Report (2nd Day) (Continued)

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

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Photo of Lord Pannick Lord Pannick Crossbench 6:30 pm, 16th May 2011

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, has served a very valuable purpose, because he has identified with precision one of the main defects in this Bill and so many of the proposals for constitutional change that have been brought forward by this Government and are still to be brought forward.

The essential point surely about constitutional principles is that they are intended to be neutral; they are intended to be objective criteria by which we and the people judge the propriety of the conduct of government. They do so by convention, by practice and, if change is proposed, they do so by public consultation, by pre-legislative scrutiny and by an attempt to achieve consensus. The Government's inability to identify when a referendum is appropriate-the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, asked the Minister to explain the Government's position on this in Committee and the Minister was unable to do so-is a manifestation of constitutional reform and change that is being proposed on an ad hoc basis; it is being proposed if and in so far as it is politically convenient for the coalition to do so.

Constitutional change cannot command public respect when the public perceive politicians as using constitutional means such as a referendum-means which are designed to control politicians-as a way of holding a coalition together. One has to do better than that. One has to identify a principled basis for using or not using a referendum. To bring forward constitutional change in this way-without public consultation and without any attempt to identify and then to apply objective, coherent principles on matters such as referendums-leads inevitably not only to poorly drafted, inadequate legislation but guarantees that the legislation, when enacted, will not command public understanding, far less public respect, and ensures that the legislation will remain on the statute book only in the short term.