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Volume 885: debated on Monday 27 January 1975

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asked the Lord President of the Council what progress he has made in working out the machinery by which a national referendum may be conducted.

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons
(Mr. Edward Short)

I would refer the hon. Gentleman to the statement made by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on Thursday 23rd January.

Does the Lord President accept that, having proposed such a constitutional innovation, there is a particular obligation upon him to ensure that the procedures and provisions of his referendum do the minimum possible damage to the House of Commons and the free exercise of judgment by its Members? To that end, will he give serious weight to the argument that, whereas the purpose of a General Election is to choose representatives here of particular constituencies, the purpose of a national referendum is to produce a national result? Will he arrange for the votes to be counted accordingly?

The Labour Party put this proposal in its manifesto and we won the General Election. The method of counting the votes is a very controversial matter. There are three points of view, and we shall certainly put in the White Paper the various courses and our proposals.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that there are many of us on the Government side of the House who, while not particularly hostile to the Common Market, have never particularly opposed a referendum? Will he bear in mind that those who support the Common Market do a great disservice to their cause if they get particularly anxious about having a referendum? Is he aware that many of us on the Government side of the House, on both sides of the issue, pay tribute to the Lord President for the way in which he has tried to organise a referendum which is fair to all?

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend. We are working out our proposals. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said, we intend to publish a White Paper—I hope towards the end of next month—and to have a debate in the House.

Will the right hon. Gentleman say whether in the formulation of the question or questions to be answered there will be any reference to the treaty obligations incurred?

It is much too early to say. Certainly the question will be part of the legislation, and the White Paper itself will discuss the question.

Will my right hon. Friend say whether members of another place and the Royal Family will be allowed to vote in this national referendum?

I think it would be fair for members of another place to be given a vote on this occasion. After all, they are on the local government voters' list.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that not everyone in the House will agree that the Prime Minister made everything absolutely clear last week? Is he further aware that, in so far as anyone feels any sympathy for anybody on this subject, it is directed to the parliamentary draftsmen, who will have an almost intolerably difficult task?

I am sure that the general opinion of the House is that the Prime Minister shed a great deal of light on a unique and novel proposal. Certainly the parliamentary draftsmen are not going to have an easy task, but the legislation itself will not be all that complicated, or too long.