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I hope that the Minister has not been using the previous version of the Bill throughout this Committee stage. I should hate to think that we shall have to go back through all the amendments and debate them again because the Minister has been referring to different lines.
Lord Rooker: It is a technical point. I suspect that it is because the words "The following statement" in subsection (2) means the words. The statement may not include the bullet points. The bullet points are the layout and the phrase,
Baroness Hamwee: I accept that. I do not know why parliamentary counsel is so paranoid or precise that he or she feels that if the line endings happen to come at slightly different points, this technical approach is needed to cover that. But there we go. It is not
Lord Rooker: No, let us be serious about this. Once the Bill has obtained Royal Assent someone who wanted to be a troublemaker might claim that "The following statement" must appear. He may say that the typesize must be the same or the line-spacing must be the same, whereas the form in which it appears to make it more legiblemore white space, a better typefaceis the form,
Baroness Hamwee: It depends which way the wind is blowing. That is extremely helpful. I am grateful to the Minister for spelling that out so clearly. I am not for a moment questioning the assurance that the Minister
Lord Rooker: After consulting and taking advice from the Electoral Commission before publishing the Bill, the Government made changes to the preamble to the question. The commission has now confirmed that it is content with the wording as set out in the Bill. We have no intention of changing that. Once the wording has been set out in the Act of Parliament, that will be it. The Electoral Commission would have approved the wording.
The noble Lord said: I am sorry to have to return once again to the wording of the preamble, but I think that it is necessary to seek a further amendment. In the course of the previous debate the Minister remarked that he was a little confused by the wording. I am pleased that we were able to clarify at least part of it.
We feel that the position should be made much clearer. The preamble should stress that the referendum is advisory to the Government. Therefore, we propose that a form of words making that point should be included, otherwise the public could be misled. In helping to decide, people may think that they may be actually deciding something when they come to vote, but in fact they are not. Ultimately, it will be for the Secretary of State to decide. We believe
The Deputy Chairman of Committees: I must further advise noble Lords that a mistake has been made in the line numbering of the Bill at this point. The amendment is to the first line of the statement, ending in a question mark.
Lord Stoddart of Swindon: I would oppose the amendment, as indeed I would oppose the wording set out in the Bill. I should have tabled an amendment to delete all those words. They are unnecessary and nothing is required at that point. If people take the trouble to go down to the polling station or to put a cross on a ballot paper at home, they will know damn well that they are contributing towards making a decision. They do not need to be told that they can "help to decide" whether there should be an elected assembly. If they are voting, then they ought to know what it is they are voting for. This is unnecessary verbiage.
I oppose the proposed amendment because, given that under our constitution we have a parliamentary democracy rather than a people's democracy, every referendum must be advisory. No referendum can bind Parliament. Again, any amendment is completely unnecessary. All referendums must be advisory; the decision of any referendum need not be accepted by Parliament because Parliament is supreme. As I have said, we are a parliamentary democracy.
Indeed, inserting those words may very well cause electors to say, "Well, what on earth is the point of my coming down here to vote if the Secretary of State has the final decision? In spite of what I say, he can do what he likes anyway". Many noble Lords are coming to the same conclusion that, no matter what we say, the Government and the Secretary of State will do what they want anyway. We do not want to encourage the electorate to believe that, no matter what they do in a referendum, it will be the Secretary of State who makes the decision.
The Earl of Onslow: The noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, has given a perfectly good reason for inserting the advisory clause. He said that the referendum is advisory anyway because you cannot bind Parliament.
Baroness Blatch: Before the Minister replies, perhaps I may ask a question. The opening words of the preamble are, "You can help to decide whether there should be"not, "You can help to decide whether there should not be"because the vote will decide one way or the other. I would argue that it is not an advisory note. It should be an explanatory note because it explains to people what they are voting for.
My understanding of the Bill as it standsI hope that it will not be in this form when it leaves the Houseis that as few as 10 per cent of the electorate could turn out to vote and a majority of one would not leave the Secretary of State to decide whether there should be a regional assembly; it would bind him to forming one. Am I wrong? Would a majority of one be enough to determine the issue unless a threshold is put into the Bill?
Is the Minister suggesting by the words, "You can help to decide" that, if the turn-out is very low and the majority extremely slim, the Secretary of State could use a flexible power to introduce a regional assembly; or, worse than that, if the referendum is lost by one or two votes, that the Secretary of State could decide that the result was so close that he could establish a regional assembly?
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