Report (1st Day)

Part of European Union Bill – in the House of Lords at 4:45 pm on 8th June 2011.

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Photo of Lord Howe of Aberavon Lord Howe of Aberavon Conservative 4:45 pm, 8th June 2011

My Lords, I can add very little to the lucid presentation made by my noble friend Lord Williamson. I start from premises which I have described to the House before. My first premise is to regard referenda as unreliable things. The more complex the subject, the less reliable they become. I have said many times that the referenda which I have always been enthusiastic about were those which I was able to introduce at a meeting of the Welsh area council of the Conservative Party in the 1960s-namely, to determine, on a county basis and at seven-year intervals, whether public houses should be open on Sunday. That was put into law within a short time by Henry Brooke and remained there for 35 years, because after five seven-year lapses every county in Wales had finally been liberated, Caernarvon being the last. My noble and learned friend Lord Morris was then able to repeal the legislation. Nobody can argue with that.

Between 1974 and 1979, when I was on the opposition Benches in the other place and was able to do other things, I was on the board of a company called AGB Research, which was one of the largest and most effective market research companies in Europe, specialising largely in the measurement of television and broadcasting audiences. The whole process depended on trying to determine what people thought. In so far as we were dealing with quite simple things about broadcasting, it was easy enough to decide. In so far as we were measuring relative enthusiasm as between butter and margarine, we felt that we could rely on a referendum-style questioning and answering analysis. But unlike many of our competitors, we were always clear that we would never touch political opinion polls with a bargepole because we felt that in that area, however well one tried to do it, the outcome was likely to be less than lucid and less than decisive. For that reason, throughout this legislation I have been wholly lacking in enthusiasm for the introduction of referenda in substitute for decisions taken by Parliament.

We have reached the point when referenda seem likely to remain in legislation, but the least we can do is to try to make those referenda less ill founded than they might otherwise be. If we do not prescribe a minimum along the lines suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, then we are at the mercy of decisions being taken by almost invisible percentage votes. I do not regard there being much wisdom in a 40 per cent referendum, but I am delighted to be able to follow an example set by the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, who was a colleague in the other place for many years and who, the House may remember, was also the author of the Rooker-Wise amendment on income tax legislation. So for the second time, although it is not like that Rooker-Wise legislation and his name does not even appear on this amendment, I am glad to endorse his wisdom, particularly when it is reinforced by the lucid, compact argument advanced by the noble Lord, Lord Williamson. It is the minimum we can do to exclude the unreliability of this unattractive device. It should be in the hands of Parliament. This amendment enables it to come back into the hands of Parliament if certain conditions are not fulfilled. I speak in support of the amendment.