Report (2nd Day) (Continued)

Part of Fixed-term Parliaments Bill – in the House of Lords at 6:30 pm on 16th May 2011.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Norton of Louth Lord Norton of Louth Conservative 6:30 pm, 16th May 2011

My Lords, the key point has been made, but not yet by me. I want to reinforce what the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, said. Many of the measures being brought before us are premised on the assumption that our political system is broken. Like the noble Lord, I do not accept that it is and there is empirical evidence for showing that the people do not accept it. I accept that there is a crisis of confidence, but it is a crisis of confidence not in institutions but in politicians. There is a danger of displacement taking place here, of saying, "Well, it is not us, it's the system. We'll change the system". There are problems in that, so I accept the premise on which the noble Lord is proceeding.

My fear is that we may get ourselves into a situation where people do think that the system is broken if we keep messing about with it and making disparate changes without any clear rationale for them, rather than individual changes. If the Government start having a referendum on one issue which they feel for whatever reason there should be a referendum on, but then deny on it another issue which people think is important and there should be a referendum on, they will create problems in terms of how people view the system and how it is being operated.

I have always argued against referendums because I have an objection on principle to them; the Government's problem is that they do not. When they start holding them, they need to have a clear rationale for those occasions when they are clearly appropriate and those when they are not. Otherwise, we create a problem of delegitimising issues, with people thinking, "Well, this is really important, but we're not going to accept it unless it's subject to a referendum. Why can the Government have a referendum on A, when we attach real importance to B and we've not been given a say on the issue?". To cope with that, as the noble Lord, Lord Reid, indicated, you need a very clear framework which is transparent and explained to people, so that they know the basis on which the Government are proceeding. You cannot do it on an ad hoc basis. You need clearly to adumbrate the overarching framework or, if necessary, come up with those issues which clearly fall within the framework of necessitating a referendum.

The Constitution Committee of which I am member, as is the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, produced its report on referendums and tried to identify those areas so that we could at least get agreement on them. The Government need to think about what framework they are using for promoting referendums. They cannot do it on simply an ad hoc basis, saying that it is up to Parliament, because Government bring the Bill before Parliament. We need to know why they are doing that, and that they are doing it on the basis of principle rather than political desirability. The more politicians do the latter, the more we run the danger of people starting to worry about what the Government are doing and their trust being lost. It is essential that we maintain that trust. If the crisis of confidence is in politicians, it is up to us to get it right.