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.

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

Of course we are against devolution for Wales and Scotland—that is what we fought the general election on, that is what we will say in the referendums—[Interruption.] The Government do not have a mandate for devolution; they have a mandate to hold referendums on devolution, and the hon. Gentleman must remember that.

The hon. Member must also remember that he sits on the Government Benches now; we on the Opposition Benches ask the questions, and we need the answers from the Government. The Government do not even know the answers to some of the questions I have asked, let alone whether they have found the right answers, whether the House would leave them unaltered, or whether they themselves would change their minds. These are the difficulties into which the Government are going to plunge the nation.

What plans do the Government have for the conduct of the referendums? The right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) asked about that matter. What plans are there for equal broadcasting time? Even if the Government do have such plans—and they have given precious few signs that they have—on what basis can a referendum be held when the Government and Parliament have yet to take a view on so many of these subjects? What hope have we of receiving answers to some of these questions? The Labour party has had years to think about the answers—what hope have we that they will materialise in the next few weeks?

The Government do not have answers to many of these questions. They pretend that the questions are trivia and tell us not to worry, because the detail will all be dealt with afterwards—but it is when one goes into the detail that one realises what unworkable nonsense it is. That is what happened in 1979.

If the Government are agreed that the voters should be as well informed as possible, why is the referendum not to be delayed until after the subject has been debated by Parliament? What are the Government afraid of? Why do they not want to hear the arguments, and why do they not want the country to hear the arguments, about how precisely the scheme would work?

The Minister for Home Affairs and Devolution, winding up the debate last night, said that he wanted the maximum debate in Scotland, but it will not be the maximum debate. Maximum debate would take place once the Bill had been properly considered in the House of Commons.

Can the Government not see the danger in proceeding with referendums without being able to answer not only the detailed questions, but the fundamental questions, about their plans? Sooner or later, they would be forced to confront the inevitable consequences of their policy, to try to resolve the unsustainable position whereby Scottish Members of Parliament would be able to vote on English matters, but neither Scottish nor English Members of Parliament would be able to vote on Scottish matters. Sooner or later, the Government would have to confront those questions.

Several months ago, before he changed his policy, the Secretary of State for Wales said that the trouble with a pre-legislation referendum is that there are so many questions that one cannot answer. He never made a more prescient or perceptive remark—perhaps he has never made any other prescient or perceptive remark—and the trouble with his current proposal for a pre-legislation referendum is that there are so many questions that he cannot answer.

One of the other criteria that I set out is that a referendum should be an addition to the parliamentary process, not a substitute for it. With their plan, the Government are trying to have the best of both worlds from their point of view: a referendum in which detailed scrutiny will be impossible, because a referendum is not a vehicle for detailed scrutiny, and the information will not be available to the voters.

If, as they hope, they secure a yes vote, they will say that no one can object later to what was in the White Paper at the time of the referendum. They take the attitude of the Prime Minister, who said two weeks ago that the voters would then expect Labour to legislate and not play games in this House—a chilling phrase to those who believe in parliamentary democracy in this country.

The Government will thereby justify taking a Bill of the most fundamental constitutional importance upstairs in Committee, which would be the best of both worlds as the Government see it, but the worst of both worlds for the operation of parliamentary democracy. There would be a referendum without adequate detail or certainty and a parliamentary debate in which, the Government hope, objections would be overridden. It would be a dangerous precedent. It shows dangerous arrogance, and it will lead to bad law.

It is one thing to use a referendum to give added legitimacy and final approval to a major change fully debated by Parliament, and quite another to use it to distort the parliamentary process and to bully those who object to it. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe said yesterday, it is more like the continental-style use of referendums, which we in this country have often deplored. We know that the Prime Minister likes to think that he is Lady Thatcher; now he seems to think that he is Napoleon as well.

The referendum should be held when people have had the chance to see the detail, and to find out whether the detail works. Debates that precede that referendum should take place on the Floor of the House of Commons—a convention of this place since Lord Attlee was our Prime Minister.

Yesterday, Ministers said that the Bill would certainly be considered in a Committee of the whole House. Why is it that the Bill will certainly be considered in a Committee of the whole House, but the even more far-reaching and fundamental legislation that Ministers hope will follow it will not be considered in a Committee of the whole House?

We say that it is right that referendums should be held on these fundamental, far-reaching and deeply damaging proposals. We say that it is wrong that they should be held at this time and that it is wrong that they should be held in this way. The purpose of holding them at this time and in this way is not to allow people to decide after the fullest debate. It is not to gain assent to specific proposals—otherwise, the questions involved would not be so general.

The purpose is to win approval for the Government's plans before the intractable and unanswerable deficiencies of the scheme are fully apparent, and then to quote that approval to force through Parliament, in Committees upstairs, a mass of constitutional legislation. That is an abuse of the concept of a referendum. It is the use of a referendum as an anti-parliamentary device. It is the unmistakable sign, seen throughout history, of an over-mighty and arrogant Executive.

Our amendment calls for referendums to be held after the legislation has been debated, amended and agreed, after full scrutiny on the Floor of the House. That is the right way to conduct a referendum, and that is what we shall vote for tonight.