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Article 50 (Constitution Committee Report) - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:02 pm on 22nd November 2016.

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Photo of Lord Higgins Lord Higgins Conservative 5:02 pm, 22nd November 2016

My Lords, we should be immensely grateful to the chairmen of the committees, who have presented two reports of considerable importance given the general confusion about what is going on following the referendum result. It is interesting that the House of Lords is taking the lead in providing such reports. I hope they are regarded as obligatory reading in another place and that the Library, which has been producing excellent information, will ensure that it is reflected in the other Library. I also hope that as things progress, the various Select Committees of both Houses—particularly the departmental ones in the other place—make a considerable contribution.

Those of us who sat through debates on the Bill that set up the referendum will be only too aware that it was an advisory referendum. That is an important point to stress but, as my noble friend who opened the debate pointed out, it was against the background of considerable political commitment to implement whatever the referendum produced.

We ought to spend a moment considering the whole issue of referendums, because one thing has emerged clearly from both the Scottish and EU referendums: they can be immensely divisive, and so they proved to be. They show clear divisions of opinion and create a situation in which it is easy for the public to be lied to and misled. I think that happened to a very significant extent in the referendum on our European Union membership.

I personally have always been totally opposed to referendums. They are often said to be democratic. However, they are not democratic in the sense in which that is usually meant in this country. We have a representative parliamentary system of democracy but the reality is—I think this is increasingly apparent—that that can come into conflict with a referendum result. There is a huge difference between those two situations. A referendum takes a very generalised approach and is open to a lot of confusion, whereas in a parliamentary democracy the Houses of Parliament can take into account all the arguments in great depth and detail, subject them to scrutiny and make sure that minorities’ interests are taken into account. It is absolutely clear that the referendum we have just had is effectively the dictatorship of a majority. That is something we ought to be concerned about.

We should be grateful for the very clear statement on this issue in the Constitution Committee’s report, which points out:

“The legislation that enabled the EU referendum did not set out how the result would be implemented … Parliament may wish, in future, to ensure that detailed consideration is given to how the result of any referendum will be implemented in advance of the vote … occurring, and … whether explicit provision should be made in the enabling legislation … to implement the outcome … or … instruct the Government”,

on how they should act. After the in some ways rather sordid events of the last referendum, we must sit back and decide whether we want to go along the referendum route at all. If we never have another referendum, I, for one, would not be upset.

On the more detailed provisions, the Government’s reaction has been to treat—