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Viscount Cranborne: Before my noble friend sits down, in the context in which he used the word "Parliament", does he not really mean "the government of the day"?

Lord Norton of Louth: My view is that it is up to Parliament to decide those issues. If Parliament has the political will, that is a matter for Parliament. If Parliament is not strong enough, that is an argument for strengthening Parliament and not for passing decision-making to other bodies.

Baroness Blatch: Before my noble friend sits down, perhaps I may ask a second question. Does he not agree that on a matter of such importance Parliament should have the last word? Does he agree that, given that the Thatcher government had a large majority and that the present Government have a large majority, as my noble friend Lord Cranborne said, the matter would be in the hands of the government of the day as opposed to Parliament, although technically Parliament would make the decision? Does he not agree that at least a threshold should be passed in deciding something of such constitutional importance and that one suggestion--the suggestion enshrined in this amendment--would be one way to make a judgment? If that is not acceptable, would he at least accept in its place a threshold that must be passed?

Lord Norton of Louth: I would accept that completely, and I look forward to receiving the support of my noble friend when shortly we deal with my amendment which seeks to impose a 40 per cent threshold in any referendum.

Lord Dean of Harptree: I support the principle of the amendments, although I am doubtful about the details. Having heard my noble friend just now, I am even more doubtful. As is well known, our constitution is largely unwritten. The advantage of that is that it suits the way in which we deal with matters in this country. It has flexibility which enables us to react to immediate situations without having to go through a ponderous procedure of amending rules and regulations. However, the danger is that changes can be rushed through with undue haste and without proper consideration for the consequences. That happens whichever government are in office. This is not a party political point at all.

What goes for the constitution of the country in general goes also for parliamentary procedures. In your Lordships' House, we have relatively few Standing Orders. We proceed by consensus and common sense and by self-regulation. In another place, there are more Standing Orders but there too, consensus is necessary. My noble friend the Chief Whip will agree that neither House could function properly without the co-operation of the usual channels.

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There are two principles. The first principle is that the government of the day are entitled to get their business after due debate if they can command a majority. Equally, the opposition of the day are entitled to have adequate time to debate, to probe weaknesses and to persuade.

That is a delicate balance which can work only with give and take. That applies in particular to Bills of major constitutional importance. We are now in a position where those Bills of major constitutional importance are subject to the same procedure as that for Bills of minor significance. There was a time when there was a convention in another place, which the noble Lord, Lord Owen, and my noble friend Lord Cranborne will remember very well, whereby Bills of major constitutional importance had certain procedural safeguards. They were taken without a guillotine; and they were taken completely on the Floor of the House rather than being sent upstairs.

That convention has been discarded in this Parliament. Whatever people may feel about the merits of the constitutional Bills which have gone through in this Parliament, many people feel that that is an erosion of parliamentary procedure.

What is to be done? I am delighted that your Lordships' House has agreed that we shall have a constitutional committee which will alert the House to the constitutional implications of all Bills which are brought before it. I hope that that new committee, when it is set up, will be as valuable as the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee which alerts the House to the advisability or otherwise of delegated powers in Bills. I hope that the new committee will fulfil a similar function and will be able to point the House to the need to consider constitutional points in Bills which require special attention.

I suggest to the Committee that that is a good start and I hope that that committee will be up and running very soon. But is it enough? I doubt it. We need new procedures, both in Parliament and for the electorate, which will give more time for mature consideration and more protection against governments of any colour who are in a hurry.

I do not expect the Minister to accept any of these amendments this evening. But I hope that he will at least give a fair wind to the principle which has come out very clearly in all the speeches which have been made on the amendments.

Baroness Fookes: I share the views of my noble friend Lord Norton about the inadvisability of holding referenda. For my part, I should prefer that there were none at all. But since we are to have them, it is extremely important that we should set down clear and proper rules on the subject.

I turn to the proposals of the noble Lord, Lord Owen. I am extremely concerned about giving the Speaker of the House of Commons what seems to me an intolerable burden. For five years, I was a Deputy Speaker in the other place and there are only three Deputy Speakers plus the Speaker. Therefore, it is an extremely tight-knit arrangement. One saw at very

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close hand the normal strains and stresses placed on a Speaker, without this quite different arrangement which must, or would, draw the Speaker into considerable political controversy. I do not see how the Speaker could maintain impartiality in those circumstances.

If this amendment were to be agreed, I wonder what would happen if the Speaker refused to exercise such a decision. I should have thought that it would be within the powers of the Speaker to do that. I do not know what sanction there would be if the Speaker made that choice. Therefore, I believe that this would be a difficult provision to have on the statute book. Although I regret to differ from the noble Lord, Lord Owen--after many years as a neighbour in Plymouth--I cannot support this amendment.

10.15 p.m.

Lord Alderdice: The Committee has every reason to be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Owen, for bringing this matter to your Lordships' attention. He has pointed out that in recent times we have seen substantial constitutional changes--we must regard them as exciting constitutional changes--and they have stimulated him to encourage the Committee to consider how such matters may be dealt with properly, which is extremely helpful.

The noble Lord has also suggested that the Speaker of the House of Commons is a person of such wisdom and integrity that the responsibility should be placed in that office. I am the last person to suggest that Speakers, whether of the House of Commons or other places, are not people of enormous wisdom in all matters. However, in so far as they have a role to play, it is largely within the House in which they operate. The noble Lord has said that it is often the fortune or otherwise of the Speaker to determine how to deal with matters of controversy and political difficulty. That is absolutely true; at least it is certainly true in the part of the world from which I come.

However, the problem with referendums is that not infrequently the controversy is not between the parties in the Chamber, but outside in the country. The Speaker has no particular mandate to address matters of controversy outside the Chamber and in the country as a whole. Whatever mechanism one chooses, this one, however immediately and superficially attractive it may be, does not appear to me to be appropriate.

There are other difficulties. The speed of the constitutional changes to which the noble Lord has drawn our attention, has changed the context. One constitutional change has been devolution, not only for Scotland and Wales, but also for Northern Ireland. Under the Good Friday agreement, a principle that had been in existence for a long time was enshrined in an international treaty: that is, that it would be for the people of Northern Ireland to determine whether they remain part of the United Kingdom. Prior to that it was for the parliament of Northern Ireland, but now it is for the people of Northern Ireland.

It seems to me curious to suggest that that is not a change of first-class constitutional importance. If the people of Northern Ireland were determined to leave

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the United Kingdom, the United Kingdom would no longer exist; it would return to being Great Britain. The presence of Northern Ireland makes it the United Kingdom. Therefore, one could not suggest that it was not a change of first-class constitutional importance.

It would also seem a little strange to leave the decision on whether there should be such a referendum in the hands of the Speaker of the House of Commons when it is already clear in law and in international treaty that it is for the people of Northern Ireland to address the matter. I suspect that as far as that decision is concerned, it would be right that the people of the Republic of Ireland would also have a say, as they would have to live with us after that, but that is not a matter for the Committee or another place.

The constitutional changes to which the noble Lord draws our attention have changed the context in such a way that the solution that he proposes is no longer sufficiently encompassing. But we should be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Owen. He pointed out for us the changes that have taken place and that are taking place, and that we must think about those matters. All that is true. It may be that extra belts and braces should be added to constitutional change by referendums. But there are many other mechanisms that could be used. The use of weighted majorities in Parliament has not been canvassed, nor mechanisms such as the involvement of your Lordships' Chamber.

So we should take the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Owen, as a trigger for thought and perhaps discussion over a prolonged period of time as we see the developments that take place. We could then find an appropriate way, at some later stage, to address how we deal with the exciting constitutional changes that are taking place and, as we saw rather sadly today north of the Border, point up that we no longer have one Prime Minister, but a number of Prime Ministers; no longer one Parliament, but a number of Parliaments; no longer one Speaker but a number of Speakers. We now have a constitutional variegation; a variable geometry of politics which makes the simple solution proposed in the amendment neither simple nor appropriate to the times.

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