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Referendums - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:01 pm on 13th June 2019.

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Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative 3:01 pm, 13th June 2019

My Lords, I entirely agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe, said at the beginning of his brief speech. He said it is ridiculous that we have such a short time to debate such a major subject. It is important that we try to take a grip of the parliamentary timetable. The House will rise at about 6 pm today; there is no reason at all why we should not rise at 7 pm or 7.30 pm, so that people have a proper opportunity to discuss this most important subject. We are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Soley, for bringing it up.

I want to make one real point and it is this: referendums are inimical to representative democracy, but we have to accept, as the noble Lord, Lord Soley, and my noble friend Lord Norton, said, that they are now part of our system. We need a referendum Bill, becoming a referendum Act, to regulate how they are held. We should first specify that there has to be a certain turnout for a referendum to be valid. Secondly, there has to be an agreed threshold before the referendum can take effect. We had that in 1979 with Scotland. When I came out of Lincoln Cathedral on the morning after the referendum in 2016, one of my fellow congregants said to me, “Even in my golf club we need a two-thirds majority to change the constitution”. We are all, individually and collectively, at fault for not doing that before the 2016 referendum. In any referendum Act, we should certainly do that.

There should be a final provision in such an Act to say that, when an issue has been decided, it cannot be brought before the people again for a specified time. That might be three, five or 10 years, but it would be ridiculous to create a situation in which you could have a referendum at the whim of a group of people. On that issue, I therefore agree with my noble friend Lord Robathan; that is why I have not supported a second referendum. It would be confusion worse confounded to have one. But I believe in parliamentary democracy. Parliament’s will should prevail. Where there is a referendum, it should be carefully determined and regulated. Most of the referenda that we have had in this country have, in effect, been to ratify a decision already taken in Parliament.