COMMENCEMENT (No. 2)
Orders of the Day — Referendums Bill
1:25 pm

`.—This Act shall come into force on such day as the Secretary of State may by order appoint:—[Mr. Miller.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

1:37 pm
Photo of Mr Andrew Miller

Mr Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston, Labour)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

We have spent the morning dealing with dodgy MOT certificates. We now deal with a dodgy insurance policy, as proposed by the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan). On Second Reading and throughout Committee, he described the Bill as an insurance policy. I have sought to amend the Bill extensively to turn it from a dodgy insurance policy into one that will work, but the hon. Gentleman does not want to take any advice on the matter.

Photo of Mr Andrew Robathan

Mr Andrew Robathan (Blaby, Conservative)

As regards advice, has the hon. Gentleman taken any advice from the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), or from anyone in the Whips Office, on the new clause that he has tabled?

Photo of Mr Andrew Miller

Mr Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston, Labour)

I will be frank. I tabled a considerable number of the amendments after my own research, and some were tabled after discussions with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary. I make no bones about it. I seek to improve what was perhaps intended to be helpful legislation. It seems that the hon. Gentleman was not open to advice because the Under-Secretary has, I understand, offered to embrace the spirit of the Bill within the electoral commission that is proposed by the Government. That was described on Second Reading at great length.

Photo of Mr Oliver Letwin

Mr Oliver Letwin (West Dorset, Conservative)

In that case, will the hon. Gentleman call on the Government to guarantee what we have repeatedly asked for: no referendum will be held until rules similar to those proposed are in place?

Photo of Mr Andrew Miller

Mr Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston, Labour)

I do not need to call on the Government to make such commitments. I know my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary extremely well. I trust him absolutely. I know the Home Secretary extremely well and I trust him as well. I also trust the Government. Clearly, the weakness of the hon. Gentleman's position is that he does not trust anyone. That is indicative of the problems that face the Tory party: Conservative Members do not trust even each other.

Photo of Mr Oliver Letwin

Mr Oliver Letwin (West Dorset, Conservative)

Of course I understand that the hon. Gentleman trusts his own Front Benchers. However, it would be a little difficult for him to trust them if they have never made the statement, would it not? Would it not be helpful if they stated that they would not hold referendums until they had rules in place?

Photo of Mr Michael Martin

Mr Michael Martin (Deputy Speaker)

Order. We are discussing new clause 3. Let us concern ourselves with that.

Photo of Mr Andrew Miller

Mr Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston, Labour)

I should love to answer the point made by the hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), but—on your advice, Mr. Deputy Speaker—I shall not.

Photo of Mr Andrew Miller

Mr Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston, Labour)

Yes I certainly can.

The substance of the new clause deals with the date of commencement. The problem is that the hon. Member for Blaby does not seem to trust anyone, but wants his so-called insurance policy to be effected immediately. I am trying to be helpful to him.

New clause 3 would make alternative provision for the implicit commencement date of the Bill's provisions. I believe—although there are greater experts on the matter than I am—that, unless an alternative date is provided, a Bill's provisions will commence automatically on Royal Assent. New clause 3 would simply provide for the Bill to come into force on a date determined by the Secretary of State.

Photo of Mr Andrew Miller

Mr Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston, Labour)

Does the hon. Gentleman want to say something? I am not quite sure what the word "never" means. Never say never is my advice to him—or he might stay in opposition for ever.

Photo of Mr Oliver Letwin

Mr Oliver Letwin (West Dorset, Conservative)

I am, of course, trying to say that the intent of new clause 3—it would be better if the hon. Gentleman admitted it—is to give the Secretary of State power never to implement the Bill's provisions.

Photo of Mr Andrew Miller

Mr Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston, Labour)

Again, the hon. Gentleman shows no faith in anyone.

Photo of Mr Andrew Dismore

Mr Andrew Dismore (Hendon, Labour)

I do not know whether my hon. Friend is aware of the case of R v. Secretary of State for the Home Department ex parte Fire Brigades Union and others, but it deals with a point of construction applying to his amendment. I hope to be able—if I catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker—to expand on that issue later in the debate.

Photo of Mr Andrew Miller

Mr Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston, Labour)

I am not sure whether to address my hon. Friend as learned, as he has substantially more legal qualifications than I do. Nevertheless, I shall avoid responding to his point, but leave him to make it later in the debate.

New clause 3 will enable the Secretary of State to determine the date on which the provisions come into force, presumably giving him the option of following the advice and guidance sought by the hon. Member for Blaby. If there were to be a referendum before establishment of the promised electoral commission, the Secretary of State could trigger the Bill's provisions —which would, quite rightly, provide at least some mechanism to deal with the hon. Gentleman's concerns about the conduct of the referendum.

Photo of Mr Andrew Robathan

Mr Andrew Robathan (Blaby, Conservative)

Has the hon. Gentleman just admitted the possibility that there could be a referendum before the measures are in place? If he did, he has contradicted everything that he said in Committee.

Photo of Mr Andrew Miller

Mr Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston, Labour)

I did not say that. I am working on the basis that I have as little knowledge of what happens in Cabinet as the hon. Gentleman does.

Photo of Mr Andrew Miller

Mr Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston, Labour)

I have considerably more trust in my right hon. Friends than the hon. Gentleman obviously does. If the Cabinet decided tomorrow that there should be a referendum, the new clause would give them a vehicle to provide the types of protection that the hon. Gentleman is seeking.

Photo of Mr Andrew Robathan

Mr Andrew Robathan (Blaby, Conservative)

Last night, about 65 of the hon. Gentleman's colleagues voted against the Government. Do they have a similar trust in the Cabinet?

Photo of Mr Michael Martin

Mr Michael Martin (Deputy Speaker)

Order. We are debating a new clause. Those matters should not be dealt with in this debate.

1:45 pm
Photo of Mr Andrew Miller

Mr Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston, Labour)

Last night, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry) said that he accepted 98 per cent. of the Bill that was before us. If the hon. Member for Blaby would trust the Government and my hon. Friend the Minister 98 per cent., we would not be having this rather odd exchange. As I said, the Government have the opportunity to put in place the protection that the hon. Gentleman seeks should the Cabinet decide on a referendum on any subject between now and the enactment of the Bill.

Photo of Mr John Butterfill

Mr John Butterfill (Bournemouth West, Conservative)

The hon. Gentleman has already admitted that, without the new clause, the Bill will come into effect on Royal Assent, so the new clause would simply delay its implementation. Can he explain why we need a delay?

Photo of Mr Andrew Miller

Mr Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston, Labour)

That is a perfectly sensible point and it is my duty to explain it to the House. Due to the filibustering of the Opposition, I have not had the chance to do so. The Bill gives the Secretary of State the power to trigger the Bill if, hypothetically, the Government decided on a referendum on the abolition of Blaby or anything else. That is the insurance policy that the hon. Gentleman requires. If there is no referendum between now and the enactment of the Bill, without the new clause, we shall have set up a body that is superfluous to requirements at public cost, wasting taxpayer's money. The new clause would enable the hon. Member for Blaby to have his insurance policy without the potential waste of public money that would result from his having purchased that insurance policy earlier than necessary.

Photo of Mr Andrew Robathan

Mr Andrew Robathan (Blaby, Conservative)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for being so generous with his time, although he would quite like to spin out his speech. I am prepared to accept his new clause without further discussion if he guarantees that the Bill will receive a Third Reading this afternoon. If he wants to have an insurance policy brought in by the Secretary of State, I am willing to accept that in return for the Bill receiving a Third Reading today.

Photo of Mr Andrew Miller

Mr Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston, Labour)

As a humble Back Bencher, I regret that that is not within my gift. During the debates on the several amendments that I have tabled, I want to ensure that a rather weak insurance policy is improved so that we do not end up with the dodgy-MOT-certificate syndrome that we discussed this morning.

Photo of Dr Alan Whitehead

Dr Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test, Labour)

I have listened carefully to my hon. Friend's reasons for the new clause. Is he assuming that the Bill applies only to national referendums and not to local and regional ones, which may well take place at a time that is difficult to specify and according to the wishes of the Secretary of State or is he assuming that those flaws in the Bill will have been ironed out before Third Reading?

Photo of Mr Andrew Miller

Mr Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston, Labour)

As I understand it, the Bill refers only to referendums that are triggered by an action of a Secretary of State. Whether that could cover local or regional referendums is a matter for discussion. Some of my hon. Friends from the north-east have said that they would like an early referendum on the devolution of powers to that region. Such a referendum would require the Government to create the reference framework. I do not know whether the same applies to referendums at county council or district council level, although I am sure that it could be the case in certain circumstances. My one-line new clause would remove the possibility of an absurd amount of public money being wasted on the creation of a body that, even if Conservative Members have only a small amount of faith in the Government—surely they have at least some—

Photo of Mr Andrew Miller

Mr Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston, Labour)

If that is the official position of the Conservatives, it reflects badly on them.

Photo of Mr John Butterfill

Mr John Butterfill (Bournemouth West, Conservative)

Surely the hon. Gentleman accepts that everything that has happened today has been an organised filibuster to prevent the Bill from reaching the statute book. The Minister could give an undertaking to introduce Government legislation if he wanted. Of course we distrust the Government.

Photo of Mr Andrew Miller

Mr Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston, Labour)

I find that insulting. Throughout my time in the House, I have worked very hard with hon. Members from both sides on issues relating to road safety. My new clause, which we spent a substantial amount of time discussing today, was about issues relating to the death of 3,000 people a year. The hon. Gentleman should not regard that as filibustering. His constituents would not agree. It is probably substantially more important than this Bill.

As I was trying to say before I was interrupted several times by Conservative Members, this is a simple new clause aimed at minimising the waste of public money that would ensue from all the provisions in the Bill coming into force on Royal Assent. I would prefer it if the Conservatives had a little faith in the Government and accepted the spirit in which my hon. Friend the Minister made his representations on Second Reading. I have been assured that there will be an electoral commission draft Bill, which will be subject to widespread public consultation. It is surely right that a Bill on issues that are so fundamental to our constitution should be subject to public consultation. I am sure that the hon. Member for Blaby accepts that. Why waste time and resources on the body specified in the Bill? If the hon. Gentleman wants an insurance policy, the new clause would get him more sympathy from Labour Members without wasting a lot of public money.

Photo of Mr Andrew Robathan

Mr Andrew Robathan (Blaby, Conservative)

We have 36 minutes left today, so I suspect that we shall not finish all the business on this Bill or on the Fur Farming (Prohibition) Bill, which I regret, because I support that Bill.

Photo of Mr Andrew Miller

Mr Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston, Labour)

Will the hon. Gentleman therefore condemn the actions of his colleagues last week in talking out that Bill?

Photo of Mr Andrew Robathan

Mr Andrew Robathan (Blaby, Conservative)

I would not dream of doing so. However, there is time available next week, when we have a recess starting on Thursday—

Photo of Mr Michael Martin

Mr Michael Martin (Deputy Speaker)

Order. The hon. Gentleman must not mention those matters. He must refer to the new clause.

Photo of Mr Andrew Robathan

Mr Andrew Robathan (Blaby, Conservative)

I bow to your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The new clause is a small clause, and the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) asked us to put more faith in the Government and to have an insurance policy. I do not particularly object to the clause, and I would be prepared to accept it. We agree that we want a referendums commission.

The hon. Gentleman and the Minister sat through the Committee. I believe that the Minister thinks that this is a good idea. He may not think that every aspect of the Bill is a good idea, but I think that he accepts that it would be good to have a referendums commission so as to have the rules for referendums brought in before the next referendum—be it, as in the new clause, at the discretion of the Home Secretary, or be it at the enactment of the Bill.

The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston was voluble about the new clause, as he has been throughout the day. We are asked to put faith in the Government, but the amendment paper shows that we should not have faith in them. Why has the new clause been tabled? It is not normal for a specific derogation to the Home Secretary to be made at this stage of a Bill. It is normal to have that enacted at Royal Assent. I do not object to the clause, but I want to know why it has been tabled. Why have the Government assisted in producing this clause and others, as we have heard, and why are they opposed to the Bill?

The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston talked about a waste of public money and resources. However, he is aware that negligible amounts of public money would be spent under the Bill because there would be no need for a referendums commission if no referendum were called. I look forward to seeing the Government's proposals to give discretion to the Home Secretary to determine when the measures are brought into law.

I would have more faith in the Government if they would give us the guarantee for which Members on both sides have asked, as have many outside the House.

Photo of Mr Oliver Letwin

Mr Oliver Letwin (West Dorset, Conservative)

Does my hon. Friend agree that we could accept entirely the new clause and the refusal of the Government to accept the Bill as a whole if we had such a guarantee? Does he further agree that proposing the new clause in the absence of that guarantee provides nothing like an insurance policy? If the Government are determined not to promise that they will have no referendum before the new commission is enacted, they will show no sign of actually implementing the legislation in advance of a referendum. Therefore, we have an insurance policy that the Government could negate.

Photo of Mr Andrew Robathan

Mr Andrew Robathan (Blaby, Conservative)

My hon. Friend is right. The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston talked about improving the insurance policy but, as I have said all along, I will withdraw the money that I wish to put in that insurance policy if we have the Government's insurance policy on the table. The clause will not improve the insurance policy and is designed to damage it.

I remind the hon. Gentleman of the famous words of the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) on exactly this subject when he was asked whether the Government were obliged to accept the Neill recommendations. The right hon. Gentleman was then a Cabinet Minister; this was before his sad demise. I do not hear Labour Members cheering. The right hon. Gentleman said: We don't have to but we need to be mindful of the analysis that he is offering. I should like the Government to say rather more firmly that they will accept the recommendations and introduce a Bill to be enacted before a referendum, with the discretion of the Home Secretary involved, as in the new clause.

2 pm

The new clause—along with various others—seems foolish in its introduction, its inception and its motivation. I do not know whether the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) intends to speak, but the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), who has been drafted in, may waffle on about the new clause. I confidently expect them to be talking on it at 2.30, but they should know that those who act as toadies of the Whips only gain the contempt and derision of the Whips, and of their constituents, and they irritate and bore the House. I notice that the hon. Member for Hendon is laughing. I am delighted to say that his constituents will have a good opportunity, at the next general election, to reject him.

Photo of Mr Oliver Letwin

Mr Oliver Letwin (West Dorset, Conservative)

Does my hon. Friend agree that there are many circumstances under which the tabling of such a new clause and the filibustering techniques that are being used would be perfectly legitimate but that what he and I object to so strenuously in this case is the fact that we are dealing with the fundamentals of our democracy? The tabling of a new clause that is designed to do nothing other than destroy a measure intended to protect democracy against possible distortion by the use of public money and public broadcasting media is nothing short of a disgrace.

Photo of Mr Michael Martin

Mr Michael Martin (Deputy Speaker)

Order. I remind hon. Members that interventions should be brief.

Photo of Mr Andrew Robathan

Mr Andrew Robathan (Blaby, Conservative)

I agree with my hon. Friend, but it is more important to note that hon. Members of all parties agree with him. The hon. Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) is a sponsor of the Bill and agrees with me, with Liberal Members, with the independent hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell) and with people outside the House that the new clause was tabled purely to undermine the Bill and to undermine any better democracy in this country.

Photo of Mr Paul Flynn

Mr Paul Flynn (Newport West, Labour)

I have not been physically present in the Chamber for most of today, but I have heard all the speeches by my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller). He spoke on the Road Traffic (Vehicle Testing) Bill, which I accept is very serious. There are 16 Bills before us today, and I am sure that my hon. Friend has expert knowledge of them all and would like to speak about them all with equal brevity but, sadly, although the Bill is splendid and the new clause is entirely acceptable and worth while, we are witnessing not only the assassination of a number of Bills by tactics that many of us might consider questionable—that happened last week, as it does on many Fridays—but the degradation of the rights and powers of Back Benchers.

Back Benchers' time is wasted by Governments and by the Opposition when they want not to argue against a Bill but to use the crude weapons of Parliament to destroy it in an entirely undemocratic way. Today, as on most Fridays, the reputation of Parliament is being demeaned. We want genuine modernisation of the House.

Photo of Mr Andrew Robathan

Mr Andrew Robathan (Blaby, Conservative)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, with whom I agree on this subject, as on many, although on some we fundamentally disagree. Does he agree that there is plenty of time in a parliamentary Session to discuss those matters fully and put new measures that are needed—be they about bull bars or whatever—on the statute book? We have plenty of time, but we keep going off on enormously long recesses.

Photo of Mr Paul Flynn

Mr Paul Flynn (Newport West, Labour)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He seemed to think that I was giving way, but I had in fact finished my speech. We are two years into this Parliament. The Government came in as modernising new Labour, but the modernisation—

Photo of Mr Michael Martin

Mr Michael Martin (Deputy Speaker)

Order. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman has indeed finished his speech, because he has not said much about the new clause. Perhaps someone could speak on the new clause.

Photo of Mr Andrew Dismore

Mr Andrew Dismore (Hendon, Labour)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) on the Bill's having reached this stage. As he knows from what I said on Second Reading, I have many reservations about it, but I agree with much of what he has said about the new clause.

I am only sorry that the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) is not here today—he is another member of the usual Friday crew—because we could have had an interesting trip down memory lane.

When I intervened on my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller), I mentioned the case of the Crown v. Secretary of State for the Home Department, ex parte Fire Brigades Union and others. It was the leading case that interpreted, in a particular context, wording similar to that of my hon. Friend's new clause. That represents a trip down memory lane for the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border and myself because I was the solicitor who handled the case, and he was the Home Office Minister whom, I am pleased to say, I defeated in the House of Lords.

The case concerned the then criminal injuries compensation scheme under the Criminal Justice Act 1988, which contained in its implementation provisions wording almost identical to that of the new clause. The House of Lords construed what the meaning of the word "may" was in that context. The case turned on whether "may" means "shall", or "shall" means "may", or neither, in any particular case. Bearing in mind what was said when we discussed the Road Traffic (Vehicle Testing) Bill just now, it is somewhat peculiar that, for the second time today, I am having to criticise the wording of an amendment devised by my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston.

I may be able to answer the question asked by the hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) when he intervened to challenge my hon. Friend about what he intended to achieve, by telling hon. Members that the enacting provisions in the 1988 Act, on which the House of Lords had to adjudicate, were expressed as coming into force on such day as the Secretary of State may …appoint". That is almost identical to the wording in the new clause.

In fact, the Secretary of State did not appoint a day, so the then non-statutory criminal injuries compensation scheme remained in operation. In 1993, the Home Secretary said that those provisions of the 1988 Act would not be brought into force, but the existing non-statutory scheme would be replaced, simply through the diktat of the Home Secretary.

The case was brought by the Fire Brigades Union and a consortium of other trade unions, the TUC and many others to challenge the decision in the courts. Unfortunately, although we were on a winning streak, it went all the way to the House of Lords.

Photo of Mr Oliver Letwin

Mr Oliver Letwin (West Dorset, Conservative)

I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman, because now he is explaining what he is talking about—a five-year delay during which the Government went unchallenged in not implementing legislation. That would be just long enough to hold the referendums on the euro, on proportional representation and so on, while the so-called insurance policy was left in abeyance.

Photo of Mr Andrew Dismore

Mr Andrew Dismore (Hendon, Labour)

If the hon. Gentleman had listened to what I said earlier—clearly he is already bored by our proceedings, although we have not been going long—he would d know that, for that very reason, I have much sympathy with what the hon. Member for Blaby said, and am not happy with my hon. Friend's new clause.

If I may finish the ratio of the case, I shall be able to develop my argument more fully. I regret to say that the House of Lords decision was split—there seem to be lot of split decisions recently—but it found that the wording in the 1988 Act, which is almost identical to that in the new clause, imposed a continuing obligation on the Secretary of State to consider whether to bring the statutory scheme …into force; that he could not lawfully bind himself not to exercise the discretion conferred on him; that the …scheme was inconsistent …and that, accordingly, the Secretary of State's decision not to bring the provisions into force…had been unlawful". However, the legislation did not impose a…duty on the Secretary of State to bring the scheme into force at any particular time". The wording of my hon. Friend's new clause would, therefore, mean that the Home Secretary would have an obligation to keep the implementation of the legislation under review, but would not actually have to bring it into force.

Such wording frequently appears in legislation, and because of my experience of that legal case, I always have great difficulty with it; the formulation is so vague. I think that Bills should either be drafted in the same way as the Bill before us, so that they come into force on the date of Royal Assent, or contain a clause similar to the new clause, but using the word "shall" instead of the word "may". That would impose an obligation on the Secretary of State to bring the legislation into force at some stage.

I am concerned about such general discretion provisions, because the net impact of the 1995 case that I mentioned—if the then Home Secretary had got his way—would have been to introduce dramatic cuts in the compensation available to victims of crime. It was thanks only to the consortium of trade unions being prepared to put its money where its mouth was and take on the Home Secretary and the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border that we were able to stop the process. That led to much better provision for victims of crime in the legislation that the Conservative Government were forced to introduce.

For those reasons, I am very concerned by the wording of new clause 3. It is not wise to allow such wide discretion because it should be for Parliament to decide when primary legislation should come into force. I accept the need for some time to be specified in secondary legislation for orders to be drafted and approved by Parliament, and the Bill contains many opportunities for that process. I would prefer the Bill to read as suggested by the hon. Member for Blaby or for new clause 3 to contain the word "shall" instead of "may".

Photo of Mr Tony McNulty

Mr Tony McNulty (Harrow East, Labour)

My hon. Friend has set out two positions, but would he agree that a third position—putting a date of commencement into the Bill, such as 1 January 2001—would be preferable? That was proposed in Committee and, had the promoter not been as petulantly churlish then as he has been today and accepted it, we might not have needed new clause 3 at all.

Photo of Mr Andrew Dismore

Mr Andrew Dismore (Hendon, Labour)

I have not had the opportunity to read the report of that part of the proceedings in Committee, but my hon. Friend makes a valid point. Many possible dates suggest themselves and, if the hon. Member for Blaby thought that there would be a referendum on Europe or electoral reform, he could have accepted the date proposed in Committee or tabled an amendment with a different date. That would have avoided the problem.

Photo of Mr Andrew Robathan

Mr Andrew Robathan (Blaby, Conservative)

The Government, whom the hon. Gentleman has been urging us all to trust, have told us that we will have a referendum on European integration and on proportional representation. For once, I have trust in the Government and he does not. What is going on?

Photo of Mr Andrew Dismore

Mr Andrew Dismore (Hendon, Labour)

It is not a question of trust from my perspective. I trust the Government, just as my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston trusts the Government. My concern is one of statutory construction. The incorporation of words such as those proposed by my hon. Friend would be a bad addition to the Bill and that is why I do not support new clause 3. Much as I appreciate what my hon. Friend is trying to do, I cannot support him in this case.

Photo of Mr George Howarth

Mr George Howarth (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office; Knowsley North and Sefton East, Labour)

I welcome new clause 3 on commencement. The hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) has said on several occasions that he sees his Bill as an insurance policy. What he is apparently seeking to insure against is the Government not introducing their own legislation on the conduct of referendums before a referendum is held on the single currency, proportional representation or any other matter. The hon. Gentleman knows the answer to that and I shall not repeat it because he heard it ad nauseam on Second Reading, in Committee and on other occasions. He should know by now that the risk of that happening is such that there is simply no need for such an insurance policy.

Both I and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary have made it clear on several occasions that the Government are committed to early legislation on the main findings of the Neill report, which include specific proposals about referendums.

Photo of Mr George Howarth

Mr George Howarth (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office; Knowsley North and Sefton East, Labour)

I shall give way briefly to the hon. Gentleman, but I do want to make some progress.

Photo of Mr Oliver Letwin

Mr Oliver Letwin (West Dorset, Conservative)

I am grateful to the Minister, but the idea that he wants to make progress is risible. I offer him the opportunity one last time in the progress of the Bill to give the assurance that would give us, and democracy in the United Kingdom, so much comfort—that the Government will not hold referendums on major issues before the provisions are implemented.

Photo of Mr George Howarth

Mr George Howarth (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office; Knowsley North and Sefton East, Labour)

The hon. Gentleman has asked me the same question over and over again, and I have given him the same answer over and over again. I will not play this silly little game with him. If the hon. Gentleman wants to waste time this afternoon, that is his business. I am not prepared to take part in that.

2:15 pm
Photo of Mr Eric Forth

Mr Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst, Conservative)

I have not asked the Minister the question before, so may I try? I have the permission of my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan), the Bill's promoter, to take a little time to try the question again. Will the Minister give a simple undertaking that no referendums will be held until the provisions of the Bill are embedded in our law?

Photo of Mr George Howarth

Mr George Howarth (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office; Knowsley North and Sefton East, Labour)

For the benefit of the right hon. Gentleman, the assurance that I have given in the past is that it is most unlikely that there will be a referendum on the single currency or on the electoral system before the provisions are on the statute book. However, I cannot give him any greater assurance than that for various reasons which he, as a member of a previous Government, would recognise. I cannot predict with any certainty what will happen, for example, on European integration and progress on the single currency, so it would be absurd for me to give such an assurance. We do not expect that that will be the case.

We hope to have an electoral commission established and new controls, including those on the conduct of referendums, in place before the next general election. The hon. Member for Blaby knows that the Government's position is clear on the timing of possible referendums on the single currency and on the voting system for the House. There is no immediate prospect of either of those referendums being held.

If the hon. Gentleman is serious about what he says, he would welcome new clause 3. Under the new clause, the Bill would come into force on a day prescribed by order. As a result, it would be possible to hold back on the appointment of a referendums commission until a referendum was in prospect. Consequently, the commission would have a real job to do. Such an arrangement would preserve the hon. Gentleman's insurance policy, but it would also ensure that taxpayers' money was not used as a premium to pay for setting up a referendum commission in the interim. My hon. Friend's amendment is worthy of support.

Photo of Mr Oliver Letwin

Mr Oliver Letwin (West Dorset, Conservative)

If the Minister genuinely believes that the amendment is worthy of support, and—leaving aside what I regard as his spurious argument—if he genuinely intends that there should be no referendum before proper rules are in place, there is a course of action open to him in the next 12 minutes, by association with his colleagues, the Whips. That, I believe, would be wholly acceptable to my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) who has worked so hard on the Bill, to me, to many other hon. Members and to many outside the House who care about such matters.

The Minister should withdraw the new clause and the other new clauses and amendments, and give the Bill a Third Reading so that it is on the statute book in a form that enables the Secretary of State to determine when it will be implemented. That would be a great step forward in our legislation.

I admit that initially I was not optimistic about the speech of the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore). I know that he speaks eloquently and at length, but generally not to the purpose of improving the Bill. However, what he said this afternoon was illuminating and it increased my education. It helped to show that, although the Bill would not be perfect, if it were accompanied by good will on the part of the Government, it would be an improvement on the present situation. It would be by no means as good as a Bill without the new clause, for the reasons that the hon. Member for Hendon gave, but it would be a great improvement.

That course of action is open to the Minister. If, by stating his expectation, the Minister means honestly to suggest that the Government do not want to hold referendums without the legislation, he should adopt such a course of action. We have the basis as a House and as a country for judging whether we should or should not have the trust in the Government that the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) suggested that we should have.

I have always believed that the Minister, and very probably the Home Secretary, intended to do the right thing. I have always seen the Minister as a democrat. However, I am deeply suspicious of the motives of the Home Secretary's colleagues in Cabinet. They have tried to jettison the Bill through the new clause and the many amendments that are to come. I am deeply suspicious because the future of our democracy and its reputation depend on not holding another major referendum without having in place the necessary rules. I suspect that, in their hearts, all Labour Members know that. An opportunity has been granted to us by my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby, who has introduced the Bill, and by the Minister, who says that his intentions are based on good will. I hope that we shall see the Government and their Back-Bench Members behaving with good will this afternoon.

Photo of Mr George Howarth

Mr George Howarth (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office; Knowsley North and Sefton East, Labour)

I think that the hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) is being playful. I wrote to the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan)—the hon. Member for West Dorset received a copy of the letter—on 17 March. I set out clearly the Government's position. I see no point in entering the debate that the hon. Gentleman is trying to create. Nothing has moved on since 17 March. The Bill received its Second Reading and it was debated in Committee in great detail. The Government's basic position is no different from that set out in the letter of 17 March, a copy of which I have no doubt he cherishes and reads every night before he goes to sleep. That is where we stand on the matter.

The hon. Gentleman knows full well that I have said from the beginning that he should wait until we publish a draft Bill on the Neill proposals before the summer recess. That Bill will set out fully where we intend to go with our proposals for an electoral commission. If the hon. Gentleman accepts the case for an electoral commission, it is nonsensical to go forward with a referendums commission, when we are so near to establishing something that would embrace all concerns.

Photo of Mr Oliver Letwin

Mr Oliver Letwin (West Dorset, Conservative)

If the Minister means what he has just said, the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) has offered him a route to an irenic solution. There would be no need to establish the referendums commission in advance of the electoral commission if the electoral commission had been established before a referendum and if, as the new clause suggests, the Secretary of State had not implemented the Act. Surely the Minister should be willing on his own logic just espoused to accept the new clause, and then to urge his hon. Friends to withdraw the rest of the amendments and give the Bill a Third Reading.

Photo of Mr Andrew Miller

Mr Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston, Labour)

I have listened to this great debate with much interest. I am particularly interested in the lawyers' club axis that is developing between my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) and the hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin).

I want to simplify the process. I want to test the will of the House on this matter. If my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon wishes to oppose the new clause, let us see whether he has the support of Opposition Members.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—

The House divided: Ayes 3, Noes 0.

Division No. 195][2.23 pm
AYES
Brand, Dr PeterTellers for the Ayes:
Burstow, PaulMr. Andrew Miller and
Flynn, PaulMr. Tony McNulty.
NOES
Tellers for the Noes:
Mr. Andrew Dismore and
Dr. Alan Whitehead.

It appearing on the report of the Division that 40 Members were not present, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER declared that the Question was not decided, and the business under consideration stood over until the next Sitting of the House.

Photo of Mr John Butterfill

Mr John Butterfill (Bournemouth West, Conservative)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It should be shown on the record that the only reason that the Division was inquorate was that Opposition Members were not prepared to take part in a charade put up by Labour Members, who voted against their own new clause