asked the Lord President of the Council whether he is satisfied with the progress he has made in carrying out his special responsibilities in connection with the forthcoming EEC referendum; and whether he will make a statement.
Yes, Sir. The White Paper on the referendum was published on 26th February.
Is the Lord President aware that in the White Paper to which he has referred it is made clear that it is the Government's present intention that those who are away on holiday when the referendum takes place will be disfranchised? Is he aware also that Mr. Humphrey Taylor, who runs one of our leading polling organisations, has estimated that if the referendum were held in the latter half of June, which is the Government's present intention, over 2 million people would be so disfranchised and that if it were to be held later in the summer, which may well be the case, anything up to 5 million people would be disfranchised?Would not that be a scandal? If this unique test of public opinion is to be what it sets out to be, is it not essential that postal or proxy votes should be given to those people who will be away on holiday when the referendum takes place?
The Government's aim has been to make the arrangements as fair as possible. We have tried to adhere as far as we can to the normal rules for parliamentary elections, where people who are on holiday do not get a postal vote. However, I have gone into the question of local holidays very carefully. I think that in the third week of June there are only two towns in the country where local holiday weeks will be held. Nevertheless, I agree that there will be some people on holiday.
Is my right hon. Friend aware of the many problems confronting citizens of the United Kingdom if they are away on holiday in parts of the Middle East, from which region I had the experience of posting a message home, which arrived 16 days later? In such a case would not the postal vote for those on holiday be ridiculous?
No, I do not think that it would be ridiculous. I think that this is a matter which, in the broader context of our parliamentary practice, should be considered by Mr. Speaker's Conference, with a view to a recommendation being made. As for the referendum, all that we are proposing to do is to transplant the machinery and the mechanics of the normal electoral law into the referendum.
Except the count.
Apart from the count, I agree, as to which we are willing to listen to the views of the House. As for the rest, we are proposing to use the normal rules.
asked the Lord President of the Council what consultations he held with groups outside Parliament in preparing the Government's White Paper on the conduct of the referendum on British membership of the EEC.
I had discussions with representatives of the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Parties, the European Movement and the National Referendum Campaign Committee.
Will the Lord President now consult Members of the House about the parliamentary timetable during the proposed referendum campaign? The Government are trying to arrange a national debate throughout the country on a vital issue. Would it not be the final devaluation of Parliament if we were not able to take part in that campaign in our constituencies simply because the Government were denying a referendum recess?
The Question is about people outside Parliament who were consulted. I also consulted all parties, including all the minor parties, inside the House, so I consulted many people.
Does the Lord President agree that in trying to make the referendum as much like a General Election as possible there is considerable merit in declaring the result not nationally but constituency by constituency?
I think that there is merit both ways. The Government felt that from the point of view of national unity the balance came down on the side of counting the votes nationally. However, there are two points of view about it.
The right hon. Gentleman certainly consulted the other parties in the House. I gladly bear witness to that fact. However, is he aware that it is quite another matter to claim that he accepted our advice? He did nothing of the kind. I hope that he will afford Members of Parliament every opportunity to take part in the debate in the country. That will have implications for the Government's programme.
If the right hon. Gentleman will read the Official Report tomorrow he will see that I said no such thing. All I said was that I consulted. I shall try as far as possible to meet the wishes of all the groups I consulted, but I have not met everybody or heard all the points which they would like to put to me. I have discussed this matter with the right hon. Gentleman and with many other hon. Members. Certainly when one does this it is not possible to meet everybody's wishes.