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 Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Conservative 5:30 pm, 8th June 2011

My Lords, I find that I am afflicted by the quite well known advice once given to me by the Whips. It was, "Never listen to the debate on any issue". When I saw this amendment I was rather dismayed because, as my noble friend Lord Lamont pointed out, it replicates exactly the proposal which he, I and others put forward on the AV referendum. I found myself thinking, "Now I have got to be against this because I am against Europe taking more powers from Britain. How am I going to reconcile this in my mind?". My noble friend Lord Deben has been very helpful in this regard because it is not about the issue of European powers or the role of the European Community. It is about the relationship between Parliament and referendum.

I am going to upset a number of my noble friends by being on an unpredictable side in this argument. My noble friend Lord Risby said that it is now part of the culture in Europe to have referenda. I am rather alarmed by that, because we have a parliamentary democracy. I support this Bill in its intention, which is to give the people a say before a power is transferred, if that should happen. It seems very dangerous to get into a position where we have what is a constitutional innovation-the concept of drop-dead referenda. The moment the vote is cast, that is it. It has become enshrined in law and Parliament no longer has a say. That is a new concept which has crept into our constitution. When we joined the European Union, we did not have a referendum of that form. The Scottish referendum, with all due respect to my noble friend, was not of that form, either. Parliament was still in control and had the final say. My noble friend Lord Deben has been consistent throughout all the time I have known him in his opposition to referenda. I am not against referenda but they must be supported by a substantial group. We could argue about whether 35 per cent or 40 per cent or 50 per cent is the right number, but there ought to be a clear view expressed by the people.

Perhaps I may take up an earlier point. I know nothing about the incinerator but I have been involved in public life long enough to know that if you want to put an incinerator anywhere, you are going to get a majority in a referendum against it. That is why we have elections and that is why we have Parliament. It is in order to take difficult decisions, which, as my noble friend has said, may very well be unpopular. So I am rather inclined to support this amendment for that reason. It seems to be consistent in supporting the constitutional principles which this House should be concerned about. Tempted as I am by the expediency of the case, I think that argument ought to prevail.