Report (1st Day)

Part of European Union Bill – in the House of Lords at 5:30 pm on 8th June 2011.

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Photo of Baroness Brinton Baroness Brinton Liberal Democrat 5:30 pm, 8th June 2011

My Lords, I shall speak specifically on the 40 per cent threshold and will start by reaffirming the point made by other noble Lords on these amendments going against the Government's objective of re-engaging with the British people, particularly on major EU issues about transfer of power and competency. I want to reassert the coalition's intentions on referendums in other parts of our life. The Localism Bill, which we discussed yesterday, has many arrangements in place for referendums.

It might be helpful to remind the House of the other referendum that took place a couple of months ago. I am not referring to the AV referendum but the one in King's Lynn about an incinerator. After a strong campaign against a local incinerator, the turnout was 61 per cent. It was interesting that there was a division between a county council view and a district council view about whether there should be such an incinerator. The county council view ignored the will of the people. I am afraid that my Conservative colleagues and my noble friends on these Benches suffered some significant defeats in the local elections. Nine councillors were rejected because the people felt that their voice had not been heard after they had been allowed to give it. We miss that opportunity at our peril. I have given that specific example because, in Committee, I raised the issue of the Scottish referendum in 1979 after which there was a significant disconnect. It has taken many years to address it. Some would argue that there is still a legacy of distrust between Westminster and Scotland.

I would prefer the political parties and other groups involved in campaigning for referendums to engage with the public, rather than there being a threshold which, as others have mentioned, could skew the result. You may get not just the "don't knows" and the "don't cares" referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson, but those who do not support the motion actively being asked not to vote in order to skew the result. Then the public debate becomes about voting and not about the issue. That would be wrong.

The contrast between these two types of referendum is striking. In the first, a real referendum resulting in engagement with the public undoubtedly has helped the public's perception. The 1975 EU referendum benefited the perception and understanding of the EU for many years. But in Scotland there was a real contrast and, as I have mentioned, serious damage is still there.

Finally, last year, the Lords Constitution Committee stated that there should be,

"a general presumption against the use of voter turnout thresholds and super-majorities".

Let us heed that sage advice and not support the amendment.