Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I am grateful for the noble Lord's comments. I followed what he said and I understand the point about the umbrella organisations perhaps needing to be identified and the spending limits needing to be put in place before the legislation is finally passed for a specific referendum. I shall read carefully what the noble Lord said with a special eye to making sure that the order-making powers do not encompass wider matters than the items he mentioned, as I have suspicions--I cannot think why I should have--about giving Ministers too much power. I am never entirely sure whether they can always be trusted and in every circumstance. I am grateful for the noble Lord's explanation. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 97 agreed to.

[Amendments Nos. 225 to 228 not moved.]

Clauses 98 and 99 agreed to.

[Amendment No. 229 not moved.]

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish moved Amendment No. 230:


(" . Any referendum to which section 97(1) applies shall be considered valid only if more than 60 per cent. of eligible voters cast a valid ballot.").

18 Oct 2000 : Column 1173

The noble Lord said: In moving Amendment No. 230, I wish to speak also to Amendment No. 244 which stands in the name of my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth. I am delighted that I have arrived back in time to discuss this amendment. It is partly a probing amendment. It introduces the question of thresholds and referendums. We went over that in some detail during the passage of the referendums measure in the summer of 1997 on the Scotland and Wales legislation. We probably touched on it when setting up the referendum about the government of London.

While I do not particularly approve of referendums, I accept that we are beginning to see more use made of them. The problem then is this. At what stage would a turnout in a referendum be considered inadequate to allow us to come to any conclusion about the will of the electorate? I am pleased to see at least one member of the Nairne Commission present in the Chamber today. That commission discussed the issue. To be fair, it did not come to a hard and fast conclusion, but it posed the question which we, now dealing with a general Bill on referendums, should address. Whether this is the right time to address the various options that could be considered for thresholds in referendums I am not entirely sure.

What is true, as the Nairne Commission points out in paragraph 96, is that in other countries which hold referendums there are some threshold qualifications. Australia requires a majority of voters nationally--that is what we would require in this country--but more particularly it requires a majority of voters in at least four out of the six states. The position in New Zealand has changed, but for a while it required a 60 per cent "yes" vote. Italy--Members of the Committee will not be surprised that I know a little about it--requires a 50 per cent turnout. Unless there is a 50 per cent turnout the results of the referendum do not count. I may return to that in a moment. I do not think that the other countries are relevant to our argument.

After paragraph 100 of the Nairne report, guideline 8 states:

    "The use of thresholds is a political decision".

That is a good piece of pass-the-parcel. It continues:

    "If a threshold is used, it should be a set percentage of the votes cast and not a percentage of the eligible electorate".

The Committee will see that my amendment infringes that; I hope that that is neither here nor there when we discuss the principle. The guideline states:

    "If thresholds are set, a clear explanation of the meaning of the threshold for the electorate should be included in the public information provided".

One of the most controversial aspects of the 1979 referendum on devolution was that a threshold was set of 40 per cent of the electorate voting in favour. That 40 per cent was not reached. The "yes" vote won a very narrow majority. I do not want to go into too many of the arguments, but I could argue, and have argued, that if there had not been a threshold of 40 per cent it is possible that the "no" votes might have won. In addition to the "yes" campaign trying to get "yes"

18 Oct 2000 : Column 1174

voters out--which it did--it indicated that one did not have to go out to vote "no". Mathematically that was strictly accurate. If the "yes" vote could not pull out more than 40 per cent of the electorate it could not win, so the "no" votes could stay at home. I submit that there is a possibility that if that had not been the case, some "no" votes would have voted who did not do so and the "no" vote would have won and, dare I say,--the course of history would have been markedly changed.

I do not go over the issue as spilt milk but put it forward as an example of a referendum where the threshold looked arguable at the time but had a reverse consequence for the people who proposed it; they wanted the "no" vote to win. It may have been better for them if the referendum had been carried out in a straightforward manner. The "no" vote might have won, instead of which the "yes" vote failed to win but the "no" vote did not win either. Therefore, it was a little like the Battle of Killiecrankie, about which the poem says:

    "Some say that we won

And some say that they won

And some say that nane won at all".

I cannot remember the rest, but one thing is sure: there was a battle there. Perhaps it is just as well for Hansard that I cannot remember the rest.

That is the danger of thresholds. However, on the other side lies the question: if the threshold is very low, is that good for democracy? After all, all Members of this Committee and, indeed, politicians outside the Chamber worry about low turnouts in local elections. Equally, we should worry--in fact, I submit that we should worry more--about low turnouts in referendums. While a very low turnout in a local election can perhaps put one party in power for three or four years, a referendum can change the whole nature of the constitution of a country, as did referendums in Scotland and Wales and, in a lesser way, in London. Therefore, I believe that referendums are quite different. We may be concerned about low turnouts at local elections, but we should be much more concerned about low turnouts in referendums.

The Scottish referendum in 1997 had, in my view as one of the losers, a perfectly satisfactory turnout and, more importantly, the result was overwhelmingly "yes". Therefore, it almost passed two tests. There was a good turnout--not terrific, if my memory serves me correctly, but good--and there was a substantial majority. It was not simply a balanced majority; it was substantial. Therefore, no one in Scotland now questions the settlement. Those who, like me, opposed it, accept it absolutely. My party sits in the Scottish Parliament and does its bit to try to make it work. Therefore, that was a clear-cut referendum.

I believe that the Welsh referendum was different. Indeed, if it had been held on the same day as the Scottish one, I do not believe that we would have a Welsh Assembly. However, the Government were aware of that and, despite my best endeavours to persuade your Lordships to the contrary, we did not succeed in holding the referendums on the same day. Be that as it may, the real problem in relation to the

18 Oct 2000 : Column 1175

Welsh referendum was that the turnout was fairly dreadful. Today I am very reliant on my notes about statistics. I always like to check my own statistics, but I believe that the turnout was approximately 25 per cent. Perhaps it was not quite as low as that but it was very low. However, certainly only 50.5 per cent voted "yes" and, by my arithmetic, 49.5 per cent voted "no". It was a fairly unsatisfactory position.

As it happens, the Welsh Assembly is staggering on and, perhaps fortunately, the Conservative Party in Wales has accepted the outcome. Like the Conservative Party in Scotland, it is working inside it. However, if that had not been the case and if the people who were defeated on a very low turnout took the same view as those who were defeated in 1979 in Scotland and kept revisiting the issue, can Members of the Committee imagine the constitutional instability that that would cause in Wales?

We then moved on to London, where the turnout was under 25 per cent--if I may submit, a very unsatisfactory turnout for such a change.

In this amendment I ask whether we should have a threshold. I mentioned Italy, which has a threshold of a 50 per cent turnout. Interestingly, twice in recent times--probably within the past year or so--referendums have been held to change from proportional representation, which is such a disaster for Italian politics, to the first-past-the-post system, which we in this country should treasure and not give up. Unfortunately, in both those referendums, the turnout has not reached 50 per cent. Despite the fact that in the last referendum, if my memory serves me correctly, something like 90 per cent of the people who voted voted to change the system to first past the post, the referendum was declared invalid.

I believe that that outcome is a pity for Italian politics. It is a great pity that 51 per cent did not vote. Mr Berlusconi very foolishly told his supporters to boycott the referendum in the hope that it would bring down the government. If ever there was a short-sighted policy when there was a long-term, sensible objective to be gained, that was it. But I shall not indulge too much in Italian politics. The important point is that the turnout did not reach 50 per cent. I believe that there should be some form of threshold.

My amendment provides a figure of 60 per cent of eligible voters. My noble friend Lord Norton of Louth has a different formula. When we were dealing with the Scotland Bill I tried to devise a rather more complicated formula which was a mixture of the turnout against the majority, so that in a very large turnout a narrow majority was more than sufficient. In a very small turnout the "yes" vote had to achieve a much larger majority but it could still win so long as a sufficiently large majority of a small turnout voted "yes". I shall not go into the complications, although I may do so at Report stage when we can discuss it if that is one of the problems raised by the question of thresholds.

The real point is that this is a general referendums Bill. We consider some form of threshold. I have chosen the figure of 60 per cent. I shall not embark on

18 Oct 2000 : Column 1176

any form of horse-trading with the Minister or anybody else but I should accept a slightly lower figure than that.

I want some sort of threshold that a 25 per cent turnout just will not do. As I said, in the future we may be deciding very important constitutional issues for the future of our country, just as we did with Scotland and Wales. Very low turnouts are not a sufficient reason for us then to change the constitutional arrangements of our country. This is a serious issue. I am sorry that it is being discussed at this late hour. I am sure that the Minister will address it seriously. I look forward to both his reply and the contribution of my noble friend, from his status as a professor of politics. I beg to move.

[Amendment No. 230ZA, as an amendment to Amendment No. 230, not moved.]

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page