Orders of the Day — Referendums (Scotland and Wales) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:36 pm on 22nd May 1997.

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Photo of Alan Williams Alan Williams Labour, Swansea West 4:36 pm, 22nd May 1997

I begin by welcoming my right hon. and hon. Friends to the Front Bench. In particular, I congratulate the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr. Hain) on his maiden speech at the Dispatch Box. It was a sincere speech, and commendably brief. I hope that he will help to maintain such brevity on the part of others on the Front Bench and please the Back Benchers for many years to come.

I should make it clear at the start, lest there is any doubt en route, that I welcome the referendum. I have long felt that there is a wider role for the referendum in the constitutional process as a means of involving the general public. In the 1970s, I was one of those who urged on the Prime Minister the need for referendums on the Scotland and Wales Bills.

In January 1995, in a letter to the present Prime Minister, I argued that there could be no intellectual validity in the proposition that one could overturn an overwhelming, precise vote of 4:1 against a referendum on the tenuous argument that the majority of Welsh Members of Parliament happened to represent parties which had included devolution in their manifestos.

My hon. Friends' experience may be very different from mine, but in my constituency the election was not fought on the question of devolution. It was hardly an issue—the election was fought on the topics of health, education, jobs and homelessness.

I know that the reasoning about the inadequacy of the argument did not carry much weight with my hon. Friends, whom I bored with it in the Welsh group for several years. One can therefore imagine my delight, surprise and admiration for the clarity with which the Prime Minister must have advocated the case and made a convert of the present Secretary of State, almost at a stroke.

The proposed referendum is intended to be the first in a series of referendums. I want to raise questions that are—this may sound arrogant—of great importance to the House and the electorate. If government by referendum is to be part of the process, we must consider establishing some ground rules. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland referred yesterday to the process of seeking popular consent. We must maintain popular support for the process, and not frivolously turn support into cynicism and scepticism.

I listened with admiration to the remarks yesterday of my hon. Friends the Members for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands) and for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell)—who also spoke on Friday—on a pre-legislative referendum. They argued that the people would not know what they would get when they voted in a referendum. My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow referred to it as a pig in a poke; I contend that the animal is not that well defined: it might be a pig, a mouse or a tiger. We have no legislation to put before the electorate to allow the people to see what they would be voting for.

We will have a White Paper, but hon. Members who have been in this place for a reasonable time will know that the wording of a White Paper is not as precise as that of a Bill. That is why White Papers may be produced more rapidly. I am not being critical, but practical. The people will be voting on a measure with a looser presentation than the final legislation.

We must also recognise that there might be changes. Time and again, hon. Members have seen White Papers change when they are translated into legislation. We must also ask: if we maintain the principle of the sovereignty of Parliament, can we rule out in advance the possibility of any changes to the Bill in Committee? In his excellent speech, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary said that the Government will put principles in front of the public. We are asking for a vote on principle, but we know that the details can alter the principle. That is why I argue that we must know the precise terms of the measure when we ask people to vote. We do not want to create cynicism when we are giving people a chance to be involved in Government decision making.

I warn hon. Members of another potential danger—it is a legitimate difference of opinion between my hon. Friend the Minister and me, and it must be addressed. Perhaps he can reassure me about the matter. My hon. Friend has argued in the past in favour of an enabling Bill. Such legislation is easier to draft, but it means essentially that the critical decisions appear in subsequent statutory instruments. At the time of Royal Assent, not even the House will know what final shape the animal will take. I also remind hon. Members that most statutory instruments are passed without debate—when debate occurs, it lasts for no more than an hour and a half—that most are passed without a vote and that none can be amended.

I do not pretend that my view is more valid than that of anyone else, but I have another question regarding this and any future referendums. Do the Government have a duty to ensure that there is a level democratic playing field in a referendum? That may sound strange, but our manifesto commitment is not to devolve, but to let the people choose whether we should devolve. We willed the referendum and we willed that the people should have the right to decide. If we believe in the democratic process, we must believe also in the right to hear from both sides.

If the electorate is to make a decision, it must be an informed decision. I shall abide by the people's decision, whatever it may be. At present, there is a danger that each referendum could be a David and Goliath contest: with the full panoply of governmental powers, resources and the information machine on one side ranged against the relatively unsupported representations on the other. In laying the ground rules, we must consider whether we should—and, if so, how—ensure that there is a balanced presentation of each case.

That question is particularly important in relation to the media. I ask not for financial resources for the campaign, but about the rules for broadcasters. We take it for granted that certain rules of equality must apply during a general election campaign. That is quite correct, as we are asking the people to make a very important decision. The referendums will deal with major constitutional issues, so is not the argument regarding equality of time, opportunity to present a case and right of reply equally valid?

I turn now to perhaps the most sensitive issue: freedom of speech for Back Benchers. I make it clear that we all understand the limitations on freedom of voting that apply in every political party. We know also that, while there is a conscience clause that allows us to abstain, one could argue that Back Benchers cannot vote against their party. Should a tighter rule apply in referendums? In the 1970s, in the great European Community debate—the most important constitutional decision to be taken in the post-war period—every Back Bencher was allowed to speak as he or she saw fit. Labour Back Benchers were also allowed freedom of speech during the two devolution campaigns.

At the parliamentary Labour party meeting before the general election, we endorsed a standing order that guarantees hon. Members the right to freedom of speech. I put my point in this context. I am sure that the press reports that I read last weekend were maligning, ill-intentioned and a misrepresentation, but I was somewhat concerned by suggestions that the Secretary of State for Wales had said that it would be a disciplinary matter if Labour Members dared to speak against devolution.

I took great comfort in two other reports of speeches made by the Under-Secretary, in which he told the other political parties that Labour will not govern by diktat. Will the Secretary of State confirm that that statement applies to the Labour party? I genuinely believe that the Secretary of State has been misrepresented, and I will gladly give way now so that he can clarify his position—or he may wish to do so when he replies to the debate. I would like to be sure that there was neither threat nor intention behind his remarks.

I would like to think that, for several reasons. One is that it is the way in which we normally conduct our affairs on this side of the House. Secondly, I do not want my party to appear rather to follow the leader of the Scottish nationalists, who said as a condition of his support for the Bill that he would require Labour Back-Bench Members to be gagged. I do not want my Secretary of State and my party to look, as the nationalists appear to present themselves, afraid of the power of argument.

I am genuinely puzzled by the timing of the referendum votes. Why, I wonder, is the Welsh referendum to take place after the Scottish referendum? After all, the Scots, poor devils, have two questions to answer. They have two things on which to make up their minds. We in Wales have a much simpler decision. We have only one choice, yet we need another two weeks to make up our minds. I know that the Welsh are great talkers, but we can be decisive if encouraged. There are those who are cynical—of course, I am not one of them—who might feel that the plans are designed to enable my right hon. and hon. Friends to turn to the people of Wales and say, "Scotland has its Assembly because Scotland voted for an Assembly. That being so, you must vote for an Assembly in Wales." What a way in which to launch the great Welsh experiment in a healthy democracy—in effect, Glasgow has voted for Cardiff.

If a case for devolution stands, let it stand without stage management. Give it a chance to stand or fall on its merits. Like everyone else in this place, I shall abide by the decision of the House.