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Brexit: People’s Vote - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:25 pm on 25th October 2018.

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Photo of Lord Higgins Lord Higgins Conservative 12:25 pm, 25th October 2018

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Sugar. I very much agree with what he said about the referendum, which has ended up in a Brexit situation. The plain and simple term that we might use is that the public were given a false prospectus. Lie after lie emerged. I am afraid the fact is that, if we have another referendum, we will find a similar situation where the public will be misled. It might, however, be helpful to discover what has happened to the Brexiteers’ bus and plaster on the side of it the cost of withdrawal and the effect that is likely to have on the National Health Service.

I was very fortunate only a short time ago, on 19 July, to initiate a debate in this House on the overall case against referendums. I am anxious not to repeat what I said on that occasion, but I will repeat the essential point that I believe the use of referendums is not democratic. It is sold the whole time as being democratic. The reality is that referendums tend to undermine what we in this country have always meant by democracy—namely, the system of representative parliamentary democracy whereby people are elected to represent their constituents. They are representatives, not delegates. The trouble with the referendum is that, the moment we have a referendum result, we find a situation where Parliament and Members of Parliament are bound by that referendum. They are made to be delegates. That inevitably affects their position and does not enable them to exercise their judgment as they would wish.

I note with interest that the debate we are having is not simply, “Let’s rerun the previous referendum”; it is saying that we should have a referendum on the result of the negotiations. That would again be open to the danger I have just said. The crucial thing is that Parliament should have the chance to have a vote that enables it to decide on the result of the negotiations. That will be a tremendously important task.

I was interested to see the enormous size of the march that took place in favour of the kind of proposition we have before us, but I do not think that there is the slightest doubt that the overwhelming majority of those who took part in it were really, in fact, against Brexit. They hoped that the chance of another referendum would enable them to overturn that result. As I say, that issue is separate from the result of the negotiations, but that is the way they felt. I think very strongly indeed that that would be an inappropriate way to do it.

Finally, I turn to the question of the way the referendum might be cast. The Bill for the last referendum—I took part at length in the debates—could not have been clearer in favour of an advisory referendum. It was not a mandatory referendum, but the moment the result was announced, everyone on the government side treated it as if it were. We hear time and again—indeed, some of us heard again last night—that the referendum was an instruction to Parliament. It was no such thing. We really cannot have a situation where the rights of Members of Parliament to govern this country are undermined by them being given instruction by referendum.