HC Deb 27 February 2004 vol 418 cc578-88

Order for Second Reading read.

1.48 pm
Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab)

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

This is a very short Bill, with a very narrow focus, but a big purpose. It will set a 50 per cent. threshold on turnout in a referendum. If fewer than half the electorate turn out to vote, the referendum will be null and void. My Bill deals with referendums triggered by an Act of Parliament; it does not cover local authority referendums.

The Government have already set a threshold for the promised referendums on regional assemblies in October. The Minister for Local and Regional Government has said that the result of the referendum would not necessarily be acted upon if the turnout were "derisory". My dictionary defines the word "derisory" as "laughably small'. In the Library, I have just been looking at the "Oxford Dictionary", which defines the word "derisory" as "ridiculously small or inadequate".

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab)

My hon. Friend mentions derisorily small turnouts. Under Standing Order No. 41 of this House, the threshold that has to be achieved is 40 hon. Members. May I suggest that he put his proverbial money where his mouth is and call a vote immediately under Standing Order No. 163 to check whether he has such a threshold for his Bill? Looking round the House, it seems extremely unlikely that he would be able to achieve that.

Mr. Prentice

I daresay we will have more of those lawyerly points, but I want to concentrate on the bigger picture.

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op)

Will my hon. Friend give way on that point?

Mr. Prentice

I should like to make some progress, but I will then give way, because I like my hon. Friend.

I do not know what the Government mean by derisory, and I suppose that it will mean whatever the Minister for Local and Regional Government wants it to mean. However, Ministers have told us that they expect the turnout in October to be boosted by the move to postal ballots, so the vote might not be derisory after all. I certainly hope that it is not.

The referendums in the northern regions—for the North West, the North East and Yorkshire and Humber assemblies—will not just be about regional assemblies. In areas such as mine, east Lancashire, there are two tiers of local government: the district and the country council. A second question on the ballot paper will give the options for a new single-tier or unitary authority. There will be no option, to stick with the status quo. The reform of local government in two-tier areas such as mine is contingent on there being a yes vote regionally for a new assembly, so Pendle could vote no for an assembly in order to keep its present form of local government, but be outvoted in the region as a whole. What happens in Pendle in October will therefore be very important. My constituency could find itself bolted on to Burnley and Rossendale to be become a new "Burpendale", or we could he subsumed in a new giant east Lancashire authority of 500,000 souls, no doubt based on Blackburn.

All that is being done on the back of a so-called soundings exercise carried out by the Deputy Prime Minister at the end of 2002 He wanted to know how many people wanted a referendum on the proposed regional assemblies. Many would say that the results of that soundings exercise were derisory. In the north-west, 56 per cent. of responses were in favour of a referendum on a regional assembly and 44 per cent. were against it. However, we must look behind those percentages, stripping out the councils, interest groups and organisations to consider the number of individuals who are calling for a referendum. In the north-west, 2,050 people called for a referendum and 1,530 did not. That is in the region of just under 7 million people.

In Yorkshire and Humber, 696 people wanted a referendum and 290 did not. In the north-east—to which everyone points as the region that is desperately anxious for a new regional assembly—323 individuals wanted a referendum and 403 did not. A majority of individuals in the soundings exercise in the north-east did not want a referendum. We could fit all those who wanted a referendum in the soundings exercise in all three northern regions into the Albert hall—downstairs.There is absolutely no pressure out there for this new tier of government.

Mike Gapes

My hon. Friend said that his Bill does not cover referendums in local government. Given that he has talked about derisory turnouts, and given that the turnout in local elections is lower than in other elections in this country, why does his Bill not apply to local government?

Mr. Prentice

I wanted to keep the focus very narrow. The Bill could have encompassed local government. As my hon. Friend said, there have been some very low turnouts. The lowest—I am looking at a Library paper written by Oonagh Gay—was 9.2 per cent. in Ealing. The lowest turnout resulting in a yes vote—the vote for the mayor in Lewisham—was 18 per cent. So, yes, those are derisory turnouts. He makes a valid point.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con)

While the hon. Gentleman is on the point about the soundings exercise, will he bear in mind the fact that the result of consulting 5.3 million people in the west midlands was even more striking? Of 356 responses, only 58 wanted an assembly. There is merit in what he is saying.

Mr. Prentice

I have all the figures for all the English regions, but I will not embarrass the Minister and my Government by pointing to some of the derisory turnouts in that soundings exercise.

We should not embark on a major upheaval on the back of such flimsy support. The Labour Government should be concentrating on delivering first-rate education, health and public services, and not on rearranging the organisational furniture. I think that that is a complete distraction. We also need to make it clear to people voting in the referendum that a regional assembly will not mean that they will get more cash at the expense of other English regions. The Government have made it clear that that is not the case, and I would like them to keep on saying it, because there is a feeling among the enthusiasts for regionalism that Balkanising Britain into regions will result in those with assemblies getting a bigger cut of the cake than they would be entitled to.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con)

The hon. Gentleman has made it plain that he has all the figures for all the regional consultation exercises and that he does not want to embarrass the Minister by reading them out. I do not want to embarrass the Minister by reading them all out either, but would the hon. Gentleman cite the figures for the east of England, because they were truly derisory?

Mr. Prentice

I prefer to concentrate on my own speech. The hon. Gentleman can have a look in the Library and unearth the figures for his region if he wishes.

Referendums are with us and it looks as if they are here to stay; we are in the age of the referendum. I say that despite the fact that we have had only one United Kingdom-wide referendum—that was to join the European Community in June 1975—although we have since had referendums in Scotland, Wales and London. Later this year, as I have said, we are promised referendums on setting up assemblies in the three northern regions of England.

There is also a referendum promised on the euro. I do not know when that will be, but it has been promised. In addition, there is agitation among Opposition Members and, indeed, Labour Members for a referendum on the proposed European constitution. The Labour party has also promised—although it is very much on the back burner now—a referendum on a new voting system for election to the Westminster Parliament. I think that that was stitched up in the old days when the Prime Minister and the then Leader of the Liberal Democrats had a kind of love-in on constitutional issues, but we have moved away from that.

Turnouts in previous referendums have in most cases been respectable, but they have been declining. In 1975, the turnout in the EEC referendum was 64 per cent. In the 1979 devolution referendum in Scotland, the turnout was 63.6 per cent. In the 1979 devolution referendum in Wales, the turnout was 58.8 per cent. In 1997, to bring us closer to the present day, the Scottish devolution referendum returned a turnout of 60.2 per cent. Then we had the Welsh devolution referendum, for which there was a turnout of 50.1 per cent. In London, the Greater London assembly referendum clocked up a turnout of 34 per cent. in 1998. If my Bill had been an Act back then, only the referendum on the Greater London assembly would have been caught by its provisions.

Why do we bother with referendums? They are supposed to give legitimacy. The referendum is seen as the ultimate legitimising device. It is seen as decisive, especially if it is carried by a huge majority, and as expressing the will of the people—the people have spoken. David Butler's 1994 book "Referendums Around the World" covered 200 referendums. Few were decided by close margins. Clearly, if a referendum is decided by a close margin, it raises questions about the legitimacy of the result.

We had a string of referendums in the 1990s. The Danish and French Maastricht referendums delivered results of 51 per cent. against 49 per cent. The Irish divorce referendum in 1995 again delivered a result of 51 per cent. against 49 per cent. The Welsh devolution referendum was close indeed. Curiously, the losers accepted defeat in every case.

Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD)

Although I share the hon. Gentleman's scepticism about the soundings exercise and the boundaries drawn up by the Government to form the basis of regional devolution, if 49.9 per cent. of the electorate turn out and 90 or 95 per cent. of them are enthusiastically in favour of something, does he accept that his Bill would mean that the proposal could not go forward?

Mr. Prentice

Yes. That proves that the hon. Gentleman has read my Bill, because that is what it does. A 50 per cent. turnout is required—I am speaking slowly.

Some people say that a turnout requirement is fundamentally undemocratic. In fact, quite a few of my colleagues have e-mailed me over the past 48 hours to tell me just that and that it would encourage abstentions.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con)

Where are they?

Mr. Prentice

Well, they are not here.

Mr. Dismore

I am here.

Mr. Prentice

My hon. Friend is always here on a Friday.

Others highlight technical problems with the Bill, such as ensuring the accuracy of the electoral register. A stipulation that 50 per cent. of the electorate have to vote would mean removing from the register those who have died and those from the region who are in prison, because convicted prisoners cannot vote. My Bill deals with that by making the responsibility lie with the chief counting officer to estimate or decide on a figure that reflects the number and percentage of the electorate who would not be counted.

On abstentions, I looked at the Scottish devolution referendum in March 1979, the one that failed. Although that had a threshold, there is no evidence of a strong abstentions campaign. In fact, the Conservatives were the only major party to urge a no vote. One of the crucial interventions in the campaign came from Lord Home, who supported devolution. He urged those who were against devolution to vote no rather than abstain. It is a curious paradox that the turnout of 63 per cent. in that referendum was higher than the turnout for the 1997 referendum, which carried through Scottish devolution.

Andrew George

I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman appreciates the fact that I have read his Bill, but wonder whether he read my mind accurately when determining the purpose of my previous intervention. Given what he has just said, does he not accept that election turnouts tend to be higher when the contest is significantly close? When one side is clearly going to win many people do not turn out to vote simply because they accept that the conclusion is foregone. The result is both a low turnout and low enthusiasm for what is on offer.

Mr. Prentice

I get the point, but the responsibility falls on politicians and political parties to motivate and galvanise people so that they are interested enough to exercise their vote. If people are not turning out in the numbers they should, responsibility for that lamentable state of affairs lies with politicians and their parties.

Mr. Paterson

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that to someone who, like me, represents an English seat, the real scandal of the Scottish and Welsh referendums was that 85 per cent. of the population whose constitution was, in effect, torn up were not consulted at all?

Mr. Prentice

The argument can be made from any direction. Should we have referendums on regional assemblies only in the three areas designated by the Deputy Prime Minister, or should the rest of the country be consulted? I do not know. As I said, the Government have stated that having a regional assembly will bring no financial benefits at all to the regions in question, so perhaps in those circumstances it is legitimate to have a referendum only in those regions.

Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Lab)

Is it not true that not only will having an assembly not bring an extra penny into the three northern regions, but it will cost people a lot of money because they will have to pay for the reorganisation and the costs of setting up extra bureaucracy and an extra layer of politicians?

Mr. Prentice

My hon. Friend has to qualify her remark about an extra layer of politicians, because although the regional assemblies will have a membership of between 25 and 35, we will lose an awful lot of councillors. Should regional assemblies be set up, the number of elected people will contract. That would be the result of what the Government have presented us with.

The short answer to the question of whether my Bill is unusual in imposing a turnout requirement is: no. There are special majority requirements in many countries that use referendums. I referred to the Library paper earlier; another paper on which I have drawn was written by Mads Qvortrup of the Initiative and Referendum Institute in Washington DC—I am sure that there is a copy in the Library and I recommend it to hon. Members. The Italian constitution stipulates that turnout in a referendum must exceed 50 per cent. if the result is to be valid. There are turnout requirements in Portugal and in many of the new democracies in eastern Europe, including Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia.

For an example from a mature western democracy, we can turn to Canada. In 1998, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that a majority requirement was needed should a narrow majority of voters in Quebec vote to secede from the rest of Canada. The court left it to the politicians to determine what constituted a clear majority on a clear question", but the legislation stipulates that a referendum must be a clear expression of will by a clear majority of a province that the province cease to be part of Canada. When the matter was discussed in the Canadian House of Commons in Ottawa in December 1999, the President of the Queen's Privy Council for Canada and Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs, Stephane Dion, said: You don't break a country with support of 50 per cent. plus one. He said that separatist leaders around the world called for a fair vote that would show that their people want to separate. They do not go around saying, "Half my people want to separate." More is needed than a simple 50 per cent.

Does this have relevance for us in the United Kingdom? It is not entirely fanciful to suppose that at some point in future there may be a majority Scottish National party Government in Edinburgh with what they would claim is a mandate to seek independence. Would 50 per cent. plus one on a turnout of 45 per cent. be regarded as the settled will of the Scottish people? I do not think so.

There is no need for anyone, and certainly not the Government, to feel frightened of my Bill. If a referendum is to be a way of conferring the ultimate legitimacy on a proposed policy or course of action, it is right that we seek to persuade at least half the electorate to turn out to vote.

2.11 pm
Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge) (Con)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) on introducing the Bill, which we think is an admirable measure. For my own part, I can immediately accept the suggestion that if his Bill had been in place, the only referendum that we have had so far that would have been declared null and void would have been the one setting up the Greater London Authority and the Mayor for London. If that had happened, we would all have been much happier in my constituency and we would have all saved a lot of money.

The hon. Gentleman touches on voter apathy, and that is really what we are talking about. If we want a referendum to have a clear result, we must ensure that voters are interested enough to consider the given question and to vote for or against it.

I can remember a rather interesting play that was shown on television many years ago. The fictional Government decided to become much more in favour of democracy, and so they had referendums on everything. Rather pre-dating what happens these days with reality television and voting, they gave everybody a television and a box to record their vote. The people thought that it was a marvellous, absolutely wonderful idea because they had been complaining about politicians taking decisions that they did not think were right. The Government were regarded extremely highly.

That was until real matters were involved. As we know in the House, sometimes statutory instruments, although many are fine and interesting, do not catch the imagination of every hon. Member. In the play, one member of each family was nominated—a sort of family head—and had to stay in every evening to vote, and go through a lot of papers. After about two or three months of this, there was almost a revolution. People could not go down the pub and they could not watch other television programmes. All that they had on was the statutory instrument channel, or whatever it was called.

The Prime Minister of the day decided to have one final vote. He said, "Would you like to give the power to me to vote for everything for you?"—by this time, the Members had all been got rid of. Funnily enough, the people voted in favour of the Prime Minister taking all the decisions and that was how dictatorship was established in this country.

I am not assuming or even presuming to suggest that the fact that we have so many referendums these days is a plot by the Government to full everybody into a false sense of security. However, in my opinion there seem to be a huge number of referendums, and there could be more and more. The more that there are, the less interest there is. As the hon. Gentleman said, only 34.1 per cent. of people voted in London for the Greater London Authority being set up and the London assembly, on a day when there were the local elections as well. The Government tried to make the election as interesting as possible, but they failed miserably, and nobody in their right mind would regard it as a vindication of the setting up of that authority.

The hon. Gentleman's Bill would provide politicians on both sides of an argument with an incentive to instilenthusiasm in people and achieve an increased turnout. At the moment, there is no such incentive. In fact, if one was of a suspicious nature one might say that the more difficult the question and the boring it seemed to the electorate, the less likely they are to vote. Consequently, one could get all kinds of strange things through using referendums. The Bill is therefore a great step forward, and would make sure that referendums are not called just when the Government fancy doing something. I cannot speak for the regions, and can only speak about what happened in London, but the hon. Gentleman and many of his colleagues are wise to be extremely cautious about setting up assemblies. If the Bill were passed, the Government would have to work hard to prove to the electorate that regional assemblies were needed. They would have to do so not just in the case of the referendums covered by the Bill but for all referendums, which would he a good thing.

Yesterday, I attended the Hillingdon branch of the UK Youth Parliament. Interestingly, those young people felt hard done by, because votes in the House on two issues about which most of them had strong feelings had gone the wrong way. One issue was Iraq, and the other top-up fees, and they said that they would like a referendum on both of them. However, as with all such issues, would they be prepared to vote? The measure should therefore be in place for all questions that are put to a referendum, as that would make us all work a lot harder. I shall conclude my speech, as I want to hear how the Minister will prove that he is in favour of democracy. The Opposition thoroughly support the Bill, and hope that the Government see the sense of it too.


Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD)

The hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) gave an interesting introduction to the Bill. I share his scepticism, and my beliefs about the preparation of the Government's proposals on devolution are on the record. The regions where the Government propose to devolve power are not proper regions, so the appropriate devolution of power, a policy that I fundamentally support, is unlikely to gain support. There is clear popular support for the Government's proposals, but it is also clear that support for devolution has been created from synthetic Government zones. Many soundings, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, demonstrate derisory levels of interest and enthusiasm for taking things a stage further, which only embellishes the point.

The Minister for Local and Regional Government, when dealing with amendments and arguments that a threshold should be established, argued that the Government would not proceed in circumstances in which support for a regional assembly was derisory. However, the responsibility for determining that level of support would rest entirely with the Secretary of State, and the only recourse to the people of this country would be the recourse of law, which is entirely unsatisfactory. I am not certain that in its present form the Bill is necessarily the answer, but the hon. Gentleman initiates an important debate. The Bill deserves further consideration, even though it puts far too much power into the hands of the Deputy Prime Minister to determine whether the level of support is derisory. Judging from the way the debate is going, I fear that in those regions the vote may well be derisory—

Mr. Forth


Andrew George

That would be insufficient and would raise serious questions about the way in which the Government proceed with the policy of devolution. I wish the hon. Member for Pendle well in raising an important issue, although I do not necessarily agree with the figure that he suggests.

2.20 pm
Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab)

I was extremely disappointed by the response from my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) to my earlier intervention. If he is arguing for thresholds for referendums in the wider world, why on earth is he not prepared to abide by the threshold that we set in the House for primary legislation? I think that is not a lawyerly point, as he said in response, but a point fundamental to our constitution. If legislation is to go through the House, it should have appropriate support from those present in the House.

Mr. Forth

In that case, would the hon. Gentleman accept my suggestion that the quorum in the House should be 50 per cent.? In order for a measure to get on to the statute book, surely it is not unreasonable for at least half of the MPs to turn up to vote for it.

Mr. Dismore

The right hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point, but I suspect that with such a threshold we would probably not get any legislation through at all—

Mr. Forth

Good. Excellent.

Mr. Dismore

I know that it is one of the right hon. Gentleman's primary objectives on a Friday to make sure that we get no legislation through.

There is not a great deal of time, but I shall address the point made by the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) in an intervention, about the position when it is pretty clear what the result will be. We have had a lot of sniping from those on the Opposition Front Bench and Back Benches about the referendum for the Greater London assembly and London Mayor. It is true that the turnout was only 34 per cent., but it is equally true that the overwhelming voice of the people of London was expressed in that vote—



Mr. Dismore

—through a yes vote of 72 per cent. That reinforces the point made by the hon. Member for St. Ives that when the result is so overwhelmingly clear, there is a tendency for people not to bother to vote because they see how the vote will turn out.

Mr. Francois

The hon. Gentleman is making rather an interesting argument. In the old Soviet Union the turnout in elections was often 98 or 99 per cent., and everybody know who would win.

Mr. Dismore

The hon. Gentleman is probably making a point against himself in the context of the Bill. We have a very successful operation through the London Mayor, and I very much hope that in the elections in June the Mayor will be returned to build on his excellent record on behalf of the people of London.

I shall deal now with another right: the right not to—

Mr. Paterson

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Dismore

I always give way on a Friday, as does the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth).

Mr. Paterson

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. With reference to his pride in the Mayor, why did the Labour party oppose him?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. Even in a wide-ranging debate, that is not acceptable.

Mr. Dismore

That is a great pity, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was looking forward to answering that intervention, but I shall go en to my next point, which concerns the right to abstain. Our democratic process does not require people to vote if they do not want to. Under my hon. Friend's Bill, people's decision not to vote would effectively be counted as a vote, whether they liked it or not. That is an infringement of the democratic process.

Article 9 of the Human Rights Act 1998 provides for freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and I think that includes the right to have their political views respected. I put it to my hon. Friend that Jehovah's Witnesses have a principled view that although they register to vote because that is a requirement of the law, they do not wish to participate in the political process. The Bill would force them to participate, whether they like it or not, by counting their principled abstention from the democratic process as a vote against a particular reform.

Mr. Prentice

I would have to think a bit more about the Jehovah's Witnesses—they always creep into these debates, do they not?

I remind my hon. Friend that other countries in the European Union, notably Portugal and Italy, implemented provisions of the kind that I propose without in any way infringing the European convention on human rights, which is the linchpin of our own Human Rights Act.

Mr. Dismore

Further to my hon. Friend's comment about the Jehovah's Witnesses, religious groups are often the subject of our debates. When we discussed the Pensions (Winding Up) Bill, we had an interesting diversion around the tenets of the Plymouth Brethren.

My hon. Friend says that such provisions do not infringe the convention, but he may not have considered the issue in one important context; indeed, perhaps I am the first person to do so. It is certainly important in my constituency. In Mill Hill, we have Watchtower house, the headquarters of the Jehovah's Witnesses, and a significant number of Jehovah's Witnesses are on the electoral register. That could affect the turnout significantly in the event of a referendum in my constituency.

That raises the whole question of the electoral register. Some of our electoral registers are more accurate than others—let me put it that way—and they are not designed to provide for thresholds or abstentions. Although we have a rolling register, its accuracy often leaves a great deal to be desired. For example, it is rare for people who have died during the year to be removed from the register. Indeed, they often crop up for several years before the local authority gets round to amending it. Under my hon. Friend's Bill, people who had died would effectively have a vote: they would be counted as having voted against because they had not turned out. That is an inevitable consequence of the Bill as drafted. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend says that he made that point during the debate, but it is nowhere in his Bill. It makes no provision for changes to the maintenance of the electoral register.

The same argument applies to people who have moved house during the currency of an electoral year. They remain on the register and technically still have the right to vote, yet under the Bill their vote would be counted irrespective of whether they decided to do so. The same goes for overseas voters. Moreover, in certain parts of the country, the register turns over much more quickly than in others. My hon. Friend has not thought through his proposals.

I have a great deal more to say, but I know that my hon. Friend the Minister would like to have a few minutes to speak. In the unlikely event of the Bill's making progress, I reserve the right to return to the matter at a later stage.

2.27 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs(Mr. Christopher Leslie)

In the generous amount of time that I have left, I will endeavour to explain why, after a great deal of consideration, we have concluded that the Government cannot support the 50 per cent. threshold for referendums that my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) proposes. I know that that will be a disappointment to him, so it will be helpful if I explain why we take that view.

First, let us not forget that there is a legal and legislative structure for our referendums. The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 governs the general rules for matters such as expenditure limits and organisation. There is also a requirement for separate Acts of Parliament to specify the details of particular referendums—the question, the franchise, the date and so forth. Clause 1 of my hon. Friend's Bill would amend the generic legislation. That would be wrong. It would be too rigid and inflexible an approach to apply the 50 per cent. threshold for all referendums in all circumstances. It is important that every referendum is considered on its merits. On principle, it would be wrong to have a 50 per cent. threshold, thereby allowing non-voters effectively to veto a yes vote or even a no vote, depending on how one viewed a threshold. That is a fundamentally undemocratic approach. People who wanted a no vote could campaign for abstentions rather than a positive—

It being half-past Two o'clock, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the debate, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Debate to be resumed Friday 12 March.