HL Deb 29 April 1985 vol 463 cc57-75

Form of Ballot Paper

Parliament has decided to consult the electorate in (name of area in which referendum is held) as to whether effect is to be given to the provisions of the Local Government Act 1985 as regards (name of area in which referendum is held).


Put a cross (X) in the appropriate box.


There is political precedent for a major constitutional Bill to allow for the holding of referenda. At the opening of the Second Reading debate in another place on the Scotland and Wales Bill in December 1976 a reasoned amendment was tabled requiring referenda to be held in Scotland and Wales before the Bill came into effect. The amendment was tabled by the Labour Member for Pontypool. On the opening day of the debate, the Speaker ruled that the amendment should not be moved that day, but the debate which followed demonstrated widespread inter-party support for the idea of referenda. The Conservative Member for Swansea-East expressed the views of many when he said: For a major constitutional change such as this, when the rules of the game are to be altered, one needs an endorsement greater than that provided by this House". For "House" we might today read "Parliament". The Conservative Member for Milton Keynes admitted that since there had been a referendum on Europe, and because a major constitutional issue was in hand, he supposed that one could not logically oppose the holding of a referendum on that occasion, too.

Finally, in a long letter to The Times on 14th December, 1976, the noble Lord, Lord Home, said, also on that subject, that while Parliament and the country continued to be at sixes and sevens we will see how the present Bill fares, but is it not better to ascertain the true opinion of the people, and soon, and to frame a Bill afresh with their expressed wishes in mind? By quoting the noble Lord, I hasten to add that I have no reason to suppose that he shares my views on this particular amendment.

One argument then held against the holding of referenda centred around doubts as to the dissemination of appropriate information to the potential electorate who might be unable to make an informed decision if asked to cast a vote. After the publicity given to the areas affected by this Bill, it is hardly credible that the same argument could be used now.

Therefore, for pan-European Government reorganisation we had a referendum about joining the EEC; for national Government reorganisation we were going to introduce referenda on an already published Bill, but the Bill failed on 22nd February 1977. So why not one for local government reorganisation legislation? In almost every other democracy this legislation would be subject to some constitutional check so that the evident misgivings of many of our Parliament and people could find expression. In Britain no such check exists, and furthermore our electoral system allows a party representing the largest minority to interpret its mandate in any way it pleases.

It is the false doctrine of the mandate which lies at the root of the trouble. Even if one ignores the fact that the Government's parliamentary majority rests on the support of just over two out of five voters, there is no way of determining whether or not even those who actually voted Conservative sought to authorise the abolition of the GLC and the metropolitan counties as a specific issue.

Let us remember that when the Government proposed in their manifesto to abolish these bodies it was not apparent that no elected body would supersede them. The Government argue that devolution of powers is to elected district councils whose people will therefore get their own way, but that is not so. If we take the GLC as an example, then, as has already been said during the Second Reading debate, 66.8 per cent. of the current gross budget of £12 billion will go to 59 quangos, non-elected bodies or the Secretary of State. The amount over which the electorate have control falls from 100 per cent. to 33 per cent., the balance massively to strengthened non-elected centralised authorities. Because the voter cannot make his views known on specific issues, there is no way of preventing fundamental changes passing into law which the majority of those concerned do not desire.

In these circumstances, only one instrument exists which can determine whether electors approve a specific proposal, and that is the referendum. It alone offers a check upon Government which is truly popular and democratic. Although this House, through the so-called Salisbury Convention, lacks the constitutional authority to kill the Bill, it can nevertheless seek to make its coming into effect dependent upon popular approval. This would allow Conservative Peers to express their anxieties without openly opposing the Government too.

Last year opinion polls indicated a consistently rising opposition to abolition, now running at 74 per cent. From this one might deduce that a referendum might not endorse abolition. But this could be deceptive.

Lord Elton

Will the noble Lord kindly tell us which opinion poll is running at 77 per cent.? The latest one I saw showed a considerably lower figure.

Lord Broadbridge

I believe that it may be 71 per cent.

Lord Elton

I think that it is 61 per cent.

Lord Broadbridge

As I understand it, the figures were as follows: in January 1984, 50 per cent; in June 1984, 66 per cent; and in October 1984, 71 per cent. I had understood that it was 74 per cent. now; but if I am wrong, I apologise to the noble Lord.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

If the noble Lord would allow me, he may perhaps find it more conducive to the argument to point out the very low percentage of those who were in favour of abolition.

Lord Broadbridge

Yes, that is the case.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

Perhaps I may help the noble Lord by pointing out that in the same polls—

Lord Broadbridge

I believe it was 77 per cent. but perhaps we have now cleared up that point. From this one might deduce that a referendum might not endorse abolition but that could be deceptive. In a referendum campaign both sides would have to win over the uncommitted vote—for the referendum is a uniquely educative device requiring the citizen to offer a definite opinion upon a specific proposal. It is, as James Bryce noticed: unequalled as an instrument of practical instruction in politics". Parliament therefore ought to vindicate its claim to be a check on Government by insisting that neither the GLC nor the metropolitan counties are consigned to the dustbin of history without the people being consulted. I beg to move.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

I apologise to your Lordships and to the noble Lord for not having been in my place when the noble Lord started to move his amendment. Very briefly, surely the system is as follows. The noble Lord speaks about constitutional checks in other systems; but the other systems have written constitutions, and we have no written constitution. Our only checks are our unwritten constitution and the conventions by which we observe it. Surely it is not in accordance with the conventions or traditions to have a referendum other than on a national issue, and I would suggest that this does not qualify in that category.

Lastly, noble Lords, on this amendment at all events, cannot assert that this is some mere resort to the revisory role to improve the Bill—I use the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, in her absence, as she is not in her place—

Noble Lords

She is!

Lord Campbell of Alloway

I am grateful. I was just about to say that as the noble Baroness is not in her place there will be no amusement in carrying on the discussion on this matter; but as she is in her place I will say that this in fact is different in quality from the previous situation. Here it cannot be asserted—although I do not give at all on the point I made on the first amendment—on this amendment that this is a resort, using the word as the noble Baroness used it, to the revisory role to improve the Bill. Therefore it is a clear and unequivocal resort to the delaying power to delay the Bill, to defeat the Bill, if a referendum so decides. That, I would have suggested, is contrary to the ordinary constitutional conventions.

Lord Evans of Claughton

Perhaps I may speak in support of the noble Lord's amendment. I hasten to say that I speak in my personal capacity and not as a member of the Alliance parties. No doubt the terrible disciplinary actions taken against recalcitrant Tory Peers wil be visited on me for this stepping out of line.

I speak for this amendment because I feel strongly for once. The noble Lord, Lord Elton, detected a certain lack of enthusiasm about my earlier remarks. I would say that I do not regard all reforms as necessarily improvements, and I certainly do not regard this Bill as a reform nor as an improvement. Normally I, like my party, am opposed to the use of referenda in our system. But I do not regard the circumstances of this Bill as normal. They are unusual, if not unprecedented.

I am concerned, as I believe is the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, by the constitutional implications—not so much by what we are proposing in this amendment but the constitutional implications of the legislation. The Secretary of State is not just abolishing one tier of local government and returning the powers to the districts, as has been said. He is in fact destroying one elected level of local government and replacing it by nominated boards, or indirectly-elected boards. That is a different matter.

Sixty-seven per cent. of the total expenditure of metropolitan counties is on functions that will remain with statutory, county-wide, non-elected bodies. Therefore 67 per cent. of the functions of the metropolitan counties will be carried out not by elected district councils but by either indirectly-elected joint boards or by nominated bodies. A third of Greater London's total gross expenditure will go to non-elected London-wide bodies. Secondly, many of the powers that are being said to be returning to the districts are powers that they never previously had. I am not saying that that is a good or a bad thing, but just that many of the powers being given to the districts are not entirely powers that are being returned to them. Thirdly, as the noble Lord said, there is growing evidence that the electors are opposed to abolition.

A Mori poll in the Sunday Times this year still indicated 50 per cent. of the population were opposed to abolition in Great Britain as a whole. That is a figure that we might possibly guess would be higher in metropolitan areas. Local polls carried out in Greater Manchester, Merseyside, West Midlands and West Yorkshire in 1983 and 1984 indicated then that the majority of those interviewed during the surveys were in favour of retaining the county councils: the figures being 66 per cent. in Greater Manchester, 70 per cent. in Merseyside, 63 per cent. in West Midlands, and 70 per cent. in West Yorkshire. Supporters of abolition in these cases are respectively only 15 per cent., 17 per cent., 19 per cent., and 19 per cent.

There was another opportunity of the kind that several of your Lordships might have preferred—the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, mentioned this during Second Reading—and that is the kind of election which takes place at ballot boxes. But you see, this Government chose to prevent us enjoying the privilege of having that vote on 2nd May this year by abolishing those elections. Therefore, I would say that such evidence as we have indicates—perhaps because of the propaganda (who knows?); but that is a good thing; it is an educative process—that more and more people feel that they are sorry, and regret the possibility of the disappearance of their county council.

What the Government are doing—and this is why it is a constitutional issue—is saying that an existing tier of local government should no longer be organised through direct elections but administered by joint boards, committees, Government appointees, and in far too many cases by the Minister himself. As the noble Lord, Lord Broadbridge, said, the abolition of elections would be a constitutional matter in any country with a written constitution, and it sets a dangerous precendent in this country which has an unwritten constitution.

No form of impartial or objective inquiry has been made, nor now will be made. Nor has any chance been given by local elections being held on 2nd May this year. There is no authority in this country separate from Parliament which can ensure that traditional constitutional conventions are observed. As the noble and learned Lord, the Lord Chancellor has said, we can be, and are these days, subject to constitutional dictatorship. In these circumstances, and in the light of the constitutional position, but while being aware of the remarks that the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, and many others have made, I am of the opinion that the circumstances here are at least as unusual as the circumstances proposing to set up a Scottish and Welsh Parliament. In fact, Greater London has a much larger population, I am sorry to say, than Wales. It is an important matter. If it was good enough for the Welsh and the Scots to have a referendum which went against the wishes of the then Government, why should it not be good enough for the large number of electors in metropolitan areas—11½ million—to have the same opportunity of expressing their views?

Lord Wilson of Langside

I should like to support this amendment. There was a time when I took what I think was the traditional lawyer's view expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, that referenda were not appropriate to our constitutional arrangements. What converted me was the experience which some of your Lordships will recall in 1978 and 1979 with the legislation for legislative devolution to Wales and to Scotland. So far as Scotland was concerned this was, in the view of many of us, a piece of that Labour Government's legislative folly which was not largely removed in scale or conception from the particular Bill which is under consideration now by your Lordships' Committee.

6.30 p.m.

The position in those years with regard to public opinion polls is of interest and relevance. In Scotland all the opinion polls showed a large majority in favour of what was then called a Scottish assembly. They ranged from percentages of 60 to 80. Even the polls taken by the Royal Commission on the Constitution in the mid-1970s showed overwhelming majorities in favour of this. I am sure that this coloured some of the findings or conclusions of that distinguished Royal Commission.

When it came to the bit, as your Lordships will remember, the people showed themselves wiser than the Government. In Wales the proposals were overwhelmingly defeated. In Scotland some 67 per cent. of the electorate either voted against the Bill or refrained from voting when it had been widely said that an abstention was the same as a no vote. This converted me to the possibility that when Governments were foolish perhaps ordinary people could avoid that kind of political folly. Of course there would have to be a properly conducted and financed campaign because when complex administrative and constitutional questions are brought before the people the people have to be properly instructed on the arguments. That was what took place then. It converted me to the view that when Governments are indulging in constitutional absurdities there is much to be said for putting one's trust in the people.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

I have only one point that I should like to submit to your Lordships' Committee on this because I have no great general enthusiasm for referenda. My point relates specifically to Greater London. As I understand the amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Broadbridge, the referendum for Greater London would apply only to those who are electors in Greater London; that is to say, in general, residents of the Greater London area. I observed on Second Reading that Greater London is a purely arbitrary division of the South-Eastern region and a large proportion of the rates in Greater London are paid by people who reside outside it but commute every day to do their work. They pay rates on their offices, their factories and their general places of work.

The question of the removal of a tier of local Government is relevant from a ratepayer's point of view. If one applied a referendum to Greater London, one would have an unfair situation in which those who contribute a large proportion of the rates would have no vote, while large numbers of people who benefit from the payments made by local authorities, but who do not contribute directly to the rates, would have a vote. That illustrates the awkwardness in the Greater London context of this referendum proposal.

Lord Howie of Troon

Is it not the case that the example that the noble Lord cites is exactly the same in relation to the electorate for local authorities? If he follows his logic through with regard to the referen-dum, he must therefore ask whether the people who live out of London and yet work in it, or in the areas of other local authorities, should have a vote in a local election? This is the same thing, is it not?

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

If the noble Lord would be so courteous as to consult my Second Reading speech, he would see that I am very much with him in that proposal. One of the arguments which I adduced for the abolition of the GLC was precisely that. It levies rates via the precept on a large number of people who do not have votes in its area. Consistency, with respect, is said to be a characteristic of little minds, but I am wholly consistent in this in supporting the abolition of the GLC and in raising the point that a fair referendum for Greater London would be possible only if one included the whole of the South-East region. It is from the South-East region that those who contribute a large proportion of the rates come.

I do not know enough of the situation in the other metropolitan authorities to be able to propound a view, though I would guess in the case of the West Midlands that there may be something of the same situation, as I have had some experience there. I base my argument on Greater London. This is what distinguishes this from the referenda in Scotland and Wales where we were dealing with identifiable and large sections of the United Kingdom with a substantial life of their own. Part of the problem with which the Government are struggling in the whole of the Bill is that the arbitrary drawing of a line around Greater London—a line in a part of the world with which I am familiar includes Kingston-upon-Thames in Greater London, but excludes Esher—creates these problems. What would make it worse would be to introduce a referendum limited only to Greater London electors.

As your Lordships will be well aware, Gallup polls, expressions of political opinion taken irrespective of what I call inner London, may produce a wholly different result from similar explorations of public opinion through Sussex, Kent, Surrey, Buckinghamshire and Essex. That illustrates the difficulty behind this proposal. I should, therefore, feel unhappy at the idea of these referenda taken in limited areas. I feel that in our unitary system of Government it is better to rely on elections to Parliament.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

The Committee should be indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Broadbridge, for giving us this opportunity of examining whether, in a complicated and complex situation, the use of the device of a referendum has any part to play in convincing either the Government or those who oppose the Government view that the proposals which the Government seem hell bent on proceeding with, come what may, are the wishes of the people who will be affected.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, for his contribution. He can see merit, if there is to be a referendum, for widening it beyond London to the South-East region because some people who live in the South-East region work in and pay rates in London. If he cares to move for a referendum in the South-East, I shall certainly second that.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

In spite of that generous offer, I did, he may recall, express a certain lack of enthusiasm for referenda in general and therefore I do not think that the noble Lord will have to over-exert himself in supporting me on that.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

Like the noble Lord, I am not in favour of over-exerting myself. The dilemma faced by the Committee is that there is evidence produced by the opponents to the Bill that the Government do not attempt to deny. When we assert by the best means we can achieve that the people who live in the metropolitan areas do not want the legislation, or when we say that the people in Greater London do not want the abolition of the GLC, the Government do not answer the arguments. The noble Lord, Lord Broadbridge, made his case about the percentages. The building across the road has had a sign up for some time saying, "74 per cent. say No". The Minister is entitled to question the manner in which that figure has been produced; I do not. Either you broadly agree that there is a place for the public opinion poll in testing public opinion, or you do not—

Lord Elton

I intervene because the figure that the noble Lord quoted was not 74 but 77, which I have never seen advanced anywhere; and I am told that it is wildly out of date.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

Perhaps I may quote to the noble Lord a public opinion poll that was given three days ago on Thames Television. That poll, which was taken with a sample of 1,000 people, showed that 16 per cent. were in favour of the abolition. Seventy per cent. were against it. The Minister may say that instead of 78 the real figure was 74 and now it is down to 70. The point that I seek to make is that, whatever one says about a figure of around 70 per cent. who are against, the number who are persistently in favour remains at less than 20 per cent.

I am not arguing that that should be the sole criterion, because the Government will argue that there were other opportunities almost two years ago in a general election. Everyone in the country was given the opportunity of expressing his or her views. The Minister will know—because he will have looked very carefully at the figures and at the analyses that were produced—that in the metropolitan areas only 36 per cent. of the people supported the Government's case.

If we rest the case, as we do, upon the sanctity—and the Government have the authority—of the manifesto, let me quote two pieces of evidence for it. At Second Reading in another place the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup said: the proposals … were put in nine days after the election was called against the wishes of the party policy committee. They were inserted without the general agreement of those who had been London Conservative Members".—[Official Report, Commons, 4/12/84; col. 191.] Either the Minister will say that that is not the truth or he will simply ignore it and allow the words to have some significance in the debate. If, as I accept, it is the truth, then it is a damning indictment of the base from which the Government put that manifesto commitment before the country.

Even if we say that all the processes took place, the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, made a broad allusion to the sense and the place of the manifesto. Of course the noble Lord opposite raised in aid what one would call the Salisbury doctrine of the power of the manifesto. This is what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, a Member of this House who is highly respected, said in respect of the attempt by a political party to use a manifesto commitment to put through its policy—and that was the GLC in 1981. This is what the noble and learned Lord, whose views are every bit as worthy of being listened to with care as those of Lord Salisbury said in the case against Bromley: A manifesto issued by a political party in order to get votes is not to be taken as gospel. It is not to be regarded as a bond, signed, sealed and delivered. It may contain, and often does contain, promises or proposals that are quite unworkable or impossible of attainment. When a party gets into power it should consider any proposal or promise afresh on its merits, without any feelings of being obliged to honour it or being committed to it. It should then consider what is best to do in the circumstances of the case and to do it if it is practical and fair"—

Lord Campbell of Alloway

Will the noble Lord accept that what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, was saying was in relation to the legality of an administrative act and that what we were considering on the previous amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, and to some degree in another context are considering on this amendment, has nothing at all to do with that but with issues which relate to the unwritten constitution? I hope the noble Lord will agree with me that they are totally disparate issues.

6.45 p.m.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

I am not as competent as the noble Lord to argue legal niceties and to differentiate. I simply look at the sanctity and the authority of a political body to pursue its manifesto commitments. I am quite happy to leave the record to be seen and read by those who are interested, but there is a contradiction in the attitude of noble Lords opposite. The Minister who will reply, and to whom we listen with great respect, must understand that those who are putting this forward are genuinely frustrated and are seeking to find means of convincing the Government that it is still not too late.

The Government may well be right. An indepen-dent survey may very well prove that all these public opinion polls have been somehow weighted or affected, that the wrong questions have been asked, etc. If it is to be a proper Government referendum, there may be some merit in it. I am not arguing the case for or against a referendum. I am saying that there are people who are frustrated and who are seeking to find a means of saying to the Government, "It may not be too late. It may be that you will be able by using the consultative process to strengthen your arguments and therefore to convince this House". We simply look at the 5,000 responses which have been made to Streamlining the Cities, which is the base from which this whole argument was launched. An overwhelming number of them were from individuals and small organisations. But very weighty and powerful bodies said, no. We scratch our heads and ask, "What will it take for the Government to believe that they may be wrong?" The Government are arrogant in refusing to believe that there is anyone, apart from themselves, who can interpret what has been said by the people. So that having rejected the inquiry and having, as I suspect, rejected this amendment, I believe that the Minister ought to have better arguments to convince us that what the people have said is wrong.

The Earl of Onslow

I hope that noble Lords on the Front Bench will resist this amendment absolutely. Referenda are the instrument of dictators. They were Instruments of Hindenberg, of Napoleon and also, I believe, of Hitler. Referenda are easily fixed, the boundaries are easily moved and they undermine the sovereignty of Parliament. Referenda were introduced into this country's political being by the erstwhile second Viscount Stansgate, who thought that he could persuade the British people and the noble Lord, Lord Wilson of Rievaulx, to stay out of the Common Market, because that is what he wanted and he thought that he would pray in aid the advice of the British people, but they said "Nay". That is a very bad precedent for the use of a referendum. The noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, said that it is a bad precedent and I could not agree more with him.

We have a parliamentary democracy and it is that democracy that is supreme. The Sovereign in Parliament is supreme. Does a referendum stop at Esher, at Guildford, at Solihull or at Cornwall? Everybody in the United Kingdom is interested in the future of the metropolitan counties. Is it only the metropolitan counties that will have the vote or is it everybody? I suggest that if there is a referendum—which I would abhor, because it is a constitutional abortion—then it should be to the whole country.

If the referendum is to the whole country, where do we stop? Do we stop at Bills to abolish local authorities? Do we go on to Bills to abolish hare coursing, on to Bills which say how many chiropodists can operate on your big toe; or do we say that the referendum applies only to Bills to abolish metropolitan counties? I think that this is something up with which we should not put. I hope that my noble friend will resist it very strongly.

Lord Wallace of Coslany

There is a point that I should like to raise. It was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter. I am involved in, and live in, the Greater London area—a part of the Greater London area which at one time was in the county of Kent. Now we have a London borough which has far greater powers than the magnificent city of Norwich, which has been reduced to the level of a district council. Those people who live on the outskirts of Greater London and who travel into London and sometimes pay rates in London have the benefit of the county councils; whereas, in my case, my county council will be removed and my local authority will have powers even greater than exist in such cities as Norwich.

This is where I think the Government have made a profound mistake. Instead of messing about with these little pieces of administration, mainly because of the political powers, possibly, why not follow what the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, said when, on the Local Government (No. 2) Bill, I tried to raise an amendment to restore to the city and other large councils the powers which had been removed? Lord Bellwin then said that at some time there must be a reform. The noble Lord, Lord Evans, did not support me then because he said that the time was not ripe. If the time is ripe now to abolish the GLC and the metropolitan counties, why is the time not ripe now to have a proper reorganisation and to give to some of these councils the chance to have back the powers that have been lost to the county councils? Therefore, we in the Greater London area have an equal right to vote in a referendum. Those who are lucky enough to live in the county-governed area will keep it, and they should not worry about losing their chance to vote.

Lord Beloff

I think that the proposal for a referen-dum, if it is genuinely made, must be seriously considered. Reference has been made to the precedent of the referendum on staying in the European Communities. If I remember correctly, very great efforts were made to see that both sides in that argument had a full opportunity of presenting their case; that in no way was the accretion of funds to one or other side to influence voters; and that the whole thing took—as it should, if one takes a referendum seriously—a very long time. Therefore, I must presume that those who intend a referendum intend again a form of delay.

But there is another point. I do not think that it is proper, correct or very helpful for noble Lords opposite to justify their support for a referendum on the grounds of the showing in public opinion polls. Whether the figures are 70 per cent. or 74 per cent. seems to me to make no difference at all; because the public opinion polls to which reference has been made have not been conducted in the same impartial spirit, not in connection with the questions but in connection with the propaganda to vote in a particular direction. If I had had the money which has been available from the public purse to the GLC or the metropolitan counties to launch a campaign leading to success in a public opinion poll, there is almost nothing, I think, that I could not have persuaded the British electorate to agree to.

The Government, on the other hand, who support abolition, have not had access to such money. As everyone knows, there is a very considerable constitutional and legal inhibition on Governments using public money in order to promulgate partisan purposes. Frankly, we do not know what are the opinions of the ordinary citizen, whether in the metropolitan counties or in the nation at large on these issues.

The final point, if I may, is this. The noble Lord, Lord Broadbridge, rather dismissed the view that possibly the issues are complicated and technical for the ordinary voter. I can only say that there have been some inquiries—and many of your Lordships may have seen the results on television—which suggest that most of the inhabitants in these areas could not tell you, if asked, which were the powers of districts and which were the powers of the upper tier. These are not matters which normally concern the citizen. Yet how can he decide on these proposals without that informa-tion? If we are to have a referendum, we cannot possibly have one in the time which is proposed to be allotted to it.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

The noble Lord who has just sat down has again this afternoon, as have many of his colleagues, castigated the GLC for the amount of money that they have spent on advertising. I did not hear any speaker from the other side of the Committee using the same argument when the National Coal Board was spending taxpayers' money day after day on advertising its case against the strike. I agree with the noble Lord that it takes time and takes education to organise a referendum. This could be a good thing: it could be educative. It could be educative provided that there are reasonable amounts of money available for those on both sides and if it were conducted in an orderly way.

But it is not enough to say that the figures which have been produced by my noble friend Lord Graham and by the noble Lord, Lord Evans, have been the result of a propaganda campaign. If you think that, all right—test it! There was an opportunity to test it this week, on Thursday, if you wanted it by ballot box. There is an opportunity, if you want it by direct vote, to accept this amendment for a referendum. But it really is not good enough to say, "We do not believe any of the figures and we are not going to find out".

The real problem here, as I see it, is that the Government have got themselves into a situation (whether or not deliberately) in which it appears to everybody that they are taking this action for party political purposes. Why did they not introduce this Bill before 1981? Why was it not introduced when Sir Horace Cutler was the leader? Why has there been this tremendous propaganda campaign against the GLC in particular, and to a lesser extent against the metropolitan counties, only after the electors had elected Labour majorities? If the Government are serious, they have the onus on them to show how they are going to meet the figures that have been given, as the Minister intervened during the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Broadbridge.

The Earl of Onslow

Will the noble Lord give way?

Lord Hatch of Lusby

I shall do so when I have finished this part of my speech. In addition to the figures that have already been given, I should like the Minister to answer both the figures which have been given by my noble friend Lord Graham and the noble Lord, Lord Evans, on the poll that was taken by Thames Television last week, and, in addition to that, the figures—the 77 per cent.—given in the inquiry that was made on this poll. This is where the 77 per cent. of those who voted come in.

The Earl of Onslow

Now that the noble Lord has shut up—

7 p.m.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

No, I shall give way when I finish this section of my speech. The 77 per cent. voted in favour of the inquiry which we have now turned down, but only 12 per cent. voted against that. The figures have been given showing the very small number who are in favour of abolition either of the GLC or the metropolitan counties. Does this not put the onus on the Government to say who they are representing?

The noble Earl, Lord Onslow—I shall give way to him after I have made this point—suggested that any referendum should take place right across the country. If he had been in the Chamber this afternoon—I do not think he was—he would have heard his noble friend Lord Gowrie partly answer the point when he responded to my challenge that the logic of the Government's case was to abolish the shire counties. It is not the electors in the shire counties who are being disfranchised; it is the electors in the area of the Greater London Council and the metropolitan counties. They are the people who are entitled to say whether or not they should be disfranchised; not the rest of the country. If the noble Earl would like to intervene now, I should be happy to give way to him.

The Earl of Onslow

Several sentences after the noble Lord, Lord Hatch, said he would give way I shall now answer that one point about why it was decided to abolish the metropolitan authorities in 1981. It is just possible that they started behaving—especially the GLC—in a manner of quite extraordinary irresponsibility. The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, was elected as the leader of the GLC when they came to power. There was a putsch and Mr. Livingstone was put into place. They then proceeded to issue money as if it were printed by somebody else. They behaved in a manner of nearly criminal irresponsibility with other people's money. That is why it was decided to abolish them.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

So now we have it. We are not being asked to abolish the Greater London Council because it is inefficient; we are not being asked to abolish it because it is an unnecessary second tier; we are not being asked to abolish it because it is not doing its job; we are being asked to abolish it because the noble Earl, unelected, does not like what it is doing. That is what it comes to. That is precisely what it comes to—because he does not like what it does.

Why not allow the electors to decide? The noble Earl was talking about a referendum being a recipe for dictatorship. Is this the concept of democracy that the noble Earl has; the democracy which allows an unelected Member of this House to abolish the right of the electors to decide whether the members of the GLC are doing what they want—not what he wants, but what they want—and which allows them to decide on Thursday of this week that if they do not like what their members are doing, they turn them out? Is this not what we mean by democracy? Is not this the issue that all the time has lain between us?

I do not believe that it has lain simply between the two sides of this Chamber. I believe that there are members on the other side who are just as worried as we are. I quoted one of their leaders this afternoon in the previous debate. It is not all Conservatives who would abolish the democratic local government system in the way that the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, would do.

We have had figures given on public opinion. What we have not had—I hope that the noble Lord the Minister who is to speak for the Government will give us them—are the responses to the submissions made regarding the Government's own paper. We have never had these published. I understand that there were at least 2,000 responses from very important institutions in this country. Why will the Government not tell us? Will they tell us tonight? Why have they not published them?

I cannot see how any member of the Government can say that they are representing anyone apart from the 15 per cent. or 16 per cent. who support them, as we have seen in the opinion polls. Apart from that tiny minority I cannot see that they are representing anyone in pursuing the Bill in the way they are doing. If they say, "Oh yes, we are", why have they turned down the opportunity of elections this week? Why is it that they are presumably opposed to a referendum? Why is it that they reject the opinion polls? The answer is quite simple. The opinion polls are against their. Every test that has been taken over the past two weeks has shown that if there were an election in the GLC this week, the Conservative Party would be almost swept out of County Hall.

But there is a more serious issue and it is one which was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway. I am sorry that he is not in his place because he raised an issue which we ought to take seriously. He raised the issue of the written and the unwritten constitution. He pointed out that we do not have a written constitution. No, we do not. I presume that most noble Lords do not want a written constitution. But an unwritten constitution depends upon the observance of conventions. I would suggest that in all the lead-up to this Bill those conventions have been flouted.

There is the convention that on a matter of constitutional importance—surely this is a matter of constitutional importance—the two sides get together, that there is an independent inquiry, that there are wide tests of opinion, and that they are all taken into consideration before any drastic change in the constitution is made. It was done, as has been mentioned, in the case of Wales and Scotland. It was done in the case of the European Community.

Personally I do not like the referendum. I think it should be used only as a matter of last resort when on a constitutional issue. I am frightened of the use of the referendum on single policy issues when opinion can very easily be swayed by the lowest common denominator in the media. But when it comes to a constitutional issue and when the conventions that govern our unwritten constitution have been flouted, then it seems to me that our constitutional rights and the protection which this Committee should afford to those whose constitutional rights are being removed are under threat. Therefore, while still disliking the referendum as a general rule, when it comes to a constitutional issue I think at least the Government have a serious question to answer. There is an onus on the Government to answer it.

They have to say why it is that they are flouting every test of public opinion, refusing the democratic process of elections, going against the advice of major institutions in this country and breaking the conventions on which our unwritten constitution depends. The consequence of that could very well be a campaign for a written constitution, which none of us would want. I would suggest that the onus is on the Government to answer why it is that they are pursuing this line in defiance of every expressed form of public opinion from individuals and organisations.

Lord Elton

The amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Broadbridge, which he ably introduced a little time ago, would provide for referendums—if that is the plural; there is a difference on that—in London and each of the metropolitan counties on whether the GLC and each metropolitan county council should be abolished. The electorate would be asked: do you want the provisions of the Local Government Act 1985 to be put into effect as regards the area in which you live?

As the noble Lord, Lord Evans of Claughton, rightly said, this does raise a matter of important constitutional principle. A referendum on abolition would, I believe, breach the principle of the sovereignty of Parliament. As I made clear when this Bill received its Second Reading in your Lordships' House, the powers and duties of the GLC and the six metropolitan county councils have their origin in Parliament. It was from Parliament that they obtained their power to raise money and it was Parliament which gave them the power to spend it and the functions on which to spend it.

It is right that it should also be Parliament that decides—and by giving this Bill its Second Reading your Lordships already have decided—whether those powers and duties should be recalled and redistributed. The noble Lord, Lord Broadbridge, and others have sought to argue that our proposals for abolition are in some way like the proposals for devolution in Scotland and Wales. Indeed, I note that the terms of the amendments themselves draw very heavily on the provisions of the Scotland Act 1978.

I must tell your Lordships that the two cases are entirely different. The EC referendum is not a valid precedent. At the time of the EC and devolution referenda, it was argued that it was right to consult the people directly because both issues involved mimicking the powers of Parliament. This party did not accept that argument at the time but it was at least a reasonable point of view to advance. No such argument can be advanced in the case of abolition because this Bill will leave the powers of Parliament entirely undiminished. Indeed, it is that to which noble Lords opposite seem to take offence.

The argument has also been advanced that the reorganisation is somehow unique. The fact that there has been no recent inquiry into local government structure, it is suggested, justifies a referendum. But a referendum and an inquiry have entirely different purposes. An inquiry—as was made quite clear by noble Lords opposite during our latest debate on this Bill—would be held to decide how to implement the Bill and not to decide whether to implement it. When we suggested that there might be a thought in their minds that an inquiry might prevent implementation, we were castigated for advancing a fallacious argument.

This Government do not need a referendum because they know their own mind. That is more than can be said of Labour, because on the issues of both the EC and devolution for Scotland and Wales the Labour Government were split. The referenda were attempts to paper over the cracks. The Government of the time could not decide and so they handed over the responsibility for making the decisions to the electorate. On both occasions, as I have already reminded your Lordships, this party opposed the referenda. We are no less opposed to them now than we were then.

Abolition is no different in principle from many other matters which Parliament is asked to decide during its five-year life span. If we held a referendum on this question, people would have a right to expect one on every other major item of legislation, regardless of the manifesto on which the Government were elected and regardless, I should add, of the party that was in power at the time. In my interventions earlier I had not sought to argue the relevance of the figures in the current polls; I merely begged that if figures were used, they should be accurate figures. I think that was a fair request to make. So much has been suggested outside this House that is entirely misleading that it would be a pity if that habit spread to your Lordships' Chamber.

One cannot govern by referenda. Between elections, the monitor of government is Parliament. This amendment is asking the electorate to do Parliament's job for it. That is, I repeat, a serious and unacceptable breach of our constitutional traditions. If the Labour Party does support this proposal—and I am surprised to hear that it proposes to do so—I expect it to say at once that its recent proposals to abolish mortgage interest tax relief should be subject to a referendum as well.

7.15 p.m.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

If I may intervene, I should like to make it clear, to remove any doubt, that I never argued that this side of the Committee would be supporting this proposal. I said that I was arguing neither for nor against. As a matter of fact, the Minister has given me an opportunity to say that I am advising my colleagues who seek advice to abstain.

Lord Elton

The noble Lord has given as much pleasure to me as he has withdrawn comfort from those who support this amendment. I wonder whether it is necessary for me to adduce much more argument against it, because your Lordships are getting hungry. I will merely remind your Lordships again that the Bill carries out an undertaking that was in the manifesto on which this Government were elected. The electors are not being disenfranchised; they have already cast their votes.

There were interesting opinions quoted by the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, about the validity of a manifesto, but the plain fact is that everybody knows that under the constitution as we now have it any party is not only free but is expected—our party is certainly expected—to honour its election manifesto (I would not answer for the party opposite) during the life of the following Parliament. Noble Lords opposite are the first to complain if we look like failing to do that. The question which this amendment seeks to reopen is, in effect: should the Bill be implemented? Your Lordships have decided that question once and I suggest your Lordships decide it again quite unmistakably, by rejecting this amendment.

Lord Jacques

It is widely accepted throughout the world, and not just in this country, that there is a case for treating changes to the constitution differently from other changes to the law. The point that has been made about whether this or that should be subject to a referendum is almost completely irrelevant. We are dealing here with constitutional changes. There is a widely-held opinion that the two should be treated differently because of the importance of constitutional changes, because of the need for stability, and because of the fact that it is well known that political parties use changes in the constitution to their advantage.

For example, there is very strong circumstantial evidence that the party opposite has used local government reform to its advantage during the whole of the post-war period. It first abolished the LCC because it thought that by having a wider area there would be a greater chance of there being a Conservative majority more frequently, and it sub-stituted the GLC. Now that that has not worked, the party opposite wants to abolish the GLC.

The party opposite almost completely ignored the report of the commission on local government in the early 1970s. Why? Because it wanted to take away the powers of the shires and substitute unitary government. We all know that the power of the party opposite is mainly in the shires. Therefore it wanted to keep the shires. Let none of us have any doubt at all that changes in local government have been used to party advantage. I believe that constitutional changes should be different from other changes to the law. A referendum is one way of making them different, and I shall support this amendment.

Lord Broadbridge

I should like to thank all speakers from both sides, whatever they have said. I shall be brief because I realise that the time is right for dinner. I said speakers from both sides and possibly I should have said those down the middle as well because the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, was somewhat down the middle. He was much concerned with lines and I can really only draw to mind the well-known Motion at the Oxford Union: That in the opinion of this house the line must be drawn somewhere". The noble Lord also implied that minds could be bent by spending. That is why I said that the results could well be deceptive and might not necessarily turn out as the opinion polls have indicated. Your Lordships will see that as an Independent I am not particularly interested in trying to defeat, delay or otherwise wreck the Government but more to find out what the electorate really thinks; for which we go back to our grass roots.

I am sorry that the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, thinks that I am a dictator. I said at Second Reading that I felt to some extent that opinion in this country—and these are the words I used—was that referenda were the province of banana republics and foreigners. Therefore, I am not entirely surprised that as an eminent member of this country's society he should view me as representing that point of view. However, I believe that people are coming over to them slightly more than in the past.

Finally, I should like to thank the Minister for his reply. He mentioned that the amendment would be a breach of the sovereignty of Parliament; but presumably if Parliament were to vote for the principle of a referendum it would not be breaching its own sovereignty. There could only be a breach of sovereignty if somehow one was to get a referendum through the back door and produce something which might reverberate to the detriment—to use a well-known expression—of Parliament without Parliament being able to counter it in any way. After all, we are masters of our fate this evening. If we do not want a referendum then we will not have one. The Government know their own mind but my view is that perhaps at the moment the Government do not know the electorate's mind.

However, perhaps because I am in a slightly statistic-cal mood this evening, having thought of a referendum all day and was well aware before the Committee stage began that noble Lords on the Opposition Benches were not in favour of the amendment and were not proposing to support me, I should like to find out what is the real opinion of the Committee. It is a little difficult to do so on a statistical sample of 10 or 15 people. Not every noble Lord who has been against the amendment has indicated that he would totally oppose it. I deliberately made a brief opening speech n order to allow a little extra time, and I should therefore like to press my amendment.

7.22 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 2) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 23; Not-Contents, 173.

Airedale, L. Houghton of Sowerby, L.
Banks, L. Howie of Troon, L.
Broadbridge, L. [Teller.] Ingleby, V.
Buckmaster, V. Jacques, L.
Campbell of Eskan, L. Jenkins of Putney, L.
Chichester, Bp. McNair, L.
Evans of Claughton, L. [Teller.] Mais, L.
Melchett, L.
Gifford, L. Molloy, L.
Grey, E. Pitt of Hampstead, L.
Hampton, L. Wallace of Coslany, L.
Hatch of Lusby, L. Wilson of Langside, L.
Abinger, L. Campbell of Alloway, L.
Airey of Abingdon, B. Carnegy of Lour, B.
Allerton, L. Carnock, L.
Arran, E. Chelwood, L.
Astor, V. Clitheroe, L.
Atholl, D. Coleraine, L.
Barber, L. Colville of Culross, V.
Bathurst, E. Colwyn, L.
Belhaven and Stenton, L. Cork and Orrery, E.
Bellwin, L. Cottesloe, L.
Beloff, L. Cowley, E.
Belstead, L. Cox, B.
Bessborough, E. Craigavon, V.
Birdwood, L. Craigmyle, L.
Boardman, L. Cranbrook, E.
Bolton, L. Crathorne, L.
Boyd-Carpenter, L. Cullen of Ashbourne, L.
Brabazon of Tara, L. Davidson, V.
Bridgeman, V. De Freyne, L.
Brougham and Vaux, L. De La Warr, E.
Broxbourne, L. Denham, L. [Teller.]
Caccia, L. Digby, L.
Caithness, E. Dilhorne, V.
Cameron of Lochbroom, L. Drumalbyn, L.
Dudley, E. Middleton, L.
Dundee, E. Minto, E.
Elibank, L. Molson, L.
Ellenborough, L. Monk-Bretton, L.
Elliot of Harwood, B. Mottistone, L.
Elton, L. Mountevans, L.
Enniskillen, E. Moyne, L.
Erne, E. Munster, E.
Faithfull, B. Napier and Ettrick, L.
Ferrers, E. Nelson of Stafford, L.
Ferrier, L. Newall, L.
Fisher, L. Norfolk, D.
Fraser of Kilmorack, L. Northesk, E.
Freyberg, L. Nugent of Guildford, L.
Gainford, L. Onslow, E.
Gardner of Parkes, B. Orr-Ewing, L.
Geddes, L. Pender, L.
Gibson-Watt, L. Penrhyn, L.
Glenarthur, L. Plummer of St, Marylebone, L.
Gowrie, E.
Gray, L. Quinton, L.
Gray of Contin, L. Rankeillour, L.
Gridley, L. Reay, L.
Grimond, L. Redesdale, L.
Grimston of Westbury, L. Reigate, L.
Haig, E. Remnant, L.
Hailsham of Saint Marylebone, L. Renton L.
Renwick, L.
Hardinge of Penshurst, L. Rochdale, V.
Harmar-Nicholls, L. Rochester, Bp.
Harvey of Tasburgh, L. Rodney, L.
Harvington, L. Romney, E.
Henley, L. St. Aldwyn, E.
Hives, L. Salisbury, M.
Home of the Hirsel, L. Saltoun of Abernethy, Ly.
Hood, V. Sandford, L.
Hornsby-Smith, B. Sandys, L.
Hylton-Foster, B. Savile, L.
Ironside, L. Seebohm, L.
Kaberry of Adel, L. Shaughnessy, L.
Kemsley, V. Skelmersdale, L.
Kinloss, Ly. Southwark, Bp.
Kinnaird, L. Strathcarron, L.
Kintore, E. Swinton, E. [Teller.]
Lane-Fox, B. Taylor of Blackburn, L.
Lauderdale, E. Teviot, L.
Lawrence, L. Thomas of Swynnerton, L.
Lindsey and Abingdon, E. Thorneycroft, L.
Liverpool, Bp. Torphichen, L.
Loch, L. Trefgarne, L.
Long, V. Trenchard, V.
Lucas of Chilworth, L. Trumpington, B.
Lyell, L. Tryon, L.
McAlpine of West Green, L. Vaux of Harrowden, L.
McFadzean, L. Vickers, B.
Macleod of Borve, B. Vinson, L.
Malmesbury, E. Vivian, L.
Mar, C. Ward of Witley, V.
Margadale, L. Westbury, L.
Marley, L. Whitelaw, V.
Maude of Stratford-upon-Avon, L. Windlesham, L.
Yarborough, E.
Merrivale, L. Young, B.
Mersey, V. Young of Graffham, L.

Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.

7.32 p.m.

Lord Skelmersdale

In moving that the House do now resume it would be appropriate to tell your Lordships' Committee that we shall not return to this stage of the Bill until 8.30 p.m. I beg to move that the House do now resume.

Moved accordingly and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House resumed.

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