation setting up an organisation, so that they can be addressed.

10.36 am
Mr. Robert Syms (Poole)

Referendums are becoming very much a part of our political life; they are much more common than they were, and the practice of treating the electorate as an opinion poll sample is likely to continue in future. That is dangerous in our constitution, especially as there may be a big question mark over the future of the House of Lords. A two-House system provides a check on the Government, and if the other place is weakened, watered down or abolished, the referendum may become a far more dangerous constitutional innovation.

In many nations, referendums result from citizens' action and petition; the referendum is a bottom-up procedure. In the British political context, however, it is a device of the majority party. Governments institute referendums; they decide the wording and the timing. With all the temptations of power and of government, that is pretty dangerous.

I shall not dwell on what has happened in the past; it is more important to look to the future. It is important to establish an independent commission, or at least a code of conduct, so that we all know where we stand. That is a matter not only for the Opposition but for the Government, as the majority of today may be the minority of tomorrow, and a future Government may well use the lack of rules to reverse or change the position or to promote a very different agenda.

It is sensible that rules that we all understand should apply to the body politic. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) said, we make almost a fetish of rules for parliamentary elections, and agents spend all their time telling us what we can or cannot do. Yet referendums are open season: there are no tight rules.

Referendums must be seen to be fair and legitimate. If we are to face the expense and upheaval, it is in everyone's interests that they are seen to be so; that requires the establishment of a code of conduct or an independent commission.

Certain questions need to be addressed. Who may initiate a referendum, and on what issues? We must not forget that referendums can be very bad news for minorities—and in a democracy it is important to protect minorities. Who will decide the wording—the Government or a special commission? How many questions should be asked? How will the referendum be organised and financed? How should money be raised, and should there be expenditure limits? What constitutes approval? Should it be by a majority or by a percentage of the electorate? Can a question be put again? Denmark, for example, was forced to hold a second referendum, having given what might have been thought the wrong answer. Should a referendum be pre-legislative or post-legislative? Finally, what rules should govern television and media access?

Those are all important subjects. Since we started to hold referendums, many academic conferences have been held on how they should be structured. We in the political class should set ground rules that are clear, transparent and widely accepted. Then we will know when people are cheating and when they are not. If referendums are to be held, they must be fair, legitimate and accepted by all participants at least as a democratic exercise in which everyone has a chance to put their point of view.

10.40 am
Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset)

I find myself in an unaccustomed position. Luckily, the organ grinder is here should the monkey fail.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed) on bringing an enormously important subject before the House. Now I come to think of it, I am amazed that we have not debated it many months, or even years, before now. This is a useful and timely debate.

My right hon. Friends the Members for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), and for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) and my hon. Friends the Members for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mr. Fraser), for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) and for Poole (Mr. Syms) all made significant points.

I can summarise the consistent theme that has run through the debate in five points. First, a range of questions clearly remains unanswered. There is no doubt that there are issues that have not been resolved concerning the holding of referendums. Secondly, it is abundantly clear—for this we also have to thank hon. Members from other parties—that there needs to be cross-party agreement on a framework; the issue should be raised above party politics.

Thirdly, there needs to be an independent commission to conduct referendums. As several of my hon. Friends said, it is implausible that a fair referendum—or at least one that would be seen to be fair—can be conducted at the behest of a Government who are necessarily a participant in that referendum and in the arguments within it.

Fourthly, there needs to be a set of rules governing access to the media, as there is for general elections, although the rules will have to be different, because equal access to the media needs to be provided for the yes and the no campaigns—which may be a quite different proposition from equal access for political parties. For example, all political parties could be on one side in a referendum, but the other side should be equally represented in the media. Finally, there needs to be a settled decision—the will of the British people—about what should constitute a fair threshold for a result.

None of that is new; the issue has been studied by a group of people, under the aegis of the constitution unit of University College London and the Electoral Reform Society—not, as the Home Secretary's phrase, a relatively independent group, but a genuinely independent group. It is chaired by Sir Patrick Nairne and includes Dr. David Butler, representatives of all the political parties, and a number of distinguished academics.

That group sat for some months and considered the issue in great detail. Its findings have been much spoken of in the other place. It recommended, among other things: It is essential that referendums should be conducted in a manner which enables all competing views to be heard…special guidance should be drawn up…An independent statutory Commission should be established…A balance should be maintained between the 'Yes' and 'No' viewpoints rather than between the different political parties…Every household should receive a publicly funded leaflet giving general information on the holding of the referendum and statements of the 'Yes' and 'No' cases". If an independent commission has reached such a conclusion, if there is broad cross-party agreement that such rules are necessary, and if—as the Home Secretary graciously came close to telling the House yesterday—the Government impose an orderly procedure on the referendum on proportional representation, we have every reason to hope that, in just a few minutes, the Minister will tell us that the Government have at last concluded that it is necessary to impose such order on referendums generally.

I want to take the debate one step further and ask a question that has not been sufficiently explored—why is all this so important now? Why was my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire right to raise the matter today? One point that has been raised, by implication, in the debate is the dizzy speed of constitutional change under this Government. Indeed, constitutionally they are the most radical Government since 1688—

Mr. Home Robertson

Thank God for that.

Mr. Letwin

I would not echo the hon. Gentleman's sentiment. I regret almost every aspect of the Government's agenda for constitutional change. However, that is not the burden of my argument today. Whether one welcomes it or disdains it; whether one regards it as unsettling to the whole nature of our constitution and our democracy or the best thing since sliced bread is neither here nor there. It has happened and is continuing to happen at a dizzying pace. It is happening by means of something which is itself a constitutional innovation, on which we do not yet have a settled view or settled rules. We cannot be confident that fair play will be involved—a necessary tool of any referendum. It behoves the Government, much more than their predecessors, seriously to take this question in hand and do something about the structuring of referendums.

There is a second point, of equal importance. The most important referendum that will be held—perhaps not in this Parliament, but shortly thereafter if the Government have their way—is that on a European currency. Many of us see that as a Rubicon. In that referendum, if none of the action recommended by the independent commission and many of my hon. Friends and other hon. Members is taken, there will be a severe danger that that critical referendum will not be, and will not be seen to be, fair.

In that case, there will be an awesome power of money behind one position. There is a great danger that a Government allied with the European Commission would use taxpayers' funds and a set of rules that did not have cross-party support or national acceptance to distort the likely result. Whether we fall on one side or the other of the argument in that referendum, it is of the greatest importance to all in this country that the result is seen to be fair and to have been fairly obtained.

There is a further point. It is not simply a matter of the European referendum; we were told yesterday that there is likely to be a referendum on proportional representation. In respect of the conduct of this House and the British constitution, that referendum will probably be, in its long-term effects, the biggest issue to be faced in this Parliament. The Home Secretary gave us at least a hint that the Government might impose rules that would establish fairness in the conduct of that referendum. However, that is not enough.

The Government want to seek parliamentary approval—unfortunately, they are likely to obtain it—to constrain the way in which political parties are funded at general elections. We understand that the Government will try to establish a position in which internal political debate, when it is conducted outside the context of a referendum, will be constrained by the amount of money that can be spent by either side. Yet within the referendum itself, there will be no rules to preclude the Government spending not politically raised money, but taxpayers' money, on trying to persuade the public to take one view rather than another.

It is therefore wholly possible under the current regime—although the Home Secretary has assured us that he does not want this—for the Government to issue large-scale information on one side of the issue, in reality propaganda posing as information, in a referendum on proportional representation. If the Government were to act in that way, they would be undercutting the rules on political funding, using taxpayers' money to distort a constitutional outcome. That would seriously undermine the structure of our democracy and people's faith in it.

The Government must translate the Home Secretary's hints of yesterday into the reality of guidelines and an independent commission that would make it clear that taxpayers' money will not be used to distort the critical outcome of a referendum on proportional representation or any other referendum, whether European or domestic. If the House takes heed of that, and if the Minister conveys that to the Home Secretary so that the Government can take heed of it, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire will live in history as having contributed, through a debate that has hardly been attended by Labour Members, to a major constitutional improvement.

10.49 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. George Howarth)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed) on securing the debate and on having, for the most part, presented his arguments thoughtfully and interestingly. I also commend him on his timing, as it is less than two weeks since the fourth referendum of this Parliament was held. Each of the constituent countries of the United Kingdom has recent experience of a referendum, and this is a good time to reflect on that experience.

Most of the points made in debate were thoughtful, and I shall shortly say a little about the general principles raised. I should cover two points immediately, however, because they do not fall under general headings. First, the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) asked, under the heading of reversibility, how long referendum results will last and when questions can be reconsidered. It is open to Parliament to reopen any issue on which it has already legislated, whether or not it has been subject to a referendum.

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will accept it in the spirit in which it is intended if I say that I am confident that the referendums we have had have been popular and reasonably successful. I do not think that there will be any immediate demand from the people of Scotland or Northern Ireland—possibly even the people of Wales—to revisit those issues. However, if there is at any time such popular demand, the House will debate the matters, and further action will flow from that. The option is always open.

The second point, raised by several hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan), was the question of thresholds. Different circumstances require different rules, and it is not possible to generalise. In some cases, a threshold may be appropriate, but in others it will not. Even where it might be appropriate, different levels might apply in different cases, as my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton) said.

It was not appropriate to set a threshold in any of the referendums that we held over the past year.

Mr. Salmond


Mr. Howarth

I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, but I do not intend to give way often, as I have very little time.

Mr. Salmond

I certainly agree that there should have been no thresholds in the referendums that we have had. However, the Minister seemed to suggest that there might be some reasons for having a threshold. I plead with him not to do that. Thresholds have caused any amount of trouble in Scotland, and if a threshold had been imposed on the London referendum, it would, by any description, have been considered a failure. I want a principled statement from the Government that they will not indulge in any fancy franchise at any referendum.

Mr. Howarth

My point was that I do not want to prescribe the position for every set of circumstances. So far, we have seen no case for a threshold. My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea spoke very clearly on the general principle of thresholds, but I would not want to rule them out in every case, because we cannot see what will happen in future.

Mr. Home Robertson


Mr. Howarth

I will give way to my hon. Friend, but I ask him to appreciate that my time is very limited.

Mr. Home Robertson

Yes, but this is a very important point. This is a minefield. A 40 per cent. threshold was imposed in the referendum held in Scotland in 1979, and, although there was a clear yes vote, that artificial rule meant that the decision of the people of Scotland was thrown out. We had to wait nearly 20 years before we got our Parliament. That sort of fancy franchise cannot be tolerated anywhere.

Mr. Howarth

My hon. Friend is quite right, and that is why it was not considered right to set a threshold in the Scottish referendum this time. That supports the point I am making about what is or is not appropriate.

Referendums are not a new device. Indeed, their use can be traced back to Roman times, and we have had an interesting diversion on the origin of the word itself. In the last century and until quite recently, there were temperance ballots in Wales. I believe that the last dry area went wet last year; if I am mistaken on that, no doubt someone will write to me. A so-called border poll in Northern Ireland 25 years ago under a Conservative Government produced a yes vote of 98.5 per cent., but its usefulness was undermined by the fact that it was boycotted by the nationalist community. The very high turnouts in the north and in the south of Ireland in the referendums on 22 May show the progress we have made since then.

In 1975 we had the United Kingdom's first, and so far only, national referendum, when there was a two-to-one vote to stay in the Common Market, as it was then called. That was followed by the first Scottish and Welsh devolution referendums. The recent referendums in those two countries make it possible to measure how far public opinion has moved. In 1979, the people of Wales voted four-to-one against devolution, but by 1997, a majority—albeit not a large one—of those who voted were in favour of the Government's devolution proposals. On the present crop of referendums, we made a clear manifesto commitment that our devolution proposals would be subject to referendums, and they were.

I was remiss earlier in not congratulating the hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) on his first outing at the Dispatch Box. I am sure that there will be many more. His speech was very clear and, though partisan, thoughtful. I have no doubt we will hear much more from him.

The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mr. Fraser) and others raised the question of the single currency referendum. We are committed to a referendum on that. What characterises these subjects is that they involve a transfer of power away from central government, and bringing decisions closer to the people.

The hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire made a key point about the conduct of referendums. Overall, the experience of the recent referendums has been very positive and it is a considerable tribute to those responsible for the conduct of elections that everything went so smoothly and efficiently, particularly bearing in mind the fact that the referendums in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland went ahead with relatively little notice, and the poll in London was combined with local elections. I certainly pay tribute to the electoral administrators involved.

The hon. Gentleman also suggested that there would be merit in establishing a permanent referendum commission to oversee the operation of regional and national referendums. I am not wholly persuaded of the merits of that suggestion. It was considered by the Electoral Reform Society and UCL constitution unit. In the recent referendums, we considered it right that Parliament should determine the wording of any question in a referendum being conducted by central Government. The number of amendments tabled to subsequent Bills bore out our contention that that was the right way to act. The polling and counting arrangements were not subject to any criticism as far as I am aware.

The hon. Gentleman suggested, unless I am mistaken, that public money was spent to fund the yes campaigns in Scotland and Wales. I flatly refute that allegation: no public money was spent on those campaigns. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will check the facts and retract that statement.

Mr. Letwin

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Howarth

No I shall not give way—it is very late.

The position is clear: there will be occasions when referendums are appropriate, and occasions when they are not. They cannot create unity where no unity exists, and they cannot change the fact that Parliament is a sovereign body. However, they provide a unique way of consulting the people on specific issues, particularly on policies that are important in particular countries or parts of the country. That is why the Government committed themselves to holding a number of referendums. The electorate endorsed that principle and elected this Government, and we have carried out those promises.

We have had a useful debate, but we should be clear that referendums have a place and will not always be used in every circumstance. They will be used where appropriate.

Back to