Skip to main content

Constitutional Reform: Referendums

Volume 724: debated on Monday 24 January 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what criteria are used to determine whether or not a constitutional change should be submitted to a referendum.

So there is no question of the Government adopting any principles towards it, then. I cannot understand the Government’s position on this because they do appear to have a position. How can it be right to have a referendum on the major constitutional issue of changing the voting system for the House of Commons but wrong to hold a referendum on the major constitutional issue of changing an appointed House of Lords into an elected House of Lords?

My Lords, on the basis of principle, I rely on my distinguished predecessor, the noble Lord, Lord Wills, who, when challenged with a similar question, said this:

“Inevitably, however carefully you define this … you do not actually escape the question of judgment … It is inevitably going to be a subjective test”.

On the question of the forthcoming legislation on the House of Lords, I ask the noble Lord to be a little patient. The Government’s proposals will be put before the House.

My Lords, do the Government consider that constitutional changes which are relatively readily reversed or modified by Act of Parliament are less obviously in need of the backing of a public referendum than matters which fall into a fixed and almost irreversible constitutional norm?

My Lords, as I say, it is a subjective judgment, but that would seem to be one possible dividing line when looking at these matters. It would, in each case, be a matter for the Parliament of the day.

My Lords, if a constitutional change is to be submitted to a referendum as the price for holding two parties together in a coalition, is that not a poor reason and a worrying precedent?

Does the noble Lord accept that a referendum on the voting system for the House of Commons is a constitutional issue?

My Lords, that is a matter of judgment. I do not know whether this is a trick question. As to whether, if there is a change in the voting system, our constitution will reflect that, that is a matter of the obvious.

Why is it right to have a referendum on the voting system, about which the British people appear to be somewhat indifferent, and not right to have a referendum, which was promised to the British people by the Prime Minister who gave a cast-iron guarantee and about which the leader of the Liberal Democrats walked out of the House of Commons when that referendum was not granted; it was in the Liberal Democrat manifesto—in other words, the referendum on whether we want to stay in the European Union or leave it? How can it be right to have the first without the second?

It is a very interesting question. When the Constitution Committee looked at this matter, one of its recommendations was that, if ever we came to the point of a proposal to leave the EU, it would be a matter for a referendum. What happened with the Lisbon treaty, as with all other treaties since the referendum which endorsed our membership, is that it went through the parliamentary process.

Is not the main judgment here one of how we deal with constitutional measures? Is it not time for both Houses to look at how we get agreement as far as possible? When we get agreement, we tend to get better constitutional change, but it takes time. With European legislation in this area coming up, the noble Lord might find that it is not Parliament but the courts which decide whether a referendum should have been called. It is rather more complicated than he thinks.

No, my Lords. I am thinking on this matter and have been talking with the noble Lord, Lord Wills, about his own experience. He has told me that he was considering forming some kind of group of wisdom that could look at these issues. We are still in contact on that. Whether it should be done as a parliamentary exercise or government exercise, or given to a suitable think tank, I am not sure, but I do not deny that what the noble Lord has said is good thinking.

If the Minister cannot give an assurance that we will have a referendum, can he give an assurance that the Parliament Acts will not be used if the House of Lords does not agree with any legislation on reform that comes from the Commons?

No, I cannot give such guarantees. The Parliament Acts are there for the judgment of the Government of the day. As I have said previously, whether there should a referendum to consult is a matter for the judgment of the Parliament of the day.

Does not the constitutional process to which my noble friend referred require pre-legislative scrutiny of a constitutional Bill, not only of the Bill currently before the House but any Bill?

I think that all parties agree that pre-legislative scrutiny is a good idea—certainly, I have been supportive of it—but, as we have said, it is not always possible when a radical and reforming Government hit the ground running.

My Lords, can the Minister give a logical, rational explanation were the situation to arise where there would be a referendum in the country on the system of voting for the Commons but not one on the system of voting for the House of Lords?

There are so many hypotheses in that question that it would be as well if noble Lords showed a little more patience and waited for the proposals on the House of Lords that the Government will bring shortly bring forward. Without pre-empting my noble friend, I know that the Minister answering the next Question is eager to get on to that.