Clause 8 — Commencement or repeal of amending provisions
Mark Harper (Parliamentary Secretary (Political and Constitutional Reform), Cabinet Office; Forest of Dean, Conservative)
Okay, but under our system of optional preferential, we are not forcing anybody to vote for anyone. Voters can vote for one candidate, all the candidates or any number in between, so the form of the alternative vote that we are putting to the electorate next year does not raise any of the concerns that my hon. Friend touched on. I am sorry if I overstated his argument.
The reason why we have not specified a threshold in the Bill is, as a number of hon. Members said, that we want to respect the will of the people who vote in the referendum, without any qualifications. The argument against my hon. Friend's amendment is that specifying a threshold for voter turnout-on this I agree with Stephen Twigg-is that it makes every abstention effectively a no vote.
People may choose to abstain, but the amendment would create an incentive for people who favour a no vote to abstain. So people would not campaign, as they rightly should, for only yes or no votes in the referendum. We would have people campaigning actively for voters not to participate. We debated this a little on Second Reading, and as I said in my speech then, I do not think that is right. We need to encourage participation in the referendum. We want people to take part, and putting in a rule that encourages at least one side to campaign actively for voters not to take part would do our democracy a disservice.
I am not concerned as some colleagues are about what the turnout will be. As we have said in previous debates, both in Committee and in the House, there are elections for the devolved Administrations-for the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly-but there are also elections scheduled next year for 81% of England. The percentage turnout in English local elections varies, but it is usually in the mid to high 30s at least. I am confident that with the additional publicity and the awareness of the referendum, and the fact that it is an important decision, we will indeed get a good turnout.
Previous referendums in this country have either had good turnouts or, where the turnouts have not been that high, they have produced decisive clear results from the electorate, so I do not share that concern. We should not go against our tradition and practice in this country by setting turnout thresholds.
Let me now focus on the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend Mrs Laing. She is right to say that it proposes a completely different, outcome-specific threshold. It is worth saying to colleagues on the Government Benches who support the Government's proposals and respect the coalition agreement that my hon. Friend's amendment is not compatible with what we set out in the coalition agreement, which was a simple majority referendum, without an outcome-specific threshold. Colleagues who are reconciled to a referendum being held should bear that in mind if they are tempted to vote for my hon. Friend's amendment.