HL Deb 13 May 1975 vol 360 cc608-10

3.8 p.m.

The MINISTER of STATE, HOME OFFICE (Lord Harris of Greenwich) rose to move, That the Draft Referendum Order 1975, laid before the House on 8th May, be approved. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper. If the Act itself was skeletal, the Order certainly goes in the opposite direction. I cannot, however, pretend that what is now supplied in volume is necessarily matched by readability: the greater part of this Order is complex and highly technical. Nevertheless, I believe the approach adopted is the right one. It follows the precedent set for the Northern Ireland Border Poll, and I think that the method of listing the provisions applied and writing out only the modifications makes for brevity and clarity. The people most directly affected are the returning officers and their staffs who will be responsible for running the poll. They are familiar with the existing electoral law. What they want to know is in what respects it is changed for the referendum. The procedure followed in the Order serves to draw immediate attention to the changes.

Perhaps I may take this opportunity, on behalf of the Government and, indeed, I am sure on behalf of the whole House, of saying a word of thanks to those who will have the responsibility for carrying out the work involved in the referendum. We know the increasing burdens falling on local authority staffs and the special problems caused by the coincidence of local government reorganisation in Scotland with the period when the preparatory work for the referendum will be in full swing. Indeed, I drew particular attention to this latter problem during the Committee stage of the Referendum Bill. But I am glad to be able to inform your Lordships that in our consultations with the local authorities we have met with a great deal of co-operation from all those concerned, both from those who will be exercising the functions of returning officers and those who found themselves, at fairly short notice, shouldering the burden of counting the votes in an entirely novel way.

To return to the Order itself. The I general principle has been to apply all of the ordinary electoral law which is relevant to the conduct of a poll, modified as necessary. It has not for example, been necessary to apply any of the provisions concerning candidates, their agents, expenses and nomination, since there are, of course, no candidates. The absence of candidates has, however, produced one complication in that many of the controls imposed in the electoral law on various activities are drafted in terms of things done to "promote the election of a candidate ". For all these references it has been necessary to substitute a reference to things done to "promote a particular result at the poll ". Your Lordships will see that this substitution, or a variation of it, accounts for a substantial number of the modifications made in the Schedules to the Order.

The Order consists of seven substantive Articles and two Schedules, Article 1 provides that the Order will come into operation as soon as it is made. The Privy Council is meeting tomorrow and, provided the Order is approved by your Lordships and in another place today, it will be made at that meeting and come into operation forthwith.

The next two Articles deal with interpretation and the application and construction of the provisions specified in the Schedules. Article 4 fixes the date of the poll, 5th June, and the hours of polling. Article 5 enables my right honourable friend to make arrangements for observers, and Article 6 deems absent voting facilities granted for an election to be valid for the referendum, with the exception of proxies appointed for members of the Armed Forces and their spouses, for whom special comprehensive voting arrangements are being made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence under Article 7.

In the Schedules the most important provisions are the modifications made to the Parliamentary Elections Rules to provide for the method of counting the votes. These will mainly be found in the Rules substituted for Rules 45 and 46. My Lords, I do not think I need trouble you with a fuller recital of the contents of the Order which are essentially technical. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Draft Referendum Order 1975, laid before the House on 8th May, be approved.—(Lord Harris of Greenwich.)


My Lords, we in this House have had a very full general debate on the Referendum; we have had a Second Reading debate on the referendum Bill; we have had a fairly full Committee stage on the Referendum Bill; and now we have before us the Referendum Order which the noble Lord the Minister of State has moved and has explained the terms lucidly for our understanding. My own feeling is simply that we have had our say and there is nothing to be said. The Order that he is concerned with is simply a piece of mechanism; it is concerned with the nuts and bolts of the referendum procedure. Now that the Government have abandoned their original concept of holding the central counting in London and have decided to hold the count in varying places, I have nothing from which to dissent in the noble Lord's explanation of the referendum procedure. It seems to me that they are creating a rod to beat their own back. I am sure that they are doing it very efficiently, and it is not for me to add to their difficulties in any way. I will simply say that so far as I am concerned we now all go our separate ways so as to ensure on June 5th the result of the referendum which each one of us wants to secure. I can only express the hope that the opinion expressed in the vote by a vast majority of your Lordships will be echoed on June 5th, and that we shall continue to remain Members of the Community.

On Question, Motion agreed to.