With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 54, page 2, line 2, after ‘report’, insert ‘by
Amendment 55, page 2, line 2, after ‘report’, insert
‘six months before the date or dates appointed for the referendum’.
Amendment 17, page 2, line 5, at end insert—
‘(1A) The rules recommended by the Electoral Commission shall provide that if—
(a) fewer than 60 per cent of registered voters take part in the referendum, or
(b) the majority in favour of not remaining in the European Union comprises fewer than 40 per cent of registered voters, or
(c) the result is not the same in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, or
(d) the result is not the same in each of the European Parliament constituencies in the United Kingdom, the Chief Counting Officer shall declare that the referendum has not produced a valid outcome.’.
Amendment 5, page 2, line 11, at end insert—
‘(3A) The Secretary of State shall make available a sum of not more than £10 million to organisations campaigning—
(a) for a Yes vote in the referendum, and
(b) for a No vote in the referendum, for provision of public information and literature, to be divided equally between those campaigning for each answer to the referendum question.’.
Amendment 6, page 2, line 11, at end insert—
‘(3A) The Secretary of State shall ensure that the proponents and opponents of the question in the referendum shall be allotted no fewer than six nor more than 10 broadcasts of a total time of at least 60 minutes on all television channels broadcasting to the United Kingdom, at such times as are determined by the Electoral Commission so as to ensure that so far as possible they are broadcast simultaneously, and with Welsh language and Gaelic versions as directed by the Secretary of State in relation to particular channels.’.
Amendment 7, page 2, line 11, at end insert—
‘(3A) The Secretary of State shall ensure that the proponents and opponents of the question in the referendum are able to publish a two full page advertisement spread immediately after the front page in all national editions of newspapers published in any part of the United Kingdom, as specified by the Electoral Commission, on four dates to be specified by the Commission, with Welsh language and Gaelic versions where specified by the Commission.’.
Amendment 16, page 2, line 11, at end insert—
‘(3A) Polling stations are to be open from 6 am to midnight on each designated day or days for the referendum.’.
Amendment 61, page 2, line 11, at end insert—
‘(3A) The Secretary of State shall consult with and seek to secure agreement from the devolved administrations on the conduct of the referendum within the relevant part of the United Kingdom.’.
Amendment 64, page 2, line 11, at end add—
‘(3A) Results for the referendum will be published for European parliamentary constituencies, except that Gibraltar’s shall be published separately from the rest of the South West return.’.
Amendment 65, page 2, line 11, at end insert—
‘(3A) Persons who are resident in part of the United Kingdom that has voted to leave the United Kingdom or that has formed an independent country, or that is in the process of negotiating such independence or holding a referendum on independence will have their votes counted separately and be subject to a separate declaration.’.
Amendment 85, page 2, line 11, at end insert—
‘(3A) Those entitled to vote in the referendum who do not without reasonable excuse cast their vote shall pay a penalty of £50.’.
Amendment 84, page 2, line 14, at end insert—
‘(5) The Electoral Commission shall undertake a review of the conduct of the referendum and shall publish a report setting out the conclusions of the review no more than 12 months after the day or days on which the referendum is held.’.
Let me begin by wishing all my Jewish constituents, and Jewish people all over the world, a happy Chanukah.
It is a great pleasure to introduce this series of amendments. A number of them are in my name, but some have been tabled by other Members. The amendments in my name are 52, 53, 54, 55, 17, 5, 6, 7, 16 and 61. In the first part of my speech I shall concentrate on amendments 52, 53, 54 and 55, which relate to the provision in clause 3(1) that
“The Electoral Commission shall publish a report setting out its recommendations for the rules in accordance with which the referendum is to be conducted “.
I will in a moment. I should like to make a little progress first.
If the referendum is to be conducted properly, we cannot allow the Electoral Commission’s report to be published so close to the date on which it takes place that the commission’s proposals cannot be properly considered by the Government and then implemented. We must specify a date in order to provide a clear deadline for the commission, which does not always act in a timely manner. The amendments propose various alternative dates because at the time when they were tabled there was another group of amendments to be considered and I did not know when they would be debated, but all those dates precede the proposed date of the referendum, namely before the end of 2017.
I am glad that my hon. Friend cautioned me against intervening too early, because he has now started to explain. What I wanted to know was why he had specified three different dates. Was it because he was not sure which would be the best of the three, was it because of the pace at which the Electoral Commission could move, was it because we were not sure when the referendum would take place, or was it because he was not sure whether any or all the amendments would be selected?
The answer to those questions is yes, yes, yes and yes. The proposed date of the referendum was not made clear to us initially, and there was a possibility of amendments allowing it to be held, for example, before the general election, one year after the election, or later. It was therefore important for there to be amendments in this group which were related to, but not dependent on, those in the other group.
I have an open mind about which date we should opt for, but does my hon. Friend agree that it is vital for the Electoral Commission to be encouraged to focus its mind? One of the key issues that it will have to consider is how we can best avoid a repetition of what happened at the time of the Welsh referendum campaign in March 2011. There was not a no campaign because no organisation had registered, and thus there could not be a proper yes campaign. The whole campaign was hamstrung from the start.
I accept my hon. Friend’s wise words. I agree that we need to learn from experience. We need to learn the lessons of not just the Welsh referendum, but the 1975 referendum on British membership of the European Community. I shall say more about that in the next part of my speech.
May I correct what was said by Wayne David? There was absolutely nothing wrong with the Welsh referendum campaign. It was executed beautifully, and allowed the people of Wales to make up their own minds and decide.
Let me say for the avoidance of doubt that the hon. Gentleman would indeed not be in order. I know that he will stick closely to the subject of the amendments.
As you know, Madam Deputy Speaker, I always take your advice, having listened to it very carefully.
Amendment 52 is probably the most important amendment in the group. We have now voted for the referendum, if there is one, to take place by the end of 2017. Other proposed amendments to clause 3 have not been agreed to. Specifying the date of
I saw the promoter of the Bill, James Wharton, shaking his head during my hon. Friend’s comments. This morning the hon. Gentleman moved an amendment to his own Bill, so it is clear that it has already been improved. Has my hon. Friend had a chance to discuss these amendments with the hon. Gentleman, and can he tell us whether the hon. Gentleman is inclined to accept them?
I have had no direct discussions with James Wharton, but he is present, and is perfectly at liberty to speak about the amendments or even to intervene now. I should welcome an intervention from him if he wishes to explain why he does not like certain of my amendments. However, as we have observed on previous Fridays, although he is the Bill’s promoter, he makes hardly any contributions to our debates.
Many people might think that the reason the Government are being so unclear is that they do not have any of the answers, and it is simply a political manoeuvre. If Government Members have genuine concerns, is it not surprising that so few of them are here to discuss my hon. Friend’s amendments?
Says my former Whip! But she is no longer my Whip, so I think—I hope—that I am okay.
Amendment 52 states that the Electoral Commission’s report must be published by
Amendment 54 would do the same thing, but with
Amendment 55 would ensure that the Electoral Commission published its report at least six months before the date or dates appointed for the referendum. Let us imagine that the Government, having listened to our deliberations, decided not to hold the referendum during Britain’s presidency of the European Union’s Council of Ministers—from
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important that the Electoral Commission considers not only the arguments for and against, but the fact that the electorate need much more basic information? I refer him to the commission’s report on the issue, which makes the salient point that in order to have a reasonable debate the electorate need more basic information. The report must address that fact.
Absolutely. We are talking about a monumental decision on the future of our country, our international relations and the status of the 1.4 million British people living in other European Union counties, who, as things stand, will be excluded from making a democratic decision in the referendum. It is therefore important that the Electoral Commission does the job that the Government and the Bill’s promoter have not done, because those issues are not addressed in the Bill, even though they should be. We have to find a way for the Electoral Commission to put right what was not done by the Government, or at least the part of the Government who support the Bill—this is so complicated, because I have to keep remembering that it is a private Member’s Bill, even though the Minister is here to support it.
My hon. Friend referred to British nationals living on the continent. Clearly the referendum could have profound implications for them. In view of his interest in the matter, which is evident in the amendments he has laid before the House, I would be keen to know whether he has heard from British people living on the continent and, if so, what their take is on the implications of what is happening and on their inability to participate in the referendum.
I have received several e-mails and letters from British people living in other European Union countries—indeed, there are websites for them—and they are outraged by the idea that they will have no say. Some have been living in France or Italy for more than 15 years but will be unable to register as overseas voters. As I pointed out on a previous Friday, of the millions of British citizens living abroad, only 20,000 are registered as overseas voters. It is a serious flaw in the Bill that British citizens in other parts of the European Union will not be able to participate, but we will consider that under another set of amendments.
I will make some progress. Amendment 17 is fundamentally important. As Members will recall, this House introduced a threshold for the Scottish referendum in the 1970s, which was defeated. As a result, the support for separatism did not secure the necessary figure. The Scottish people did not vote for separatism, but in any case the threshold was there as a safeguard to ensure that a small, vocal and impassioned minority was not able to drive through a fundamental change without the wholehearted consent of the Scottish people at the time.
I believe that a similar threshold should be included for this referendum to ensure that if there is a low turnout the result will not be binding. Amendment 17 proposes that the Electoral Commission should set down rules specifying that if
“fewer than 60 per cent of registered voters take part in the referendum, or the majority in favour of not remaining in the European Union comprises fewer than 40% of registered voters”,
the referendum would not be binding.
I am delighted that we are considering amendment 17, as the last time we had a politically generated referendum in this country—when we had the elections for police and crime commissioners—only 15% of the electorate voted. Has my hon. Friend heard any noises from the Government Benches on whether they accept his amendment?
The only noises I have heard from the Government Benches have not been complimentary about any of my amendments—and some of them were not made in the Chamber.
There is also a major danger that different nations or regions will vote in markedly different ways in a low-turnout referendum, with divisive consequences for our United Kingdom. Let us imagine, for the sake of argument, that next September the Scottish people vote against separatism and in favour of staying in the UK but in a referendum in 2017 a majority of the electorate votes to leave the European Union, based on votes in parts of England and with the vast majority of Scots voting to remain in the European Union. We would think that the referendum next September will settle the question of Scottish independence and separatism, but in fact the same issue could be reopened only two or so years later, even though the Scottish people voted to stay in the UK. They might say, “Hold on. We didn’t want to leave the European Union, which is part of our association with the two Unions we are part of: the United Kingdom and the European Union.” We could then have a real problem. The same argument could apply in Wales, Northern Ireland and significant parts of England.
Therefore, if we want to keep the unity and cohesion of our country, we need safeguards to avoid an extreme minority in certain parts of the country driving through, on a low turnout, a referendum result that would lead to the withdrawal of parts of the country that did not wish to leave the European Union and were not inspired by fanatics to take part in a referendum that they did not feel was particularly important.
I am not entirely convinced by my hon. Friend’s argument. Is he saying that Wales, which has a population of less than 3 million, could have an effective veto over the rest of the United Kingdom?
I believe that those issues would then need to come back to be considered by Parliament. I do not wish to have a binding referendum. A binding referendum is dangerous if we cannot allow for sophisticated consideration of the implications of the result, for example if there is a low turnout or there are very diverse results in different parts of our country. The final decision would therefore have to rest with this House in legislation that we would pass afterwards. I tabled amendment 17 for that reason, and I believe that the Electoral Commission would need to take account of those factors in its report. If the Electoral Commission did not accept such points, it would say so in its recommendations to Parliament, and Parliament and the Government would then consider those recommendations in making arrangements before the referendum that might be held by the end of 2017.
I am sorry to say that I am somewhat disappointed by amendment 17. I agree with my hon. Friend Wayne David, who said that it will give a veto to the devolved Assemblies, which is not in the ethos of a United Kingdom. More importantly, paragraph (d) states that there is a veto in relation to European Parliament constituencies. Notwithstanding the explanation of my hon. Friend Mike Gapes about the referendum result not being binding, the amendment refers to a decision that
“the referendum has not produced a valid outcome.”
To me, that means that the referendum would be discarded. Does the amendment mean that the Electoral Commission will raise such a matter, because the amendment does not indicate what will happen if vetoes for different geographical areas are allowed and one actually takes place?
I agree that amendment 17 is not perfect. I originally put forward a series of amendments, but they were tabled together as one amendment. I would have preferred to have a vote on each paragraph separately, but that is not how the process worked, so they are all together in one. I interpret the amendment as giving advice to the Electoral Commission, which would then make recommendations to the Government, at least six months and probably two years in advance of any referendum. At that point, provisions could be considered to take account of the needs of the whole of the United Kingdom, as well as the requirement for a threshold to ensure that the result of any referendum cannot be based on a small minority, as has happened in police and crime commissioner or other elections, when the decision will have profound long-term implications for the future of the whole United Kingdom.
Amendments 5 to 7, which are linked, make proposals relating to the conduct of the referendum to make sure that there is a level playing field in the provision of public information and campaigning on both the yes and the no sides. From our experience of other referendums, not least the one on the alternative vote, we know that the different sides can put in different levels of resources. We know that well-funded American citizens of Australian origin who have daily newspapers and people from other countries who have connections with lobbying companies and organisations, whether tobacco lobbyists or others, will be able to generate large amounts of publicity for one side in any referendum campaign.
It is important to have balance. We already have rules with regard to party political broadcasts on television. Amendment 6 would make provision for television referendum broadcasts for both sides, so that there are
“no fewer than six nor more than 10 broadcasts of a total time of at least 60 minutes on all television channels…at such times as are determined by the Electoral Commission”.
Given that this country has minority languages that are recognised by the devolved institutions, we need provision for broadcasts in Welsh or Gaelic in certain parts of the United Kingdom.
Is the thinking behind my hon. Friend’s amendment on the funding of campaigns that there should be a ceiling, with no additional funding available? Back in 1975, there was a very unequal contest between the two sides of the then referendum debate. Is he seeking to ensure fairness, with the £10 million figure specified in amendment 5 being the absolute maximum that can be spent on the campaign by either side?
The amendment is about state funding to ensure that both sides have a minimum level of resources for campaigning, but it does not cap the total that can be spent. It is entirely up to the Electoral Commission to propose rules of that kind. None of my amendments would introduce a cap, but I take my hon. Friend’s point. There will undoubtedly be a disparity, with well-funded—perhaps foreign—interests that want the UK to leave the European Union, because they see that as a way to help their companies have lower standards of social protection, parental rights or whatever, so there are dangers.
I do not know whether my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly and I will agree about amendment 5, as we did on the wording of amendment 17. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South intend to introduce a private Member’s Bill to make voting compulsory in this country? My impression is that what he wants broadcasters and print media to produce would completely turn off the British people by forcing politics down their throats. If anything is guaranteed to ensure that people do not vote in the referendum, it is this amendment.
Order. The hon. Gentleman’s intervention introduces an interesting question that is not absolutely pertinent to the amendments, but I am sure that Mr Gapes will stick carefully to his amendments.
I am about to introduce amendment 7, but I thank my hon. Friend for pre-empting me. It deals with what we could call the Rupert Murdoch question: making sure that when 70% or more, by circulation, of this country’s print media is in the hands of people who do not want Britain to remain in the European Union—they will no doubt campaign vigorously, as many of them have for many months or years, with a relentless daily drip, drip, drip—their readers should have some information from both sides of the campaign.
Amendment 7 states that
“proponents and opponents of the question in the referendum are able to publish a two full page advertisement spread immediately after the front page in all national editions of newspapers published in any part of the United Kingdom, as specified by the Electoral Commission, on four dates to be specified by the Commission”.
That would ensure that the debate is conducted with some degree of fairness, and it would also save costs. There could be a higher figure for both sides of the campaign to enable them to put out more material, but we require balance in our broadcast media—the BBC and other broadcasters are supposed to show balance during election campaigns—and the amendment is about having such balance in our print media.
I took notice of your previous admonishment, Madam Deputy Speaker, when I mentioned alternative legislation. However, I want to do so again on the basis that we considered recently the complex issue of press freedom and the royal charter. Surely what is missing from amendment 7 is the word “paid”. It states that the Secretary of State will make publishers
“publish a two full page advertisement” on these issues. Surely the word “paid” should be in there, because we would not be taking editorial control of the newspapers. The adverts would surely have to be paid for by the taxpayer.
It would be for the Electoral Commission to consider how best the adverts could be paid for. The payment could come out of the £10 million that is mentioned in amendment 5 or a special fund could be established for the purpose. Perhaps, out of the goodness of their hearts and acting patriotically in the national interest, the newspapers might allow both sides in the debate to be heard, rather than putting only one side of the argument, as is often the case with some publications in this country.
I am listening to my hon. Friend’s argument with great interest, but I am little concerned that the newspapers to which he is referring might take the taxpayer’s money with great enthusiasm and publish the pages, but use the money to publish another couple of pages that counter the arguments that are put forward in the advertisement. Does he agree that a lot more work needs to be done on that?
Absolutely; that is why amendment 7 says that the Electoral Commission should consider the matter in detail. We cannot go through all the minutiae of the Bill. The Electoral Commission would be responsible for looking at all the arguments, including those made by my hon. Friends the Members for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) and for West Bromwich West (Mr Bailey).
I thank my hon. Friend for his generosity. I would like clarification. Amendment 7 uses the term “national”. Is he talking about the Welsh nation, the Scottish nation or the United Kingdom? What does he mean by “national”? My understanding is that in the amendment, “national” refers to the United Kingdom. Many English voters would therefore have the Welsh language in their newspapers. Does he think that that might be slightly strange for them?
As I have said, the Electoral Commission needs to consider all of these aspects carefully. Publications such as the Western Mail would be regarded as national in Wales, but not in England. We have to consider such difficulties and nuances. That would be done by the Electoral Commission.
I will move on to the final two amendments that appear in my name. Amendment 16 would provide for polling stations to be open for longer. In parliamentary elections, polling stations are open from 7 in the morning until 10 at night. There were difficulties during the last general election. Some people queued outside polling stations and could not get in. The doors of some polling stations were locked and there were arguments about people not being allowed to vote. Other people were inside polling stations and were allowed to put their votes into the ballot boxes after 10 o’clock.
We must avoid such difficulties. I tabled a series of amendments on holding the referendum on more than one day. Polling stations must be open for cleaners who come back home in the early hours of the morning. They could vote at 6 am. People who work late could vote just before midnight. If, contrary to what I expect, there will be great enthusiasm for the referendum and a massive turnout, we must extend the voting period to ensure that as many people as possible can cast their votes.
I hear what my hon. Friend is saying, but the Government did eventually, under pressure, accept an amendment to the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill to solve the problem of long queues at polling stations before 10 o’clock. I think that that will be effective. That puts a question mark over the importance of amendment 16.
I do not expect the House to vote on all my amendments. There are some amendments that I will not press to a vote and amendment 16 is one of them. I will therefore conclude my remarks on that amendment.
Finally, amendment 61 is important. It touches on the issues of publicity, newspapers, media and different languages that we have already debated. We live in a United Kingdom that has devolved Administrations in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. It is important that there is consultation with all parts of the UK and agreement over the conduct of the referendum. I therefore hope that amendment 61 is not controversial and will not be opposed by the Government.
My hon. Friend has not commented on the amendments that have been tabled by those on his Front Bench, which recommend an audit of the arrangements for the referendum by the Electoral Commission once it has taken place and, crucially, that the people of Gibraltar should have their votes declared separately and, as a result, clearly so that we can see how Gibraltarians have voted. I would welcome his assurance that he is sympathetic to the merit of those two amendments.
Of course I am sympathetic to those amendments. I have not commented on them because they have not been introduced by the Member who tabled them. I thought that it would be better to listen and to intervene at a later stage, if necessary.
I am happy to conclude by commending all my amendments to the House. I look forward to the consideration of the amendments that have been tabled by my hon. Friend Mr Thomas and by other hon. Members.
This group of amendments deals with various matters pertaining to the detailed conduct of the proposed referendum.
Amendments 52 to 55 would impose deadlines on the Electoral Commission. Existing legislation gives the commission appropriate powers and responsibilities. Particularly as we do not yet know the exact date on which the referendum will take place, it would be wrong to impose undue inflexibility on the commission, as these amendments would do.
Amendment 17 would impose thresholds. The Government believe that the referendum result should be determined, as has been the case in other referendums, by a simple majority of those who vote. Thresholds should not be required in respect of turnout or anything else.
No, I am going to make progress.
Amendments 5 to 7 and 84 propose arrangements for the referendum that would either duplicate or complicate arrangements that are set out clearly in existing primary legislation, namely the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000.
Amendments 16, 64 and 65—
The hon. Gentleman has made his point. He knows that it is not a point on which I should rule from the Chair. The Minister has been speaking for only a minute or two. He is in the opening stages of his speech and I am sure that he will take interventions when it becomes appropriate.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Amendments 16, 64 and 65 propose detailed rules for the conduct of the referendum, but these kinds of detailed arrangements will be dealt with in secondary legislation, provision for which is already included in the Bill. Amendment 61 would require the Government to consult the devolved Administrations. Clearly, any Government would take careful account of the situation in the three devolved areas, but we are talking about the electorate of the entire United Kingdom on a subject that is explicitly and unquestionably a reserved, non-devolved matter, so I believe it would be inappropriate to put such a requirement in the Bill. Amendment 85 would make voting compulsory. I disagree with the amendment. Voting should be a matter of civic responsibility and pride, not something enforced under threat of penalty.
If I dig deep into my reserves of good will, I might just, even now, be persuaded that these amendments were tabled with good intentions, but I think they are, for the most part, otiose. I disagree with them and hope that their proposers will, on reflection, not press them.
I start by congratulating you, Madam Deputy Speaker, on your elevation to the Chair. This is the first opportunity I have had to say that. I was delighted when you were successfully installed in your place.
I want to speak in support of amendments 5, 6, 7, 16, 17, 52, 53 and 55, tabled by my hon. Friend Mike Gapes, amendment 84, tabled by my hon. Friend Mr Thomas, who sits on the Front Bench, and obviously my own amendment 85.
Before my hon. Friend starts to develop his arguments, I must say that the significance of what the Minister has just said is beginning to sink in. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is quite outrageous for a Minister to question the integrity of another hon. Member in asking legitimate questions, many of which are probing questions in the interests of our having a good debate? Was it not thoroughly shameful?
I could not have put it better myself. Indeed, I was going to use the word “shameful” to describe what can only be called the Minister’s calumnies against the honourable motives of my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South. I absolutely agree that they were shameful. I hope that when the Minister has had time to reflect, he might, from the Dispatch Box, withdraw his comments and apologise to my hon. Friend, who has entirely honourable motives for asking reasonable questions and tabling legitimate amendments. On a previous occasion, I think another Minister was chided by Mr Speaker for questioning my hon. Friend’s amendments, as if in some way they were disorderly. I could not see how that could possibly have been the case, because the Chair had ruled them in order and they were before the House to be debated. I have not long been in this place, but in my time I think it is unprecedented for such a challenge to be made.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend and my hon. Friend Wayne David for their kind remarks. I want to place it on the record that my amendments, which were selected, were ruled by Mr Speaker to be perfectly in order and specifically not “frivolous”, but I must correct my hon. Friend: it was not a Minister who said they were frivolous, but a Liberal Democrat.
Yes, I recall; I was in the Chamber at the time. I withdraw any inadvertent slight against those on the Government Front Bench on that particular point, but obviously my remarks just now about the Minister’s shameful comments still stand.
Despite my youthful appearance, I actually participated in the referendum in 1975. I know it is probably difficult for people to believe, but I was eligible to vote. Indeed, it was my second opportunity to vote in a national poll.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who I think is also a vegetarian. I was just about to say that my youthful appearance was down to my vegan diet, but I digress.
As we know, in the 1975 referendum the country voted overwhelmingly in favour of remaining in the EEC. I have to say I voted no, but I have since recognised that I was wrong to do so. Were I to have my time again, I would certainly vote differently, because the EU has developed in a very positive way. My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South referred to some of the benefits of our membership. Certain powerful media moguls in this country want us to withdraw from the EU because it would make it easier to take away workers’ rights and consumer protections and to adopt exploitative working practices, which would become much more commonplace. It is only thanks to the EU that many of those rights are enshrined in law and workers receive the rights they now do, through things such as the working time directive and so on. Obviously, the single market is an extremely important benefit to the UK and the British work force, millions of whose livelihoods rely on companies whose main market is the EU, but that would be jeopardised if the referendum was held and the country voted to withdraw from the EU.
Given the importance of the referendum to the UK’s future, my amendment 85 is essential. It would make a significant turnout at a referendum much more likely. It proposes that unless people have good reason, they should be subject to a penalty if they do not participate in the referendum. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South, I favour compulsory voting, but I am not necessarily suggesting that we introduce it for general and local elections. I think this referendum is different, however, because the consequences of a vote, whatever the outcome, would be profound and potentially irreversible. As I have mentioned, people’s livelihoods, consumers’ rights and the single market would all be affected by a decision to withdraw from the EU. It would be appropriate, therefore, on this occasion, if not on any other, to impose a penalty in order to maximise turnout. We want to ensure that the British people’s voice is heard and that the overwhelming majority of the British people express their view.
Many hon. Members might think this a significant departure from current practice, and in many ways it is, but is my hon. Friend aware that, as things stand now, if a householder does not return their electoral registration form or co-operate with their electoral registration officer, a fine can be imposed for non-co-operation and therefore non-registration? Also, under the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013, which introduced individual electoral registration, individuals can be fined for non-co-operation and therefore non-registration. We do not know how much it will be, but nevertheless that important principle has been established, and his amendment merely takes it a stage further. Does he agree?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who sets out the case very effectively. This is not such a huge leap, although I accept that, on the face of it, people might baulk at the notion that a penalty should be imposed on those who fail to cast a vote without good reason. As my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly has pointed out, however, this is not necessarily such a big leap as people might first think it to be.
To return to my previous point, this is such a fundamentally important issue for the future of the United Kingdom that I would hope even those who are opposed to compulsory voting would understand the reasons behind the amendment—and, indeed, hopefully, support it and acknowledge how important it is, if a referendum takes place, to have an overwhelming turnout. I would hope that Government Members who want to see the UK withdraw from the EU would not want to do so on the basis of a tiny minority of the vote. I do not think they would want to do that on the basis of the abysmal turnout for the elections of police and crime commissioners, which my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South mentioned. Given how much is at stake here, surely it is important to all who believe in democracy that citizens of these islands actually participate in this great democratic opportunity to determine the fate of Britain in or out of the EU.
If we look around the world, we find that a number of countries have compulsory voting on their statute books. Before coming to the debate this morning, I had a look and found some examples of the nations that have a compulsory voting requirement. Australia is the probably the one with which most of us will be familiar, but there are others, as well: for example, Brazil is another one, as is Argentina, and then there is Ecuador. I think there are 10 countries around the globe that have enforced compulsory voting with a penalty.
There are others for which compulsory voting is on the statute book, but without any penalties in place for people who do not participate. According to my research, there are around 20 countries falling into that category—including places like Belgium and Greece. Perhaps we need to learn a lesson from these other nations, where it seems to have worked reasonably well and to have resulted in a bigger turnout in their elections.
In the countries that my hon. Friend has cited, does he agree that there is no obligation for individuals to cast their vote for any particular candidate? They are able to go to a ballot box and spoil their ballot paper. Does my hon. Friend assume that the same thing would happen here if his amendment were passed?
Absolutely. It would clearly be completely wrong—and, indeed, anti-democratic—to impose any obligation restriction on how individuals cast their votes or for whom they cast them. That would be a matter for each individual to come to a view on. People would no doubt listen to the various campaigns for and against and come to a view. I would personally prefer it if, when elections come about, people actually took the opportunity to vote rather than stopping at home. If they do not support any particular candidate, they should go along and spoil their ballot paper. Our democracy confers a very precious right. We know that our forefathers and mothers fought and gave their lives for democracy, and we see this around the world when people continue to this day to strive, struggle and fight to get the right to exercise their vote. Democracy is a very precious thing, and that is why it is essential to maximise participation in it. I think my amendment would have the effect of achieving precisely that.
My hon. Friend is making a very important point about the importance of people voting in elections, but is he as concerned as I am that there appears to be a decline in voter turnout across large parts of the prosperous world, certainly in other European countries? Interestingly, this relates not just to the elections for the European Parliament, because turnout has declined even more in many countries in their national elections.
Yes, that is a very regrettable fact of life. My hon. Friend’s intervention reinforces the notion behind my amendment that imposing a penalty would almost certainly increase the turnout. We have seen that this is what happens in Australia, for example. Because of the importance of this particular issue, any incentive we can provide to encourage people to participate would, I think, be all to the good. I hope that, as I have said, Government Members will consider the intentions behind my amendment and support it.
I find myself in the unique position of disagreeing with my hon. Friend on his amendment. I jib at the idea of forcing people to vote. Has he thought of any other mechanisms that might increase the vote, without being so prescriptive—electronic voting, for instance? Would that not achieve what he intends, which is to increase the number of people participating in this election?
That is certainly a valid point. As I was saying in my opening remarks, I understand that some people may feel a little uncomfortable about the notion of compelling people to vote. I think electronic voting is a worthy innovation that should be considered, and other options need to be considered in order to increase awareness and participation. It is really a matter for political parties to look at how their message is being communicated and how they can engage effectively with the electorate to encourage people to participate.
Let me come back to my central point. The proposition for a referendum could have fundamental implications for the United Kingdom. In these circumstances, even people such as my hon. Friend Lyn Brown, who is a little uneasy about the notion of compulsory voting, need to consider it carefully, along with some of the other issues that she has identified.
Let us look at the Australian example, where I believe compulsory voting was introduced in 1924. Turnout in federal elections is never less than 90%. In the 2013 election, turnout was 93%. I would certainly hope that, if this referendum went ahead, we got a turnout of that order. If we were to achieve a turnout of 90%, or even 80%, we would certainly know that the British people had spoken. Whatever the British people decided, we would know that it had the confidence of the majority of the electorate in our country.
I hear what my hon. Friend says, and I have some sympathy with it. Does he not believe, however, as with the PCC elections that the British people spoke volubly when they did not turn out to vote? The amendment tabled by my hon. Friend Mike Gapes, which specified a threshold to be reached in terms of turnout, would suffice to reach the position sought by my hon. Friend Chris Williamson in his amendment.
I hear what my hon. Friend says. I shall come on in a few moments to comment briefly on the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South, particularly the one identified by my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham. What she suggests would certainly be a safeguard, but I am not sure that it would be strong enough safeguard. I generally support the amendments of my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South, and I am going to speak about them in a few moments.
The difference between the PCC election, in which as my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham pointed out the British people spoke volubly by their lack of participation, and the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU is that the latter is absolutely fundamental and potentially irreversible. If on a turnout of, say, 15%, it was decided that the UK withdraw from the EU, the impact on the remaining 85%—actually, it would be more than 85% because I would assume that the 15% who participated would not have all voted the same way, making it potentially 90%—could be devastating. All those people could have their lives literally turned upside down by a tiny rump, a tiny proportion, of the British people—10%, say, if the turnout were that low. That is why I come back to the point that making it compulsory for people to vote would overcome the scenario that I have just outlined.
Forgive me if I missed this in my hon. Friend’s opening remarks, but did he explain how he arrived at £50? That is a significant amount. It is about the same amount as my hon. Friend Mike Gapes and I will pay to see West Ham beat Fulham tomorrow—
I accept that £50 is a fairly arbitrary figure. I did not want to make it so high that it was unreasonable, but it needed to be sufficiently high. I think £50 is around about the level—
Order. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is well aware that he must stick specifically to the question in hand. The question proposed by Jim Fitzpatrick was one that requires only a short answer, and the hon. Gentleman may then resume his consideration of the amendments.
My hon. Friend has said that he will reference the amendments of my hon. Friend Mike Gapes, but may I ask him to comment briefly on the two amendments that I have tabled from the Front Bench? One stipulates that the results of any referendum in Gibraltar should be declared separately so that we can see how Gibraltarians voted and the second talks of the crucial need for an audit of the arrangements for the referendum, which the Electoral Commission might set out.
Indeed I was going to refer to those amendments. Suffice it to say that they are sensible. We need to learn lessons from a referendum, and it would be helpful to have that report.
On the earlier point, briefly, £50 is sufficiently high enough to create an incentive and to concentrate people’s minds. If it were any less than that, they might not bother to vote. If it were higher than that, it would be unreasonable. I must say I did pluck the figure out of the sky, but I thought that £50 was reasonable.
The figure is very important. There was a not dissimilar debate a little while ago about the level of a fine for an individual who fails to co-operate with the individual electoral registration system. The Government took as their yardstick the average level of a parking fine—I think that phrase was used. Has my hon. Friend considered whether there should be a parking fine figure, because it would be considerably more than £50 on average?
I am not too familiar with the levels of parking fines. I never transgress parking restrictions when I park my vehicle, so I have never been subject to such a fine. Anecdotally, I understand that the average figure is about £50, so the fine I propose is in the order of a £50 parking fine. Without stretching Madam Deputy Speaker’s patience too far, I think we have probably dealt with the point about the £50 and perhaps need to move on, but I give way to my hon. Friend.
I was going to take my hon. Friend back to the original premise of his amendment and ask whether he thought that, given how difficult it is for some of our press to deal with this issue in an even-handed way, if we did introduce compulsory voting, those of us who are on the vote no side might get blamed for that. The whole thing might backfire against those of us who wish to keep Britain firmly in the European Union.
I hope it does not. I believe that the force of our argument is so strong that it will convince a majority of the British people. I want to ensure that we get a strong turnout at the referendum and a very clear mandate from the British people. I am absolutely convinced that that mandate will be overwhelmingly to remain inside the European Union, because it is in the United Kingdom’s best interests to do so. We do not want a situation in which workers have their rights thrown on the bonfire. We do not want to see consumers losing their protection or millions of workers losing their jobs as a result of not having access to the single market.
May I just press my hon. Friend? Can he not see the headline in one of our nationals that says, “Europe forces you to vote now or lose £500.” We know how such things get inflated.
I was thinking, “Hold on, did I put another zero in my amendment?” I clearly did not. There is a danger of the figure being inflated, so I accept what my hon. Friend says, but none the less I feel that it is important to give this incentive to the British people. Having heard all the arguments, I think that most people would want to participate in any event. The penalty would not be imposed on people who have a valid reason not to participate.
Order. While I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman would like to consider this penalty issue at some length, I must point out to him that he is covering a large range of amendments in his speech. He has addressed most of them. He has now had the floor for 26 minutes, and I am sure that he, being an hon. Gentleman, will appreciate that there are others who wish to participate in today’s debate. Twenty six minutes is quite sufficient time to cover all of the amendments, and I am quite sure that he will conclude his speech in the very near future.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker; I will certainly do that. There was a lot more that I wanted to say, but I will try to draw my remarks to a close as quickly as I can. There were many other amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South that I support and on which I wanted to comment, but I will only comment on amendment 17, which related to the threshold that would need to be reached to declare any referendum outcome valid.
Validity is essential, and I have touched on that. We have referred to the PCC elections. We do not want a situation in which a small percentage of the population participating in the referendum determine the future of our country. It is sensible to have a threshold figure that would make the referendum valid, properly democratic and orderly. Another important issue is the different outcomes in the different nations of the United Kingdom. If we are to take such a fundamental decision to leave the European Union, it is important that the decision is reflected in each of the constituent nations of the United Kingdom to ensure the democratic validity of it. If we were not to do that, there would be significant ramifications for the validity of the outcome, and that would not be helpful to the future of the United Kingdom. With that, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will conclude my remarks and thank you for giving me the time to contribute.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate at last. I thought for a minute that it was never going to happen. Like you, Madam Deputy Speaker, I hope that we can now make rapid progress. Having failed sensibly to amend the Bill so far, it will now fall to our noble friends up the corridor to try to improve it. The sooner we press on to Third Reading the better.
I would quite like to attend the European congress of Liberals and Democrats, which I am proud to say is happening in London this week, where 1,000 Liberals are gathering from 30 or 40 countries, 12 of them countries in which we are in government, to plot a positive, constructive and collaborative future for Europe. I realise that might sound like a vision from hell to some Conservative Back Benchers, but I find it rather inspiring and would quite like to drop in. I apologise to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to the House for not being present for the whole of today’s debate as a result.
Moving swiftly on to the amendments, I will not address all of those tabled by Mike Gapes. He is right that they are not frivolous, and they would not have been in order if they had been, but some are a little superfluous, if that is not an unkind remark. The amendment tabled by Chris Williamson would impose compulsory voting on us, which is not a principle that Liberals generally support. Voters reveal a lot when they abstain from a democratic election or a referendum and it is important that we understand what they are telling us when they abstain or do not turn out to vote.
The principle of turnout in British elections has always been that whatever the quantum of votes, we accept the result one way or the other. I would not be happy in that situation, but it would be down to those of us who are putting the pro-European case to ensure that people turned out in sufficient numbers to defend British jobs, to defend our ability to fight cross-border crime and to defend the protection of the environment across European borders. That would be our responsibility and we will not solve it by forcing people who do not want to vote to turn out. We do not have to share Russell Brand’s variety of celebrity nihilism to believe that voters reveal important information about the health of our democracy and the levels of detachment and disenchantment when they do not turn out to vote.
I do not intend to intervene again. I just want to point out that in the 1970s this House introduced a threshold for the Scottish referendum, so thresholds are not an unprecedented proposal. There might be a strong argument for it in a case of this kind.
That brings me neatly on to amendment 17, which seeks to impose a threshold of 60%. The suggestion that a turnout of less than 60% means that the result is not legitimate is intriguing, because if we applied that to Westminster constituencies we would have some interesting results. Let me pick one at random: Ilford South had a turnout of 58% at the last general election, and I would find it surprising if the hon. Gentleman was arguing that that meant that the result was invalid in some way. We have not applied that principle, certainly not at such a level, to previous referendums and we certainly do not apply it to Westminster votes. When the referendum comes, I hope that those in favour of remaining in the European Union for the benefit of jobs, fighting cross-border crime and protecting the environment will win it on a simple majority.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and understand his appetite to move on. I hope that when he reaches the other amendments he might be willing to comment on the two that I have tabled. The first suggests that there should be a separate but linked declaration of the result in Gibraltar, and I hope he might be tempted to support that. I would also welcome his views on amendment 84, which suggests a post-referendum audit.
I am certainly more sympathetic to those amendments. The idea of an audit is, I think, a little superfluous. I am not sure that it is a bad idea, but I am also not sure that we need it in the Bill. We could leave it to the Electoral Commission’s good judgment.
Amendment 64 is more serious. We debated the subject at some length when we discussed the Conservative amendments on our first day on Report. There is a question about Gibraltar that has not been resolved by enabling Gibraltarians to vote in the referendum, which has now been incorporated into the Bill, because we still have the problem that Gibraltar is only a member of the European Union by virtue of its status as a British territory. If the UK and Gibraltar vote yes, we will have no problem. If the UK and Gibraltar vote no, it would be a catastrophe for jobs, the fighting of crime, the environment and so on, but it would not be a problem for Gibraltar’s constitutional position.
We have problems, however—I have not yet heard Ministers respond to them satisfactorily to defend the Bill—with what will happen if Gibraltar and the UK vote in different ways. If the UK votes to remain in the EU but Gibraltar votes no, I would assume that that would be taken as an indication of Gibraltar’s desire to leave the EU. Would we then accommodate that desire? Would we, for instance, pursue the Greenland option, where one territory from within a realm leaves the European Union? It would be interesting to hear what Ministers have to say in reply to that. If the reverse happens, and Gibraltar votes yes and the UK votes no, would we really proceed in effect to expel Gibraltar from the European Union against the clearly expressed wishes of the Gibraltarian people? What message would that send to Spain about our desire to respect the will of the people of Gibraltar in determining their own future? It would be good to hear the Minister’s replies on those two scenarios.
Let me conclude by talking about my amendment 65, which suggests the separate declaration that I think would be appropriate for any country that has voted to leave the UK, has formed an independent country or is in the process of negotiating such independence or holding a referendum on it. It is pretty clear which country I am talking about and I have obtained from the Library a copy of a document called “Scotland’s Future”, which was published in the past few days and contains some interesting aspirations, including for Scotland to remain a member of the European Union and to achieve independence, if it is voted for in autumn 2014, by
I am no expert on the Scottish independence debate and I do not know whether either of those aspirations is guaranteed—I suspect that neither of them is—but it raises the important question of what will happen if the Scottish people vote yes to independence and no to Europe. Will the Scottish Government pursue membership of the European Union even though their people have voted the other way? It will be equally bizarre if England votes no or yes by a narrow margin but Scotland tips the balance the other way despite having already voted to leave the United Kingdom. What would be the constitutional situation for England, Wales and Northern Ireland then? If Scotland votes yes to independence and to EU membership but the UK as a whole votes to leave the European Union, we will then have the bizarre situation of Scotland negotiating entry while the Government of the UK simultaneously negotiates exit. That is one of those timetabling issues that shows what an arbitrary and ill thought out notion it is to have a fixed deadline that cannot take account of changing political and constitutional realities, whether on the European scale, in relation to Scotland or in the United Kingdom.
I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me to contribute briefly to the debate. I should say at the outset that I support the Bill but I also support the European project and the European Union. I do not think that we have anything to fear from a referendum, whenever it happens.
Let me run through the amendments. I have already told my hon. Friend Mike Gapes that I do not support everything that he has proposed. I support amendment 52, oppose amendments 53, 55 and 17, support amendment 5, and say no to amendments 6, 7 and 16, and yes to amendment 61. I would be interested to hear the explanation from my hon. Friend Mr Thomas, who is on the Front Bench, for amendments 64 and 84, which we have not heard yet. I am not entirely convinced by the proposed wording. I oppose amendment 85. As for amendment 65, tabled by Martin Horwood, which he has said that he will not press to a vote, I think its tone was defeatist about Scottish independence and the referendum so I was going to vote against it in principle, as I think we will win the referendum for Scotland to remain part of the United Kingdom.
As I have said, I will not detain the House in speaking to this group of amendments. I oppose amendments 53 and 54 because they would apply after the general election. I support amendment 52 on the basis that it commits the Electoral Commission to a specific date before the general election and creates an opportunity for an informed debate as part of the general election. Parties will therefore approach the matter and stimulate interest in participation, which my hon. Friend Chris Williamson is keen to see—he wants a financial penalty for people who do not vote. In addition, amendment 52 gives clarity to the Lords in advance of its opportunity to examine the Bill—it would say clearly that this House would like the report to be published before the general election, and that would help deliberations in the Lords.
We have discussed amendment 17. My hon. Friend Wayne David and I probably straightforwardly agree that proposed new paragraphs 3(1A)(c) and (d) give a veto to each European parliamentary constituency rather than a majority of constituencies. There might be an anomaly in the voting pattern between people within European constituencies—they might vote one way by a majority of constituencies and vote another way by a majority vote. Giving each European constituency a veto over the outcome of the referendum, let alone giving the devolved territories an opportunity, is wholly inappropriate.
I have commented on amendment 6. People would be bored to death if we forced them to watch adverts on TV, or if they had to change channels too often to avoid them, or if they had to avoid adverts in their newspapers.
It would turn people off politics and discussion, not stimulate greater participation in politics, which all hon. Members want. On amendment 7, I have said that we need to ensure that, if we are to require adverts in the written media, the publishers should be paid, just as TV, radio and cable broadcasters would have to be paid to carry adverts.
Supporting amendment 61 is straightforward. It states that we should
“consult and seek agreement from the devolved administrations”,
which is a sensible way to proceed. It does not say that they have a veto that means that the referendum will not go ahead if they fail to agree with us. Instead, it says that we should enlist their support and ensure they are in touch with us.
As I mentioned when I outlined my perspective on the amendments in the group, I do not have a view on the amendments tabled by the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West, because I have not heard the argument on the Gibraltarians or the audits. I look forward to him making those arguments.
I agree with the Minister on amendment 85 and compulsory voting. Voting should be a matter of civic responsibility, notwithstanding giving up £50, the equivalent of a West Ham game—at the moment, giving up a West Ham game would not be too difficult given how badly they are playing. I am not totally convinced about introducing financial penalties and making voting compulsory in that regard.
As I said, I support the Bill. I should say by the way that I was the private Member’s Bill Whip on Fridays from 2001 to 2005 during the Labour Government. The Minister’s comments on the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South were quite strong. I sat in the Chamber on many Fridays over a number of years listening to the right hon. Eric Forth challenge private Members’ Bills time and again. He irritated the life out of me, but he had the constitutional right to ensure that the bar for private Members’ Bills was set as high as possible. Passing laws for our country should not be an easy measure. I wholly respect the right of James Wharton to introduce his Bill and I support the principle of a referendum, but it is such a constitutional amendment that it should have been a Government Bill rather than a private Member’s Bill.
It is not for me to respond on behalf of right hon. or hon. Members. When I was a private Member’s Bill Whip, I used to advise colleagues on a Friday. I would say, “Stay in your seat and don’t be provoked by anything Opposition Members say.” The hon. Member for Stockton South is showing admirable restraint. Some of the things that have been said during the debates on these Fridays will have irritated the life out of him, but he is keen to get to the conclusion of the debate. He has made a tactical and strategic decision, but I understand Opposition Members who would rather have engaged in a fuller debate with Government Members.
In conclusion, I support the EU. We have nothing to fear from a referendum. I support the Bill in principle and will vote for it on Third Reading. I look forward to my hon. Friend the shadow Minister explaining why I should support the two amendments he has tabled, which I suspect he will do shortly.
I shall keep my comments brief, because hon. Members want to make progress and I want the process to be expedited as much as possible.
I begin by picking up one of the last points made by my hon. Friend Jim Fitzpatrick, who referred to the comments made a little while ago by the Minister. I take exception to the Minister’s comments. He said that a number of the amendments in the group are otiose. That might be his opinion, but we should put on record our thanks to hon. Members, particularly my hon. Friend Mike Gapes, for tabling amendments, which have allowed for a proper discussion and debate on this enormously important Bill. Regardless of whether we agree with the amendments he has tabled, had he not done so we would not have got into a detailed debate today and on other days about the Bill’s ramifications and implications. Rather than saying simply that the amendments are otiose, we should be thanking my hon. Friend.
My hon. Friend spoke eloquently to amendments 52 to 55. In essence, they are about insisting that the Electoral Commission comes forward with a proper series of recommendations for the conduct of the referendum. That is important, because all of us recognise, no matter which side of the argument we are on, that there needs to be a proper and fair discussion and debate in the country. I echo a point made by the Electoral Commission when I say that it is simply not enough to have stipulations about how the debate is conducted; information must be provided by the Government that objectively sets out the parameters of the debate to be held. The Electoral Commission says that all the research it has conducted shows clearly that the majority of the population feel that they do not have sufficient information to reach an objective decision, either for or against. It is therefore important that the Government set out objective information about the European Union. Of course, the last thing we want is the Government subjectively setting out information, in a biased and partisan way. That is why it is very important that the Electoral Commission not only sets out rules—
My hon. Friend will be aware that the Government—at least the Conservative party—have already behaved in a biased and partisan way with regard to the wording of the question, which is contrary to what the Electoral Commission recommended. What guarantees do we have that the Electoral Commission’s recommendations will be implemented by this Government’s Ministers?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. We touched on that issue in our debate last Friday, and the point holds firm. We would hope that if the Bill proceeds from this House to the other place, the Government might well table an amendment, as they have done with previous legislation, to modify the question that is set, in line with the Electoral Commission’s recommendation. It is also important to stress, however, that the Electoral Commission is a neutral, impartial body respected by all sections of the political spectrum. Those in the Electoral Commission are the custodians of electoral processes, objectively and clearly defined. To go back to the point I was making about its report about the conduct about the campaign, that is why it is important that the Government take on board the Electoral Commission’s recommendations, and that it is given plenty of time to do the work and is told precisely when its reports are expected. We have had an important debate on that matter, and I am minded to favour the idea of a stipulated time for such a report from the Electoral Commission.
Amendment 7, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South, refers to the need for advertisements in national newspapers, across the United Kingdom and in the nations that make up the United Kingdom. As a Welshman, I think that that is particularly important. Although I do not speak the language of heaven—I have tried but failed—I recognise its importance, and the Welsh language must be respected. In addition, a distinct population in Wales speak the Welsh language as their first language. It is important that we do not place Welsh language advertisements in newspapers just in what is known as “BBC Welsh”, as the Welsh language varies in different parts of Wales. The Electoral Commission has done quite a bit of work on how the debate should be conducted through the medium of the Welsh language. Interestingly, GfK, the organisation contracted by the Electoral Commission to conduct the research, has said that we must be careful with the Welsh language in what we put on the ballot paper and, by implication, in the advertisements. For example, it makes the point that the phrase “Undeb Ewropeaidd”, which of course means the European Union, is not widely understood by Welsh speakers. GfK’s survey found that many Welsh speakers thought it referred to the United Nations.
I have listened to my hon. Friend’s argument and I think that there is a lot in it. What he perhaps has not brought out so far, although he seems to be touching on it now, is that this is not only an issue about BBC English or BBC Welsh; Euro-speak is likely to become embedded in this debate. That underlines the need to involve organisations dealing with plain English and the Welsh equivalent to ensure that the terminology current in Europe and in those organisations in this country connected to Europe—
Order. I have allowed a great many interventions during this debate. Everyone who has indicated that they wish to speak on this group of amendments has made many interventions, and everyone has now had the opportunity to hold the Floor. I am sure that Wayne David, who has already rehearsed many of his arguments in interventions on the speeches of other hon. Members, will soon be drawing his remarks to a conclusion.
Amendment 67, tabled by Martin Horwood, refers to the Scottish situation. That is an important point, because yesterday the Prime Minister of Spain made comments to the effect that if Scotland left the United Kingdom it would leave the European Union as well, and that has profound implications for the timing of this referendum and whether it appears before or after the general election. I would simply say that we need to be mindful of the Scottish situation in this debate; there could well be unforeseen implications of anything we decide to do.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friends the Members for Ilford South (Mike Gapes), for Derby North (Chris Williamson), for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) and for Caerphilly (Wayne David). It was a pleasure to listen to Martin Horwood. It was somewhat surprising that the Minister was short in his comments; he certainly was not sweet in his comments. One noticeable feature of his contributions on Report has been the increasing fear he seems to be displaying of taking interventions, particularly from those on the Front Bench but also from Back Benchers.
My hon. Friend has made his point, and he is accurate.
First, let me address speedily the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South. Although referendums are—in this country, at least—unusual, there have been several in recent years, and a noticeably higher number under Labour Governments. Not for us the dismissive attitude to some of the British people of Conservatives like Boris Johnson—we instinctively trust the British people. Under Labour we had the 1975 European Communities membership referendum. We have had the various Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish devolution referendums, and the referendum that proposed a devolution of powers to London—the Greater London authority referendum in 2000. We have also seen a number of referendums on directly elected mayors. There is a considerable amount of experience to draw on in getting any future referendums right.
Referendums are substantial undertakings. Their administration is a sizeable cost to the state. There is also substantial inconvenience to the public; schools get closed for the day. Rightly, therefore, great emphasis is placed on getting the conduct of the referendum right. We do not want to waste precious resources or the time of those involved. We need to ensure that the result is legitimate, valid and fair. With that in mind, a proper plan for the arrangement of the referendum is sensible. Clause 3(1) is helpful in that regard, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South pointed out, the absence of a timetable or deadline for the publication of the Electoral Commission’s report is problematic.
My hon. Friend is right. The Conservative party has taken through this House and the other place a number of major pieces of legislation on Europe on which it has not wanted a referendum. One can only conclude that Conservative leaders in the past were more willing to stand up to their Back Benchers than the current Prime Minister is.
Let me discuss the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South. Amendments 52 to 55 relate to the report that the Electoral Commission would publish under clause 3. As other hon. Members have said, the Electoral Commission’s recent report on the Bill, published last month, provided us with invaluable advice on the potential wording of a referendum question, and the consequential difficulties that the poorly worded question that James Wharton is proposing could cause. I do not want to dwell on that particular Electoral Commission report, but it is clear that further advice in the form of a report from the commission would be invaluable should a referendum go ahead.
The important reference back to the previous Electoral Commission report is that it had only almost four months to complete its work on what the question should be. It made it clear then that it was not long enough for it to offer the House of Commons a definitive view on the wording of the question, so the clear lesson that we need to draw in the context of this grouping of amendments is that it must be given longer to do its work. Amendment 55, implying a minimum six months being needed for the Electoral Commission to do its work, is clearly sensible. It would have been useful to hear a little more of the Minister’s thoughts on that particular amendment.
There is also the obvious point that such a report needs to be delivered in time for the advice in it to be given due consideration by the Secretary of State, and crucially by Members on both sides of the House. Therefore, I can see the case that my hon. Friend makes, in particular for amendment 55. We know that the Conservative party is divided on the timetable for this legislation. We had the amendment tabled by Adam Afriyie. Some want the referendum next year, others want—[Interruption.]
The hon. Gentleman appreciates that the Chair has power over many things and many people, but the Government deputy Chief Whip is not one of them.
As I was saying, following the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Windsor, we know that the Conservative party is deeply divided on the timetable for any referendum. Some want it next year, others want 2017, and Foreign Office Ministers are not sure when they want it. Therefore, I understand why my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South suggests different dates by which the Electoral Commission should report on the rules.
Amendment 6, tabled by my hon. Friend, refers to the broadcasting rights of the proponents and opponents during the election campaign. There is a clear British tradition of party political and referendum campaign broadcasts, and I understand that that is relatively unusual in comparative terms. This is in part because political advertising in broadcast media is prohibited in the UK. Indeed, the ban was the subject of a recent European Court of Human Rights case, which upheld the UK position. I understand that Ofcom is tasked with drawing up the rules regarding the allocation, length and frequency of referendum campaign broadcasts for commercial broadcasters with public service obligations. I acknowledge that the amendment takes particular care to highlight the importance of Welsh language broadcasts.
The amendment seeks to place on the face of the Bill clear provisions for a minimum of six broadcasts, with the possibility of 10 broadcasts, of 60 minutes in length. I am not sure why my hon. Friend has settled on 10. If he gets the chance to wind up the debate, perhaps he will say why. Is it, perhaps, because of who he thinks might want to appear in the 10 broadcasts? After all, no one is quite sure where the Foreign Secretary stands on Europe. This is the man who famously, while wearing a baseball cap, said that there were only 12 days to save the pound. He was wrong, but notwithstanding that flurry of Euroscepticism, some Conservative Members believe that he is part of the problem on Europe. Clearly, if the Foreign Secretary appeared in one of the broadcasts for either side, a less divisive figure would be needed to appear in the next broadcast. Perhaps the difficulties that the anti-EU campaign might face if there were not enough broadcasts are a further reason why my hon. Friend has suggested 10 of them. Imagine if it put up one of UKIP’s MEPs—it might provoke scrutiny of their low work-rate in Brussels.
I think that at least one of any broadcasts during the campaign ought to focus on how the ordinary, hard-working people of this country would be affected. We know from CBI research that every UK household stands to take a £3,000 hit to their living standards if the Prime Minister’s reckless gamble to keep his party together results in a British exit from the European Union.
Why else might we need 10 broadcasts? Is it possible that the Prime Minister might want to feature in one? Perhaps he might want to dwell on the powers and competences he has repatriated back to the UK due to the treaty change he thinks is coming. As we do not know what powers and competencies he wants to repatriate, it is hard to judge how successful he might be and therefore whether such a broadcast, and resulting opposition broadcast, would be necessary. We have tried at length, as has Sir Edward Leigh, to elicit from the Minister for Europe what powers and competencies the Prime Minister wants to repatriate as a result of the treaty change he thinks is coming, but there has been absolutely no clarity from the Minister at all.
Perhaps a further reason for my hon. Friend’s advocating 10 broadcasts is to give the last Conservative Prime Minister to win a majority, John Major, the chance to speak in a referendum campaign broadcast. Yesterday he said that Britain will pay a “severe price” if it votes to leave the European Union, and that an exit could cost billions and leave the UK isolated internationally yet still required to implement EU regulations it had no part in framing. I could see him being an excellent choice for one of the 10 broadcasts that my hon. Friend suggests. One wonders why the current Prime Minister wants to take such a risk for Britain if this is anything other than a desperate effort to keep his party united.
One could imagine that a further reason a limit of 10 broadcasts is needed is that UKIP would want one of the no campaign broadcasts to dwell on the unnecessary expense—some £100 million to £150 million a year—of the Strasbourg Parliament, that expensive and unnecessary extra European parliamentary body that the French like so much and that they bullied John Major’s Conservative Government into accepting as the price for staying out of the social chapter.
Perhaps we need so many broadcasts in order to focus on the issues, such as the economic case for staying in Europe and the folly of the idea that we should try to be like Switzerland or Norway. We would certainly need a broadcast to focus on the benefits that EU membership delivers for co-operation on crime and justice matters across Europe. If we want to tackle the mafia-like gangs that control illegal immigration, we need cross-border co-operation.
I can see the case, then, for some broadcasts, but I am not sure, if I am honest, that we need to be quite as specific as my hon. Friend proposes. I think we can trust the broadcasters and the Electoral Commission to get this right. However, he has raised an important issue, which, along with many other important elements of this Bill, has so far been ignored by the Conservatives as the red mist of Euroscepticism has descended.
Let me raise a few points about my amendment 64, which I may want to press to a Division. We have already discussed on Report and in Committee many of the unique aspects of Gibraltar’s position with regard to EU matters and the proposed referendum—thankfully so, as Conservative Members had singularly failed to consider the Gibraltarian people in this matter before the Bill emerged from Lynton Crosby’s office. In fact, Labour Members are becoming increasingly concerned that the Minister for Europe is being insufficiently robust with his Spanish counterparts over Gibraltar, but that debate is rightly for another time.
As the House will know, in ordinary European parliamentary elections the results of voting in Gibraltar are included in the south-west region of the UK. My amendment suggests a provision to allow a change from this norm whereby for referendums only the results are published separately, allowing it to be clear and beyond doubt how the Gibraltarian people have voted should such a referendum go ahead. I cannot, in all honesty, foresee a great added expense in such an arrangement. I gently suggest to Conservative Members that adding such a provision to the Bill might go some way towards making up to the Gibraltarian people for the rather—dare I say?—rude way in which they were treated in this proposed legislation at the outset. I would have welcomed the Minister’s comments on the amendment, but I do not think he touched on it at all.
Amendment 84 suggests a proper audit of the arrangements and conduct of any in/out referendum. The hon. Member for Cheltenham has said that we can always learn from what has gone before, and he is right. I gently suggest that the amendment is a sensible provision for the Minister to reflect on.
On amendment 17, my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South makes a number of interesting suggestions, which appear to be designed to ensure that the proposed ballot produces a definitive answer. I understand that minimum thresholds are frequently put in place in referendums elsewhere in the world, particularly with regard to constitutional change.
My hon. Friend raises an interesting point about minimum thresholds. Conservative Members may recall with some unease the mess the Home Secretary made in organising last year’s elections for police and crime commissioner, the turnout for which was a very disappointing and very low 15%. Put another way, 85% of eligible voters decided to abstain from voting on that cold day last November. Had the elections for PCCs—a new set of elections, without precedent, and a constitutional change—been subject to a minimum turnout similar to that suggested by my hon. Friend, hon. Members can work out for themselves just how many commissioners we would now have.
On a matter as important as changing the UK’s relationship with the European Union, I understand why my hon. Friend wants to prevent a repeat of the Home Secretary’s PCC election shambles. Nevertheless, I am not sure we need this particular threshold amendment. In these closing moments, it is probably worth drawing the House’s attention to the work of the independent commission on the conduct of referendums back in 1996. It was chaired by Sir Patrick Nairne, who said:
“Requiring a proportion of the total registered population to vote ‘Yes’ creates further problems because the register can be so inaccurate.”
Moreover, while the ill-fated referendum on the alternative vote two and a half years ago delivered a disappointing turnout of 42%, I am not sure whether anyone would argue that it failed to deliver a decisive result. I cannot, therefore, support my hon. Friend’s amendment.
Division number 145
Order. I can tell by the reaction that we are all eternally grateful for the correction of the record. I will ensure that the Journal and Hansard record the correct number of votes in that Division.
Amendment proposed: 64, page 2, line 11, at end add—
‘(3A) Results for the referendum will be published for European parliamentary constituencies, except that Gibraltar’s shall be published separately from the rest of the South West return.’.—(Mr Thomas.)
Division number 146