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Baroness Hamwee: My noble friend Lord Tope has just suggested that I should have checked the figures before the debate. We believe that it is not impossible, indeed not unlikely, that all London boroughs, or certainly the majority of them, have governments imposed on them at local level. It had occurred to me before, although I have not pursued the figures, that were this test to be applied to some local government elections it would produce a very embarrassing answer, possibly even to some of us taking part in this debate.
We have had discussions around the question of thresholds in connection with other referendums. I do not regard it as a part of the way in which our system works to require that a threshold is to be met. It is the fault of politicians if we cannot stir up voters to express their support or opposition to whatever or whoever is being proposed. After all, our voters have the right not to vote.
I wonder too in this case what the outcome would be if the thresholds were not met. Would there be no government for London and no mayor? Or would it mean, in the case of members of the assembly, members for some parts of London but not for others? I simply leave that idea hanging in the air.
We do not support--in fact we very much oppose--the suggestion of thresholds both for turnout and for support. It may be that our democracy in the United Kingdom will move forward and that better turnouts will be achieved. I do not believe that requiring a level of turnout is the way to achieve participation in the democratic process.
Lord Archer of Weston-Super-Mare: I wonder whether the Minister would consider the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, at Second Reading, which I expected her to mention. I think that everybody in this Chamber who believes that London needs a mayor, a Greater London authority, or whatever it might be, believes it would be sensible for as many people as possible to vote. It would not be incredible to suggest that if the turnout was over 50 per cent. one would feel more confident.
I gained the impression from the Secretary of State for Scotland that one of the things that most delighted him was the turnout in the Scottish referendum. I believe exactly the same. It is vitally important that we have a high turnout.
To return to my former point, I wonder whether the Minister will reconsider the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. Perhaps the time allowed for voting on this one occasion should be extended. No one could then say that the voting figures would have been higher if people coming into London early in the morning and those going out of London late at night had had the opportunity to give their opinion. Will the Minister be kind enough to consider that point?
Baroness Hayman: We shall deal with the issue of opening hours when we debate a separate amendment shortly. However, it is interesting that the noble Lord, Lord Archer, poses the question in that way. The debate then enters the realms of matters raised in relation to the two questions--of analysing the "might-have-beens", the motivations, the "what-would-have-happened-ifs", and of what people really meant when they voted "yes" to one and "no" to the other. It raises all sorts of elements that work against clarity and simplicity. We believe that there are great virtues in clarity and simplicity in terms of this referendum.
The Government are opposed to artificial thresholds. We very much support the view of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, in her contribution to the debate on the amendment rather than on her specific point at Second Reading about the dangers of artificial thresholds. They can be turned into wrecking devices, and any figures are open to argument and interpretation.
As my honourable friend the Minister for Transport in London made clear in another place, this referendum will be advisory, as is the case with all pre-legislative referenda. The referendum is a device employed by Parliament to test the views of the public on a clear proposition and point of principle--in this case whether Londoners are in favour of our plans for a Greater London authority.
After the referendum it will be for the Government and Parliament to reflect on the results. That is why the insertion of any form of threshold would be inappropriate. The people of London will vote in a referendum and Parliament will take that vote into account. I share the views expressed about maximising the turnout. There are many effective ways of stimulating interest and making people feel really involved in the issue.
While I do not want to bandy definitions and semantics with the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, I hope and believe that when we come to the election for the Greater London authority, it will be seen as less dry than simply a reorganisation of local government. We are seeking to create strategic city-wide leadership for the capital of this country. That is an exciting and important development. We need the commitment and participation of as many Londoners as possible.
We are confident that we shall have a high turnout in May and a real vote of clear support for our proposals. But even in the event of a low turnout, there is no case for allowing those who stay at home effectively to be counted as "no" votes. That is reading into them a motivation of which we cannot be certain. Staying at home hardly indicates burning opposition. If Londoners wish to accept or reject our proposals, they must participate in the referendum. We will give them that opportunity, and encourage them to use it. That we believe is the democratic way to proceed.
These amendments, if enacted, could produce a situation where we held a referendum, the people of London could turn out in their millions to make their democratic choice and the chief counting officer would be unable to certify the results if fewer than 50 per cent. or 30 per cent. had voted in a manner acceptable to the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, in his proposition. That would be a ridiculous situation. The people of London deserve to know how they have voted. Parliament, having provided for the referendum, would be entitled to ask what the answer was. It would then be obliged to take account of that answer and the votes cast. They would have to consider them in their deliberations. But I suggest to the Committee that imposing false and arbitrary thresholds would not be helpful on this occasion. I urge the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.
Lord Elton: Before my noble friend replies, perhaps I may comment on what the noble Baroness said in opening. She invited the Committee to remember that this was merely an advisory process and that it would be open to Parliament thereafter to decide that, because a turnout had been low, the "yes" vote was not sufficiently vigorous to justify a change.
The reality is that--and Wales is the proof of this--if there is the narrowest of majorities or the lowest of turnouts, the Government will let out a shout of delight and say: "This is what London wants". Therefore we have to treat it as though it is more than an advisory device, as though a substantive question was being answered.
That brings me to the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, which was taken up by the Minister. My noble friend referred to her Second Reading speech and, not having heard it, I pause for a moment to recollect. The noble Baroness said that as in an election, one should be satisfied with a low turnout and if one objected to the result of an election or a referendum on a low turnout, one should also object to the imposition, by minority, of a government on a local authority or on the whole of London.
That is not a fair comparison because when we come to a general election or local authority election we have to produce an incoming administration. We cannot have a vacuum. Someone must appoint whoever will occupy the position of power for the next four years or however long it is. But we do not have to have a change in London; it is perfectly acceptable to leave things as they are. It would not be an end to the world, nor would there be an end to the government of London. Therefore, we need more than acquiescence by a majority in a decision by a minority. That adds great strength to my noble friend's argument that there should be a threshold. Perhaps the Minister would like to tell us whether she would regard a majority on a 25 per cent. turnout as being sufficient grounds for endorsing the Government's policy.
Lord Harris of Greenwich: I find some of the arguments which have been addressed by the Conservative Party during this debate pretty strange. The noble Baroness referred to the idea that non-voters could impose a veto, but in my view that is ludicrous. If people feel strongly on the issue or have a firm view one way or the other, they will come out and vote. If there is a disappointingly low turnout, the Conservative Party and those who agree with it can use it in the argument which will take place in both Houses. However, the idea that the non-voter can veto a major proposal for a constitutional change is one of the strangest that I have ever heard in this Chamber.
Baroness Hayman: I am not sure that I can add a great deal to that. Perhaps I may respond once again on the issues. We are opposed to artificial thresholds. The results of the referendum will have to be considered by both government and Parliament. Government have made quite clear that if the proposals are not voted for by a majority then they will not pursue them. That is a risk that we will take. We would be disappointed, but we will respect the democratic will of the people of London and reflect it. Once we go beyond that proposition, we get into a murky area. We run into all the dangers of interpreting the votes of people who abstained. I suggest that that is dangerous and urge the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.
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