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Clause 12 — Separate questions

Firearms (Amendment) Bill – in the House of Commons at 9:15 pm on 25th January 2011.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington The Minister for Europe

Clause 12 provides that separate questions should be set out on a referendum ballot paper in specified circumstances. You will not need reminding, Mr Hoyle, that it is this Government's clear commitment not to agree to any treaty change or decision to transfer power or competence during this Parliament, but if and when the time comes to hold a referendum under the Bill, nothing in the legislation prevents more than one referendum from being held on separate but coincident treaties or decisions on the same day, or the combination of a referendum with another poll.

As the Committee is aware, a combined poll is the Government's intention when it comes to the referendum on the parliamentary voting system. As I explained in relation to a previous clause, the rules that govern whether such a combination could take place for referendums under the Bill are provided for in the overarching legislation-the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000-and we recognise that the Electoral Commission would have an opinion on what combinations would be feasible.

There are considerable savings to be made in terms of money, disruption and people's time if polls are combined, but in addition, as my hon. Friend Nick Boles pointed out, the electorate often wish to combine different voting opportunities on a single day. People do not really relish the task of having to traipse to the polling station more frequently than they regard as necessary.

The Electoral Commission has previously said that it would consider on a case-by-case basis proposals to combine different ballots on the same day. The Government believe that that is a sensible approach. We therefore do not seek to make any specific provision in the Bill, particularly as we do not know at this stage when any future referendums will be proposed.

Clause 12 would ensure-should more than one referendum be proposed for the same day-that it is not possible to set a single combined question on all of the issues to be decided upon that day. People have a right to the utmost clarity and choice, and the clause sets a standard that we intend will provide that.

To give an example, if a future Government ever took the step of proposing that the United Kingdom should join the single currency, and separately took the decision to give up our border controls, and if those two referendums were to be held on the same day for reasons of efficiency, the question on joining the euro would be separate from the question on giving up our border controls. There would be two separate questions on the ballot paper and two separate results, because obviously, some people might wish to support one proposition but to oppose the other.

Photo of David Nuttall David Nuttall Conservative, Bury North 9:30 pm, 25th January 2011

I can quite easily see how it would be a significant saving to the public purse to have more than one referendum held on the same day, and I have no doubt that our fellow citizens are more than capable of determining two complex questions at the same time and on the same day. Does my hon. Friend agree that, for ease of counting if for nothing else, it would be preferable if the two questions put before the electorate were on separate ballot papers, possibly even of differently coloured paper? That would make it far easier for the returning officers to sort the ballot papers and determine the outcome of the ballot.

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington The Minister for Europe

My hon. Friend makes a sensible suggestion, and I am sure that the Government of the day and the Electoral Commission would wish to take it into account in framing the rules for any particular referendum or combination of referendums.

Photo of Nigel Dodds Nigel Dodds Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), DUP Westminster Leader

I agree with the point made by Mr Nuttall, and the Minister has said that it will be taken into account, but the clause states that

"a separate question must be included on the ballot paper"- singular. If this clause is passed in its current form, we will not have the flexibility or freedom to have a separate arrangement. Having separate ballots is a good idea, given the experience in Scotland at the last Assembly and parliamentary elections, when the fact that there were different elections on the same ballot paper was the problem.

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington The Minister for Europe

There is a principle in the interpretation of the law that the singular can include the plural. If the wording proved to be an obstacle to what the Government of the day and the Electoral Commission considered to be the best way to operate a referendum, it would certainly be open for a change to be made in the Bill authorising the referendum. I am prepared to have a look at that question between now and Report. I am reasonably confident that we would not run into the problems that the right hon. Gentleman described, but I am prepared to seek detailed advice and come back to it on Report.

Photo of Christopher Pincher Christopher Pincher Conservative, Tamworth

I suspect that the number of occasions on which multiple referendum questions are on the ballot paper will be quite rare, but on those occasions will the Government agree to spend more money to publicise the referendum and allow campaigning organisations more money to spend campaigning for or against the questions? The more questions on the ballot paper, the more complex the issues are and the more money needs to be spent to explain them.

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington The Minister for Europe

That is one of the very good reasons for not trying to cover all the ground in this Bill. That kind of detail will be a matter for the application of the 2000 Act or its successor statute, and for the Government of the day to authorise a referendum or combination of referendums. That might depend, for example, on whether one lead campaign organisation could be said fairly to represent the views of the yes or no camp on more than one referendum, or whether separate lead organisations were needed. It is reasonable for my hon. Friend to ask those questions, but answers to them can be provided only when we come to consider a specific case in due course.

Photo of David Nuttall David Nuttall Conservative, Bury North

Does that not lead us to the interesting question of whether there is a practical maximum number of referendums that could be held on the same day? I can understand how we could deal with two, but it gets rather complicated if there are more than two. We could have three different organisations with three separate streams of funding from the Electoral Commission, and soon the whole thing would begin to look rather unwieldy.

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington The Minister for Europe

Although one can never guarantee against the utterly implausible happening, the scenario that my hon. Friend describes would require a commitment of political energy on the part of every EU member state, because the decisions subject to a referendum require unanimity among member state Governments. Furthermore, he assumes that the UK Government of the time would be prepared to accept and recommend to the people three different treaty changes, or the implementation of three different passerelle clauses, or some combination of those on a single occasion. That is unlikely in the extreme.

A more plausible scenario-although I do not think, from talking to my colleagues on the Council of Ministers, that people have any appetite for this at the moment-if European countries wanted an ambitious treaty change covering a number of different competencies, would be to seek treaty amendment through the ordinary revision procedure. That is the instrument available to the EU for an ambitious, wide-ranging treaty change along the pattern of Lisbon, Nice, Amsterdam and Maastricht. In those circumstances, the total proposal for a treaty amendment-regardless of which city it was named after-would be the subject of a single referendum question. It is most unlikely, therefore, that there would be a multiplicity of narrowly focused referendum questions, given the availability of that instrument.

Photo of Nicholas Boles Nicholas Boles Conservative, Grantham and Stamford

On a related point, it is dangerous ever to underestimate the deviousness of those who wish to build the grand European project-of course, they are entirely honourable in this, because they believe that their aims are honourable. However, would it not be conceivable that a Government-a future Labour Government, probably-who wanted, for example to set up a set of common European defence forces to replace our national defence forces, might agree a treaty in which they also agreed to repeal the common fisheries policy, which Conservative Members would strongly support? Would we then have a single vote on a single treaty that combined some elements that this country would strongly support and other elements that it would find very difficult? Or would the Government still be able to separate the different elements of the treaty and ask separate questions?

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington The Minister for Europe

No, in the circumstances that my hon. Friend describes, in which an omnibus treaty amendment is delivered under the ordinary revision procedure, there would be a single question. It would be ridiculous for the Government to present that to the people as a number of different questions, because the Government, on behalf of the United Kingdom, would have to ratify the entire package en bloc, or refuse to ratify it en bloc. The negotiation would have resulted in a compromise among member states on something to which they all felt able to give their assent, and they would all have to be accountable to their respective electorates for that overall decision.

Photo of Charlie Elphicke Charlie Elphicke Conservative, Dover

On this matter of referendums being held on the same day, will the Minister explain the revenue implications of separate referendums on separate days?

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington The Minister for Europe

As I said in response to an earlier intervention, if different decisions about treaty amendments were being taken at roughly the same time-I imagine that they would be either passerelle clause decisions or simplified revision procedure decisions-it might well be sensible to combine the referendums on those measures on the same day. The public would get pretty impatient with Parliament if we suggested that should they pop down to the polling station every other Thursday to put their cross in the box for yet another referendum proposal. They would quite rightly be asking why we were requiring their local authorities, as the electoral registration authorities-and ultimately them as taxpayers-to go to such expense and bother on so many different occasions. I would suggest to my hon. Friend that common sense would prevail, regardless of which party was in office.

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington The Minister for Europe

If my hon. Friend will allow me, I want to make a bit of progress. In particular, I want to deliver a bit of good news to Mr Dodds, to whom I am always pleased to give good news. Advice has reached me that confirms the point that I made to him somewhat tentatively when I responded to his intervention. The law does indeed make it clear that when it comes to the interpretation of statutes, the singular can be interpreted to mean the plural. Under the language that we have used in the clause, it will be possible to have either one ballot paper with multiple questions or several different ballot papers, depending on the circumstances at the time. That would obviously be a detailed decision that the Government of the day would have to make, taking, I would very much hope, the advice of the Electoral Commission into account.

It should be noted that neither clause 12 nor any other clause in the Bill sets any other explicit parameters on the framing of the question. However, it is a condition separately in clauses 2, 3 and 6 that, for a proposal in a referendum to be passed, the majority of those voting should be in favour of the ratification of the treaty or approval of the decision, whichever it may be. That condition would logically require that the question be framed as a simple choice between two options, rather than a menu of options to which the responses would be much more difficult to interpret. In other words, it is implicit in the Bill that the question would be a binary one. It is the Government's clear view that this should be the case for all and any referendums held under the provisions of the Bill.

Photo of David Nuttall David Nuttall Conservative, Bury North

On the binary question, and whether we should have no/yes or yes/no, does the Minister agree that it is rather unusual that whereas individuals standing in an election are listed on the ballot paper in alphabetical order based on their surnames, when it comes to a referendum, for some reason the yes comes before the no? That is rather odd. I think that the no should be first and that the yes should come second.

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington The Minister for Europe

I am sure that my hon. Friend means well, but I would urge him to have more confidence in our fellow citizens. In particular, I would point him to the referendum on the proposed assembly for the north-east of England. A yes vote was strongly supported by the then Labour Government, as well as enjoying the support of quite a number of public organisations in the north-east of England, but the proposition was resoundingly rejected by the public when it came to the ballot in that region. It is a good old Tory principle to trust the people, and I think that we should be content with that.

Photo of David Nuttall David Nuttall Conservative, Bury North

I want to make it absolutely clear that I entirely agree with the principle of trusting the people. I have no doubt whatever that the people of this country are more than capable of working out which is which. I just thought it was rather odd that the "yes" should appear above the "no", and I wondered whether there was any reason why that should be so.

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington The Minister for Europe

As far as I am aware, there is no particular reason for it. However, the Electoral Commission will have a duty to comment on the question that the Government of the day have chosen, and I am sure that, if the Commission felt that placing "yes" above "no" gave an unfair advantage in some way, it would so opine and the Government would take account of that. It is quite difficult to envisage a ballot paper that did not have either "yes" or "no" at the top of the paper. At the end of the day, it comes down to a choice by the people: they have two options available to them, and I think that they will know which side they are on when it comes to the vote.

Photo of Wayne David Wayne David Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

I am tempted to ask the Minister whether Welsh will appear above English on the ballot papers in Wales, but I will not. Is there anything in the legislation that would prevent the Government from going back to the electorate if a no vote had been secured when the Government clearly wanted a yes vote? Could the question be put to the electorate for a second time, and, if so, what period would have to elapse before that could happen?

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington The Minister for Europe

The Bill makes it very clear that the referendum condition has to be satisfied, in the circumstances in which the law requires a referendum to be held, before the Government are able to ratify the proposed treaty. I simply do not believe that any British Government who had been defeated at a referendum would then come forward and say to their electorate, "No, you've got it wrong. Let's dissolve the people and have a new one!" That really does not make political sense.

Photo of Wayne David Wayne David Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

This is an important, although admittedly hypothetical, point. However, let us not forget what happened recently in Ireland.

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington The Minister for Europe

What happened in Ireland was that the Irish Government went back to their EU partners and received various assurances, which were incorporated into a protocol to the treaties. We can debate whether the Irish Government were right or wrong to be satisfied by those assurances, but I actually think that it is a matter for the Irish people, not for me, to decide. In such slightly far-fetched, hypothetical circumstances, were a British Government to do as the hon. Gentleman suggests, they would have to bring the protocol back here and go through the entire process again, including the assessment of the ministerial declaration and the Act of Parliament. There would then have to be a new referendum. I just think that any Government who tried to do that would be punished so severely by the people every time they got the opportunity to go to the ballot box that it would be the last thing on any Minister's mind.

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington The Minister for Europe

Before I give way to my hon. Friend, may I just say that I am very conscious that we have another important clause to consider, if we can, before the 10 o'clock deadline?

Photo of David Nuttall David Nuttall Conservative, Bury North

I, too, am conscious of that. The Minister says that the Irish situation was a rare occurrence, but he will be aware that it also occurred in Denmark and France. It is therefore not all that unusual in the European Union for second referendums to be held on the same or a very similar question.

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington The Minister for Europe

I go back to what I said earlier: I trust the people. If a Government wanted to ask people to vote again, they would have to go through the entire procedure again-assuming that a new protocol or slightly revised treaty wording were involved-as well as having to persuade a pretty sceptical electorate that they should change their mind. I think that my hon. Friend is at risk of exaggerating the likelihood of those circumstances arising. While I do not think that the loss of a referendum vote on a European treaty amendment should determine whether a Government should fall, it would undoubtedly be a very severe political blow to that Government.

Once this Bill becomes law, I think the pressure will be the reverse of what my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North fears, as the pressure will be on any British incumbent Government to be very confident that they can carry support among the electorate for a treaty reform transferring new powers or competences to the European Union before they agree to it at the European Council. The arrangements we are putting in place thus provide safeguards against what my hon. Friend fears.

In any event, the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 requires the Electoral Commission to consider the wording of any referendum question when a Bill to provide for the holding of a poll is introduced in Parliament. In the case of a draft instrument, the Secretary of State is required to consult the Electoral Commission on the wording of the referendum question before any such draft is laid before Parliament for approval, and he or she is then required to lay before each House a report stating any views as to the intelligibility of that question which the Commission has expressed in response to the consultation. We have not sought to disapply that requirement, as we think the Electoral Commission plays an important role in ensuring both the neutrality of the question and that it is correctly and easily understood by voters.

Under PPERA, the Electoral Commission is required to consider the wording of the referendum questions for UK, national and regional referendums and for some local government referendums. Having done so, it is required to publish the statement of its views as soon as practicable and in such a manner as it may determine. Helpfully, the commission has developed guidelines to aid the drafting of intelligible referendum questions. In these, it says that a referendum question should present the options clearly, simply and neutrally so that it is easy to understand, to the point and unambiguous; and should avoid-I hope this helps my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North-encouraging voters to consider one response more favourably than another, and avoid misleading voters. In reaching its conclusions, the Electoral Commission adopts a systematic and thorough approach, which now has the advantage of some considerable experience behind it. It is also important that it publishes a report of methodology to enhance transparency and its credibility.

Clause 12 is thus a proportionate and sustainable provision to ensure that the voice of the British people can be heard on each question asked of the people. That, in turn, will help us with our commitment to rebuild the trust between Government, Parliament and the people, and to reconnect our people with decisions taken in their name on our continuing relationship with the European Union. For those reasons, the clause should stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Charlie Elphicke Charlie Elphicke Conservative, Dover

I want to make a few brief points and hope that the Minister will come back to me on them. I note that after the Scottish elections of 2007, the Gould report concluded that it was preferable for referendum questions not be done as a multiplicity, but to be put separately after separate campaigns. I am particularly concerned because there has been a tendency on the part of some Governments to play somewhat fast and loose on whether there should be a referendum at all or, indeed, in respect of asking loaded questions. We need to be careful to ensure that if there is a combination of questions, the key issues are not edged together and confused, leading to a muddle in the public's minds. That is a serious and substantial concern, so I would be grateful if the Minister would respond to it.

Also, I was not being frivolous when I asked the Minister how much it would cost if referendums were held on separate days-leaving aside the annoyance that voters might feel in being called time and again to the polls.

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington The Minister for Europe

On my hon. Friend's second point, I do not have precise figures. Clearly, our experience of national UK referendums is limited-the last being in 1975, as Mr David has frequently reminded us today. The referendum on the voting system planned for later this year will no doubt give us some guidance. I am happy to write to my hon. Friend if I acquire any firmer indication of what the costs might be. Clearly, there would be financial advantages in combining more than one poll, whether it be a combination of referendums or of a referendum and a local or devolved election on the same day.

Let me say in fairness to the Gould report, to which my hon. Friend alluded, that although it criticised what happened in 2007, it also recognised that there were benefits in the combination of polls, such as reduced costs and a higher turnout. A well-managed referendum, involving close co-operation between us and the Electoral Commission and others, should allow us to maximise those benefits while avoiding the problems that undoubtedly occurred in 2007. Let me emphasise again, however, that the decision would need to be taken in the future, and would depend on the circumstances at the time.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 12 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.