EU Referendum: Lessons Learned - Question

– in the House of Lords at 2:36 pm on 20 May 2019.

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Photo of Lord Dobbs Lord Dobbs Conservative 2:36, 20 May 2019

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to establish a Royal Commission or equivalent inquiry to examine the lessons to be learned from the 2016 European Union referendum and subsequent events.

Photo of Lord Young of Cookham Lord Young of Cookham Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

My Lords, the Government have no plans to establish a public inquiry on the conduct of the EU referendum. We continue to actively consider the recommendations made by Parliament, the Electoral Commission and others on the referendum and subsequent election, and recently responded to some of the consultations in our response to Protecting the Debate. We are determined to have an electoral system that is fit for purpose and enhances confidence in our democratic institutions.

Photo of Lord Dobbs Lord Dobbs Conservative

I thank my noble friend for that encouraging reply, but it seems that our constitution is becoming a bit of a parliamentary pantomime— Downing Street, the House of Commons, the Cabinet and even the Speaker are making it up as they go along. No one knows what to expect any longer. As for that solemn and binding promise to the voters before the last referendum—that they would decide—it is quite clear that our constitution is not only unwritten but unravelling. There is a growing suspicion that Theresa May is not a direct descendant of Erskine May. Will the Government accept as a priority the need to rebuild that trust which binds our constitution and which we politicians have thrown away? If not a royal commission, will my noble friends on the Front Bench at least consider allowing a full-scale debate in this House to get the ball rolling?

Photo of Lord Young of Cookham Lord Young of Cookham Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

My Lords, as I listened to my noble friend warm to his theme of trust, I asked myself whether his infamous depiction in House of Cards of the Government Chief Whip—a position I was privileged to hold—as a duplicitous, homicidal adulterer had enhanced trust in our profession. As for my noble friend’s question and request for a debate, he will have noticed that the Government’s legislative programme currently has a bit of headroom. I hope there will be time for a debate, and the usual channels will have noted his request. To answer his question more seriously, since the referendum there has been a serious issue of trust between the people and Parliament. It is well known that most of Parliament voted to remain and the people voted to leave, and the resultant deadlock has helped undermine confidence in our democratic institutions. My view is that we will not begin to restore trust until that deadlock is resolved one way or another.

Photo of Lord Tyler Lord Tyler Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Constitutional and Political Reform)

My Lords, does the Minister recognise that members of all parties represented in Parliament share the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs? We need to take them seriously, despite what the Minister just said. Surely, however, a royal commission is far too slow. Given that the 2016 leave campaign has been found guilty of breaking electoral law, and accepting that a further referendum may be required later this year, surely the Government will have to act much faster. As the Minister knows and has indicated, there is space for legislation at the moment. The legislation drafted by our cross-party group could be approved and receive Royal Assent before the Summer Recess, and then the poll could take place in September. However, does he not agree that effective regulation of campaign expenses should be agreed as a matter of urgency?

Photo of Lord Young of Cookham Lord Young of Cookham Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

Were there to be another referendum, as the noble Lord knows, there would have to be primary legislation first, so noble Lords would have an opportunity to amend it. Last time, the House of Lords changed the legislation for the referendum to make it more difficult for parties to act in concert. However, if the noble Lord wants a referendum, my advice to his party is that it needs to vote for the deal. Unless you have a deal, you cannot have a referendum, and the referendum does not just happen—you need a Bill. The right thing for the noble Lord and his colleagues to do is to vote for the deal and then seek to amend the Bill to see whether there is public support in the other place for a referendum.

Photo of Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve Crossbench

Will the Minister recognise that we may have a referendum or an election before many would wish either to happen? Is it not prudent, therefore, to take some steps to regulate political advertising, both online and digitally, to try to get an imprint on every political advertisement and to bring political advertising back under the requirement to say who paid for it?

Photo of Lord Young of Cookham Lord Young of Cookham Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I entirely agree with the noble Baroness. I welcome what Facebook has already done in identifying political advertisements on its system. A review of online advertising was announced on 12 February to look into what is called the advertising ecosystem. As regards digital imprints, I agree with the noble Baroness; we announced two weeks ago that we agreed in principle that there should be an imprint on digital advertising, as there is on printed material, and we are about to consult on exactly what that should cover and when it should be introduced. But again, were there to be a referendum in the near future, there would need to be specific legislation to deal with it.

Photo of Lord Tomlinson Lord Tomlinson Labour

My Lords, I am not wildly enthusiastic about referenda—I was not enthusiastic the first time round and I am not for a second one. Would it not be better to take action now to create the circumstances in which we can have a proper national debate about what we want rather than what we do not want, which would best be facilitated by revoking Article 50?

Photo of Lord Young of Cookham Lord Young of Cookham Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

As the noble Lord will know, that is not the Government’s policy, nor would it be consistent with the decision of the electorate two years ago. To return to the first part of his question, I agree that we should have a debate. A good report on referendums was produced by the Constitution Unit at UCL, on which the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, sat, together with Jenny Watson, the chair of the Electoral Commission. There have been other reports on referendums, which I mentioned in my original reply. I agree wholeheartedly that we could have a useful debate. I am not in favour of a royal commission—we do not have time for that.

Photo of Viscount Hailsham Viscount Hailsham Conservative

My noble friend has referred to deadlock. Does he agree that the answer to that is to hold a further referendum?

Photo of Lord Young of Cookham Lord Young of Cookham Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I think I heard the question of my noble friend Lord Hailsham more clearly than the one behind me. I think my noble friend said that we should have another referendum. If he wants another referendum, and if there is enough support for it in the other place—which at the moment looks doubtful—everyone in the other place who wants another referendum should vote for the deal. They can then seek to amend the legislation to facilitate a referendum, but without a deal and without a Bill, you cannot have a referendum.

Photo of Lord Tebbit Lord Tebbit Conservative

Does my noble friend not agree that the most important thing to decide is that we should never again allow a Government to spend vast amounts of taxpayers’ money on the subject of the referendum immediately before it then declares the campaign open? We had Project Fear last time: a whole load of tax-financed rubbish designed to influence the outcome. That should be prohibited.

Photo of Lord Tebbit Lord Tebbit Conservative

No, I said government spending on one side.

Photo of Lord Young of Cookham Lord Young of Cookham Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

Ah. The legislation in the PPERA guaranteed that were there to be a referendum, there would be a certain amount of public support for both sides. I think my noble friend is referring to the leaflet issued by the government. Again, that is in accordance with the legislation, which is exactly what happened in the 1975 referendum: leaflets were issued on the Government’s behalf setting out their view.