Committee (1st Day)
Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill
Lord Rooker (Labour)
My Lords, unlike the debate we have just had, this is a very narrow, targeted debate. My basic submission is that a binding referendum on virtually any issue, let alone an issue without consultation, is not the British way of doing things. We do not do it. I was told that there has been one case of a binding referendum. An indicative or consultative referendum is the normal way we operate in the UK and frankly it fits the bill in this case. There are many people who would take that view. It will preserve parliamentary sovereignty in a formal way, whereas the way the Bill is drafted it certainly does not. I think that is important. It allows for some thought on the result and the turnout. In my view, it would obviate the need for thresholds. I have not looked at the complete list of amendments. I do not know whether there are amendments about turnout or majority thresholds. With an indicative referendum you would not need to put into the Bill anything to do with thresholds because it would allow time for reflection afterwards and Parliament would decide, having listened to and taken the views of the people. I think the processes and consequences are important.
There has been an example-it is important to give examples-of where the processes have been used. When New Zealand changed its voting system from first past the post in 1992 it had a consultative referendum. That resulted a year later in a binding referendum so everyone was absolutely clear. However, initially Parliament was able to take a view about what the public had actually decided.
As the Bill stands-I stand to be corrected by the Ministers who know more about the detail-it does not matter what the turnout is or what the level of a yes majority vote is. The change will happen. That is set out, I think, in Clause 8. So what are we saying? I am not going to give high-falutin' examples. Let us say that we get a respectable turnout-50 to 60 per cent. I think it would be a very respectable turnout, a general election turnout. That is tens of millions of people voting. Let us say that the majority of the yes votes over the no votes is 1,000. Do we really then proceed with such a major change, without let or hindrance, because that is what the legislation actually says? It could be 10,000 but we are talking of something like 30 million people participating in the vote.
Let us think about what we are doing. We are binding ourselves before we start. Parliament has never done that and we should not do it on this occasion. I do not need to speculate. Frankly, my amendment is a lifeboat for both the coalition and Parliament. It does not alter the rest of the Bill. I would almost settle for this amendment and almost not bother with the rest of them because I think that would be so important in constitutional terms. It would be a lifeboat for Parliament and certainly a lifeboat for the coalition. Without such a lifeboat it is inevitable that we will have debates about thresholds on the turnout and the majority in order to trigger the operation of Clause 8. Why should we do that? It may come as a surprise, but for the vast majority of people in this country, voting is the only political activity they ever do. We are all anoraks. Some of us have been in the other place, but we are all here for a reason. For the vast majority of people their only action is voting. To make a change of such importance and significance we have to have the demonstrable consent of the public to a change of the status quo. That is absolutely clear. First we have to listen to the public and then Parliament can take a decision.
This is not some executive decision such as the level of taxation or the granting of a planning application. This is a major fundamental change in the way we elect our Parliament. It is of supreme voter and constitutional significance and it should be embedded for a goodly amount of time. It will not be if the scenario I have just given as an example comes about. We will end up with chaos unless we are prepared to say that we will listen to the public, fight the referendum and Parliament will then decide the way forward having listened and consulted. By and large, Parliament has taken a view on consultation in the past. It would be a lot easier to decide in principle and practice to have an indicative referendum than try to decide thresholds. It would be a nightmare to get involved in threshold debates. I have thought about it. It would be an absolute nightmare. It is so unpredictable, so personal and subjective. To say we will have an indicative referendum to consult will be pretty important.
I am going to pray in aid only one Member of the House. Earlier today we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Tyler. I think we will all read his speech tomorrow. He gave several examples of what had been said before the election as a reason for doing it after the election. I disagreed with my own side on AV and made my position absolutely clear on
"On the other hand, a consultative referendum early in the next Parliament would assist rather than hinder deliberations and would not fall foul of the strictures from the Select Committee that we are producing change without scrutiny".-[Hansard, 24/3/10; col. 971.]
Those are the words of the noble Lord, Lord McNally. I rest my case.