Period Between General Election and Referendum

Orders of the Day — Scotland Bill – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 14th February 1978.

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"If Parliament is dissolved before a referendum has been held in pursuance of section 80 of this Act, that referendum shall not be held until a period of three months has elapsed after the polling day of the ensuing general election.".—[Mr. Dalyell.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

4.5 p.m.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , West Lothian

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

Photo of Mr George Thomas Mr George Thomas , Cardiff West

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments:

No. 2, in Clause 2, page 2, line 15, after "State", insert but which may not be any day within a six-month period after a general election of the United Kingdom Parliament". No. 3, in page 2, line 18, at end insert But if a general election for the United Kingdom Parliament has taken place during the six months preceding such date then the Assembly election will be postponed for a period of six months from the date of the United Kingdom general election.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , West Lothian

I think that I can deal with this matter fairly succinctly. Until recently it had not occurred to most of us that the Government would entertain the notion of having a General Election and the referendum on the same day. After all, the point of the referendum is to reach as so-called an objective a view as possible on the desirability of a cataclysmic constitutional change. Part of the object of a referendum is allegedly to disentangle the decision from the whole mosaic of party loyalties and other factors which come into play at a General Election.

However, in this whole devolution saga anything is possible, is it not? No eventuality can be ruled out. Therefore, it was only prudent before Christmas that gentle inquiries should be made whether the option of having a General Election and the referendum on the same day was absolutely ruled out.

I shall spare the House some of the picturesque and Delphic answers that were given to such inquiries. With a General Election in the offing, even though the date of the referendum would have to come back to the House of Commons, we can imagine the kinds of pressure that Members of Parliament would be up against just to say "All right, we suppose that we must have the referendum and an election at the same time, given the circumstances." These kinds of pressure in this scenario, even though it had to come back to the House, would be easily understandable.

My innocent belief that my hon. and right hon. Friends would not contemplate having a General Election and the referendum on the same day was further dented by the assertion by Fred Emery of The Times in his column on Saturday, 14th January that consideration was being given to having the referendum and a General Election on the same day.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , West Lothian

I see that the Minister of State shakes his head. A journalist does not reveal his sources and I know better than to have the impertinence to ask but I reckon that it is a fair assumption the incoming political editor of The Times would not go out on a limb and state that consideration was being given to killing the General Election bird and the referendum bird with one stone unless he had it from someone who was likely to know.

Let us face it, at one level fixing the referendum and the General Election at the same time does have its seductive attractions. First, it would be less expensive and save a lot of extra organisation. Secondly, perhaps the timing would be convenient, given the difficulties of autumn and winter. Thirdly, it would be possible to wrap up a "Yes" vote in the referendum in the party loyalty package.

Greater still bath the temptations become since the passing of the amendment that was moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham). Ever since the coming of that amendment, the temptation to put a General Election and the referendum together must, for obvious reasons, have become that much greater.

Furthermore, last and least, having a General Election and a referendum would, let us be candid, have the effect of putting people such as myself and my hon. Friends the Members for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes), Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Cook) and Glasgow, Springburn (Mr. Buchanan) up the proverbial political gum tree. Perish the thought. Ministers would be less than human if they did not regard that as an acceptable bonus. They might be forgiven for so doing. But that is no reason why I should not attempt to pre-empt them.

This new clause relates to matters of infinitely greater significance than the comparative trivia of the personal position of myself and some of my hon. Friends who are associated with the Labour "vote No" campaign or, indeed, even less trivial considerations such as the dilemmas facing a minority Government in 1978. In the first place it would be deeply wrong in this instance to intertwine decisions in a General Election which, whatever its result, can be reversed one way or another in four or five years time at the most with a decision on a subordinate Parliament in Edinburgh which, for good or evil, will be irrevocable during the lifetime of us all. If an Assembly were established in the Royal High School, it could not be abolished in the next half century. If it is not abolished, it will lead inexorably, as we have seen time and again in the last 35 days on the Floor of the House, to a separate Scottish State.

This is a solemn decision which should be taken in a referendum which is separate in time from a General Election. A General Election may be about such ephemeral matters as the blacklisting of firms or the current Leader of the Opposition's utterances on race. The decision taken by the people of Scotland should not get mixed up with federal issues.

If I am thought to be exaggerating, hon. Members need look no further than the views of the Scottish Council of the Labour Party—not a body which officially shares my views on devolution. I quote from The Scotsman—not exactly an anti-devolutionist organ—of 30th January 1978. It stated: 'The present proposal of a single question' say the Scottish Council of the Labour Party, in their submission to the Prime Minister, 'will define the boundary between the status quo and the Assembly envisaged in the Scotland Act. But that Assembly is itself potentially unstable and requires a second boundary to be drawn short of independence by the inclusion of a second question in the referendum.' As we know, rightly or wrongly, the question proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Renfrewshire, West (Mr. Buchan) got short shrift from the Prime Minister and will not be included. Therefore I take it as the considered opinion of the Scottish Council of the Labour Party that the Assembly will be unstable. By implication it, too, has come to recognise that the Bill is leading somewhere else—towards cataclysmic change in the constitutional arrangements of the United Kingdom.

Perhaps it would agree in the circumstances which it has identified that a referendum is not suitable for the hurly burly of a General Election. Indeed, as I understand it, when my hon. Friend the Minister of State was interviewed on STV by Colin MacKay he said that he did not agree with the Scottish Council of the Labour Party on that matter. I know that it is unfair to tie anyone down to what happens on a television programme but this is the point to which the Scottish Council of the Labour Party has come. It suggests that the Assembly proposed by my right hon. Friends is unstable. If the Minister of State disagrees with this he has to make a case why he disagrees and to rebut the Scottish Council of the Labour Party.

There is a second consideration which is perhaps no less important—whether we set a precedent in Britain of tagging and tacking on a referendum to a General Election. It was one thing to have the EEC referendum in the summer of 1975 apart from a General Election. It would be quite another matter to tag on the referendum question to a General Election. That would be a step towards changing the British constitution from roughly a representative democracy to a plebiscatory democracy. The right hon. and learned Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton), who was a member of the Kilbrandon Committee and has studied these matters, will know what I am getting at.

Such a change might be right or wrong, but surely it is in itself worth a major debate in the House and in the country at large. We should not lurch into such a fundamental alteration in our political life simply as an appendix and afterthought to the devolution Bill and the devolution argument. If we are to change to a plebiscatory State, this is a matter which commands a fundamental debate on its own merits. If we British are to become like the Swiss and have referenda and elections together, at least the House of Commons had better discuss the matter on its merits and not have such a major issue of principle spatchcocked into the devolution mire.

Make no mistake, if we have a referendum and a General Election together, albeit in one part of the kingdom, there will be endless demands for referenda at every General Election on everything from capital punishment to the abortion laws and on any constitutional change which is dreamed up. That is the fact of the matter.

So, what are we to do? I earnestly ask the Government to accept the amendment. If they do, so much the better. The Minister of State can rise in his place without more ado and the Committee can progress to other matters. On the other hand, if we are given a lorry load of good intentions but the Government say that for this reason or for that they would prefer not to have the new clause, I give notice that I shall listen carefully to what the Minister of State says about the issue having to come back to the House of Commons—though at first sight I see this as rather unreal, given the political facts of life—but the temptation will be to press the matter to a Division.

It is not that I doubt the Minister's sincerity in being averse to combining a referendum and a General Election. It is simply that the experience of the devolution debate has taught me that politicians either in the Government or otherwise in the House of Commons succumb to short-term temptations. In the last five years we have all succumbed to short-term temptations of some kind or another.

Let us say that I am pressing the new clause on Ministers for their own good, though they might not recognise it immediately as for their own good, and to prevent them, in a binding way, from succumbing to a temptation to which, in their wiser moments, they would not wish to succumb.

Photo of Mr William Benyon Mr William Benyon , Buckingham

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You were not in the Chair when the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) quoted from Mr. Emery in The Times. At that point the Minister of State shook his head, thereby, to my inclination, denying what was said in that article. We have an enormous amount of business to do and we are short of time. If the Minister of State rises now and gives the undertaking for which he was asked we can make more rapid progress than will otherwise be possible.

Photo of Mr Oscar Murton Mr Oscar Murton , Poole

That is a matter not for the Chair, but for the Minister.

Photo of Mr John Smith Mr John Smith , Lanarkshire North

In response to a request by the Committee—

Mr. Ian Cow:

The House.

Photo of Mr John Smith Mr John Smith , Lanarkshire North

That is an important correction. In response to the wish of the House, I am happy to reply.

I have been asked to state the Government's position, and perhaps might do so without going into the detail of the arguments that my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) advanced about being up political gum trees, and so on.

My hon. Friend put a serious case that there would be difficulties if a General Election coincided with the referendum. I agree with my hon. Friend. It would be undesirable to tangle the issues that divide parties on the important matters with which the referendum would be concerned with those raised at the General Election. It is not the Government's intention to coincide the date of the General Election with the date of the referendum. I make that clear to my hon. Friend.

However, I think that there are difficulties about the new clause. I do not know why a period of three months is particularly useful. I do not see the need for it to be three months. In any event, as my hon. Friend foreshadowed, the date of the referendum is subject to an affirma- tive resolution of both Houses of Parliament. That is made clear in paragraph 11 of Schedule 17, and therefore both Houses will have the opportunity to decide the date of the referendum.

As there is a desire to make progress, perhaps the House will find it convenient to rest on the assurance that I have given that it is not the Government's intention to coincide these dates, and that in any event the House will be able to take the final decision. All that the Government can do is to propose the date of the referendum. They must accept the decision of Parliament.

Photo of Mr Francis Pym Mr Francis Pym , Cambridgeshire

Would it be correct to interpret the Minister as saying categorically that the Government will not propose an arrangement by which the referendum and the General Election can in any way be mixed up? He added the caveat that if Parliament decided to overthrow the Government's decision that would be another matter, but the Government must do nothing to mix what are distinct and separate issues. The General Election and the referendum are both critically important and totally different in character. Is the Minister stating categorically that they cannot be mixed up?

Photo of Mr John Smith Mr John Smith , Lanarkshire North

I am being categorical in saying that it is not the Government's intention to coincide the date of the General Election with the likely date of the referendum.

Photo of Mr Paul Channon Mr Paul Channon , Southend West

If that is so, why do the Government object to the new clause, or some other clause like it? If the Government do not intend to coincide the referendum with, the General Election, there should be no objection to their saying that the referendum will not be less than three months after the General Election, or perhaps even six weeks or two months. Would it not be just as easy to meet the wishes of the House and write something like that into the Bill?

Photo of Mr John Smith Mr John Smith , Lanarkshire North

I do not know whether three months would be suitable. We do not know the likely date of the General Election, and I do not want to encourage speculation about when that might be. I have given a clear assurance of the Government's intentions, and I do not see any point in writing any time into the clause, bearing in mind that it will be for Parliament to have the final decision on the date of the referendum. I hope that what I have said is sufficient for the new clause not to be pressed to a Division.

Photo of Mr Timothy Renton Mr Timothy Renton , Mid Sussex

Perhaps I might ask a further question, having put my name to the new clause proposed by the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell). The Minister said that he would ensure that the referendum did not coincide with the General Election date. Can he be more specific about that? What we have in mind in pressing the new clause is to ensure that the two campaigns are kept totally separate so that there is no blurring of the edges in either. Can the Minister be more explicit and tell us exactly what is intended?

Photo of Mr John Smith Mr John Smith , Lanarkshire North

We want to disentangle the decision of the referendum from the decision of the General Election. I am giving a categorical and precise assurance that we would not seek to have the referendum on the day of the General Election. I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members will agree that it would not be within the spirit of what I have said to have the two events on successive days. We want to distinguish the two operations. We want a referendum and a decision, and we want a General Election and a decision. I am trying to be as precise as I can and say that the Government do not wish the two matters to be tangled. There seems to be a great deal of suspicion about what is intended. I am giving a clear and honest assurance of what the Government intend.

Photo of Mr Alick Buchanan-Smith Mr Alick Buchanan-Smith , Angus North and Mearns

The House accepts the assurance given by the Minister about the dates, but what concerns me and others is the coinciding of campaigns. That is what is important. Can the Minister be a little more helpful? It would further assist the debate if he could tell the House that it is the intention that the dates will be such that the campaigns will not coincide.

Photo of Mr John Smith Mr John Smith , Lanarkshire North

I am being careful in what I am saying, because I do not know for how long it would be reasonable to expect a campaign to run. It would be important to consider the issues involved in the public mind. It is not our intention to coincide the dates, and I go further and say that we shall seek to keep the campaigns apart from each other.

However, a genuine difficulty might be a dispute among hon. Members about what was the length of a campaign. I am giving an assurance, which I hope the House will accept, that it is the Government's intention not to confuse the issues. We take the point made by my hon. Friend that there could be some undesirable features, such as a conflict of party loyalties, and perhaps members of the same party campaigning against one another, but I do not think that I can go any further or make the matter much clearer.

Photo of Mr Russell Johnston Mr Russell Johnston , Inverness

I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree that essentially either a campaign must take place or that whatever time is decided will lapse between the General Election and the referendum will be an arbitrary decision. Whether it is written into the Bill or is a matter of Government decision, it is an arbitrary period of time. I still do not see the fundamental objections to providing a safeguard by writing this provision into the Bill. To do so does not mean that the House is suspicious of Ministers, but the House is naturally and properly suspicious of Governments in general.

Photo of Mr John Smith Mr John Smith , Lanarkshire North

I put it as an objection to the new clause—this was before I gave way to some hon. Members—that it introduced an element of rigidity. It says that there will be three months. It would be better to have more flexibility for the House to reach the final decision, because it is perhaps not as widely appreciated as it might be that the Government can only propose a date for the referendum. They cannot fix it. The House can take all these considerations into account when it decides whether to approve or not to approve what is proposed. It is a decision not only for this House. The decision has to be carried through both Houses of Parliament. I think that there is sufficient protection in the Bill, and therefore I think that the House would be wiser not to tie itself down to a period of three months.

4.30 p.m.

I believe that most referendum campaigns would not run for a period of three months. As I recollect the position on the European campaign, it ran for three or four weeks. The legislation was enacted on 8th May and an Order in Council announcing the date of the rules for the referendum was made on 14th May 1975. The referendum was held on 5th June 1975. My recollection of that campaign was that it was of much the same duration as a normal General Election campaign—one month or thereabouts. I do not think that there is any merit in writing in as long a period as three months. It would be wiser for the House to accept my assurance as to the Government's intention and to note that it will be governed by a decision of the House. We should not tie ourselves down to a period of three months in advance.

Photo of Mr Nicholas Budgen Mr Nicholas Budgen , Wolverhampton South West

Will the Minister agree that the position is that if this new clause were passed and if the Government wished to change their mind the whole procedure of amending legislation would be required, which would be a safeguard? If, on the other hand, this clause is not passed, the House is, in the last resort, protected only by the procedure of passing an order and has primarily to rely on what confidence it may feel in the Prime Minister, a man who, as Home Secretary, rigged the boundaries.

Photo of Mr John Smith Mr John Smith , Lanarkshire North

I do not think that that kind of comment helps us to reach a sensible decision on the matter. The House is seeking to look at the merits of the issue at the moment. The hon. Gentleman asked whether, after an order had been made, the Government would have to go through amending legislation. They would not have to do so. If the hon. Gentleman had read the Bill he would know that under Clause 75(2) it is possible to revoke an order and to make a further order if that were necessary, although I doubt whether it would be necessary.

The proposition that I put to the House is that the Government do not wish to see these things tangled up with each other. We feel that to pass the new clause might mean tying the hands of the House for as long as three months. Given that there is this clear intention that Parliament must pass any order by affirmative resolution of both Houses, it would be most sensible to leave matters, in the light of what I have said and of the provisions already in the Bill.

Photo of Mr Ian Gow Mr Ian Gow , Eastbourne

I am sure that the House is anxious to try to respond to the way in which the Minister of State has intervened. He has given us a clear assurance that the Government will not coincide the date of a referendum with the date of a General Election. Can he give us an assurance about the minimum period between the date of a General Election and the date of a referendum? What is his minimum undertaking to the House on that subject?

Photo of Mr John Smith Mr John Smith , Lanarkshire North

I must confess that I have not applied my mind to what would be a minimum period. I think it is difficult in advance to pin oneself down without considering the matter carefully and fully. I know that the hon. Member is seeking to be helpful in his intervention and I am not seeking to be unhelpful in reply. I have made it clear that the Government do not want—this would appear to be the suspicion, at least in the mind of the political editor of The Times—to coincide the two events. I have been taken to task for shaking my head at the point when the comments of Mr. Emery were mentioned. I did so to express disagreement with the conclusion of the political editor of The Times that the Government were considering coinciding these events. I must say to my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian that he ought not to believe everything that he reads in the newspapers.

Photo of Mr Ioan Evans Mr Ioan Evans , Aberdare

My hon. Friend is being most forthcoming and has gone a long way to meet the point being made in the new clause. Could he go a little further? If he can move a little further we can carry on with the next business. My hon. Friend has readily accepted that the purpose of the new clause is to prevent a referendum being held at the same time as a General Election. The House is generally agreed that that would be a bad thing.

The point which again arises is that a referendum campaign should not start while we are settling our election accounts. The House has to reassemble. We need some time for that. I can understand my hon. Friend saying that we should not tie ourselves to a period of three months because if we had an October election we do not want to be fighting a referendum at Christmas. Can my hon. Friend, after consultation with the Leader of the House, give us some idea about what he is thinking and whether two months—

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , West Lothian

Would my hon. Friend accept—

Photo of Mr Oscar Murton Mr Oscar Murton , Poole

Order. We cannot have an intervention in an intervention.

Photo of Mr Ioan Evans Mr Ioan Evans , Aberdare

I hope that my hon. Friend will go a little further. Then we can move on.

Photo of Mr John Smith Mr John Smith , Lanarkshire North

The House should give me a little more latitude on this. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdare (Mr. Evans) says, I have gone a fair distance. There is, however, always a request to go a little further. I hear competing propositions of one month, two months and the like. What I have said is that the Government have never considered that it would be a clever idea to combine the two events, as seems to have got into the head of the political editor of The Times, and from there into the head of my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian. We have never even thought of such a proposition.

It was interesting that my hon. Friend advanced the "Cunningham amendment" as something which would encourage the Government to adopt such a proposition. I feel like saying that my hon. Friend is the biter bit in that regard because he voted for the "Cunningham amendment". If there were to be the consequence he suggests there would be some poetic justice in that. Fortunately, we do not take important decisions on such flippant grounds.

I hope that the House will accept my clear assurance that the Government will seek to disentangle the two propositions. We are in a difficulty in that we do not know when the General Election will be. That makes discussion of this matter a little more awkward. It would be unwise to fix a period of three months and thereby tie the hands of Parliament.

Photo of Mr George Cunningham Mr George Cunningham , Islington South and Finsbury

Obviously the Government Front Bench is trying to be extremely helpful. We have our difficulties. If the new clause had appeared in terms of two months would the Government Front Bench have had the same difficulty in accepting it?

Photo of Mr John Smith Mr John Smith , Lanarkshire North

I am afraid that, much as I am anxious to help my hon. Friend, I do not think that I can answer questions about hypothetical amendments. The new clause on the Amendment Paper specifies three months. I think that that is too long a period of time, bearing in mind our experience of General Election campaigns and of the referendum held in Britain on the Common Market. It would be wise for the House, bearing in mind the assurance I have given, and the important fact that it is the House which would take the final decision, not to tie its hands in advance.

Photo of Mr George Cunningham Mr George Cunningham , Islington South and Finsbury

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In the light of this discussion—which I have often heard before, particularly in Committee, when a particular figure is suggested in an amendment and when, in the light of discussion, it looks as if another figure might command support—you will know that it is not uncommon for the Chair to be prepared to accept a manuscript amendment. I am not asking you whether you would be prepared to do so. What I am saying is that, given that it would be possible for that to happen—it is not a hypothetical question because if the Minister were to say "I cannot accept three months but I can accept two months"—it is something which the House could decide. I would ask you not to treat it as a hypothetical question, because it is not necessarily so. I am not asking you to say whether the Chair would accept a manuscript amendment, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am only saying that it is a possibility and therefore the Minister should respond to this by saying whether he would be prepared to offer two months instead of three.

Photo of Mr Oscar Murton Mr Oscar Murton , Poole

The hon. Member has been skilful in making his point on what I do not think was a point of order. The acceptance of manuscript amendments is Mr. Speaker's prerogative alone.

Photo of Mr Timothy Renton Mr Timothy Renton , Mid Sussex

We are grateful to the Minister for the help he has tried to give us. I hear my hon. Friends saying "Let us get on with the debate." There is a genuine problem here for those of us deeply concerned about the new clause, which is perhaps best illustrated by quoting a few examples.

The Minister naturally lays great emphasis on the fact that both Houses have to agree to a referendum date. Let us assume that the Government publish September as a referendum date and this is so agreed by both Houses before we rise at the end of July, and that subsequently, in August, the Prime Minister decides to call a General Election in October. At that point in time the veto of both Houses or either House on the referendum date no longer applies. The Queen, in her Prerogative, approving the Prime Minister's suggestion, would agree to the October date. It might happen the other way round. The General Election might come before the referendum. The General Election might be in September and the referendum in October.

I envisage one contingency on which the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) did not touch, understandably, which is that the Tories will win the next General Election. In that event they will be committed to putting the whole devolution question to a constitutional conference. That is our suggestion. But already a referendum campaign will have been suggested on my hypothesis by the Government for a mere month ahead, and it would be very difficult within those short dates for the whole question of a referendum or the possibility of a referendum to be down.

Photo of Mr John Smith Mr John Smith , Lanarkshire North

Perhaps before the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Renton) goes too far into that hypothesis he should bear in mind that the Leader of the Opposition said in Glasgow recently that in the event of the Act being on the statute book before the referendum was held, she was committed to going ahead with the referendum. The hon. Member may be disagreeing with her, but I am warning him that that is what she said.

Photo of Mr Timothy Renton Mr Timothy Renton , Mid Sussex

Yes, but, with all respect to the Minister of State, we are now dealing with just the sort of hypothesis that the hon. Member for West Lothian had in mind when suggesting that the two issues must not be coterminous. If one is bringing the dates together as closely as that, clearly if the referendum has not happened we shall be fighting, or some of us on the Conservative Benches will, a General Election campaign on the issue that devolution as proposed by the Bill should not go forward. We shall be campaigning for a "No" vote in the referendum to come.

In those circumstances, what stance would someone such as the hon. Member for West Lothian take when fighting for re-election as a Labour candidate, saying that in every other respect he supports the Labour platform but in a month's time he will be campaigning for a "No" vote? The two issues—the General Election and the referendum—on the hypothetical dates that I have assumed, become inevitably muddled and confused.

I do not say, and I do not think that the hon. Member for West Lothian had it specifically in mind, that three months is necessarily the right period. It is a minimum of three months. If the General Election campaign happens in September, the referendum does not have to take place at Christmas time because just three months have elapsed.

The purpose behind the new clause was to ensure that there was no confusion between the two campaigns, no blurring of the edges. In the hypothesis that I have suggested the referendum date could be accepted by both Houses and then the General Election date subsequently announced with, say, a month's interval between the two campaigns, so that the two issues were inevitably confused.

All of us would like to get on with the Bill. We are all grateful to the Minister of State for his help to the House. However, it is essential that we should this afternoon be given some idea of the minimum interval that the Government would accept with a view to its being written into the Bill in another place. If the Minister can do that, and if it is a period that Members on both sides of the House find satisfactory, I believe that we can go forward. But without having some minimum period specified, it is very difficult for us to accept, with nothing else just the verbal assurance of the Minister.

4.45 p.m.

Photo of Mr James Lamond Mr James Lamond , Oldham East

It seems to me that at least on this occasion my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) and the Government are at one on the question of avoiding the holding of a referendum on or about the same date as a General Election. There is no difficulty there. My hon. Friend the Minister has given us his assurance that he and the present members of the Government wish to avoid a referendum being held on the same day as a General Election.

We all know that circumstances alter and that things may happen which may concentrate the mind of the Government. For example, towards the end of the debates in Committee there was the very wise insertion of the 40 per cent. requirement, which might have led the Government to think that they would be more likely to obtain a 40 per cent. "Yes" vote if the referendum were held on the same day as the General Election. Things may happen between now and the final passing of the Bill to make the Government change their minds about when they want to hold the referendum. There may be a number of reasons for wanting to change their minds. There may be devious reasons—I do not know—but they could have reasons. Therefore despite the assurances of my hon. Friend the Minister, for whom I have a great respect, I would prefer to see some provision in the Bill about it.

The objection raised by my hon. Friend that it is unnecessary to tie us down by stipulating periods such as three months does not hold water, because in the Bill the Government have made use of this sort of proposal. One need not read the Bill very thoroughly to see that. For example, it is proposed that the Assembly should have fixed-period elections, except, of course, if the Secretary of State thinks it might be a good idea to vary the period a little. The Government have laid down in Clause 3 a time limit within which he could vary it by two months either way. The principle of a time limit to restrict the Secretary of State, for example in his activities has been accepted by the Government.

Photo of Mr Gordon Wilson Mr Gordon Wilson , Dundee East

Will the hon. Gentleman accept that the situation is different in so far as the date for the elections for the Assembly is a fixed event—that is, subject to the two months either way—but the date would be known for election after election after election, within the sliding period allowed, whereas we are dealing in this case with an unknown event, the date when the United Kingdom General Election will take place?

Photo of Mr James Lamond Mr James Lamond , Oldham East

I accept that. It is wise to have a time limit in the Bill restricting the Secretary of State to a period within which he may vary the date, but I am arguing from that premise that it is also very wise to have a time limit in the Bill so that we can be quite sure that the referendum is not held on the same date as the General Election. It is not I who objects to the time limit. It is the Government. I think that the hon Gentleman's intervention is correct.

I have another point relating to Clause 6, which deals with the question of a bye-election to fill a vacancy in the Assembly. It happens to be very convenient for the Government and Opposition alike to have no time limit laid down in this House as to when a vacancy must be filled. Sometimes the matter drags on for a long time if a Member has died and it suits his party to let the vacancy drag on. But Clause 6(3) says: The date of the election —that is, the election to fill a casual vacancy— shall be not later than three months after the occurrence of the vacancy. In other words, the Government think that it is essential to tie down the filling of such a vacancy in the Assembly, which I would have thought was less important than filling a vacancy in this Parliament. They feel that it is necessary to impose a limit of three months.

All that I am saying is that if the principle of laying down time limits is acceptable for the General Election for the Assembly, or even for filling a casual vacancy in the Assembly, it is surely not asking too much of the Government also to accept the clause, which lays down the same time limit of three months for the holding of a referendum.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , West Lothian

It is no secret that when Back Benchers try to put their intentions into legislative form they rely heavily on the learned Clerks of the House. I put it to Mr. Tony Birley, who advised us on these matters, that it was a question of "at least three months". He pointed out, quite understandably, that as I had said until a period of three months has elapsed it was not a rigid time limit of three months, that it meant not less than three months, and that the words "at least" were superfluous. Therefore, one cannot be tied down to a 13-week period or whatever it is. It is "at least three months". That is the best advice available to us.

Photo of Mr James Lamond Mr James Lamond , Oldham East

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, which makes clear that he at least is perhaps a little more flexible than the Government in this matter.

I should like to know why the Government think it right for them to put in time limits for matters of no great importance, such as the filling of a casual vacancy in the Assembly, when there is no time limit in this House and the House has worked quite efficiently despite that. Yet as soon as a Back Bencher proposes a clause providing for a time limit, that is seized upon as a reason for rejecting it.

Photo of Sir John Gilmour Sir John Gilmour , Fife East

I agree with the conclusions that I think hon. Members have come to, on consideration of the clause, that two months might be the right gap between a referendum and a General Election. I have two amendments, Nos. 2 and 3, dealing with the timing of Assembly elections in relation to a General Election for the United Kingdom Parliament. I suggest that there should be a gap of at least six months.

A referendum can be fought on a cross-party basis, but I am certain that the elections for the Assembly will be fought on party political lines. If there is no provision for a gap between the holding of a General Election and the holding of an Assembly election people in the parties who have just argued their way through a General Election might have to go to an Assembly election within two months. I suggest that six months is the right period. It is true that under Clause 2(2) the Secretary of State has the power to make an allowance of two months, but I do not believe that two months is long enough after a fight that has been fought entirely on party political lines.

Photo of Mr Ioan Evans Mr Ioan Evans , Aberdare

My hon. Friend the Minister of State has gone a long way to meet the purpose of the clause. It is a pity the Government cannot move that little bit further so that we may go on to deal with other business. I do not think that there is any purpose in our having a long debate to try to convince the Government, when they have already been convinced by my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell).

However, I should like to make one suggestion that the Government might think constructive. I understand that Ministers cannot make a quick decision on the Front Bench and tell the House "We have decided that two months instead of three would be a sufficient period", but if three months is not acceptable I suggest that nothing less than two months would be acceptable to the Committee.

After a General Election a month must elapse before one can think of campaigning again. I am sure that all hon. Members and future Members of the Assemblies in Scotland and Wales, and perhaps elsewhere in Britain, will be very much involved in the referendum campaign. After the rigours of a General Election they would want a respite, and I am sure that Ministers would also want a respite.

Photo of Mr Ioan Evans Mr Ioan Evans , Aberdare

I know that the SNP is always campaigning for an independent Scotland, and I realise that the referendum would be part of that campaign for its members, but the SNP is in a minority in this House.

Tomorrow we are to discuss another series of amendments. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will accept the sense of what my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian proposes, and then look at Schedule 17, dealing with the referendum. It says: The referendum shall be held on such day as Her Majesty may by Order in Council appoint. If the Government could produce tomorrow a form of words that would meet the object of my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian, we could move on without having to divide, as there seems to be general agreement.

I came to the House today to support my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian to argue that we should not become involved in a party political campaign on the question of devolution. There are divisions within parties. A fundamental constitutional change faces the people of Scotland and Wales. For us in Wales, this Bill is a trailer: we are to come later. What is decided for Scotland will have a great bearing on what will happen for Wales. That applies to all the amendments to the Bill.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will reconsider the matter. He has more or less agreed that the period must be about two months. My hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian is talking about three months. There is a very narrow difference. We are all agreed that we shall not have the referendum at the same time as the General Election. Perhaps I should not say this, but there is an unstated presumption in this discussion that the referendum looks like coming after the next General Election. The possibility of its coming before has not been spelt out, so presumably it will be held after the General Election. If the General Election is to be held first, time must elapse before the holding of the referendum.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian will be given some assurance, and that tomorrow we may have an amendment to Schedule 17 spelling out exactly a time acceptable to the House. Certainly, before the Bill goes to another place, such an amendment should be made to the schedule.

Photo of Mr Maurice Macmillan Mr Maurice Macmillan , Farnham

It seems to me that there is only one point at issue between the House and the Government. That is whether an expression of our mutual dislike of combining a referendum campaign with a General Election campaign should or should not be written into the Bill.

I very much agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Renton) that a firm time—I am not particular about three months or two months—should be written into the Bill, for a number of reasons.

First, as my hon. Friend showed, without it the freedom of choice that the Minister is so anxious to preserve for the House is to some extent illusory, in that the possibilities of the prerogative being exercised for the dissolution of Parliament could make a prior decision of the House about a referendum nugatory, without anyone having in any way sought to behave improperly, to rig matters or to gerrymander.

Secondly, I have a profound distrust of all Governments, including those of which I have been a member. I have a certain distrust, which the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) expressed, about the House itself reaching wise decisions in the context of a forthcoming General Election. I will give only one example. It relates to a matter that we have been discussing indirectly fairly recently—the Counter-Inflation Act 1973. It was carefully drawn so that it was not possible for the Government of the day to alter the statutory provisions before the latest time for a General Election. This was done deliberately as evidence of the will of the Government to maintain the statutory provisions even in the atmosphere of an election campaign, knowing that they would be extremely unpopular.

5.0 p.m.

I think that this Bill is a fair parallel and that it is not unreasonable to ask the Government to write a definite time limit separating a possible General Election from a possible referendum, in order to make it quite plain to all concerned, both in the House and in the country at large, that there is no possibility of the two campaigns getting mixed up, and no possibility of anybody of ill will deliberately trying to run the two together by one means or another.

There is an additional and extremely important reason, which the hon. Member for West Lothian touched upon, for this provision being written into the Bill. It is that a General Election will concern the United Kingdom as a whole, whereas it is proposed—wrongly, in my view—that the referendum should concern Scotland and only Scotland. Moreover, the qualification is one of residence, rather than domicile or any other qualification, and only of residence. This means that Scotsmen living and working for the time being in England will be able to vote in a General Election but not in a referendum, while Englishmen living and working for the time being in Scotland will be able to vote in both. This seems to me to be an additional constitutional—or political if not constitutional—reason for having the two campaigns deliberately and firmly separated, in a form which cannot be altered and which is seen not to be alterable.

There is a further reason. It might be that at a later stage the constituency for the referendum could be extended, but it might also happen that the provision for a minimum majority, which this House judged should be added to the Bill, could be altered at a later stage. If we did not have the 40 per cent. safeguard, it would become, in my view, all the more important to separate very firmly the election from the referendum.

It would be quite wrong if the enthusiasm which an election campaign might generate, not only in Scotland but throughout the United Kingdom, were to bring about a higher turnout for a referendum campaign, thereby nullifying any effort to the contrary except on the part of those who were most determined to abstain. Once the two were linked in people's minds, the temptation would be to vote one way or the other, for reasons quite separate from those being put before the electorate in the referendum.

There is one further reason why I believe that it is necessary for the more distant future that the new clause should be written into the Bill. We are not only creating a constitutional precedent for Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom, as the hon. Member for West Lothian pointed out, by setting up irrevocably a subordinate Parliament in Edinburgh—an Assembly which, as he said, is now widely admitted to be inevitably unstable. We are also creating a precedent for managing the affairs of the United Kingdom.

The hon. Gentleman, in moving the new clause, said that by hitching a referendum to an election we should be moving towards government by plebiscite, and he was right. Now that the House has debated the issue, it seems to me to be inevitable that in the future, when any question of a referendum arises, it will inevitably be linked with the date of a possible General Election.

For this reason, as well as for the sake of the Scotland Bill, and for the fake of future legislation and the possibility of future referendums, I believe that we should firmly establish the principle that whenever this House passes a Bill enabling a referendum to be held, steps should be taken to dissociate that referendum, in the terms in which the Bill goes forward for Royal Assent, from any possible General Election campaign which could take place at about the same time. I think that otherwise we shall be doing grave constitutional disservice to the United Kingdom, not only through the Scotland Bill but indirectly in other ways.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , West Lothian

Does it not follow from what the right hon. Gentleman has been saying, that we in Britain should have a referendum Act to govern the conduct of referendums?

Photo of Mr Maurice Macmillan Mr Maurice Macmillan , Farnham

If the hon. Gentleman would give some assurance concerning the device referred to earlier for writing into the Bill a specific date at a later stage, that would go a long way to re-assure us. If he were to contemplate bringing forward a referendum Bill which would remove all these grisly possibilities once and for all, that again would reassure us, but I do not think it is quite fair to expect a Minister of State to give that undertaking this afternoon.

Photo of Mr Jo Grimond Mr Jo Grimond , Orkney and Shetland

This afternoon's debate seems to me to illustrate the appalling muddle into which the Bill has got. Here we are at the Report stage, and it is now apparent that no one has thought out the implications of the referendum which is central to the Bill, nor has it been discussed in this House or in Committee in any way whatever.

When I came to the House this afternoon, I was all in favour of voting for the new clause proposed by the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) but, having listened to the debate, I am not now so sure about that. Let us just think of the programme before us. We are to have a General Election, and no sooner shall we have finished with that than apparently we are to embark on another campaign, concerned with the referendum. It may well be that the Conservatives will win the General Election. If so, the whole position about devolution will have been totally altered. But even if the Conservatives do not win the General Election, it is extremely unlikely that the British people—or, indeed, their political leaders—will work themselves up again about another campaign concerned with the referendum.

In America that would be quite possible, but in American elections people vote for all sorts of things, and 20 or 30 different decisions are taken on the same day. Perhaps, if we are to have a referendum at all, it should be at the time of the General Election. At any rate, people would then go willingly on that date to the polling booths. They might actually cast their votes. But it is extremely unlikely that a fortnight or three weeks afterwards they would go at all.

I do not know what the Government's view is about this. Perhaps they wish to accept a later amendment about a minimum poll and hope that the whole Bill will be forgotten. If that is their view, they are going, the right way about it because nothing could be more certain to kill the Bill than to have a referendum within two or three weeks of a General Election.

That might be their view. That appears to be what they are saying this afternoon. It seems to me that either one accepts that this country is moving towards the American situation, in which one has a lot of decisions to make on the same day, or else one accepts the view of the hon. Member for Fife, East (Sir J. Gilmour) who believes that we should have no other voting within six months.

The Government should make their position clear. It is quite obvious to me that unless they are keen to kill the Bill—who knows, they may be in favour of doing so, because a few years ago they held the view that the Bill would be better out of the way—they must either accept that the referendum should be held at the same time as the General Election, which would guarantee people going to the polls in bigger numbers than they would otherwise, or else put it off for some time.

Photo of Mr Gwilym Roberts Mr Gwilym Roberts , Cannock

The right hon. Gentleman has suggested that the referendum be held at the same time as a General Election. If some target, perhaps 33½ per cent., were set as being required for such a constitutional change, on a minimum 67 per cent. turn-out such a figure could be achieved. But it would be unlikely that we would get a 67 per cent. turn-out on the referendum issue and, therefore, the effect of a General Election would cloud the basic decision.

Photo of Mr Jo Grimond Mr Jo Grimond , Orkney and Shetland

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. That seems to be the dilemma which the House is in. Here we are on Report, we are far advanced in our proceedings and no one has any idea when the referendum should be held, what its effect will be or how it should be manipulated one way or the other. That is a fair reflection of the debates in the House of Commons, either in Committee or in any other of its many manifestations. My view is that if the Government feel that there are strong reasons against holding the referendum at the same time as the General Election, it should be put off for some considerable time.

If that is so, they must face the possibility that there could be a change of Government. That would be a very queer constitutional position, but I see no other way of facing the dilemma that we are in. Either we have the referendum at or near a General Election or we take the decision that, for good reasons which have been advanced, we cannot muddle the two together, and if it is no good having a referendum a fortnight afterwards, we must have it six months onwards. We must also face the fact that there will be a long gap between the passing of this Bill and its presentation to the people at large.

5.15 p.m.

Photo of Mr James Dempsey Mr James Dempsey , Coatbridge and Airdrie

I have listened carefully to the Minister's assurance and to the opinions that have been expressed on both sides of the House about the new clause. It is clear to me that the Minister said that the General Election and the referendum shall not be held on the same date. That assurance has been given. Of course, if there are two different dates, there are two different campaigns.

I believe that a great deal of heavy weather is being made about the assurance which the Minister of State has given. I have heard several reasons advocated why some fixed time should be written into the Bill between the General Election on one hand and the referendum on the other.

One of the most important reasons why no such fixed time should be written into the Bill has not been quoted. That is that if we fix a time—whether three months according to the new clause, or two months as has been suggested in a possible manuscript amendment—the actual date of the referendum could fall on a most unsuitable date for it to be conducted in Scotland.

Photo of Mr James Dempsey Mr James Dempsey , Coatbridge and Airdrie

I am coming to that. For example, it is not unusual for a General Election to be held at the beginning of October. That is not an unusual phenomenon for this country to indulge in from time to time. If we were to accept the new clause, and the referendum is held three months after the General Election, it means that if the General Election is held on 1st October the referendum would have to be held on 1st January—that is New Year's Day.

Photo of Mr Gwilym Roberts Mr Gwilym Roberts , Cannock

I would point out that the new clause says that that referendum shall not be held until a period of three months has elapsed after the polling day of the ensuing general election.". That does not mean that it shall be three months. It could be four, five or six months. But there is a three-month minimum period. Presumably, if there were an October General Election it would not mean that a referendum would be held on New Year's Day. The purpose of the new clause is that at least three months must elapse. That is an important point.

Photo of Mr James Dempsey Mr James Dempsey , Coatbridge and Airdrie

If that three months elapsed it is fair to interpret the new clause as meaning that the referendum should be held on that particular date. There is no doubt about that. If any English or Welsh Member has the foggiest idea of what happens in Scotland on 1st January, that is that last thing that he would suggest.

Photo of Mr Douglas Henderson Mr Douglas Henderson , Aberdeenshire East

Would not the hon. Gentleman agree that if the referendum were to be held on Hogmanay, and the polling stations were to be kept open all night, we might have a record poll?

Photo of Mr James Dempsey Mr James Dempsey , Coatbridge and Airdrie

To use a Scottishism, "I hae me doots". If we were to have the poll on New Year's Day, we should have to carry on the customary tradition and take a half-bottle in our pockets. In those circumstances, I imagine that more drinking would be done than voting.

I am trying to ensure that the referendum will be a success. My hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) went to great lengths to explain how the Scottish Council of the Labour Party had grave doubts about the purpose of this Assembly. He did not mention that it has also launched an appeal for a fighting fund with a view to campaigning for a "Yes" vote during the referendum campaign. It is therefore obvious to me that a hectic campaign will be conducted. It is hoped that there will be a very good turn-out and the Labour movement in Scotland hopes that the result will be "Yes" to the Assembly. That is our policy, apart from a few dissidents—if I can call them that with deep affection.

Surely, therefore, having regard to circumstances such as I have described, it would be unwise for the Minister to be talked into writing into the Bill a specific date on which the referendum should take place. In my opinion, it should be left to the good sense of the Minister and the Government to determine, as soon as possible after the General Election, the most suitable time for the holding of the referendum. By suitability I do not mean for the Minister or the Government. I mean suitable for the general public who we are hoping will vote very solidly during the campaign for the Assembly, when the Bill becomes an Act of Parliament.

Photo of Mr Percy Grieve Mr Percy Grieve , Solihull

The hon. Member for Coatbridge and Airdrie (Mr. Dempsey) obviously was terrified that this clause might compel the holding of the referendum to coincide with Hogmanay. But he was put right by one of his hon. Friends. The clause does no such thing. It prescribes a minimum.

The Minister of State has come a very long way to meeting the fears of right hon. and hon. Members. Will not he come the whole way, because the whole way is a very short way? As I see it, the clause prescribes a minimum of three months after the General Election, and I should have thought that that was an irreducible minimum, if only for the reasons which were strongly and cogently set forth by the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell). It is vitally important that, when the referendum is held, it should be held undisturbed by any other political issue than the most important constitutional issue which this country has had to decide since the Act of Union, and it is important that that should be undisturbed by any other political considerations.

The Minister has met the argument that it would be inconceivable that the referendum should be held to coincide with the election itself. If that were to happen, not only would the issue of the setting up of an independent Assembly in Scotland be confused with all the other issues which are determined at the time of the General Election, but it would be embroiled in the campaign as well. If the campaigns coincided, that would prevent the dispassionate consideration of an issue which goes right across party lines in Scotland as it does in England and is, as I say, the most vitally important constitutional issue that the country has ever had to determine in its united form.

But the matter goes further than that. It goes beyond that in the sense that, when people have gone through the work, the pressures and the considerations of an important General Election campaign, they are for the moment surfeited by the whole subject of electioneering. They have had enough of it. It would be wholly wrong and certainly it would involve the danger of the matter not being properly considered and of an insufficient number of votes being cast if there were, almost immediately upon the conclusion of that election campaign, to be supervened a further campaign in connection with the referendum.

I suggest that it is for that reason that three months is really an irreducible minimum. It is not sufficient for the Government to say "Leave it to us. It will not be more than two months. We shall certainly not have it at the same time" This is a matter for Parliament to consider now. If Parliament believes in the cogency of these arguments, it should see that it is written into the Bill now that there shall be no referendum earlier than three months from the date of the General Election.

In effect, given a referendum campaign of a month, that means two months and, as one Government supporter pointed out, first of all there is the fact that the newly elected Members of the new Parliament will have to settle down. They will have to deal with the aftermath of the General Election campaign, and that takes about a month. Then, if there were only a two months gap, they would have almost at once to campaign for the referendum.

That is really too soon, and I suggest that three months is an irreducible minimum. I hope that, if the Minister does not make this concession, the hon. Member for West Lothian and those right hon. and hon. Members who support the new clause will divide the House on it. I, for one, will support the clause, because I believe that it should be written into the Bill.

Photo of Mr Gordon Wilson Mr Gordon Wilson , Dundee East

I think that the comments of the hon. Member for Coat-bridge and Airdrie (Mr. Dempsey) sufficiently poured ridicule on the amendment to enable the House to reject it fairly readily. He said that it could cause difficulty because it would set rigid time limits. If there were a General Election in the spring or the early summer, the referendum could have an impact on the holiday season. It could be held in July or August. If it were postponed too long, it might cause difficulty in Scotland. Again, if it were in winter time, three months after an October General Election, that would bring us into the months of January and February and the winter weather. I do not know whether many right hon. and hon. Members have suffered adverse weather conditions. In my area over the weekend we had 10 or 11 inches of snow. Traffic seized up in the city of Dundee, and the same was happening throughout a considerable part of Scotland, never mind the dreadful conditions in the Highlands the other week.

The Government are right to leave this on a fairly flexible basis. If they have made one mistake, it is that they have zealously concealed the proposed date for the General Election. If we knew that, we should understand when the referendum might take place. However, it is one of the secret weapons which the Government like to have, and I doubt whether they will volunteer that information.

The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) reminded the House how in the United States of America elections and referendums frequently were combined. However, the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) said that it would introduce an unwelcome precedent even though he had supported the 40 per cent. provision, which was also an unwelcome precedent. Apparently, he is prepared to legislate for his own wishes but not otherwise.

Right hon. and hon. Members cannot have it both ways. If it were put to me whether it was good or bad psychology or in the interests of my party or otherwise to have an immediate election and a referendum, I should not be able to say one way or the other. However, some right hon. and hon. Members are terrified of fighting a single issue campaign during a General Election, and perhaps their estimation is one that we should bear in mind.

If there were a combined referendum-cum-General Election, there would be a saving of £2 million, which could be used for other valuable purposes. However, that is departing somewhat from the subject of the new clause, because the Minister has given certain assurances about it, and, if the Government double-back on them, it may be difficult for them to explain. So I think we should accept the Minister's assurances and hope that the hon. Member for West Lothian, even at this late stage, will for once see sense and withdraw his motion.

Photo of Mr Gwilym Roberts Mr Gwilym Roberts , Cannock

Whichever side of the new clause right hon. and hon. Members may be on, the common ground is that we all want this to be a successful referendum in terms of turn-out. Neither the "No" nor the "Yes" schools want to see the answer obtained from a 30 per cent., a 40 per cent. or even a 50 per cent. poll.

It seems to me that, on the face of it, the simplest way to get over the difficulty about the date of the referendum is to look at Schedule 17, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdare (Mr. Evans) suggested and to write into the Bill a specific date on which the referendum should take place. Some might like it earlier than others. It is difficult when one is trying to substitute a particular date for "such day" already in Schedule 17.

5.30 p.m.

Some people might believe that St. Andrew's Day, which I believe is 30th November, might be suitable, but once again there are difficulties. It is very difficult to find a suitable day. A number of hon. Members have said that the summer holidays create problems. The sad fact is that it is hard to find any day when the Scots are not celebrating something or the other.

It is important that there should be a clear gap between the referendum and the General Election. I am glad that the Government accept that. Nothing could be more disastrous than the suggestion by the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Wilson) that both the referendum and the General Election should take place on the same day. Nothing could be more absurd. The referendum is on a constitutional issue and the decision will be taken on an entirely different premise than the decision in a General Election.

If we had the two combined and there was a 67 per cent. poll, which is quite likely in a General Election, the decision on the referendum could be taken by the very narrowest of margins even given a 33⅓—33⅔ per cent. division of the voting, which in any case is not a very large margin. It is quite clear that there will need to be a substantial gap between the General Election and a referendum but difficulties arise when we try to introduce a particular day into the Bill.

The Prime Minister might decide that sometime in October or November might be a suitable time to go to the country—

Photo of Mr Percy Grieve Mr Percy Grieve , Solihull

Does the hon. Member for Cannock (Mr. Roberts) agree that three months is a reasonable minimum because it allows one month after the election and one month for the following campaign? It is not obligatory on the Government to make it three months. They could make it four, five or six months—whatever they like.

Photo of Mr Gwilym Roberts Mr Gwilym Roberts , Cannock

I am not enamoured of stipulating any wide gap of this sort. The most important thing is that the Prime Minister must have his right to choose General Election day without any barriers or any feelings that he is choosing a particular date which will affect the result of the referendum. I know that he does not want to prejudice the referendum result by having a close General Election.

Even if the referendum were before the General Election the upsurge of the campaign would cause a high turn-out and immediately afterwards there would be a falling off of interest for the General Election. This is a very difficult problem.

I believe that there should be some attempt to introduce a specified date into the Bill but I am not enamoured of stipulating the interval because it creates too many problems for the Prime Minister. The most important single thing is that the Prime Minister should have absolute choice for his General Election date.

Photo of Mr Paul Channon Mr Paul Channon , Southend West

I think that the hon. Member for Cannock (Mr. Roberts) really agrees with most of us. There seems to be common ground among all hon. Members, with the exception of those from the Scottish National Party, that we do not want the General Election linked with the referendum. It is also fairly common ground that the referendum should not be held shortly after the General Election either.

The new clause of the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) calls for a minimum period of three months between the General Election and the referendum. In any case the date would have to be approved by both Houses of Parliament. It is possible to argue that the referendum could be held two months after the General Election, but to have it any time short of two months makes a mockery of the assurances given by the Minister of State this afternoon.

The gap between us and the Minister of State is important, although fairly narrow. If he wants to preserve the flexibility of saying that the best possible time to have the referendum is within three months of a General Election, can he at least say that he would not have it within two months, because this is the barest minimum possible to have it after a General Election. For a start, there would have to be a regrouping of the organisations fighting the referendum. There would be cross-party groupings with people in the same party taking different views about the referendum. There must be some time for preparation. I cannot understand why the Government should hesitate to say that it is not their intention to have a refer- endum within two months of the General Election.

It is possible that it could be held before an election and if so the issue does not arise. But, if there were a. General Election in October, as seems possible, the idea of holding the referendum before Christmas is farcical. If the General Election were postponed until the spring, I do not think that the Government would want the referendum to be held within two months of it.

I would have thought that we could come to a happy conclusion on this matter if the Government would give some assurances. Even if they will not write this provision into the Bill, I, and I am sure many other hon. Members, would settle for a manuscript amendment, if it could be accepted, saying that the referendum would not be held within two months of a General Election. I am sure that such an amendment would have the widespread agreement of the House. The Government could give these assurances without prejudicing the right to call a General Election when they wished. I would have thought that this was a small step to take, and if the Minister of State could settle it I am sure that the agreement of the House would be overwhelming.

Photo of Mr Ian Gow Mr Ian Gow , Eastbourne

Although the gap between the Government Front Bench and the new clause is very narrow, this debate has not been unnecessary. When the Minister of State courteously intervened early in the debate had he given the assurances that the Government would not arrange the referendum within two months of the date of the General Election, I suspect that the motion would have been withdrawn.

However, as the debate has gone on I have the impression that the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) would not have been right to withdraw it. The more we reflect on the story of Governments in this country the more we realise that even if the Minister of State—a man of scrupulous honour and fairness—gave an assurance that there would be no referendum within two months of a General Election, there would be no guarantee that this would hold good if he were no longer a member of the Administration. Under pressure from other Ministers that undertaking might not be carried out.

I believe that the House must have a legislative safeguard built in as an ultimate protection that there will be a minimum gap of two months. I do not think that in the current climate it would be right for the House of Commons to rely on ministerial assurances of two months even if these were forthcoming—and all the signs are that they will not be forthcoming.

The arguments in favour of a minimum gap of three months or two months are absolutely overwhelming. It is regrettable that the Government have not responded to what clearly is the mood of the House on this issue. If the Minister of State is not prepared to take account of the feelings expressed almost universally in almost every other part of the House, with the sole exception of the hon. Member for Coatbridge and Airdrie (Mr. Dempsey) and the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Wilson) who made an incomprehensible speech, he surely must go some way to meet the almost unanimous view on this matter.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , West Lothian

The speech of the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Wilson) was not incomprehensible at all. It is in the interests of the SNP that this should happen.

Mr. Cow:

Incomprehensible in the sense that it was clear that the hon. Gentleman had not read the new clause. He was advancing a wholly different case from that put by the hon. Member for West Lothian.

If the Government have any sensitivity on this matter and are prepared to respond to the mood which has been expressed almost universally on this matter, they should give way. It is a matter of great regret that the Minister is not prepared to make this concession. This debate could have been avoided if the Government had thought through the referendum issue. It was clear from the Minister's intervention a little earlier that the Government had not thought through the timetable and what will be involved in the referendum.

There are ten ministerial names on the back of this Bill as the hon. Members who are presenting the measure to the House of Commons. Two of those Members now occupy the Treasury Bench. For a short time we even had the intermittent presence of the Lord Advocate. Indeed, I see that he has now returned to the Treasury Front Bench, and therefore we have three Ministers with us for this debate. Often it appears that the Cabinet has been too busy with other matters to think through this subject. Therefore, I hope that my hon. Friends will make short speeches and enable the genii on the Treasury Front Bench to reflect on the matter. This will give Ministers the opportunity to take these matters into account.

I appeal to the Minister of State to deal with this important matter in his reply, particularly as he now has the advantage of the presence of the Lord Advocate.

Photo of Mr Alick Buchanan-Smith Mr Alick Buchanan-Smith , Angus North and Mearns

I wish to intervene briefly. Since there is so little between the arguments advanced on both sides, I do not intend to repeat them. I believe that the period of three months as set out in New Clause No. 1 is too long. I would favour a period nearer two months. However, one month is too short a period because we want to see some respite between the two campaigns.

If the Government accept that they had no intention of allowing the two campaigns to coincide, surely it is in the best interests of progress to write into the Bill what that means in terms of length of time. As one who is sympathetic to the Minister of State on this matter, I believe that it is against the interests of the House not to write in this provision. I am left with the awful feeling that, however good the Government's intentions, they are admitting that in certain circumstances those intentions may be breached. I find that a worrying factor. I cannot envisage circumstances in which it would be necessary for those intentions to be breached.

5.45 p.m.

Why on earth cannot the Government accept a time limit? It is ridiculous to have a division between the Government Front Bench and the majority of the House on this narrow matter. There are many other much more important matters to be debated in this short period on Report. I accept that there may be difficulties in bringing in an amendment at this stage, but if the Minister is prepared to say that he will introduce in the other place an amendment to put this matter into legislative form, I would accept that assurance. I should be delighted to see this matter set out in legislative form, because I believe that would be in the interests of the House.

Photo of Mr William Benyon Mr William Benyon , Buckingham

I strongly support the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for North Angus and Mearns (Mr. Buchanan-Smith). When the Minister intervened a little earlier, I thought that we were getting somewhere and that we were about to be given a little more by the Government that would satisfy us on this matter, but that has not proved to be the case.

It has been said that it would rarely happen that the two events might coincide or be close. I do not agree. This is a difficulty which the Government face. It is not the difficulties of the referendum that worry them but flexibility in respect of a General Election. That is the main bugbear facing the Government. Once both Houses of Parliament have given their seal of approval to a referendum, it must go forward. If in that period the Prime Minister wishes to call a General Election, it would be extremely restricted.

However, there must be a form of words that would get round this situation. There is no doubt that opinion in the House is unanimous on this issue, except for the views expressed by the SNP. Therefore, the matter should go to another place and we should be given an undertaking that it will be returned to us with the inclusion of the suggested provisions.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , West Lothian

Does the hon. Gentleman appreciate that the point about a General Election being announced before a referendum is held is already covered by the clause? The clause begins: If Parliament is dissolved before a referendum has been held in pursuance of section 80 of this Act, that referendum shall not be held until a period of three months has elapsed after the polling day of the ensuing general election.

Photo of Mr William Benyon Mr William Benyon , Buckingham

I am not sure that that does cover the matter. I believe that it would be very restrictive, and I do not see the Government giving an undertaking to hold a referendum on such and such a date and suddenly having to put the matter off. I appreciate the Government's difficulties.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , West Lothian

The Minister says that this is wrong and I am prepared to be told that that is the case. This was the advice I had from the learned Clerks. If I am wrong, I am prepared to be told so.

Photo of Mr William Benyon Mr William Benyon , Buckingham

The hon. Gentleman is certainly right in the way in which his new clause is drafted, but the fact is that if the referendum had to be cancelled, it would restrict the Government in political terms. I understand that situation and many agree with me. However, I am saying that the Government should respond to the view of the House, which is almost unanimous, that this matter should be taken to another place and then brought back here so that we can consider it more rationally.

Photo of Mr John Stokes Mr John Stokes , Halesowen and Stourbridge

I support previous speakers. On the first day of the Report stage I am once again worried, troubled and alarmed by every implication of the Bill. It is clear that the full implications of the referendum have not been thought out by the Government or properly discussed by the House. Introducing into our constitution new concepts such as referendums will cause endless confusion if they are interspersed between elections to the Assembly and United Kingdom General Elections.

I have always opposed referendums. Until recently, they were unknown in our constitution, and they are a threat to this House and to parliamentary government. If we are to have a referendum, we should at least ensure in the Bill that it does not interfere with our normal constitutional life and our General Elections.

A three-month gap is perfectly reasonable, though I would settle for a two-month gap. I thought for one brief, exciting moment that the Government were about to agree with that, but I now have no confidence in their unwritten assurances. We must have safeguards written into the Bill.

If the Bill is passed, the referendum will appear to offer to the Scottish people something like the special offers we see in our supermarkets. It will imply that there is some sort of bargain to be had or even something for nothing. We shall have all sorts of unscrupulous propaganda that will exaggerate the benefits of the Bill and all sorts of false hopes and expectations will be aroused.

It is important to ensure that this dangerous hullabaloo at the time of the referendum is kept separate from the more sober General Election campaign. We know that one party will be campaigning not only for the Bill but for complete independence for Scotland, and that will make the referendum a most dangerous and damaging event in our constitutional history. It is vital that the sense of the House should be confirmed in the Bill and that there should be a legal gap between a General Election and a referendum in Scotland.

Photo of Mr Francis Pym Mr Francis Pym , Cambridgeshire

The discussion of the new clause has been typical of our debates on the Bill. Whenever we have picked up a new aspect, we have found within half an hour or so that the issues are considerably more significant and profound than many hon. Members had appreciated.

The hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) put the case for separating the campaigns extremely well. It has been a characteristic of all our debates that the more we have probed the Minister, the more apparent it has become that we are dealing with an important matter of principle. The new principle this time relates to the referendum, particularly if it is held in an election year.

Even the Minister of State has agreed with all the other speakers in the debate. Normally he is the only person who defends his position. This time, he has been helpful in indicating that the Government do not wish the referendum and a General Election to be held on the same day or the campaigns to coincide. That is very much the sense of what the House wants.

The Minister has been criticised by various hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) and the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond), for not having thought through this matter. He may deny that, but if he has thought it through, he has not indicated clearly his conclusions except to state the simple proposition that the referendum and a General Election should not take place on the same day.

I feel even more strongly than I did in Committee that it is unfortunate that we should be discussing this matter in the context of the Bill and not in the general context of referendums. There is a danger, which ha worried the House, that a decision on dates may be taken as a matter of expediency rather than as a matter of principle.

The Minister indicated clearly that both Houses can control the date of the referendum, but we cannot control the date of a General Election. I do not see anything in the new clause that might fetter the Prime Minister in his choice of a day for the General Election except the embarrassment that he would suffer from having to cancel the referendum. It is right that the Prime Minister should be unrestricted in that choice, but the House wants to know how we can ensure that what the Minister of State has told us will be fulfilled.

The new clause is reasonably modest. It makes clear that after a General Election there cannot be a referendum until a gap of three months has elapsed. If there is a referendum before a General Election, there need be a gap of only one month. For example, if it were proposed to hold the referendum on 28th September, the Prime Minister could not propose the dissolution of Parliament at any time in September before the 28th, but he could do so on 29th. If he wanted to propose the dissolution earlier in September, the referendum would be ruled out.

Logic is on the side of the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, who supported my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, East (Sir J. Gilmour) in saying that there should be a wider gap and that six months would be more appropriate. I have a good deal of sympathy with my hon. Friend's amendments, but the hon. Member for West Lothian wanted to be more modest and to put forward a proposal involving the minimum degree of restriction.

In the absence of a much more specific and clear undertaking from the Government on dates and on their intention to insert such a provision into the Bill in another place, I shall advise my right hon. and hon. Friends to support the new clause because, in the absence of satisfactory undertakings by the Government, it would be right for the House to vote upon this matter.

It would be much more helpful, particularly in the spirit of what the Minister of State said at the start of our debate, if he could undertake to insert into the Bill a provision that the House would accept, even if that fell short of the new clause. I hope that he will reply and allay the anxieties of all Members on this subject, which is of utmost importance.

Photo of Mr John Smith Mr John Smith , Lanarkshire North

With the leave of the House, I shall seek to reply to some of the points made in the debate. Before turning to the main point, may I deal with the amendments of the hon. Member for Fife, East (Sir J. Gilmour) which are being discussed with this group? They raise a slightly different point and, with respect to the right hon. Member for Cambridgeshire (Mr. Pym), I do not think that the hon. Gentleman was arguing for a six-month gap between the referendum and a General Election. His amendments relate to the regular elections to the Assembly, and he is seeking a six-month gap between those and any General Election.

The Bill allows a two-month gap either way for the Secretary of State. It is a matter of judgment whether a six-month gap is better than the provision of four months—two months either way. With the four months provision, the Secretary of State would have the flexibility that he needs to avoid an unfortunate coincidence between Assembly elections and a General Election which, in certain circumstances, might be undesirable.

That was one of the purposes of providing that flexibility. There is not a great deal between the hon. Member for Fife, East and myself on this matter, but if there were a six-month gap, starting from a date in the summer, one could be running deep into the winter, and there are obvious practical difficulties about having elections in the depth of winter in Scotland, as we can appreciate all too vividly at present.

In addition, there is the problem that registers are out of date at certain times of the year. In the Government's judgment, six months is probably too long. However, I accept that this is a matter of judgment. I do not know whether the hon. Member for Fife, East wishes to pursue the matter any further.

6.0 p.m.

Photo of Sir John Gilmour Sir John Gilmour , Fife East

The referendum will be held on cross-party lines and, therefore, an Assembly election would not be affected in the same way as a General Election. It is difficult for people to go into a party political election in a shorter period than six months. That is the argument on which I rest. If the House thinks that four months is long enough, my amendment is not necessary.

Photo of Mr John Smith Mr John Smith , Lanarkshire North

I understand the hon. Gentleman's argument. It may be that the referendum to be held when the Bill becomes an Act will be a cross-party matter. There are certain signs of that. I am not clear whether that makes a great deal of difference electorally in the House or to political attitudes. We do not have a great deal of experience in these matters from which to draw profound conclusions.

Photo of Mr Francis Pym Mr Francis Pym , Cambridgeshire

Surely that is an overwhelming case for separating the campaigns. It is precisely because there will be a cross-party element in the referendum campaign that it is vital to separate the referendum campaign from the General Election campaign.

Photo of Mr John Smith Mr John Smith , Lanarkshire North

I thought that I had accepted that argument. I thought that I had made that clear in an earlier intervention. That is one of the complicating factors that I tried to pull out of the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) as one of the logical parts that had sense and weight behind it.

I thought carefully before I intervened in the earlier debate. I think that I was able to give clear and categorical assurances. At that time I hoped that the debate would come to an end earlier, bearing in mind that there are some other important matters to be discussed. I am disappointed by the outcome. We have had a fairly lengthy debate, but it is for the House to decide how long it takes.

It has been proposed in the debate that there should be a two-month gap. I cannot commit the Government to put forward such a proposition in another place. The proposition before the House is that there should be at least a three-month gap. It is interesting to note that no one has put forward the case for setting a maximum time. As matters stand, a Government could delay holding the referendum for a certain period. The maximum-time proposition has not been advanced.

The Government will take careful account of the views that have been expressed in the House. It has been a useful debate as it has allowed hon. Members to express their views on what would be a suitable period between a General Election and a referendum. I must stress that the House itself has the opportunity to to decide the date of the referendum. I know that that still leaves open the date of a General Election. All I can say about a General Election is that one is likely to be held before 22nd October 1979. No one can go further than that.

Photo of Mr Russell Johnston Mr Russell Johnston , Inverness

When the Minister of State says that he will take careful account of what hon. Members have said, does that mean that he is taking what has been said into careful account without commitment but with regard to the possibility that some change might be introduced in another place—in other words, not ruling that out—or is he saying that he will take into account what has been said when the Government reach their conclusion in a practical sense when the time comes?

Photo of Mr John Smith Mr John Smith , Lanarkshire North

I think that the Government should consider what has been said in the debate and study it carefully.

Photo of Mr John Smith Mr John Smith , Lanarkshire North

In this instance, we shall give even more careful study than we normally give to the proceedings of the House.

I would not rule out the Government doing anything in another place. On the other hand, it would be wrong of me to indicate that we might take that course. It is most unfortunate if hon. Members are induced to withdraw propositions that they might otherwise put forward because of an assurance that a Minister appears to give. We must be clear cut. I am not making such an assurance on this occasion.

As I have said, we shall take careful account of future progress. The matter may be aired in another place. It has been rightly said that the Government have to put a date before the House. We shall take careful account of what has been said before coming forward with that date.

Photo of Miss Betty Harvie Anderson Miss Betty Harvie Anderson , Renfrewshire East

I want to be quite clear on what the Minister has said about the Government putting forward a date. If in July they put forward a date that projects into a time when they find it necessary to call a General Election, that makes for a difficulty on which we have had no reassurance. Surely that is the main difficulty that might arise.

Photo of Mr John Smith Mr John Smith , Lanarkshire North

I think that the right hon. Lady knows that I do not know the date of the next General Election. Even if I did, I should not be handing it around in the House. However, if that sequence of events took place and a proposition was put forward in July, that is one of the factors that might move the right hon. Lady to vote against the proposed date. The date of the referendum has to be approved by this place and another place.

The right hon. Lady could err on the side of caution and vote against the proposed date. She could say that to be quite clear about it there should be a different date and that there must be some element of flexibility. I think that the House is being a little unfair in trying to pin us down to a period of three months.

Photo of Mr Alick Buchanan-Smith Mr Alick Buchanan-Smith , Angus North and Mearns

I do not think that the Minister of State grasps the full meaning of the argument of my right hon. Friend the Member for Renfrew-shire, East (Miss Harvie Anderson). We could debate in July an order for the referendum, and when that debate was completed the Prime Minister could go to the Palace and ask for the dissolution of Parliament and request a General Election. In so doing, he could ask for a date of which the House had no knowledge—indeed, there would be no reason for it to have such knowledge. That could be done at the time that the House approved the order. Surely that situation is utterly unreasonable. It is because of that that many of my hon. Friends are thoroughly suspicious about what is in the Government's mind.

Photo of Mr John Smith Mr John Smith , Lanarkshire North

I very much regret that the hon. Gentleman has used that form of words. It may be that he was carried away with the heat of the argument. The hon. Gentleman has no right to be suspicious of the Government's intentions. I intervened early in the debate to deal with the issue clearly. At the time I thought that the House had accepted what I said in my intervention. The hon. Gentleman is being somewhat patronising in saying that I appeared not to grasp the argument of the right hon. Member for Renfrewshire, East (Miss Harvie Anderson). I made much earlier in the debate the point that he has just made. I said to the right hon. Lady that if she had doubts she could vote against the proposed date if it arises in July.

Photo of Mr Francis Pym Mr Francis Pym , Cambridgeshire

I ask the Minister of State for the assurance that he and his right hon. Friend the Lord President will convey personally to the Prime Minister the sense of the debate and the unanimous view that has been expressed, that there should be a gap between the two campaigns. The Government agree about separate campaigns. Will the hon. Gentleman convey the sense of the debate to the Prime Minister? It is the right hon. Gentleman's right, which no one wishes to fetter, to choose the date of a General Election. We wish the Prime Minister to be informed of the view that has been expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the House.

Photo of Mr John Smith Mr John Smith , Lanarkshire North

I can give the assurance that the Prime Minister will be informed. I believe that it is the Prime Minister's custom to read Hansard carefully. Of course, to read it carefully does not mean that one has to read it all. It is possible to read with care without being comprehensive.

Photo of Mr Timothy Renton Mr Timothy Renton , Mid Sussex

There are more hon. Members in the Chamber now than when the debate began. That being so, I ask the hon. Gentleman precisely what assurance he has given. If I am right, he has merely said that the referendum date will not coincide with the General Election date. He is not defining those words any further. In fact, the referendum date could be within days of the General Election date. Is that correct?

Photo of Mr John Smith Mr John Smith , Lanarkshire North

I am not adding further to what I have already said. The hon. Gentleman knows that I made the matter clear in an earlier intervention. He seeks to pursue the matter in a way that I find offensive.

Photo of Miss Betty Harvie Anderson Miss Betty Harvie Anderson , Renfrewshire East

I would have the right to vote against the date that is suggested, but surely there would be no reason to do so. Strangely enough, like the hon. Gentleman, I would not know the date of the General Election. Therefore in July, in a perfectly straightforward fashion, the appropriate date for the referendum would come forward in September or October. But the Prime Minister still has the right to call a General Election, which could be called upon a date within days or a couple of weeks of the date fixed for the referendum. Will the Minister explain what would then happen?

Photo of Mr John Smith Mr John Smith , Lanarkshire North

That is a matter that the right hon. Lady could take into account when asked to cast her vote.

Photo of Mr John Smith Mr John Smith , Lanarkshire North

I must be allowed to explain this matter. The right hon. Lady could say that it was unreasonable to ask the House to approve a date without knowing what was to happen in November.

Photo of Mr Gwilym Roberts Mr Gwilym Roberts , Cannock

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Prime Minister, when considering the choice of the date for a General Election, would be anxious, if at all possible, not to change an already agreed referendum date as, judging by my hon. Friend's belief about the Scottish viewpoint, that could be embarrassing to the Government in Scotland anyway?

Photo of Mr John Smith Mr John Smith , Lanarkshire North

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will doubtless take many matters into account when choosing the date of the next election; but it will be his decision alone.

My hon. Friend the Member for Can-nock (Mr. Roberts) in an interesting speech, said that it was important to have a specified date, not a specified period. That is an important distinction. I assure him that there will be a specified date. Although that is not written into the Bill, paragraphs 11 and 21 of Schedule 17 read together mean that the Government must bring forward a proposition for a date and have it approved by both Houses of Parliament. I think that that probably meets my hon. Friend's point.

I assure the House that we shall take careful account of the views that have been expressed and the way in which hon. Members have tried to grapple seriously with the problem. I cannot recommend that we fix an arbitrary and inflexible three months date. It would be unwise to do that. Therefore, I hope that the House will reject the new clause.

Photo of Mr Maurice Macmillan Mr Maurice Macmillan , Farnham

The Minister suggested that my right hon. Friend the Member for Renfrewshire, East (Miss Anderson) could discuss and take into account the possible date of a General Election when considering the date of the referendum in a motion which was brought before the House. Surely that is not possible. First, neither my right hon. Friend nor the Minister would know the date of a General Election. If the Minister knew it, he would not divulge it. That would be improper, because to bring such a consideration into one of our debates would be an infringement of the Prerogative.

Photo of Mr John Smith Mr John Smith , Lanarkshire North

I do not know that it would be an infringement of the Prerogative. It is common for the possible date of an election to be discussed in the House. Indeed, there is hardly a debate on a matter of politically topical importance in which the date of the next General Election is not freely discussed. The Prerogative is in almost daily danger if the right hon. Gentleman's proposition is correct.

I have given a clear assurance on the main issue that concerned the House. I gave that assurance at an earlier stage. Unfortunately, it led to a long debate. However, long though the debate may have been, it has allowed us to air the matter. I assure the House that the Government will pay careful attention to what has been said. However, I must advise the House not to accept the new clause.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , West Lothian

I should like to put on record that I personally believe that the Government's intentions, as stated on 14th

February, are entirely honourable. The trouble is that circumstances can alter. The Minister of State said that election times can be awkward. That is precisely the issue. There will be mounting pressures. Timetables are very awkward. The new clause caters for such problems.

It is all very well to say that the House takes the final decision, but that final decision will be in helter-skelter circumstances. We can imagine the scenario in July when many matters will be on Member's minds It will be easy for the House to take a decision in hasty circumstances—a decision which later some of us might regret.

I should have been more reluctant than I am to press this matter to a Division had the suggestion put forward by the hon. Member for North Angus and Mearns (Mr. Buchanan-Smith) been taken up. It is well known that the hon. Gentleman and I agree on few matters on this whole topic, but on this issue it seemed reasonable to ask for a commitment that a proposition would be brought forward in another place. That suggestion was rejected.

My hon. Friend the Minister of State pleaded for flexibility. Frankly, I want some rigidity on this narrow issue. I want rigidity because it will be all too easy for Governments who have good intentions in February to succumb to temptations in the late summer.

The Minister said that the Government must not be pinned down. I think that the House of Commons should seek to pin the Government down to certain matters. That is why I hope that there will be a decision by the House on this matter.

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

The House divided: Ayes 242, Noes 223.

Division No. 110]AYES[6.15 p.m.
Adley, RobertBody, RichardBudgen, Nick
Alison, MichaelBoothroyd, Miss BettyBulmer, Esmond
Arnold, TomBoscawen, Hon RobertButler, Adam (Bosworth)
Atkins, Rt Hon H. (Spelthorne)Bottomley, PeterCarlisle, Mark
Atkinson, David (Bournemouth, East)Bowden, A. (Brighton, Kemptown)Chalker, Mrs Lynda
Baker, KennethBoyson, Dr Rhodes (Brent)Channon, Paul
Banks, RobertBraine, Sir BernardClark, William (Croydon S)
Bennett, Sir Frederic (Torbay)Brittan, LeonClegg, Walter
Bennett, Dr Reginald (Fareham)Brocklebank-Fowler, C.Cockroft, John
Benyon, W.Brooke, PeterCooke, Robert (Bristol W)
Berry, Hon AnthonyBrotherton, MichaelCope, John
Biffen, JohnBrown, Sir Edward (Bath)Costain, A. P.
Biggs-Davison, JohnBuchanan-Smith, AlickCraig, Rt Hon W. (Belfast E)
Blaker, PeterBuck, AntonyCrowder, F. P.
Cunningham, G. (Islington S)Johnson Smith, G. (E Grinstead)Pink, R. Bonner
Dalyell, TamJopling, MichaelPrentice, Rt Hon Reg
Davies, Rt Hon J. (Knutsford)Joseph, Rt Hon Sir KeithPrice, David (Eastleigh)
Dean, Joseph (Leeds West)Kaberry, Sir DonaldPym, Rt Hon Francis
Dean, Paul (N Somerset)Kershaw, AnthonyRathbone, Tim
Dodsworth GeoffreyKimball, MarcusRees, Peter (Dover & Deal)
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord JamesKing, Evelyn (South Dorset)Renton, Rt Hon Sir D. (Hunts)
Douglas-Mann, BruceKitson, Sir TimothyRenton, Tim (Mid-Sussex)
Drayson, BurnabyKnight, Mrs JillRhodes James, R.
du Cann, Rt Hon EdwardKnox, DavidRichardson, Miss Jo
Dunlop, JohnLamont, NormanRidley, Hon Nicholas
Durant, TonyLatham, Arthur (Paddington)Ridsdale, Julian
Dykes, HughLatham, Michael (Melton)Rifkind, Malcolm
Eden, Rt Hon Sir JohnLawrence, IvanRoberts, Wyn (Conway)
Ellis, John (Brigg & Scun)Lawson, NigelRooker, J. W.
Eyre, ReginaldLeadbitter, TedRoss, William (Londonderry)
Fairbairn, NicholasLe Marchant, SpencerRossi, Hugh (Hornsey)
Fairgrieve, RussellLester, Jim (Beeston)Rost, Peter (SE Derbyshire)
Farr, JohnLewis, Arthur (Newham N)Royle, Sir Anthony
Fisher, Sir NigelLewis, Kenneth (Rutland)Sainsbury, Tim
Flannery, MartinLloyd, IanSandelson, Neville
Fletcher, Alex (Edinburgh N)Loveridge, JohnScott, Nicholas
Fookes, Miss JanetLuce, RichardShaw, Giles (Pudsey)
Forman, NigelMcCrindle, RobertShelton, William (Streatham)
Fowler, Norman (Sutton C'f'd)McCusker, H.Shepherd, Colin
Fox, MarcusMacfarlane, NeilSims, Roger
Fraser, Rt Hon H. (Stafford & St)MacGregor, JohnSinclair, Sir George
Galbraith, Hon T. G. D.MacKay, Andrew (Stechford)Skeet, T. H. H.
Gardiner, George (Reigate)Macmillan, Rt Hon M. (Farnham)Smith, Cyril (Rochdale)
Gardner, Edward (S Fylde)McNair-Wilson, P. (New Forest)Smith, Timothy John (Ashfield)
Garrett, W. E. (Wallsend)Madel, DavidSpearing, Nigel
Gilmour, Rt Hon Ian (Chesham)Marshall, Michael (Arundel)Speed, Keith
Gilmour, Sir John (East Fife)Marten, NeilSpence, John
Godber, Rt Hon JosephMates, MichaelSpicer, Michael (S Worcester)
Goodhart, PhilipMather, CarolSproat, Iain
Goodhew, VictorMaude, AngusStainton, Keith
Goodlad, AlastairMawby, RayStanbrook, Ivor
Gorst, JohnMaxwell-Hyslop, RobinStanley, John
Gow, Ian (Eastbourne)Mayhew, PatrickStewart, Ian (Hitchin)
Gower, Sir Raymond (Barry)Meyer, Sir AnthonyStoddart, David
Grant, Anthony (Harrow C)Mills, PeterStokes, John
Grieve, PercyMitchell, David (Basingstoke)Stradling Thomas, J.
Griffiths, EldonMoate, RogerTapsell, Peter
Grimond, Rt Hon J.Molyneaux, JamesTaylor, R. (Croydon NW)
Grist, IanMonro, HectorTaylor, Teddy (Cathcart)
Grylls, MichaelMontgomery, FergusTebbit, Norman
Hamilton, Michael (Salisbury)Moore, John (Croydon C)Temple-Morris, Peter
Hampson, Dr KeithMore, Jasper (Ludlow)Townsend, Cyril D.
Hannam, JohnMorgan, GeraintTrotter, Neville
Harrison, Col Sir Harwood (Eye)Morris, Michael (Northampton S)Urwin, T. W.
Harvie Anderson, Rt Hon MissMorrison, Charles (Devizes)van Straubenzee, W. R.
Haselhurst, AlanMorrison, Hon Peter (Chester)Vaughan, Dr Gerard
Hawkins, PaulMudd, DavidWainwright, Richard (Colne V)
Hayhoe, BarneyNeave, AireyWakeham, John
Hicks, RobertNelson, AnthonyWalder, David (Clitheroe)
Hodgson, RobinNeubert, MichaelWalker, Rt Hon P. (Worcester)
Holland, PhilipNewton, TonyWeatherill, Bernard
Hordern, PeterNott, JohnWells, John
Howell, David (Guildford)Onslow, CranleyWhitelaw, Rt Hon William
Hoyle, Doug (Nelson)Ovenden, JohnWiggin, Jerry
Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)Page, Rt Hon R. Graham (Crosby)Winterton, Nicholas
Hunt, David (Wirral)Page, Richard (Workington)Wise, Mrs Audrey
Hunt, John (Ravensbourne)Parker, JohnWood, Rt Hon Richard
Hurd, DouglasParkinson, CecilYounger, Hon George
Hutchison, Michael ClarkPattie, Geoffrey
James, DavidPenhaligon, DavidTELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Jeger, Mrs LenaPercival, IanMr. James Lamond and
Jenkin, Rt Hon P. (Wanst'd & W'df'd)Peyton, Rt Hon JohnMr. Ioan Evans.
NOES
Allaun, FrankBennett, Andrew (Stockport N)Campbell, Ian
Anderson, DonaldBlenkinsop, ArthurCanavan, Dennis
Archer, Rt Hon PeterBoardman, H.Cant, R. B.
Armstrong, ErnestBooth, Rt Hon AlbertCarmichael, Neil
Ashley, JackBoyden, James (Bish Auck)Carter, Ray
Ashton, JoeBradley, TomCartwright, John
Atkins, Ronald (Preston N)Bray, Dr JeremyCastle, RI Hon Barbara
Atkinson, NormanBrown, Hugh D. (Provan)Clemitson, Ivor
Bain, Mrs MargaretBrown, Robert C. (Newcastle W)Cocks, Rt Hon Michael (Bristol S)
Barnett, Rt Hon Joel (Heywood)Buchan, NormanCohen, Stanley
Bates, AlfBuchanan, RichardColeman, Donald
Bean, R. E.Butler, Mrs Joyce (Wood Green)Colquhoun, Ms Maureen
Beith, A. J.Callaghan, Rt Hon J. (Cardiff SE)Concannon, Rt Hon John
Benn, Rt Hon Anthony WedgwoodCallaghan, Jim (Middleton & P)Cox, Thomas (Tooting)
Craigen, Jim (Maryhill)Jones, Dan (Burnley)Roper, John
Crawford, DouglasJudd, FrankRose, Paul B.
Crawshaw, RichardKaufman, GeraldRoss, Stephen (Isle of Wight)
Crowther, Stan (Rotherham)Kelley, RichardRoss, Rt Hon W. (Kilmarnock)
Cryer, BobKerr, RussellRowlands, Ted
Cunningham, Dr J. (Whiteh)Lambie, DavidRyman, John
Davidson, ArthurLamborn, HarrySedgemore, Brian
Davies, Bryan (Enfield N)Lestor, Miss Joan (Eton & Slough)Sever, John
Davies, Rt Hon DenzilLewis, Ron (Carlisle)Shaw, Arnold (Ilford South)
Davies, Ifor (Gower)Lipton, MarcusSheldon, Rt Hon Robert
Deakins, EricLitterick, TomShore, Rt Hon Peter
Dempsey, JamesLyon, Alexander (York)Short, Mrs Renée (Wolv NE)
Doig, PeterLyons, Edward (Bradford W)Silkin, Rt Hon S. C. (Dulwich)
Dormand, J. D.McCartney, HughSkinner, Dennis
Dunnett, JackMacCormick, IainSmith, John (N Lanarkshire)
Eadie, AlexMcDonald, Dr OonaghSpriggs, Leslie
English, MichaelMcElhone, FrankSteel, Rt Hon David
Ennals, Rt Hon DavidMacFarquhar, RoderickStewart, Rt Hon Donald
Evans, Gwynfor (Carmarthen)MacKenzie, Rt Hon GregorStewart, Rt Hon M. (Fulham)
Ewing, Harry (Stirling)Mackintosh, John P.Strang, Gavin
Ewing, Mrs Winifred (Moray)Maclennan, RobertStrauss, Rt Hon G. R.
Fernyhough, Rt Hon E.McMillan, Tom (Glasgow C)Summerskill, Hon Dr Shirley
Fletcher, Ted (Darlington)McNamara, KevinSwain, Thomas
Foot, Rt Hon MichaelMadden, MaxTaylor, Mrs Ann (Bolton W)
Ford, BenMagee, BryanThomas, Jeffrey (Abertillery)
Forrester, JohnMallalieu, J. P. W.Thomas, Mike (Newcastle E)
Freeson, Rt Hon ReginaldMarks, KennethThomas, Ron (Bristol NW)
Garrett, John (Norwich S)Marshall, Dr Edmund (Goole)Thompson, George
George, BruceMarshall, Jim (Leicester S)Thorne, Stan (Preston South)
Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr JohnMaynard, Miss JoanThorpe, Rt Hon Jeremy (N Devon)
Ginsburg, DavidMeacher, MichaelTierney, Sydney
Golding, JohnMellish, Rt Hon RobertTinn, James
Gould, BryanMillan, Rt Hon BruceTomlinson, John
Gourlay, HarryMiller, Dr M. S. (E Kilbride)Tuck, Raphael
Grant, George (Morpeth)Mitchell, AustinVarley, Rt Hon Eric G.
Grocott, BruceMolloy, WilliamWainwright, Edwin (Dearne V)
Hamilton, James (Bothwell)Moonman, EricWalker, Harold (Doncaster)
Hardy, PeterMorris, Alfred (Wythenshawe)Walker, Terry (Kingswood)
Harper, JosephMorris, Rt Hon Charles R.Ward, Michael
Harrison, Rt Hon WalterMorris, Rt Hon J. (Abervon)Watkins, David
Hart, Rt Hon JudithMoyle, RolandWatkinson, John
Hayman, Mrs HeleneMulley, Rt Hon FrederickWatt, Hamish
Healey, Rt Hon DenisMurray, Rt Hon Ronald kingWeetch, Ken
Henderson, DouglasNewens, StanleyWellbeloved, James
Hooley, FrankNoble, MikeWelsh, Andrew
Harem, JohnOakes, GordonWhite, Frank R. (Bury)
Howell, Rt Hon Denis (B'ham, Sm H)Ogden, EricWhite, James (Pollok)
Howells, Geraint (Cardigan)O'Halloran, MichaelWhitehead, Phillip
Huckfield, LesOrbach, MauriceWhitlock, William
Hughes, Roy (Newport)Orme, Rt Hon StanleyWigley, Dafydd
Hunter, AdamPalmer, ArthurWilliams, Alan Lee (Hornch'ch)
Irvine, Rt Hon Sir A. (Edge Hill)Park, GeorgeWilliams, Rt Hon Shirley (Hertford)
Irving, Rt Hon S. (Dartford)Parry, RobertWilson, Alexander (Hamilton)
Jackson, Miss Margaret (Lincoln)Perry, ErnestWilson, Gordon (Dundee E)
Janner, GrevillePrice, William (Rugby)Woodall, Alec
Jay, Rt Hon DouglasRadice, GilesWoof, Robert
Jenkins, Hugh (Putney)Roberts, Albert (Normanton)Young, David (Bolton E)
John, BrynmorRoberts, Gwilym (Cannock)
Johnson, James (Hull West)Robinson, GeoffreyTELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Johnston, Russell (Inverness)Roderick, CaerwynMr. Ted Graham and
Jones, Alec (Rhondda)Rodgers, George (Chorley)Mr. A. W. Stallard.
Jones, Barry (East Flint)Rodgers, Rt Hon William (Stockton)

Question accordingly agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.