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Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I am grateful to the Minister for that detailed reply and to the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, for intervening in the debate. It came about as a result of my amendment and that tabled by my noble friend Lord Norton. The noble Lord, Lord Bassam, told us that arguing with his mother brought him into politics. Perhaps I may say that his mother has a lot to answer for!
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I accept that there are defects in the figure of 60 per cent of the eligible vote--even 50 per cent--because the electoral register is never entirely up to date. However, as the Minister fairly said, that will change and improve with the rolling register. There is no doubt that in 1979 in Scotland it was not up to date. I believe that the referendum took place in the autumn but I had better not pursue that point because I honestly cannot remember.
I accept that the register was not entirely up to date, whereas rolling registers will be much better but not perfect. Honours are even between the Minister and myself as regards the accuracy of the register. They will certainly be more accurate in the future.
The Minister said that we on these Benches cannot have it both ways. He said that we like the first-past-the-post system and a simple majority for elections but that we do not like it for referendums. I suggest that when one moves from the football field to the rugby field the rules change because they are two different games. I believe that a general election, or a local government election, and a referendum are two different ball games. A referendum is a single-issue decision, although it might be divided into two parts. There is no election of individuals; there is one issue and everybody in the country decides the matter one way or the other.
When one comes to parliamentary or council elections, people elect candidates on the basis of a range of issues, not just one. I do not believe that any election has ever been fought on one issue. Occasionally, parties have attempted to do so, but all the evidence suggests that they have failed. Elections also elect Members of Parliament or councillors who then go on to make decisions on a range of issues. Therefore, one is not looking at like for like.
I do not believe that we are being inconsistent in saying that referendums are different and we should look very carefully at what we do. Referendums also tend to have irreversible outcomes, unlike elections to either local authorities or Parliament. The outcome of one election can be reversed at the next, which is the nature of politics. It is hard to believe that any of the referendums in the past few years could be easily reversed. A great head of steam would be required before one was in a position to hold such a referendum. Therefore, I believe that there is a very significant difference.
Both the Minister and the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, quite rightly pointed out some of the defects in my amendment. As the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, said, simply by failing to vote people can keep the turnout down and in that way prevent the other side winning. I accept that that is one of the defects. Ironically, in Italy some of the people who wanted change did not vote. I could never understand the logic of it, despite efforts by my daughter to explain it to me. I find Italian politics even more difficult to understand than British politics. I still believe--dare I say it?--that a threshold has great relevance. Even though I totally favour the outcome that the Italians sought, it is right that less than half of them wanted to make a major constitutional change such as to alter drastically the system of voting. One questions whether one should make such a major constitutional change.
At times I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, was moving towards the amendments that I tabled eventually to the Scotland Bill which tied majority to turnout. I apologise to the noble Lord if I do not give the exact figures. I believe he suggested that if 38 per cent of the electorate voted "yes" and 32 per cent "no"--a 70 per cent turnout--it should be more than enough. I wholly agree with the noble Lord. My point is that, if there is only a 25 per cent turnout--at this time of night I am not sufficiently quick on my feet--and it is a 38:32 split, do we really regard that as sufficient? For the Minister to say that that matter can be left until there is an individual issue before us is not satisfactory. When that individual issue is before us the battle lines are drawn, just as potentially we have the battle lines on the euro referendum hanging over the whole of this debate on the Bill, as we shall probably see shortly. I want to look at referendums in the round, regardless of the subject and whether I am for or against it. What kind of ground rules and thresholds should be laid down?
I accept the problem with my amendment. I am much more attracted by the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Norton. To try to tempt the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, to come into my camp, I may even try on him thresholds which balance turnout as against majority. Therefore, the larger the turnout the nearer one comes to an overall simple majority. The smaller the turnout the greater the need for some form of qualified majority. If the Minister wants a little preview, he will know exactly what I mean if he looks at the proceedings on the Referendums (Scotland and Wales) Bill in the summer of 1997. I shall not go any
I should point out that the Government, in response to concerns raised at Committee stage in another place, brought forward amendments at Report stage to narrow the definition of recognised third parties and permitted participants so as to exclude foreign companies and unincorporated associations. We did not, however, consider it appropriate to narrow the definition in respect of individuals. The Government are, as the noble Lord has pointed out, committed to banning the foreign funding of political parties in the United Kingdom. It is right that the ban should extend to the foreign funding of participants in a referendum campaign here. The justification for that policy is that those who participate in our political processes should not be dependent upon funding from those who do not live, work or carry on business here.
How parties are funded is one matter. The freedom of individuals to express their own opinions is quite another. The Government believe that to restrict the ability of individuals, whether or not they are entitled to vote, to express and promote their own opinions would be an undue restriction and fettering on their freedom of expression. Such considerations do not, however, apply to foreign nationals who are not resident in this country. The Government's Amendment No. 230A therefore makes it clear that only those individuals either resident in the United Kingdom or resident abroad but registered to vote here are eligible to be a permitted participant. That feeds through to Amendment No. 232E, which recognises that an overseas voter would not have a home address in this country and must therefore supply the electoral commission with an address elsewhere.
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