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Referendums: Parliamentary Democracy - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:25 pm on 19th July 2018.

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Photo of Lord Young of Cookham Lord Young of Cookham Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 4:25 pm, 19th July 2018

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Higgins on his choice of subject, which is even more topical today than when he chose it, and on the speech he made introducing it. I also thank all noble Lords who took part. As the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, said, it has been a very high-quality debate. In the time available, which has been curtailed somewhat—I make no complaint about that—I may not be able to deal with all the points.

I congratulate my noble friend Lord Pickles. This is the second time I have admired his maiden speech; on 5 June 1992, the newly elected Member for Brentwood and Ongar addressed the other place for the first time on housing and the importance of owner-occupation. He may recall one sentence from a moving egalitarian speech:

“what is good enough for the toffs is good enough for the workers”.—[Official Report, Commons, 5/6/1992; col. 1058.]

Then he may have identified himself with the workers, but today? Who can say? He is well known to many of the cognoscenti of electoral matters for his report Securing the Ballot, which has informed many of our debates. We are delighted that we will now have his direct, earthy input.

I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, on his maiden speech; like my noble friend he has a distinguished career in public service and his contributions have already informed many of our debates. Again, as European and security issues move towards the top of the political agenda, we are delighted to have him and look forward to his future speeches.

Looking at the list of speakers yesterday evening, I noted that half are former Members of the other place, as were all three Front-Bench spokesmen. Speaking for myself, I was always worried about what my noble friend Lord Sherbourne referred to as the tension between parliamentary democracy on the one hand and government by referendums on the other—an issue that ran through our debate. It was mentioned by, among others, my noble friends Lord Higgins and Lord Cormack, the noble Lord, Lord Judd, and the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, who mentioned plebiscitary democracy. For example, a majority of MPs could make it clear in their election addresses that they opposed capital punishment, but then be faced by a referendum that went the other way. But the only way that the law could be changed was if MPs voted to change it, setting Parliament against the people. In a sense, that is what has happened in the EU referendum, as we know that the majority of MPs voted remain but were confronted with a different verdict from their electorate—a point made by my noble friend Lord Higgins to which I will return in a moment.

Having said that, I do see a case for referendums on whether people want to remain under this Parliament’s jurisdiction, as with the referendum on whether Northern Ireland should stay in the UK or the referendum on Scottish independence, mentioned by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, and others. I believe those are in a category of their own and a valid case can be made for them under the principle of self-determination. Since 1973, 11 referendums have been held in the UK, and the majority of them have been related to the issue of devolution. As the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, said, most of those were not controversial. I also make an exception for what I call direct local democracy—local referendums on issues such as council tax increases and neighbourhood plans.

Following the series of mainly non-controversial referendums on devolution in the late 1990s, we passed the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums ActPPERA—in 2000. That enshrined in law a broad framework of rules to regulate for consistency and fairness in the conduct of any referendum held as a result of an Act of Parliament, whether taking place nationwide in one or more of the UK’s constituent nations or in any region of England. Again, I shall say a little more about that in a moment.

I turn now to the EU referendum, which has been at the heart of today’s debate. There was a referendum which decided that we should stay in the EU, so arguably a referendum was needed if that was to be overridden and we were to leave. Many noble Lords have opposed the EU referendum, arguing that it undermined parliamentary democracy by asking people a binary question on a highly complex matter instead of relying on people who had the time and capacity to master the issues. The argument against referendums was well put by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark who brought the good book into play to reinforce his argument. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, referred to referendums as “risky and ill-informed”, while my noble friend Lord Norton used the word “irresponsible”, and the noble Lord, Lord Judd, made it clear that he was opposed to them. Some of the arguments risk patronising the electorate. The high turnout at the referendum did indicate a high degree of engagement and there was certainly no dearth of information for those who wanted it.

Two themes have emerged in the debate, one of which was repeated by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith: that there was a lack of clarity as to why people voted as they did. The noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, mentioned that. All sorts of reasons have been prayed in aid; it was a cry for help for people who felt left behind by globalisation, or it was a protest in parts of the country where people felt that their public infra- structure was under threat from immigration. A whole range of reasons was given, but there was no lack of clarity as to why people voted as they did.

The other major theme running through our debate is that if you have a referendum, you should know what you are voting for, a point made with force by the report of the UCL commission about which the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, spoke—that if you have a referendum, you should know in advance exactly what the outcome will be. As I think the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, said, in the case of UCL commission, it recommended that if that was not the case, you should have another one downstream when the result would be clear.

A number of noble Lords have argued that we should never have held the referendum. The problem with that argument is that membership of the EU has been a major political issue for 40 years and it has split our two largest parties. Prior to the 2015 general election, the only way a voter could indicate a very strong preference for leaving was by voting for the UK Independence Party—never likely to form a Government—and the only way a voter could indicate a strong preference for remaining was by voting Lib Dem. With respect to those who have spoken for that party and with whom I enjoyed working in coalition, it was never going to form a Government either. The former Prime Minister, David Cameron, took the view that the only way to resolve this long-running, contentious issue at the heart of our democracy was to grasp the nettle and hold a referendum. The noble Lord, Lord Bruce, made it clear that he thought that was a mistake and explained why. However, a general election could never give a clear verdict on this single issue, whereas a referendum does provide a clear expression of preference. The noble Lord, Lord Judd, said that we should resolve this by having another general election, but with great respect, I am not sure that another general election would resolve this particular issue.

Before the EU referendum, the Government were clear that they would respect the outcome and defer to the will of the people. The present Government have respected that view and are now committed to the UK leaving the EU. Like most noble Lords, I campaigned for remain and I was disappointed by the result. It might have been different if the EU had shown more flexibility on freedom of movement before the referendum was called, if remain had fought a better campaign, and if some politicians had not spent quite so much time and energy over the years making disobliging remarks about the EU. The result also might have been different—dare I say it?—if the Labour Party had been led by another leader.

Although I voted to remain, I respect the result of the referendum and I agree with my noble friend Lord Higgins: it is now for Parliament to proceed and deliver the results in the way it thinks best. To that extent, Parliament remains supreme. As a number of noble Lords have pointed out, referendums are not legally binding, so to that extent they cannot undermine parliamentary sovereignty. However, as my noble friend Lord Norton and others have said, while referendums may not be legally binding, they are politically binding with a cost involved in ignoring the outcome.

Confidence in the EU referendum outcome has recently been affected by allegations of electoral malpractice and foreign influence, and charges of criminal activities due to campaign overspends—a point made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, and the noble Lord, Lord Tyler. That rules have been breached is rightly a cause for concern but that does not mean that the rules were flawed. Of course, we should look again at the penalties, as said by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler. It is also my view that neither the breaches nor the alleged interference on social media could account for the majority of 1.3 million; I notice that the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, disagrees but I cannot substantiate my view by science. Although he quoted yesterday’s Times, it also came to the conclusion that the outcome would have been the same.

Where do we go from here? Previous Governments have chosen to bring forward stand-alone legislation for each referendum, which provides this House and the other place with the opportunity to amend legislation to include some of the suggestions that we have heard during the debate, such as thresholds for turnout and majorities if so desired. At the moment, the Government have no plans to depart from this approach, which has been the approach of previous Governments.

Many noble Lords put the debate in the broader context of how we engage with the public. The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, mentioned other means of communicating the growth of social media. He also drew attention to what I call the changes in the terms of the trade of politics—declining party membership, the rise in populism and the growth of social media—which form the background to any review that we might undertake of the legislation. On that point, a number of noble Lords suggested that we needed to revisit the legislation in the light of the experience of recent referendums, the growth of social media and some of the evidence referred to by noble Lords. I have a lot of sympathy for that view but, at the risk of repeating what I said earlier this week, we need a bit of time to absorb the important report of the Independent Commission on Referendums, launched on 11 July, to which a number of noble Lords referred. I was very impressed by the point made by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, on how two referendums in the same part of the United Kingdom can have different outcomes depending on the context in which they take place.

We need to have a good look at the commission’s recommendations, many of which are aimed at the Government. We should await the DCMS report on fake news to understand the impact of social media on elections; it has taken evidence from some of the key players in the referendum. We need the Intelligence and Security Committee’s report on the influence of Russia on the recent referendum and general election. We need the result of the Information Commissioner’s inquiry into breaches of data protection laws by Cambridge Analytica and Facebook, together with any outstanding Electoral Commission reports. When we have those important documents, it will make sense to stand back and take on board all their points—and those made in today’s debate—to see how the legislation can be strengthened and updated. Many helpful suggestions have been made today.

In the meantime, the Government will continue to work with the Electoral Commission and other stakeholders to protect the integrity, security and effectiveness of referendums and elections. In response to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, the Government will do what they can to build a consensus on any changes to the legislation that are needed. I thank all noble Lords for their collective eloquence and wisdom.