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Referendums - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:04 pm on 13th June 2019.

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Photo of Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Labour 3:04 pm, 13th June 2019

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lords, Lord Cormack and Lord Soley. In my view, referenda are incompatible with our parliamentary democracy. I have always been against them. As other noble Lords have said, we have always associated referenda with Switzerland, which has an entirely different constitution from ours. The Swiss are the experts on them.

In 2018, the Swiss held 10 national referendums on a range of issues, including financial regulation and agricultural policy, so they are the real experts. In April, however, the Swiss supreme court took a historic step, overturning a nationwide referendum result and ordering a re-run, for the first time ever, on the basis that the information given to voters was insufficient. The court concluded:

“Given the tight outcome of the vote and the seriousness of the irregularities, it is possible that the result of the ballot would have been different”.

Even Switzerland, the country that relies more on referenda than any other, recognised that basic danger of irregularities—insufficient information and unreliable results. Natural justice says to put the question again.

Since our 2016 referendum, there has been massive evidence of wrongdoing in how the campaign was conducted. The official leave group has been fined by the Electoral Commission and is being investigated by the Metropolitan Police. There have also been allegations of overspending and, of course, Russian involvement. The multiple falsehoods on which the leave campaign was based are now beyond doubt. There is no rational or democratic reason why a 52:48 vote, in these circumstances and on a constitutional issue, should be treated as the last word. The 1979 Scottish referendum had exactly the same result, 52% to 48%, but it was not binding or brought in because there was a threshold in that referendum. It was decided that the constitution could not be changed because of the threshold, yet it was probably less important than the EU referendum.

As I said, I am no fan of the use of referendums. They should be kept out of our constitution as far as possible. However, if there is to be another, more powers and sanctions should be given to the Electoral Commission to regulate them and ensure that they are conducted properly. I agree with noble Lords who have suggested there should be a Bill. If constitutional issues are at stake, thresholds should be put in place.

Finally, I recommend that we take account of the recommendations of the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe. It has provided a framework to ensure that referenda are consistent with our democratic system. It covers everything including the age of voters, funding, the role of the media and thresholds. If these guidelines are followed by the Electoral Commission, it would help to ensure that future referenda are carried out to the highest possible standard and in accordance with the law. To uphold our democratic principles, we need to learn from the disgraceful events of 2016 and ensure that they do not happen again.