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House of Lords Hansard
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12 February 2020
Volume 801

Question

Asked by

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to review the rules for referendums.

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My Lords, the rules on referendums are set out in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, and the Government have no plans to review or change them. An Act of Parliament is required before any UK-wide referendum can be held. This means that all referendum legislation is thoroughly debated, and Parliament can decide to legislate for different rules for each referendum.

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I do not like referendums for governing this country, but if we are going to have them, particularly on major issues, is it not important that we have a minimum turnout and higher level of approval in order to make major changes? The horrors of the way that politics and economics were divided in this country on Brexit were bad precisely because it was a narrow division, and it would be even worse if the same happened in Scotland or, particularly, in Northern Ireland. We need to think about minimum turnout and a maximum in order to make a major change acceptable. That needs to be agreed, and everybody has an interest in agreeing it.

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My Lords, I recognise the noble Lord’s consistent interest in this topic. However, Parliament would need to go down that kind of road with a good deal of care. This country has no history of applying thresholds to the making of laws, for example, or the electing of our representatives. Both those things require a simple majority. To start applying special thresholds for referendums would require special and clear justification.

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My Lords, is my noble friend aware that, on 24 April, I will be producing a Bill for the House to discuss the very issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Soley? Will my noble friend commit to approaching that debate with an open mind, bearing in mind that referendums are incompatible with representative parliamentary democracy?

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My Lords, I look to debating my noble friend’s Bill when it comes before us for Second Reading. I think it would be premature for me to set out the Government’s position on the Bill today. We will do so, as we do with all Private Members’ Bills, at the Second Reading, but I can assure my noble friend that we shall approach it with an open mind.

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My Lords, do the Government accept that the worst failures with the 2016 referendum were concerned with transparency and funding? We still do not know who paid how much and for what and whether some significant sums were from illegal foreign sources. Strong recommendations have been made by a number of official bodies that the Government need to act on this, yet we have had no response. The long-awaited ISC report on Russian influence may be very relevant here. When will the Prime Minister authorise its publication?

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My Lords, the first duty of government is to safeguard the nation, and we treat the security and integrity of our democratic processes extremely seriously. We have no evidence to show that there was any successful interference in the EU referendum. However, as I said, we take any allegations of interference in our democratic processes extremely seriously. My understanding is that the report referred to by the noble Lord has been released by the Prime Minister.

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When we look at the last three referenda—on the voting system in 2011, on Scottish independence in 2014 and on EU membership in 2016—one of the bizarre characteristics is that, before the ink was dry on the results of those referenda, the losers were campaigning for a second referendum to reverse the first one. Therefore, should one characteristic of future referenda not be a minimum interval before the same question is asked again? Otherwise, you have an absurd situation where referenda designed to be for a generation are in danger of being reversed within six months.

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The noble Lord makes a very good point. Of course, there was a very considerable interval between the first devolution referendums at the end of the 1970s and the second ones in the late 1990s.

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Does the Minister accept that there has been some change since 2016? Although it is true that we have limited information about the success of the campaigning from without the UK on that occasion, and limited information about what happened in the election of President Trump, there is today much more evidence about disinformation campaigning and there are many reports, including by the Oxford Internet Institute, which give us great cause for worry about the future of democracy. Does the Minster agree?

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My Lords, we are very concerned and absolutely determined to protect the integrity of our democracy and our elections. As I have said, we are doing that by addressing in particular the mechanisms for electoral fraud through the introduction of voter ID and by banning postal vote harvesting. We have already announced a range of measures to strengthen and protect our democratic processes. These include commitments to launch a consultation on electoral integrity and to implement a digital imprint regime for online election material.

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My Lords, I express considerable sympathy with the sentiments expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Soley, about referendums. I have long held considerable doubts about using a 50+1 mechanism for bringing about significant constitutional change. I am also incredibly fearful of using that method to bring an end to the union with Northern Ireland and establish a united Ireland; the consequences are likely to be severe. Will my noble friend the Minister look again at thresholds in referendums? There is a precedent in 1979, when the referendum in Scotland required not just a majority of those voting at the ballot box but 40% of the electorate as a whole to back the proposals.

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That is true, but we have never gone down that road in any of the subsequent referenda. There would be serious challenges in doing so. First, Parliament would need to decide what level of participation confers legitimacy; I do not think that is a straightforward issue at all. If one had a threshold related to voter turnout, the inflexibility of such an arrangement could easily prove counterproductive and have the paradoxical effect of equating non-participation with no vote, because low levels of participation can void a given result. That could cause a great deal of disquiet among the public.

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My Lords, the Minister said that the Prime Minister has released the report on Russian potential interference in our electoral process. Can he say whether it has been published or, if it has not, when it will be published? If it has been published, can he make sure that copies are available in the Printed Paper Office?

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My Lords, the call from this House was for the Prime Minister to clear the report for publication. It is not the function of the Government to publish; that is the function of the Intelligence and Security Committee. I can give no further news other than that.

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My Lords, the Minister mentioned the digital imprint scheme that was announced last May. However, the Government announced that they could not possibly bring it in for the election that we just had in December. When will the Government bring in this imprint regime that will allow voters to have financial transparency and assess the credibility of online advertising? Will it be in place for the elections in May?

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We are absolutely clear that we want to introduce that mechanism as quickly as we can. It will ensure greater transparency. As the noble Baroness said, it will make it clearer to the electorate who has produced and promoted online political materials. I would love to be more specific about the timing. Unfortunately I cannot, beyond saying that we will make an announcement in due course and will do so as speedily as we possibly can.