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Committee (2nd Day)

Part of Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill – in the House of Lords at 3:30 pm on 6th December 2010.

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Photo of Lord Fowler Lord Fowler Conservative 3:30 pm, 6th December 2010

My Lords, I very much support what my noble friend Lord Tyler said. I think the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, gave away his game right in his last remark. I speak as a neighbour of the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, for goodness knows how many years in Birmingham. He is always unbelievably persuasive and I am quite often on his side, but not on this. We have here a bewildering number of dates, not just his: in addition, we have 30 June, 15 September, 6 October, 13 October and 3 May 2012.

I argue that there is a very positive reason for having it on 5 May, as proposed. I am a strong supporter of referendums, unlike the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, in what I take his view to be. Against the fashion I took the view that we would be much better served as a nation had we put the big European issues to the electorate right from the beginning in referendums. I said that in my first election manifesto of 1970, so I come to it as a supporter. Following that, however, I also believe that we should have the biggest possible turnout for such a referendum. The fact that 5 May coincides with other elections I see not as a disadvantage but as an advantage. Far more people are likely to produce a good turnout on that day than, say, for a separate election in September or October, let alone in 2012. It would obviously also be far more cost-effective; the extra cost of a separate election would be eliminated.

I cannot see the advantage of what is now being proposed. With all legislation the test should be what is in the interest of the user and the consumer. In this case the consumer is the elector, and I would have thought overwhelmingly that his interest would be very much to have it on the same day. He is much more likely to go out willingly on that day, and we will achieve a much bigger vote.

At this point it is worth remembering the evidence of the Electoral Commission to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee. It is interesting because the committee specifically sought clarification of the commission's position on the combination of a referendum with other polls. In 2002, the commission had stated that referendums on fundamental issues of national importance should be considered in isolation. Jenny Watson, the chairman, explained that the commission had reconsidered this view and had decided that the evidence was not conclusive enough to support its earlier position that a referendum should never be combined with another poll. According to the committee:

"Ms Watson said that the Commission had decided that on balance there were definite benefits from combining the AV referendum with other polls, especially because there would not be so much 'voter fatigue, which would be the case if you didn't combine".

That was the commission's considered opinion against a background of scepticism on this position. I agree with that. I think it is a very strong case. The question is clear and that the public are entirely capable of making up their minds on this issue, and it is a bit condescending to suggest otherwise.