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

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:23 pm on 22nd May 1997.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of William Hague William Hague Conservative, Richmond (Yorks) 6:23 pm, 22nd May 1997

The policy is as explained by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard). We think that there should be a debate in the House about thresholds. We shall provide an opportunity for such a debate, and no doubt the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) will wish to participate.

The central contention of the Opposition tonight is that referendums should be held, but that they should be held when the electorate are in the best possible position to judge. They should be held when people can view all the pros and cons. They should be held when the arguments in favour and against have indeed been rigorously tested, as the hon. Member for Swansea, East would like. Referendums should be held when people know exactly what they are getting. They should be held after legislation has been debated—and debated by all Members of Parliament, on the Floor of the House of Commons.

Referendums are justifiable. They are a legitimate part of democratic decisions; but for them to be fair and compatible with the parliamentary process, we need the electors to be as well informed as possible, to know exactly what they are voting for, and for a referendum to be treated as an addition to the parliamentary process, not as a substitute for it. I should have thought that those principles would command wide agreement across the House—that the electors should be as well informed as possible, that they should know exactly what they are voting for, and that the referendum should be treated as an addition to the parliamentary process.

How does the Bill measure up against those principles? Is the Bill saying that referendums should be held when the electors are as well informed as possible? Would the electors be best informed before or after the publication of the legislation? Would they be best informed before or after debate has taken place in this House? Would they be best informed before or after the Government had to demonstrate that they had a workable scheme? As the hon. Member for Linlithgow said yesterday, the devil is…in the details."—[Official Report, 21 May 1997; Vol. 294, c. 806.] The Government are not able to answer questions about the detail. They are not able to say what the role of the civil service would be, and for whom it would work. They are not able to say to whom the Secretaries of State for Scotland and for Wales would be accountable. They are not able to say what is the chain of accountability for the expenditure of public money, and where the Public Accounts Committee stands. They are not able to say what the future arrangements for the block grant would be.

The Government are not able to say what the consequences of establishing a Welsh Assembly would be for our constitutional settlement, or what the costs of establishing a Welsh Assembly would be—except, that is, for the preliminary costs, which run into millions of pounds and which the Secretary of State for Scotland has described as small change.

The Government are not able to say what the costs would be of running a Welsh Assembly; what the remuneration of members of the Assembly would be; what the resources at the disposal of members of the Assembly would be; what the number of staff required to run the Assembly would be; by what mechanism it would be funded; what the effect would be on the Welsh block grant; what the effect should be on the representation of Wales in the House of Commons; how the Welsh Assembly would relate to the European Union; how it would relate to the European Committee of the Regions; whether it would have the power to call for persons and papers; how it would relate to local government in Wales; how it would relate to non-departmental public bodies; what its consequences would be for the Welsh Grand Committee; what its consequences would be for the Secretary of State for Wales; what its consequences would be for attracting inward investment; or what its consequences would be for the Welsh economy. The Government are not able to say how the electoral arrangements for the Welsh Assembly would be changed—whether the Assembly would be able to change them itself, or whether this House would change them.

How can referendums be properly conducted without the Government being able to answer these questions? The Secretary of State for Scotland said yesterday that the referendum should be held on some general principle and the voters would be able to give their verdict before Parliament plunges into the complexity. What a reassuring message—to say to the voters that they should come to a view and then we will plunge into the complexity, in which anything can be changed and in which the Government cannot be certain that they would not want to change their plans.