Baroness Rawlings: My Lords, the Government announced in a Written Ministerial Statement on 16 September that there would be no increase in the licence fee on 1 April 2011. A decision about 2012-13 will be taken as part of the next funding settlement. Discussions on the next funding settlement will begin next year. The Government will take all relevant factors into account, such as the economic climate in the country, the views of the BBC and its competitors and, of course, public opinion. We remain committed to a strong and independent BBC that forms the cornerstone of public service broadcasting. The fundamental question of what the BBC should look like and the role that it will play in the longer term will be carefully addressed at the time of the next charter review.
Lord Fowler: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply and very much welcome the last part of what she had to say. In view of her Answer, do the Government believe that the licence fee is the best way of financing the BBC and of securing its independence, and are they entirely and absolutely committed to its continuance?
Baroness Rawlings: My Lords, I am so pleased that my noble friend Lord Fowler has asked me this supplementary as the House knows that he is probably the most knowledgeable and experienced Peer on this subject. It is important to me and it gives me the chance to stress that the Government are fully committed to the principle of the licence fee as the primary method of funding the BBC. As the noble Lord will know more than most, with the development of technology and viewing habits we will need to keep this under review to make certain that current arrangements do not become outdated. The BBC continues to be the jewel in the crown in the UK's media landscape and the licence fee is fundamental to supporting it.
Lord Soley: I have some sympathy with the broad comments about the licence fee but does the Minister accept that it makes it even more important that the Government take a very clear view against the takeover of BSkyB by News Corporation?
Baroness Rawlings: I am sure that we all listened to the "Today" programme this morning on which this matter was discussed. I confirm that we have received a letter from a variety of media groups asking the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills to consider blocking any acquisition as regards BSkyB and News Corporation. However, it is premature to speculate as the parties have not yet announced the result.
Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: Does my noble friend not agree that while it is important that the BBC is realistic about its new licence fee settlement, it is equally important that the settlement is not punitive, as this will damage not only the BBC but the independent sector which contributes so much to the creative industries in which the BBC invests to a considerable degree?
Baroness Rawlings: I thank my noble friend Lady Bonham-Carter for her points. How savings will be made is a matter for the BBC, but the chairman of the trust has asked the director-general to absorb the cuts without significantly reducing the quality of the service to licence-fee payers. Regarding competition, across the media landscape we want there to be scope for deregulation, new business models, sharpening competition and greater economic benefits.
Lord Corbett of Castle Vale: Does the Minister share my view that the BBC licence represents possibly the best value for money in the country, given the BBC's range of programmes and other activities-especially its consistent investment in all branches of the arts? I am sure that we have all lately enjoyed the proms again. Will she acknowledge that the range of programmes at the price at which the licence fee is set represents much better value than the rates charged by Sky for largely imported, second-rate programmes?
Baroness Rawlings: The noble Lord, Lord Corbett, strays into a slightly different area, but I agree with him that the BBC must demonstrate that it is operating efficiently and giving licence-fee payers value for money. The BBC should be prepared to defend all its expenditure decisions.
Baroness Afshar: My Lords, are the Government aware that the BBC punches way beyond its weight in foreign policy, and that the BBC Persian service is regarded by Iranians as their best source of information and actually forms the best ally that the Government have in Iran? Any cuts might well undermine Britain's influence there.
Baroness Rawlings: The noble Baroness makes a very good point and the BBC World Service is very special. It does not come under the same funding arrangements as the rest of the BBC because it is funded by the Foreign Office. I know that the Persian service is absolutely wonderful. The Cyrus Cylinder was presented by the British Museum and is now on show in Iran. The presentation was recorded on the BBC World Service. I thank the noble Baroness very much for that question.
Baroness Rawlings: I thank my noble friend for his question. The Government have reservations about the current governance structure and are considering the scope for change within the current charter framework. The governance structure was introduced in January 2007 when the charter came into full effect. The structure is intended to last for the duration of the charter-that is, until the end of 2016.
Baroness Jones of Whitchurch: My Lords, is the Minister concerned that Sir Christopher Bland recently talked of the licence fee being used in a punitive and vindictive manner? What reassurances can she give that any decisions about its future will be free from political partisanship?
Baroness Rawlings: In giving those details, I think that the noble Baroness is referring to the previous Government. We have no punitive agreements. There will possibly be cuts, but those are in the hands of the BBC Trust.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Astor of Hever): My Lords, first, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in offering sincere condolences to the families and friends of: Trooper James Leverett, the Royal Dragoon Guards; Private Thomas Sephton, 1st Battalion the Mercian Regiment; Bombardier Samuel Robinson, 5th Regiment Royal Artillery; Marine David Hart, 40 Commando Royal Marines; Major James Bowman, 1st Battalion the Royal Gurkha Rifles; Lieutenant Neal Turkington, 1st Battalion the Royal Gurkha Rifles; Corporal Arjun Purja Pun, 1st Battalion the Royal Gurkha Rifles; Marine Matthew Harrison, 40 Commando Royal Marines; Marine Jonathan Crookes, 40 Commando Royal Marines; Sergeant David Monkhouse, the Royal Dragoon Guards; Senior Aircraftman Kinikki Griffiths, 1 Squadron RAF Regiment; Staff Sergeant Brett Linley, 11 Explosive Ordnance Disposal Regiment, Royal Logistics Corps; Corporal Matthew Stenton, the Royal Dragoon Guards; Lance Corporal Stephen Monkhouse,
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I turn to my noble friend's Question. The last available information, published in UK DefenceStatistics 2009, estimated that 300,000 full-time jobs in the UK were supported by Ministry of Defence expenditure and defence exports: 155,000 directly and 145,000 indirectly. In addition, the MoD employed 177,840 service and 85,850 civilian personnel as at 1 July 2010.
The highly irresponsible decision of the previous Government to order the two aircraft carriers, recently and sarcastically described in the media as "HMS Unaffordable" and "HMS Impecunious", when the MoD was effectively bust and before a defence review, has clearly skewed the current SDR, making it now even more financially rather than strategically focused. Will my noble friend tell the House whether defence contractors have been helpful in modifying or waiving their penalty clauses, given our overall national financial situation; and will he confirm the promise that we will get a defence industrial strategy by the first quarter of 2011?
Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, the MoD's key suppliers have been working with the department on a commercial basis, looking at ways to improve innovation and cost reduction across the board in support of the SDSR. With regard to the second part of my noble friend's supplementary question, I confirm that we are developing a new defence industrial and technology policy that is intended to replace the previous defence industrial strategy. We will launch this process on 2 November this year in an event co-hosted by ADS, the industry's representative body, and there will be a Green Paper by the end of the year. After a formal consultation period in the new year, we will publish a White Paper next spring that will set out our industrial and technology policy for the next five years or until the next SDSR.
Lord Rosser: My Lords, from these Benches I join the Minister in paying tribute to all those who have lost their lives serving our country since the House met before the recess. For the families, there is overwhelming grief and sorrow at their loss and the pain of separation but also in each case pride at the brave and committed service given by the loved one they have lost. Our thoughts and prayers are with those bereaved families and with the colleagues and friends of all those who have died.
The Secretary of State for Defence in this self-proclaimed transparent Government appears to have written a secret letter to the Prime Minister on a matter of real public interest-namely, whether our Armed Forces will in future have the resources to continue to carry out the commitments we expect them to undertake. Does the Minister agree with his Secretary of State's concerns that the strategic defence and security review is not really a genuine review of defence and security strategy but is instead everything to do with the Conservative Government's spending review aimed at cutting costs, with inadequate regard for the consequences for private sector jobs in our industrial base and for our Armed Forces and their continuing ability to meet the onerous responsibilities we place upon them?
Lord Astor of Hever: In my department, that is working very well. The noble Lord mentioned the leaked letter. This was a private letter between the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister, and for that reason and because it was a leak, I cannot comment. Both the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State are acutely aware of the sensitivities of such a review-a review made necessary because of the huge deficit that we have inherited and because there has been no defence review since 1998. However, I assure the noble Lord that this is not a crude cost-cutting exercise; it is a genuinely strategic review. We will establish clearly what the defence contribution to our security posture should be and structure our Armed Forces accordingly.
Lord Davies of Stamford: My Lords, during a strategic defence review, would there not be consultation with allies, with the academic world and think-tanks, and indeed with industry? Why has that not happened? Why has there been only one meeting of the Defence Industries Council since the election? How can you possibly take account of industries' perceptions and views of, and insights into the future of, defence technologies and so on if you hold a consultation with them only after the review is completed?
Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, we have consulted a number of foreign countries which, indeed, have made representations to the SDSR. I know that the noble Lord is interested in France, which has, as an example, done that. Turning to industry, we understand
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Lord King of Bridgwater: Will my noble friend accept that he should take no lessons from the previous two noble Lords who spoke on this subject? Anyone who is familiar with the current defence situation knows that the way that the defence budget was left was a disgrace. Given the problems that the present Government now face in bringing some order out of the unfunded chaos that was left behind, he has everyone's reasonable support at a critical time when we are at war in Afghanistan and when our forces need every support that they can get. My noble friend will have all reasonable support from reasonable people in tackling a very difficult situation.
Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend for that support. There will be painful changes and in some cases reductions, but I am very positive about the outcome. We have wonderful men and women in our Armed Forces and I have been hugely impressed by the dedication, commitment and innovation at work in the department. I have no doubt that, when the final decision is taken by the NSC, the country will come out of the SDSR with more adaptable, efficient and affordable Armed Forces, which are configured for 2020 and beyond.
To ask Her Majesty's Government, in the last 12 months, what proportion of non-commercial local authority planning applications where there have been no significant public objections were sent to appeal; and what proportion of those appeals were successful.
Earl Attlee: My Lords, the Government do not collect statistics on the volume of objections to planning applications which go to appeal. I can inform the House that, in the 12 months to the end of March 2010, some 190,000 planning applications, which could be considered non-commercial, were decided, with more than 80 per cent granted. In the same period, the Planning Inspectorate decided 7,066 householder planning appeals in England, with 35 per cent allowed.
Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. Does he agree with me that, although planning regulations are absolutely necessary, the delays and expense which are often caused by individuals-not by big companies-making applications which are delayed for up to six months, cause a lot of extra expenditure and often cause them to lose their mortgages? Would it not be more helpful
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Earl Attlee: My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right. At the pre-application stage, an applicant should share his proposals with the local planning authority. That would provide an early indication to applicants of any potential reasons for refusal and would offer the opportunity to amend the proposal. Applicants should also speak to their neighbours and others who may be affected by the proposal before it is submitted to the local planning authority.
Lord Rosser: My Lords, following statements made in the election campaign, it appears that the Government's policy is that local communities should have a major say about whether there should be significant new housing developments in their backyard. Does that means that this Conservative Government would, or would not, expect local authorities to be deflected from agreeing to planning applications for new housing simply because there are significant local public objections?
Earl Attlee: My Lords, where there are local objections to a planning proposal, the local planning authority will take them into consideration. If it chooses to refuse the application, the applicant has the opportunity to appeal to the Planning Inspectorate, which will take all matters into consideration.
The Earl of Listowel: My Lords, given that many families with children in this country experience extreme hardship, living in overcrowded, unsanitary conditions, will the Government reflect again on their changes to the spatial strategy which they introduced and think again about whether they might do more to streamline planning to make new homes available to such families who need them so much? I declare my interest as a landlord.
Earl Attlee: My Lords, the noble Earl makes an important point. During election campaigns, I am always struck by the condition of our housing. It is so variable. It distresses me to see the conditions in which some people have to live. We are well aware of the problems and we are addressing them.
Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, is the Minister aware of the problem that occurs when people go ahead and build contrary to planning permission? Very often local authorities give retrospective permission, which is very unsatisfactory for local people who would have opposed the project. Does he think that it is important to follow up on that and does he think that a proper appeals procedure to a decision is the right way, rather than having illegal building?
Earl Attlee: My Lords, I am well aware of the problem of retrospective planning permission, but such decisions are made by local planning authorities. As matters currently stand, it is not possible for a third party to appeal a planning decision.
Lord Rennard: My Lords, when might legislation be brought before Parliament to change the planning system? How far does the Minister think that local authorities might be expected to anticipate such legislation?
Earl Attlee: My Lords, I do not think local authorities need to anticipate legislation. The localism Bill has a significant proportion of planning provisions in it and it will be appearing before Parliament very soon.
To ask Her Majesty's Government what is their response to the finding of the report of the National Council for Independent Monitoring Boards that in some prison establishments the lack of in-cell sanitation means that slopping-out, officially ended in 1996, still continues.
The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord McNally): My Lords, slopping-out should not occur in the 21st century. However, it is simply not possible to install in-cell sanitation in all parts of the accommodation at certain prisons and electronic unlocking is the best option for the provision of sanitation.
Lord Ramsbotham: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply but, as he knows, today 20,000 prisoners may have to defecate into a bucket, which will remain with them in their cell until they are let out from that cell. The electronic system, which was used as the justification for saying that the process had ended, does not work all the time-indeed, it is switched off during the day-and too many prisoners spend all day locked up in their cells. Can the Minister assure the House that something will be done to improve this disgraceful and uncivilised situation and will he undertake to report back to the House at regular intervals as to what improvements are being made?
Lord McNally: He did; to err is human. I have read the independent monitoring board's report, which prompted the noble Lord's question, and it does not make easy reading, but I put it to him that, as he must
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Baroness Linklater of Butterstone: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that Grendon prison, our only therapeutic prison, which deals with prisoners with particularly challenging psychiatric issues, is one of the 10-I think that it is 10, but I may be mistaken-prisons without integral sanitation? Does he not agree that, given the particular challenges in that prison, it is unacceptable to be queueing or, most of the time, stuck in your cell with a pot?
Lord McNally: It is true, as my noble friend said, that Grendon has a particular and very challenging regime-it is a therapeutic prison. It is perhaps surprising that it should be a prison that does not have in-cell facilities. However, the question is whether we keep the real benefits, which I think my noble friend would acknowledge, of what goes on there in the therapeutic approach to prison for some very difficult prisoners. The toiletry situation is a problem, but it is managed by the electronic locking system. On balance, I would prefer to keep the success of Grendon as a therapeutic prison, even with the downside of the lack of in-cell facilities.
The Lord Bishop of Liverpool: My Lords, I gather that in-cell sanitation is covered by Prison Service Order 1900. Whose responsibility is it to oversee the application of Prison Service orders and this one in particular? What power does the independent monitoring board have in relation to NOMS to make sure that these observations are acted on?
Lord McNally: On the latter point, it is an independent board and a very welcome independent board. As these exchanges prove, it does its job. NOMS has to respond. It is responding by reviewing at the moment the accommodation standards guidelines and updating guidance to prison governors. The overall responsibility rests with Ministers of the Ministry of Justice. We oversee, while NOMS reports to us. The dilemma that we face in 3 per cent of the prison estate is that old cells-some of them were built surprisingly recently, in the 1960s-are too small to accommodate in-cell facilities. The other side to this is that, where there are no in-cell facilities, there is only one prisoner to a cell but, where there is a toilet in the cell, there are two prisoners to a cell, which also has its downsides.
Lord McNally: My Lords, I understand that that is the process. If there is any failure or any increase in demand, the prison authorities redeploy guards so that the electronic system can be used and so that when, occasionally, the system breaks down, it can be operated manually.
Lord Corbett of Castle Vale: My Lords, on the problem of providing in-cell sanitation in older prisons, I invite the Minister simply to put his foot down and say, "These cells will not be used from the end of this month". That is the way to solve this.
Lord Selkirk of Douglas: Does the Minister accept that, whenever there is an improvement in conditions in prisons, it tends to lead to a reduction in tension between prison officers and prisoners and is invariably in the public interest?
Lord McNally: Absolutely. I have read this report and followed it up. Prisoners lying back on their Dunlopillo mattresses watching colour television before taking a Jacuzzi is the image of prison life given in some of our popular press. Prison life is grim and sometimes downright unpleasant. Whether that meets with approval or not, it is the reality.
Baroness Howe of Idlicote: Having listened to what has been said today, I think that we cannot tolerate this situation and I hope that putting it right will be top of the agenda for prison governors, NOMS and everybody. At least as a temporary measure, if any of this is going on in prisons where prisoners are still locked up during the day, could I ask that we encourage the firms that the Government are thinking of encouraging to set up a business or factory within the prison so that at least the prisoners can be employed during the day?
Lord McNally:As we have already been doing, we will certainly consider the idea of in-prison work. The dilemma is whether you have toilets in a cell, which is not itself particularly pleasant when you also eat your meals in that cell and share it with another person, or an efficient system of release to a wash block where toilet facilities are available. That is what is used in 3 per cent of the prison estate. I am not sure that I can give the noble Baroness or any noble Lord an early solution to that dilemma.
Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to open this debate on the Constitution Committee's report entitled Referendums in the United Kingdom. The report, which we published in April, was the last one produced under the distinguished chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Goodlad, who I can just see in his place and who I am delighted will be speaking immediately after me. Perhaps I may take this opportunity to pay a warm, personal tribute to the noble Lord's distinguished leadership of the Constitution Committee and thank him for his advice and support as I took over the chair after the general election.
The committee's inquiry into referendums was extensive and has proved to be extremely timely. We received a great deal of political and academic evidence, both written and oral, from national and international sources. The committee is grateful to all of those whose evidence contributed to our report and particularly to our specialist adviser, Dr John Parkinson, of York University. I must also thank the Government for their response, but I note that it is rather late, having been received only last week, and perhaps a little thin. But, of course, I realise that in the interim the coalition Government have produced their own Bill proposing a UK-wide referendum on the voting system for the House of Commons. That Bill has already had its Second Reading in another place and begins its Committee stage today. Perhaps some of the recommendations and observations of our committee are acknowledged in the current Bill. I leave the House to judge as I describe the detail of our report. I look forward with great interest to the Minister's reply, which will give your Lordships a first opportunity to hear in this House the Government's thinking on the principles and practice of referendums.
As the House will be aware, although there has been very much debate in recent Parliaments about referendums, they remain a relatively untried method of testing opinion in the United Kingdom. This is in contrast to many other modern democracies, including countries such as Australia and New Zealand which
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The basic questions come down to these. On the positive side, do referendums improve modern democracy by making voters more involved in decision-making so that controversial issues particularly can be firmly and, one hopes, conclusively resolved? On the negative side, does the use of referendums undermine a representative Parliament and oversimplify complex issues to no great general advantage? Perhaps equally important is the practical question: do individual referendums attract a sufficiently substantive voter turnout to give their decisions authority?
Overall, the committee's position was more negative than positive. Having listened to all the evidence, we were not convinced by the case for using referendums as a common practice in 21st century governance. We regretted the ad hoc manner in which many referendums have been held-often to deal with political crises or as a tactical device by a government in trouble-while the evidence suggested that difficult issues were not finally settled by a referendum result.
If we look at the history of our 1975 referendum, it seems clearly to illustrate some of these drawbacks. It was, after all, primarily held to resolve internal policy disputes within the Labour Government of the time-about the EEC, of course-but the result certainly did not finally resolve that question, as subsequent Conservative Governments have found out. The Minister may not want to comment this afternoon on the relevance of those negative points to the current Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, but I have no doubt we will return to them when the Bill reaches this House.
To return to the report before us today, although the Constitution Committee was sceptical about the general values of referendums, it recognised pragmatically that they are going to be used, and therefore a large part of the report is concerned with when it is most appropriate for a referendum to be held and what are the most effective ways to organise one in order to achieve proper participation and a respected result. We were aware, of course, that enthusiasm for referendums is often politically driven by a legitimate wish to use every possible means to give greater power to the electorate. This is particularly true now, when what one might call the hostile dislocation between government and the governed has become such a major political problem. The coalition Government certainly emphasise this aspect in their response to the committee's report, saying:
"A fundamental concept ... is the transfer of power from the Executive to Parliament, and from Parliament to people. The Government believes that referendums can be a valuable means of giving people a greater say over important issues, at both the
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For our part, the committee concluded that if referendums are to be used, they are most appropriately used in relation to fundamental constitutional issues, and that begs the question of what is a fundamental constitutional issue. The committee did not want to duck the question and was clear that it could not provide a precise definition, but has none the less agreed a list of topics for which it thinks a referendum would be appropriate: to abolish the monarchy, to leave the EU, for any of the nations of the UK to secede from the Union, to abolish either House of Parliament, to adopt a written constitution, to change the UK system of currency, and to change the electoral system for the House of Commons. The last is, of course, the subject of the current Bill.
Your Lordships will have noticed that the list does not include reform of the House of Lords as a fundamental constitutional issue. However, I was interested in the reply given last week by the noble Lord, Lord McNally, to a question from his noble friend Lord Phillips of Sudbury, when he said that that was not the Government's plan "at the moment". He may wish to expand on that answer. But whatever may qualify as a fundamental constitutional issue, the committee was strongly of the opinion that this should be a decision for Parliament, not government alone. Legislators, not Ministers, should decide whether to hold a referendum. However, the committee and the Government are agreed that national referendums should be exceptional events. On local referendums we are perhaps slightly further apart. The Government have already published a consultation paper on local referendums to veto council tax increases, and their response to our report notes that they are committed to giving people the power to instigate referendums on any local issue as a way of making,
The committee is sceptical about this approach, and while we accept the need for greater local involvement in local decision-making, we think other ways of reinvigorating citizen participation should be explored.
We heard evidence about a distinctive type of referendum, the so-called citizens initiative, where citizens can propose statute laws or broad policy changes. These initiatives have been successfully adopted both in Switzerland and in half of the United States, but most members of the committee felt that it would be extremely difficult to adapt such initiatives to the United Kingdom. We also looked at the idea of citizens' juries and assemblies. Personally, I am sympathetic to the possibilities that we could develop on this issue, and I was impressed by the evidence of my noble friend Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, who had previously chaired the Power Commission.
The committee had one specific concern about local referendums of whatever type-who is to regulate and supervise them? Currently in our system, the Electoral Commission has no responsibility for local referendums, and my noble friend Lord Wills, who I believe is also speaking in the debate, gave evidence to us as a Minister on behalf of the previous Government saying that he thought it risky to extend the commission's
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As noble Lords will recall, the Electoral Commission was set up under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act and, under this legislation, is already charged with responsibility for national referendums. The PPERA has not been tested in a national referendum. Our only experience has been the rather ill-fated local referendum on the north-east in 2004. The committee therefore thought it necessary to examine our legal and practical framework in a comparative way. The Minister for Political and Constitutional Reform, Mark Harper MP, has kindly written to me to say that he found the committee's inquiry about this very valuable.
Our main recommendation-which is now particularly relevant given the proposed referendum next spring-is to require the Electoral Commission to make a thorough retrospective analysis of its first experience in a national referendum and then make proposals for change. Equally, if not more important, we propose that there should be a parliamentary post-legislative scrutiny exercise of the PPERA after that vote. The Government have responded that they agree with the need for an evaluation but have not been precise about what form that evaluation may take. Perhaps the Minister can help us further with that this afternoon.
After the 2004 north-east local referendum, the Electoral Commission asked the then Government to make changes to the legislative framework for referendums. The committee was sympathetic to many of its proposals and recommended that the Government should take steps to ensure that they were implemented. We therefore welcome the inclusion by the coalition Government of three of these proposals in the current Bill. First, the creation of a statutory regional counting officer role; secondly, the Electoral Commission being given powers to promote public awareness of the registration and voting process at a referendum; and, thirdly, aggregation of spending limits for permitted participants to bring them into line with the rules of spending by third parties in a conventional election.
The Government have also agreed in their response to the committee to give consideration to the further proposal for what we would like to see-a generic code of conduct for referendums, again under the PPERA. However, once again the Government have not been specific about what form that consideration will take.
Beyond the overall organisation and conduct of referendums, our report also discusses other important practical issues concerning the timing of referendums and how information is to be provided to voters during campaigns. Perhaps the most significant is the vital question of deciding a referendum question. At present this is entirely in the hands of the Government, who are not obliged to take account of advice from the Electoral Commission. The committee recommends that, to ensure neutrality, the Electoral Commission should in future be given statutory responsibility to formulate referendum questions, which would then be presented to Parliament for approval. The Government disagree and prefer to continue to make the final
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The timing of referendum campaigns and votes also, naturally, raises tricky issues. Should referendums be held on the same day as other polls? We first decided that referendums should certainly not be held on the same day as a general election and that where there was a potential clash with other elections there should be a presumption against holding referendums on the same day. We concluded that this should be judged on a case-by-case basis by the Electoral Commission. The Government share our view that it should be judged on a case-by-case basis but see no reason in principle why referendums cannot be held on the same day as other polls. The Government's response states that where it is proposed to combine a referendum with other polls-as will be the case in the proposed referendum next May-they will work closely with the Electoral Commission to ensure that any practical risks are managed.
The House and the Minister will be aware of the widespread concerns about this expressed by Members of the other place at the Second Reading of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, and I imagine the same issues will be raised here today. At that time, the Deputy Prime Minister, responding to the debate, seemed sympathetic to some of the points raised. I ask the Minister to tell your Lordships whether any progress has been made on this subject, whether the Government have had discussions with the Electoral Commission about the problem and whether practical risks and ways of managing them have been identified.
A proper understanding of the question being asked and clarity about the nature of the poll are essential to a successful referendum. This in turn must depend on the quality of information that voters have received. The Constitution Committee was not happy about the effectiveness of the regulation of information provision in UK referendums and has commended the system used in New Zealand in its 1992-93 electoral reform referendums. There, a totally independent body provided information and ran the public education process. The Government's response to this is not terribly forthcoming and states in a slightly anodyne way that it is important that voters are able to make an informed choice in any referendum and that the process for achieving this will depend on the subject matter of the poll. What steps will the Government take to ensure that voters are able to make an informed and objective choice? I remain of the opinion that there is a strong case for an independent information body in any UK referendum.
Part of the concern about information ties in with concerns about funding referendum campaigns. The committee heard from several witnesses who felt that their campaigns, particularly in local referendums, had suffered through lack of money. Some complained of the unfairness of small organisations having to compete with others which were awash with private donations, although it must be said that most witnesses felt that the PPERA, if properly followed, would iron
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"Referendums are not a panacea ... Referendums may become a part of the UK's democratic and constitutional framework. There has been little consistency in their use. They have taken place on an ad hoc basis, frequently as a tactical device rather than on the basis of constitutional principle. Notwithstanding this, we acknowledge arguments that, if referendums are to be used, they are most appropriately used in relation to fundamental constitutional issues. There are difficulties in defining what constitutes a 'fundamental constitutional issue' ... there is a grey area where the importance of issues is a matter of political judgment. To leave such judgments entirely in the hands of the government of the day is in our view inappropriate. Parliament should decide whether or not a referendum is appropriate".
I hope that the House will accept that the committee has attempted a dispassionate and comparative review of what has now become a topical and controversial issue in UK politics. I look forward very much to the debate and to the Minister's reply. I beg to move.
Lord Goodlad: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her very kind remarks about me, which were wholly unmerited but most generous. It was a great privilege to serve on your Lordships' Select Committee, which performs an extremely important function. I wish the noble Baroness every success in the chair, which she will adorn with great wisdom and experience. She has covered the main issues in the report comprehensively. I echo her appreciation of the contribution of the committee's advisers and witnesses, and the evidence given to the committee will be an important quarry for many years to come for those who are interested in the subject.
I welcome the Government's acceptance of the majority of your Lordships' committee's recommendations, particularly on a referendum on change in the voting system for the House of Commons, or in Wales, on further powers for the National Assembly in accordance with existing legislation and on further transfers of power to the European Union, and that Parliament should judge which issues are the subject of national referendums. I shall therefore touch briefly on where the Government's response disagrees with the recommendations of your Lordships' committee.
Quite who drafted that, I cannot imagine, but the Government may rest assured that not only parties across Parliament but individual Members of both Houses of Parliament will scrutinise any forthcoming legislation with vigour. It is puzzling that the Government reject the view of your Lordships' committee that decisions leading to past referendums have been taken on an ad hoc basis and for political convenience-in
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In evidence, Peter Kellner argued that the decision to hold the 1975 European Communities referendum was a constitutional outrage. It was wholly to do with holding the Labour Party together. Vernon Bogdanor asserted that the offer of the 1979 devolution referendums was made for tactical purposes in order to overcome Back-Bench opposition in Parliament. Michael Wills from the other place opined that the referendum in the UK had been used as a political tool, but did not see anything wrong with that. Vernon Bogdanor recommended that referendum questions should be formulated by a neutral body such as the Electoral Commission. The noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, reminded us that the Power commission, which she chaired, had recommended that an outside body should have control over the question.
David Butler told us that referendums in the UK are going to happen only when the Government of the day want one or when it would be too embarrassing because of past promises to get out of one. Normally, they will have a referendum if they think they are going to win it and not if they are not going to win it. It is really a matter of straight politics. Since that time, matters have changed. Homer, in the form of David Butler, has nodded and the forthcoming referendum on parliamentary voting systems will not be a caucus race in which everybody wins a prize. Ad hocery and political convenience are again matters of personal speculation. Your Lordships' committee said that it is possible to set out in legislation specific issues that should be subject to a referendum, as has been done in the past. In their response, the Government agreed with that statement and said:
The Government's response disagrees with your Lordships' committee's disbelief that local referendums are the most effective way of increasing citizen engagement with the local democratic process, saying that they can play an effective role in supporting local decision-making and empowering residents to make localism and the big society part of everyday life. There is a reference to excessive council tax increases. The common-sense view is that local referendums would oppose rather than support local decision-making. The Government are silent on who might pay for such referendums and what their cost might be. Perhaps there might be an opportunity for referendums on that matter.
On the subject of holding referendums on the same day as general elections, which your Lordships' committee opposed, as the noble Baroness said, the Government responded that a case-by-case approach was appropriate in that area. Again-no ad hocery or political convenience there, either.
Your Lordships' committee recommended that the Electoral Commission should be given a statutory responsibility to formulate referendum questions, which should then be presented to Parliament for approval. The Government, in rejecting the recommendation in their response, said that when provision for a referendum was made by Order in Council rather than by legislation, the commission's view would be taken into account in framing the question included in the order. Obviously, there is no question of ad hocery or political convenience there.
I, together with many other noble Lords of my generation, took part in the 1975 referendum on the renegotiation of terms of British membership of the European Community. I was a relatively newly elected Member of the other place and keen to support the Yes campaign. I persuaded the then Conservative agent from the Northwich division of Cheshire, the late Maglena Roberts, that we should have phone-in sessions so that I could personally respond to concerns. Despite her reservations after many years in her post about the merits of this new-fangled idea, not least on the grounds of advertising expense, she eventually went quietly-or relatively quietly.
On the first day of the phone-ins, as the clock in the Conservative Association office in Northwich ticked up to 10 o'clock, Maglena watched the telephone as if it was an anarchist's bomb about to explode. At 11 o'clock I said, "Miss Roberts, will you please look after the telephone while I make us both a cup of coffee". On the second day, the telephone eventually rang. The caller's inquiry was, "Mr Goodlad, what is the position of animals in the European Community?" I glanced down at the desk on which Miss Roberts had thoughtfully spread out copious briefing on every possible subject that could be covered. There was no line to take on the position of animals in the European Community-far less a suggestion as to what I might say if pressed. Without, I hope, breaking step, I tentatively said, "Madam, I believe that in general the rules are very strict", to which the caller said, "Thank you, Mr Goodlad, I am very glad to hear it". That was the only inquiry. Halls were booked for public meetings-half a dozen, as I recollect, widely advertised at some expense. The maximum attendance at any meeting was two people, and the only question asked was from a lady who said, "When does the Women's Institute meeting begin?"
As many noble Lords will recollect, the front cover of Private Eye at the beginning of the 1975 campaign featured a photograph of an elderly couple dozing in deckchairs on Blackpool beach with knotted handkerchiefs protecting their heads from the sun. The caption below the photograph was, "The Great Debate Begins". I look forward, as I am sure do all noble Lords, to further great debates, which I trust will not be disrupted by less important matters.
Lord Hart of Chilton: My Lords, I straightaway declare an interest as a member of the Constitution Committee and it goes without saying that I agree with its conclusions and reasoning. Yet the Government do not seem to share the committee's reservations over
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Over recent years, almost everybody experienced in politics has been anxious about the public's disaffection with and lack of trust in politicians and political institutions. There have of course been other periods of our history where disaffection has been just as great, if not greater, so we must always keep a sense of proportion. Nevertheless, I listened carefully to the witnesses from home and abroad who put forward arguments seeking to enhance the democratic process, not just by the use of referendums but by such things as citizen initiatives, citizens' assemblies and deliberative processes-the latter suggested by the Power commission and its chair, the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws. In each case, practical difficulties arose when considering the proposals.
The first difficulty involved the relationship of referendums to parliamentary sovereignty and the principles of deliberative parliamentary democracy at Westminster, which include debates, pre-legislative scrutiny and Select Committees with the power to call and cross-examine witnesses-just as we have done. Of course, referendums are not incompatible with parliamentary democracy, but I believe that the latter is much to be preferred as a decision-making forum and that nothing should be done to undermine it.
Secondly, there came the "slippery slope" argument; how do you select the topics on which to give a referendum when there is no written constitution to provide guidelines? Without guidelines, there could be an enormous temptation to use referendums as a populist measure or to avoid facing difficult decisions. There is also a danger of using referendums to entrench legislation and prevent change. I accept that the Government say that the referendums which they have in mind will be exceptional events, but the suggestion that referendums should be used as part of a process of giving people a greater say in politics has a tendency to raise expectation and increase the appetite.
We must remember that the referendum process is expensive: about £120 million a shot, we were told. Except on a few issues, a referendum seems to appeal to an articulate minority, with the majority indifferent. We must also not forget the absent 10 per cent from the electoral register and that, each year, some 10 per cent of the adult population change address. We were told that, depending on the timing of a referendum, between 8 and 18 per cent of eligible voters would be unable to participate. Proportions of them would be significantly higher in metropolitan areas and non-registration would be significantly higher among young people and some ethnic minority groups.
Thirdly, there came a warning from the United States of America about citizen initiatives. The Californian experience was labelled as a device for the sad, the mad and the very rich, who could find a support organisation for anything under the sun. Demands for increased services were matched by a lack of desire to
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Fourthly, there was the deliberative democratic process which, to my mind, had considerable educational merit. Yet it was conceded at once that it was not an alternative to a referendum. It was costly and would only sample the opinion of a few. Nevertheless, it was clear that in-depth explanation and debate informed and changed minds and-interestingly, in the case of the House of Lords reform policy-changed a knee-jerk reaction in favour to fade right away as a priority. Incidentally, my own small-scale, but just as expensive, deliberative exercise sessions with taxi drivers on my way home over the past few years has confirmed that finding.
Our report sets out the evidence for all these proposals. There were widely differing views and there was no unanimity. However, because it seemed likely that referendums would remain in the parliamentary toolkit but there was no agreement on their use, we concluded that they should be used only in relation to fundamental constitutional issues. We listed some, but not on the basis of a definitive list. Even here, though, there were differences of opinion among the witnesses. For example, the noble Lord, Lord Wills, a Minister in the previous Government, thought that a change in composition of the other place would be a fundamental change and would merit a referendum, but a change of composition in your Lordships' House would not. Since then, of course, there seems to have been a change of heart, but the present Government believe that a referendum is necessary for a change to the voting system while a significant reduction in membership and material changes to parliamentary boundaries do not merit one.
In conclusion, after listening to and reading again the evidence that we received, I have no doubt that neither referendums nor other initiatives constitute a panacea for, or give a restoration of, trust in politics. In my view, the rush to legislate on fixed-term Parliaments and a change in the voting system, without proper consultation or scrutiny, has increased my concern that we have not learnt any lessons on how to handle constitutional reform or re-engage the public. Nor do the focus group responses to the Electoral Commission's report on the question for the AV referendum give a great deal of hope; most of them did not understand what the first past the post system was, let alone alternative voting. Indeed, the other day I met someone who thought that AV was another form of transmittable disease.
So long as they do not undermine parliamentary democracy, initiatives to educate the public are to be encouraged, but in my view public trust will be restored only when Members in the other place re-engage with their constituents, as the best already do, and reform their own procedural practices, not least by being emboldened to hold the Executive to account. At this very moment when that re-engagement could and should take place, though, constituencies and MPs throughout the country are to be thrown into the melting pot. As the noble Lord, Lord Goodlad, often says, sotto voce, "You couldn't make it up".
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Baroness Wilcox): My Lords, with the leave of the House, I would like to repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills.
"I would like to make a Statement on the future funding of higher education and student finance, in the light of the report published today of Lord Browne's independent inquiry. Lord Browne was asked to undertake his review in November last year. The review was set up by Labour on a cross-party basis, and that is how we want to proceed.
I and my colleague, the right honourable Member for Havant, want to thank Lord Browne and his review panel. The Government endorse the main thrust of the report, but we are open to suggestions from inside and outside the House over the next few weeks before making specific recommendations to Parliament, with a view to implementing the changes for students entering higher education in autumn 2012. More detail will be contained in next week's spending review on the funding implications, but as a strategic direction the Government believe that this report is on the right lines.
There is also, I think, consensus around the idea that there should be no up-front tuition fees for students. That would seriously deter students from low and middle-income families. This Government are strongly opposed to up-front tuition fees. Indeed, we share Lord Browne's conclusion that we should extend exemption from up-front tuition fees to part-time students, currently 40 per cent of the student population, who have been unfairly discriminated against hitherto.
The question, then, is how much the graduate contributions for tuition should be. We are considering a level of £7,000. Many universities and colleges may well decide to charge less than this, since there is clearly scope for greater efficiency and innovation in the way that universities actually operate. Two-year ordinary degrees are one approach. Exceptionally, Lord Browne suggests there should be circumstances under which universities can price their courses above this point. But, he suggests, this would be conditional on demonstrating that funds would be invested in securing a good social mix, with fair access for students with less privileged backgrounds, and in raising the quality of teaching and learning. We will consider this carefully.
We believe it is essential that if the graduate contribution is to rise, it should be linked to graduates' ability to pay. On average, over their lifetimes graduates
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Lord Browne has come up with persuasive proposals to deal with this issue. He suggests a £21,000 graduate income threshold before any payment is made, as against £15,000 at present, and for it to be linked to average earnings. He also suggests that a real rate of interest should be paid but only over that threshold. The effect is striking. Twenty per cent of graduates could pay less than they do now. The top third of graduate earners would pay more than twice as much as the lowest third. That is fair and progressive. The Government broadly endorse this approach and will examine the details of implementation. The principle of needs-blind admission to universities must remain central.
The cost of university education to individuals and the state reflects living costs as well as tuition costs. The Browne report makes some constructive suggestions here. We shall come forward with detailed proposals that will make it attractive for students from families of modest means to go to university and will be fair and affordable, including exempting the poorest students from graduate contributions for some or all of their studies.
Lord Browne considered alternatives, including a graduate tax, as I believe the new leader of the Labour Party favours. There are some key features in the current proposal for progressive graduate contributions which incorporate the best features of a graduate tax. It would be collected through the pay packet at a rate of 9p in the pound above the £21,000 threshold; combined with a real interest rate as Browne recommends, it would be progressive and related to ability to pay. But Browne identifies serious problems with a "pure" graduate tax. The proposal is unworkable: it does not produce sufficient revenue to finance higher education until 30 years from now; it weakens university independence; and it is unfair to British graduates, as opposed to graduates living overseas.
"Oh, and for goodness' sake, don't pursue a graduate tax. We should be proud of our brave and correct decision to introduce tuition fees. Students don't pay them, graduates do, when they're earning ... at very low rates, stopped from their pay just like a graduate tax, but with the money going where it belongs: to universities rather than the Treasury".
I do believe, moreover, that we need to look beyond the graduate population. Fifty-five per cent of young people do not go to university. We must not perpetuate the idea, encouraged by the pursuit of a misguided 50 per cent participation target, that the only valued option for an 18 year-old is a three-year academic course at a university. An apprenticeship can be just as valuable as a degree, if not more.
Finally, there is a challenge to all of us to promote a long-term sustainable future for higher education. This has been a difficult issue for all parties of this House.
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Lord Triesman: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement and giving us the opportunity to ask what I hope will be constructive questions about the direction that the Government now intend to follow. I appreciate the fact that the Secretary of State included so few rhetorical flourishes about the economic climate. I do not generally accept what is said about that but, more to the point, the university finance issues have been long in the making-we have had to address them very many times-and getting them right was in our minds well before the collapse of parts of the international banking system. I acknowledge what the noble Lord, Lord Browne, said in the passage quoted by the Minister about the depth and strength of the issues involved.
This is an urgent question because, in my view and that of the Opposition, investment in the United Kingdom's higher education teaching and research is directly correlated with past prosperity, and will no doubt be correlated with future prosperity, future prospects for our country and with the ambitions of individuals and their families. If we seek growth, it is a key investment element in growth. Lord Dearing said that and, as I recall, no political party dissented from that view. He made the point that everybody should contribute to that investment-another principle from which there was no dissent on anyone's part. We have long known what is needed to build on these achievements and to ensure that we retain our international competitiveness and the inclusive reach of our higher education.
Further to my point on the Secretary of State, I shall not dwell on the volte-face by the Lib Dems as it is sufficiently frequent as to be unexceptional. Nor will I dwell on Nick Clegg's statement of 28 April that a £7,000 fee would be a national disaster. Let us look with care at the Browne report and ask questions about it. We will look very carefully at all the proposals. Incidentally, the issue about having a tax or other provision really concerns what the mechanism should be, whether it is progressive, appropriate, and affordable and whether having mountains of debt is a good start in life in the current environment. All those questions could be asked of any system and we will press them with regard to this and any other system. I thought that I detected in the Statement-I should be grateful if the Minister could tell us whether this is the case-an
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Our approach to the reform of student finance-a matter which I have spent a good deal of my adult life concerned with-is guided by the following principles: establishing a stable and long-term footing for higher education funding which enables our universities to fulfil the role that they must play in promoting knowledge, innovation and economic growth; no stop-start or radical and sudden changes in the unit of resource, as we saw under a previous Government; avoiding an unfair and unsustainable increase in the burden of debt on lower and middle-income graduates; and ensuring that graduate contributions are progressive, as I said a few moments ago, so that those who earn and can afford more end up paying more than those with smaller incomes.
It is those considerations that draw me to the questions that I believe the House will want to address over the next period. Can the noble Baroness tell us whether middle-income graduates will pay a fair share as compared with high-income earners? A first reading of Browne-we have had only a brief time for it-and the Statement suggests that not only do the proposals combine higher fees with the setting of a real interest rate, but graduates on middle incomes will end up paying far more than their fair share when compared with graduates who are relatively better off-those earning the highest amounts. There will potentially be significant differentiations between the two groups in cash terms because middle-income earners will take far longer to pay off their loans and will be more affected by the charging of a real rate of interest. Is this the correct reading of the proposition which has been put to us? If it is, I fear that we are in for a flawed future.
Will high earners be debt free much earlier than middle-income earners? It is likely that a larger proportion of people on lower incomes will be saddled with high debt for about 30 years. This will mean that, in most cases, they will retain their debt into their middle 50s-probably when their own children are starting to go to university and they are trying to work out how to finance that. Throughout that period, as we know from past debates, they are buying houses and starting families. I note that, on average, one has to be 37 years old before buying one's first home. All these events come together in life and it is important that we do not make it more difficult, if we are placing more importance on families and having a home and a sustainable way of living. The Browne review estimates that on average only the top 40 per cent of earners will pay back all the charges paid up-front on their behalf by the Government. That tells me that 60 per cent will not be debt free for at least 30 years. Is that not the case?
What will be the impact on off-balance-sheet borrowing, which has always been one of the real issues with a student tax? The claims that it is too difficult to fund the cost of moving to a graduate tax ring hollow when the system that is being proposed
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Will there not be a differential for, and a longer impact on, women? Many women will over their lifetimes earn less than men because of the differences in their careers. Will the Government give an undertaking today that they will undertake an equality impact assessment and give proper consideration to what might be a discriminatory difference between men and women in this regard?
The final questions are tremendously important to the university system and, I hope, to the House, because of the way in which we will all need to understand the process that we are going through not just today but over the next few weeks, which will include the comprehensive spending review. The proposals are unlikely to increase the overall funding to universities. That will almost certainly be the case if some of the cuts to university funding that have been hinted at in well sourced reports come through in the comprehensive spending review. Reports suggest that on the teaching side of university funding, the cuts will not be 25 per cent, or the sorts of figures that we have talked about in other areas, but possibly 70 to 80 per cent. Is the Browne report to be used simply as a mechanism for replenishing those cuts without producing any additional income for the universities, which they plainly need? Will it be a mechanism simply for shifting who pays the current quantum, rather than for producing an environment in which there is real growth and real competitiveness, and our universities can stand in the front rank of world universities, as they have done throughout their history and as they do today? That is vital, because some of those who are doing the sums in this sector have been telling us overnight-I have no doubt that they have told the Minister and her colleagues as well-that it will probably take a fee of something like £8,000 per year to produce any new money for universities if cuts at the level that have been prefigured come through the pipeline.
The noble Baroness may well say, "Wait for the comprehensive spending review and we will find out what all of these figures are". Of course I understand that, but these are well sourced reports. They may be the type of report that raises the level of alarm so that when something slightly less draconian comes through one feels that only a few of one's teeth have been kicked out rather than the whole set. However, if this is a mechanism designed not to grow the income of universities so that they can complete their historic mission but to replace elements that have been cut, that is not the proposal that has run through Robbins and Dearing and, I hope, will run through Browne and into the future. No account of our national financial interest will be answered by cutting off that growth.
I ask one final question of the Minister. Will she say whether the noble Lord, Lord Browne, was privy to what is in the comprehensive spending review, so
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Baroness Wilcox: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, for some very helpful comments and a largely constructive reply. I suspect that he will not be pleased with much of my reply, because of course we are waiting for the comprehensive spending review. Therefore, beyond what I have already said, there is very little to add at this stage that would not be conjecture. As Her Majesty's Opposition know, there are very hard choices to be made here, and both we and they value the high quality of our universities and want to keep standards as high as we possibly can. We are second in the world only to the United States of America. That is a fine record and one that we would like to keep. However, we are in a very difficult set of circumstances. Again, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, and will help him by answering just one or two of his questions.
The noble Lord asked whether this is yet another squeeze on middle-income families. We are committed to ensuring that higher education is affordable for everyone. The Government will provide finance for anyone who succeeds in securing a place at university so that no one has to pay for tuition up front, as I said. We also recognise that all students need some help towards living costs. The noble Lord, Lord Browne, has put forward generous proposals for maintenance support and these need to be considered carefully as part of the spending review process. We want a system which provides adequate support for students from low and middle-income families but which is also financially sustainable.
He also asked how the review of the noble Lord, Lord Browne, could affect any potential sale of the student loan book. The treatment of the existing student loan book was not included in the terms of reference for the Browne review, and the Government are currently looking at a range of options for a potential sale.
Lord Sewel: My Lords, the Minister will be aware that higher education is a devolved subject. Indeed, the financing of higher education differs somewhat in the devolved territories and in Scotland a separate review is under way. Should the Scottish Parliament come to a different solution from that advocated by the Government, will this Government ensure that, in order to fulfil its responsibilities to finance higher education, the Scottish Parliament will be granted additional powers?
Baroness Wilcox: The noble Lord, Lord Sewel, has me there. It is a wonderful question but at the moment I have no answer for him. However, I shall be only too delighted to check and come back to him. At this stage, I apologise.
Baroness Sharp of Guildford: My Lords, I thank the Minister for making the Statement, although, as all sides of the House will know, some of its contents are not totally welcomed by those of us on the Liberal Democrat Benches. Ideally, we should have liked to see a situation in which it was proposed to have no tuition fees, with the costs being met through progressive taxation. Our second best option was a graduate tax. However, we recognise that, given the current financial situation, that is not to be, and we also recognise the very real needs of the universities for extra funding.
As I understand it-perhaps the Minister will confirm this-this is an interim Statement. As she said, we are expecting the comprehensive spending review, which will spell out the details. However, the Government have accepted two aspects in the Statement. One is that a good deal of the extra funding will come from students themselves, and they accept that this will be in the form of repayments relating to extra loans. However, I suspect that the precise mix of loans, grants and dispensations for low-income families will be presented not within the framework of the comprehensive spending review but in-I hope I am right in thinking this-a separate Statement setting out precisely how this is going to be worked out.
I have two further questions for the Minister but before asking them I should like to say two things. First, I am pleased that the proposals suggest a level playing field for part-timers and full-timers. This is an issue for which I and many other people on all sides of the House have fought for a very long time and it is very good to see it at long last. Secondly, I also welcome the simplification proposed for the higher education system-that is, having one higher education council instead of HEFCE, OFFA and the QAA. Indeed, the Office of the Independent Adjudicator is also included, although I wonder whether it is appropriate for that to be subsumed into the single council. Although I recognise that this was not in the terms of reference, I am sorry that the review did not look further and perhaps amalgamate the old Learning and Skills Council element of adult education, as it would be good to see an adult higher education council.
I have two questions. First, am I right in thinking that-although Browne is suggesting no cap on fees, allowing universities to vary fees between institutions and indeed between subjects-the Government are, in effect, suggesting a cap of £7,000? My second question picks up a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Triesman: does the Minister accept that, although raising the threshold to £21,000 is to be welcomed, the introduction of real interest rates on a loan of £30,000 will mean that, even at an income of £30,000 a year, with repayments of £68 a month or £812 a year, most of the £812 will be consumed by interest payments and that very little capital will be paid off? That means that those in that income bracket will retain that debt
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Baroness Wilcox: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, very much for that. It is very nice to hear her speak from this side of the Chamber. I was a little confused to start with, as this is the first time I have spoken from here with our friends on this side.
I am very pleased that the noble Baroness likes the idea of the inclusion of part-time students. It is a very good idea. At times, I have been a part-time student, so I think it will be helpful. Yes, we are looking at fees simplification, but as has been pointed out, there are further discussions to be had outside the House and within it. At this stage, nothing is written in tablets of stone as regards the skills council and so on.
The noble Baroness asked what the fee cap would be and, if there is no fee cap, whether fees could be charged at £20,000. Browne makes important recommendations about the structure and level of student contributions. We need to consider the options carefully and work out the implications of implementing them. We are considering a level of £7,000. The noble Lord, Lord Browne, recommends that there may be exceptional circumstances under which universities can price their courses above that threshold, but that would be conditional on them doing more on quality and to promote access for students from less privileged backgrounds. We are considering this proposal very carefully. There are strong views both for and against and we recognise the concerns from some that student contributions over £7,000 would put off some applicants, particularly those from low-income families. Equally, some argue that universities need to be able to charge more if they are to match the highest international standards, but we shall consider the arguments before reaching final conclusions.
Baroness Morgan of Huyton: My Lords, there is much to welcome in the report and it is a very comprehensive and far reaching review. Unfortunately, it was established as a means of getting extra, long-term sustainable money into the university sector and is now being used, in essence, to replace major cuts. That said, I have one specific question, picking up on something raised by the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, which, with respect, I do not think was answered: the potential differential effect on women in the review. I shall give you one example. If you take a female teacher in the lower middle-income bracket, who maybe takes time out or works part-time for several years bringing up children as she wants to spend some time at home with them, can it possibly be fair that she, in the end, pays substantially more than a full-time City worker, earning considerably more?
Baroness Wilcox:I think that there was broad mention in the Statement that I repeated of women having to be with families and having to take time out. I hope that this will all be covered after we have got rid of this awful business of the money. These are the areas that we really need to discuss and get right now. If it is
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Baroness Perry of Southwark: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for repeating the Statement and very much welcome the prospect of finance to meet universities' growing difficulties in providing the excellent education that we all wish for in this country. I echo the welcome of my noble friend Lady Sharp for the provision for part-time students, for which many of us have argued for a long time. That is extremely welcome.
My question is about the relationship between what graduates will be repaying and the differential fees which the universities will charge. As I understand it, the proposal in the Browne report is that universities will be able to charge variable fees, quite different fees from each other and for individual courses. Is there a mechanism whereby the repayment which graduates will make will be matched to the differential amount which the universities charge; and, if so, how will that mechanism work?
Baroness Wilcox: Clearly, we are hoping to be able to fund students to do exactly what they want to, exactly when they want to do it. Therefore, given the way that these things are put together, at the end of the day we will decide just how much money they need, and we want to make sure that they get as much money as they need to do the course that they need.
Lord Elystan-Morgan: My Lords, can the noble Baroness confirm that a study has been made of the possible prejudicial and deleterious effect of any adjustment of the cap in relation to higher education finances in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland? If not, can she give an assurance that such a comprehensive and rigorous study will be made before Her Majesty's Government come to any final conclusion in this matter?
The Lord Bishop of Chester: My Lords, when the present cap was introduced, the Government of the day said strongly that it would be a cap-a limit-and that variable fees would be charged. In practice the £3,000, now indexed, has been a normal charge. Do the Government expect the £7,000 to be the normal fee, or do they genuinely expect and aim to introduce variable fees?
Lord Liddle: My Lords, does the Minister accept that, in considering the review of the noble Lord, Lord Browne, equality of access to university is an absolutely fundamental principle? This is important in
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Baroness Wilcox: This is very important to us; I support the noble Lord on it. We all agree that widening participation is very important. We are clear about the importance of promoting fair access and widening participation in higher education. We are clear that the brightest and best must have access to higher education irrespective of family income and in those universities where, as the noble Lord described, they have difficulties at the moment. We hope that as you give evidence to us, we hear these problems explained further and better and we know what we have after the spending agreement, we will then be able to start moving forward.
Lord Phillips of Sudbury: My Lords, I declare an interest as chancellor of the University of Essex. My question is about consultation. Before asking it, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Browne, and his team for producing this report. I pity the Minister and, indeed, the Government for having to contend with what is on any reckoning the most complex set of issues and counter-issues. It is gratifying to have the sense of the House that this will not become a political football. My question is this: public confidence in consultation is very low, so will the Minister give an absolute assurance that consultation on the set of issues we have to confront here will take as long as it takes and that every single one of our 130 or so universities will be individually consulted and that they, in turn, will consult inter alia with student unions and their staffs? Without that, frankly, we will not get the best outcome and we will not assuage public anxiety as we must.
Baroness Wilcox: I thank my noble friend Lord Phillips for that question about consultation taking as long as it should take and making sure that all universities and student unions are included in all the conversations. That will be the case. We will consult with all the facts before us. This has been a slow start for us as a Government, and I know that people are getting short-tempered with the lack of progress. We feel it. We would like to move ahead further than we have been able to do so far. The comprehensive spending review will allow us, at last, to see what the news is and to move forward from that. I am part of a coalition Government, and I can tell the House that over the past six months we have learnt to do consultation. We
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Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: Perhaps the noble Baroness will return to one of the questions raised by my noble friend Lord Triesman. He asked her whether the noble Lord, Lord Browne, had been given any indication of the Government's evolving thinking on the CSR while drawing up his report. That is an important question. Was the noble Lord, Lord Browne, kept informed about government thinking on that point?
The noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, said that she and others in her party would have liked to have seen no raising of the cap. But it went a little further than that, did it not? Before the election, 57 Liberal Democrat MPs not only felt the same as the noble Baroness, but signed a specific pledge saying that they would oppose the raising of the cap. The Minister speaks for the coalition. Will she tell us her feelings about that and does she regret what those 57 Liberal Democrat MPs did?
Baroness Wilcox: On the first question, the noble Baroness will have to ask the noble Lord, Lord Browne. He is here today and it is lovely that he is. On the second question, all three parties here assembled have had to rethink this problem over time. Certainly, the Benches facing me have changed their mind more than once.
Lord Willis of Knaresborough: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, made an important point. A principle was established by the Labour Government in 1998; namely, that fees represented replacement funding. All the money which came in from the first round of fees was replacement funding. But the issue is fundamental. If our universities cannot get additional resources as a result of this increase, we will not remain competitive.
What assurance can the Minister give at this stage that additional resources will come into our universities for research and teaching over and above any loss of revenue as a result of the comprehensive spending review? On a very important point, we are to have real interest on repayment of loans after £21,000 is reached. If students repay those loans in their entirety and therefore escape having to pay any interest, have the Government and the noble Lord, Lord Browne, calculated the loss and therefore the additional revenue that would have to be taken out of the system to compensate?
Baroness Wilcox: My Lords, my noble friend comes from the other place, where I believe that he chaired the Commons committee on education. This man knows his questions. I cannot answer pretty well everything that he has asked me, sadly. There is nothing more that I can say at this stage. I realise that the comprehensive spending review is hampering us with everything today, so I offer my apologies for that.
Lord Rennard: My Lords, the Select Committee was right to see significant drawbacks to the widespread use of referendums and to note that they have been used in the past for reasons of tactics rather than principle. There are good reasons why a referendum may sometimes be appropriate in a representative democracy, but there are also dangers to democracy from increasing the use of referendums. History teaches us that referendums can be used, as Clement Attlee famously observed, as,
Even sincere attempts to use referendums for democratic reasons can fall foul of various problems to which elections may be less susceptible. Several witnesses to the Select Committee drew attention to the way in which the question on a referendum ballot paper is often not the question on which people actually vote. In 2003, a national newspaper attempted to conduct a referendum on the question of whether there should be a national referendum on the proposed constitution for Europe. Using newsagents as polling stations, it sought to give people their say on this issue. But evidence suggested that as many as 90 per cent of those who voted thought that the question had been about the single currency and not about the constitution at all.
The Select Committee report quotes Dr O'Malley of Dublin City University illustrating how in Ireland the first referendum on the Lisbon treaty became one on abortion and conscription rather than on the treaty. This was, as Professor David Butler described, a result of the disproportionate influence exercised by a single very rich individual who wanted to influence the outcome of that referendum. So referendums may not always be about handing power to the people, they may be about handing disproportionate power to certain wealthy groups and individuals.
More frequently, referendums can effectively become about support or opposition to the Government of the day. The timing of the 1997 referendums in Scotland and Wales, and the nature of those campaigns, suggested that they were as much about a referendum endorsing the change of Westminster government that had just taken place as the questions on the ballot paper about the future governance of Scotland and Wales. Elected Governments across the world are advised that if they wish to make changes that are endorsed by a referendum, they should generally do so before the so-called mid-term unpopularity kicks in, making it much harder to win such a poll, which can become a protest vote against the Government themselves.
When should a referendum be right in principle as opposed to a tactic to suit the party in power that proposes it? I think that the committee has produced a good list of the most obvious potential issues that may be considered of fundamental constitutional importance and could therefore be appropriate for a national referendum. The clearest case to be made for a referendum
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The committee looked in particular at the issue of thresholds in referendums. But before we get to the referendum next May, there are attempts being made in the other place today to impose a threshold that 40 per cent of the electorate be required to endorse change before it can happen. If such a threshold had been adopted in the recent general election, requiring MPs to have the support of 40 per cent of their electorates, then only three out of the 650 Members of Parliament would have been declared elected. We do not have a minimum turnout threshold for electing MPs, MEPs, councillors or other representatives, so I cannot see the general justification for one in order to deem a referendum vote valid. The committee was therefore right, in my view, to recommend a general presumption against the use of voter turnout thresholds and super-majorities.
I cannot, however, agree with the committee's conclusion about whether or not referendums can generally be held at the same time as other ballots, and nor do the Government. The issue of turnout, and therefore of legitimacy, may be linked to whether or not referendums can be held at the same time as other elections. It seems somewhat contradictory that some of those who make democratic legitimacy arguments in support of a minimum turnout threshold, in particular for referendums, also argue for the decoupling of referendums from other elections. All those of us who have been involved in elections know that it is hard enough to get people out to vote at any time without increasing the frequency with which they have to do so.
The argument against holding a referendum at the same time as other elections is based on the idea that people could not comprehend a referendum question that otherwise would be intelligible because they are also electing representatives on the same day. This defies the experience of many countries. It also defies past experience in this country, which noble Lords opposite may well remember; that of the referendum on creating a London Assembly and a mayor of London. That referendum coincided with the London borough elections in 1998, and we know that London voters had no difficulty dealing with these separate issues on the same day. I do not expect that we will ever be asking voters to deal with the series of questions and huge range of elections that voters in the United States often cope with.
There is also an argument about the cost of staging a referendum. The marginal costs of holding a referendum on the same day as other elections are but a small fraction of what the costs would be of a separate referendum, which are equivalent to the costs of a general election.
More fundamentally, one of the potential downsides of referendums identified by the committee is the problem of people treating the vote in a referendum as a vote on the Government of the day rather than as an issue of principle. This is actually ameliorated by
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Lord Pannick: My Lords,I want to focus on the Government's written response to the committee's report. The Minister, Mr Harper, said that the Government do not share the committee's concern that referendums in the past have been used as a tactical device in an ad hoc manner. He assured noble Lords and the committee that the Government are committed to the use of referendums as a means of giving people a greater say in politics. The evidence which the committee heard-I declare an interest as a member-clearly established that Mr Harper is simply wrong in his analysis of the past and that the current proposals the Government are putting forward strongly suggest that Mr Harper's hopes for the future are unlikely to be met.
As to the past, some of the most striking evidence we heard is summarised at paragraphs 37 and 38 of our report. The noble Lord, Lord Goodlad, has already mentioned the evidence of Professor David Butler, of Nuffield College, Oxford, that normally referendums happen only when the Government think they are going to win. It may be that the next referendum will happen only because the Government think that they are going to lose. Steve Richards, the chief political commentator at the Independent newspaper gave similar evidence. He emphasised that the referendum is a tool used by political leaders to suggest that they are giving away powers when in fact they have carefully controlled the circumstances to ensure that they attain the desired result.
None of this should take anyone by surprise. The referendum is a powerful political mechanism and politicians will use it in the way they use all other political mechanisms-to advance their own political agendas. Referendums in the past have simply not been used to give people a greater say in politics- Mr Harper's aspiration. Indeed, if that had been the case, important social reforms such as the abolition of capital punishment, homosexual law reform and race relations law would have been prevented or at least severely delayed.
Of course, people must be encouraged to have their say on political questions, but decisions on such matters are for Parliament. Parliament has the task not merely of informing itself but also of leading public opinion where appropriate. Its task is not simply to identify what public opinion is and then to follow it.
If we confine our attention to constitutional issues, we see that it is simply not the case that the referendum has been used consistently in the past; it has been used wholly arbitrarily. Major constitutional change has
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That is the past. As to Mr Harper's hopes for the future use of the referendum as a means of giving people a greater say in politics, the evidence of this Government's record so far does not suggest any move away from the tactical use of a referendum as, when and to the degree that it suits the Government. Mr Harper's letter includes a list of the matters on which they are considering referendums. It does not include their plan to reform this House to introduce a wholly or mainly elected upper Chamber-the noble Baroness, Lady Jay of Paddington, referred to this matter in opening today's debate. The question inevitably arises why, if the Government are so keen, as Mr Harper tells the committee and the House, on the referendum as a means of giving people a greater say on major constitutional reforms, the public are not to be given such a say on House of Lords reform.
The Government are proposing a referendum on the voting method for elections to the other place, but as your Lordships well know, the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill will offer the public a choice only between the present first past the post system and the alternative vote method of election. Any objective exercise to identify the views of the public would include the choice of proportional representation as a means of electing the other place; indeed, it has long been the view of those on the Liberal Democrat Benches that such a system should be adopted.
I, like all your Lordships, have great admiration for the debating skills of the noble Lord, Lord McNally, as well as for all his other qualities, but I am doubtful that even he can persuade noble Lords today that the lack of any present intention to offer a referendum giving a wider choice of voting systems can be consistent with Mr Harper's assertion that this Government deprecate the use of the referendum as a tactical device.
I hope that the Government will be slow to propose referendums in the future, even on constitutional issues. Complex issues of government are best decided by Parliament, taking full account of the views of all sections of society, of course. I am concerned, like the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, that referendums will inevitably be strongly influenced by the drafting of the question, the power of the press to influence thinking, the popularity of the Government when the referendum occurs and the ability of people to understand the issues that are being posed. The Electoral Commission's recent report on the proposed referendum on the alternative vote revealed an alarming state of public ignorance on the subject-a matter to which the noble Lord, Lord Hart of Chilton, has already referred.
My point is not to encourage the Government to hold more referendums: it is that the committee was undoubtedly correct to conclude that a referendum is, always has been, and will remain, a political device that a Government will inevitably seek to manipulate to advance their own objectives. When the Government propose a referendum, we should lock the doors and make sure that the political burglar alarms are working.
Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, I have the greatest respect for the debating skills of the noble Lord, Lord McNally, who is an old friend. I propose to put a few points to him to test them later in the debate. First, as one of the non-members of the committee, like the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, I add my sincere congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, and to the members of the committee on a well considered and helpful report. I only wish that I could say the same about the Government's response to the report.
In particular, we in this House should be concerned at the apparent contempt in the Government's response to the report, and in the Bill being discussed today in the House of Commons, for the role of Parliament. The Government seem to be saying that as soon as they decide something, it will happen. What has happened to the phrase "subject to approval by Parliament"? We are told that it will be a five-year Parliament because the Deputy Prime Minister has decided that. He does not say that it is subject to the approval of Parliament, which it is.
Equally, with a referendum, whereas the Electoral Commission very cleverly and carefully says "the proposed referendum", the Government call it the referendum that is due to take place, not which they hope will take place or is planned. The presumption is that because it has been decided by the Government it will automatically happen, without proper consideration by either House of Parliament, let alone both.
Following that argument, I presume that that would apply to elections in Scotland, Wales and local government elections in England. I will concentrate on that. The Government's response to having a referendum on the same day as these elections is that it saves money. I have a better suggestion for saving money: do not have a referendum at all. That would save even more money, if that is a main constraint that concerns them.
The Government's response is full of strange ideas. For example, I take the suggestion of local referendums on council tax increases. That is a populist notion; I do not know whether it comes from the Liberal Democrats or the Tories. It is probably from some old liberal tradition which still exists on the Benches opposite. But it begs lots of questions-and I shall give three.
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As the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, said, the referendum on the alternative vote offers only that one choice-the simple choice between first past the post and the alternative vote. I make no bones about it. Like many of my colleagues on this side and a great many opposite, I am in favour of first past the post. For the lower House, which produces the Government and from which the Government are decided, it normally results in stable government-although we have an exception at the moment. If we had an elected second Chamber, although that is a separate debate, there would be an argument for electing it by some form of proportional representation so that the revising House was of a different composition, in order to look at the legislation coming from the Government in the lower House. But why are we having this referendum on the alternative vote? Most of us on our side do not want it, most of the Tories do not want it and the Liberal Democrats do not really want it. They want the single transferable vote-proper PR. So why have we got it? The only thing that I can deduce is that it is a Trojan horse, the thin end of the wedge. Once 150 years of tradition in this country of electing the Commons by first past the post is thrown aside and we move to AV and there are problems with it, people could say, "Well, if we've done it once, let's do it again-let's try the single transferable vote, or the system we have in Scotland". Once you open the Pandora's box-I hope noble Lords will excuse me mixing metaphors-you do not know where it will stop.
Finally, I turn to the question of having a referendum on the same day as the elections in Scotland, Wales and local government elections in England. I shall take Scotland as an example and point out to noble Lords the reality of the confusion that it will cause. Of course, the electorate is not stupid-no one is suggesting that. Each person will go in and do their best to understand the system and the whole election campaign. Let us imagine, however, that the elections and a referendum are taking place in Scotland on 5 May next year. People will go in to find two ballot papers for the Scottish Parliament elections-one for first past the post, on which they have to put an X opposite the name of the person whom they want to be their constituency representative. They might see Sarah Boyack in Edinburgh Central-a little propaganda getting in here-and they put an X down next to her name. Then they have another list in which they have to put the numbers one to five against the party that they want to support for the list candidates. So that is quite a complicated thing already. In the run-up to that, there will have been campaigns for the constituency and the list, and people will need to understand that-and it takes some understanding, I assure you. Then they would have a third ballot paper on which the referendum vote would be cast. All that is quite a complicated exercise already. Then we come to the real fly in the
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We will also have two different campaigns running at the same time. The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, says that people will of course understand the different campaigns and vote differently on them, but he also said earlier that Governments carefully choose the times of referendums to get particular outcomes-they want to have it early in this period-so he has already admitted that contamination takes place; in this case, there will be cross-contamination. A referendum might be voted through or voted down not because of the value of the arguments on it as such, but because of people's other concerns about the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly or, indeed, what is happening here in Westminster in relation to the coalition Government. It is very stupid and I hope that the Government will think again.
When the Bill comes through the other place, there is an amendment to change the date which, if it does not get through there, will come here. I hope that the coalition Government will seriously consider separating the dates. I made it clear that I do not want the referendum at all and will vote against it if we have that opportunity, but if we are to have it-if that is the will of Parliament, ultimately-then I plead with the Government not to have it on the same day.
Finally, on the gerrymandering Bill-a better title for it than the long title that it has-which is now going through its committee stage in the House of Commons, perhaps I might tell my own Front Bench, and I choose my words carefully here, that if the Government continue to ride roughshod over Parliament and to propose things such as having no appeals or hearings for boundary changes, and if they bring things in which are entirely against the spirit of our democracy, we in opposition should respond in like terms.
The Lord Bishop of Chester: My Lords, the committee's thorough and skilful report is most welcome, not only for the contribution which it offers to the potential use of referendums but for the way in which it implicitly opens up questions about the effective operation of our democracy, which so obviously lie in the background. For my part, while I welcome the general tenor of the report, with its caution about the use of referendums and its various health warnings along the way, here and there I think that the report is too cautions. I may be able to offer the Minister a little more pastoral care than he has received so far in the debate.
Why do I think that the report is a bit too cautions? Our aim is good government through a strong, representative democracy. One easy conclusion would
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The first picks up some comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, although not quite in the context in which he offered them, concerning the current balance in our constitutional arrangements between the Government, or Executive, and Parliament. It has been widely remarked in recent years that the balance has become an imbalance, with the Executive using the powers at their command to dominate Parliament. It is several decades since Lord Hailsham coined the well-known phrase "elective dictatorship" in his Dimbleby lecture to point up the dangers, but since he issued that warning the dangers have got even greater. Perhaps the advent of coalition government has not entirely helped, not least in this House where a whipped vote of the coalition partners will be much harder to defeat than has previously been the case.
The problem of an over-dominant Executive is widely before us, and it is not conducive to the flourishing of representative democracy. The natural solution, of course, would be to seek to rebalance the relationship between the Government and Parliament, but that is more easily said than done because of the pressures that the Government are under and because so much power has in practice already been transferred to the Executive.
Perhaps a somewhat greater use of referendums would be a useful tool of empowerment to the people of this country, a way of embodying and demonstrating that the power which Governments wield is exercised on behalf of all our citizens. We have to face the widespread cynicism about politics and politicians today, as we have been sharply reminded in the past two years. We should not underestimate what needs to be done in order to counteract this, and a somewhat wider use of referendums on a consultative basis may have a place in the appropriate strategy. This would not be a panacea, as the noble Lord, Lord Hart, suggested, but it may have a place in a consultative way.
If referendums were purely consultative, that would take the sting out of a great deal of what the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, said in his powerful speech. The decision could rest with Parliament, be it about capital punishment or constitutional change, but there is a real advantage in empowering people and involving them in decisions. If we say that there is public ignorance, that is not a reason for not consulting people; it is a reason for increasing public knowledge, and properly conducted referendums could have a place in achieving that.
I shall point to a couple of examples, one where a referendum was used and one where it was not but it might have been and, I believe, should have been. Imagine for a moment that there had not been a referendum in the north-east in 2004 about regional devolution. This was a highly political subject, the government of the day at least appearing to be strongly
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Let us look at this from another point of view in, perhaps, a more controversial area where referendums have not been held, and the committee draws attention to this-that is, over successive European treaties. I tread somewhat warily into this territory, but the lack of any referendum on at least one of the treaties since 1975 has had a bad effect on how politics is viewed in this country. There is a widespread sense-not only among London taxi drivers, although they certainly exhibit it-that too much power has been transferred without proper scrutiny and democratic consent to the European Union by successive Governments forcing the relevant legislation through by heavily whipped votes. I say this as a supporter of the European Union who is largely grateful for our membership, but the absence of any recognised test and mandate of the people of our country as a whole may yet return to haunt our political life, not least since the major parties have broadly taken the same European policies to the electorate in successive election campaigns.
I move to a more local example from my own neck of the woods in Cheshire. Several years ago, without a local referendum, there was a consultation-I put inverted commas around the word in my notes-about the future shape of local government in the county of Cheshire. There were three options, broadly: a continuance of the previous arrangements in some form of dual administration by a county council and six district councils; a single Cheshire-wide unitary; or two new unitaries, east and west Cheshire. The great weight of the responses to the consultation favoured either a revised status quo or a single unitary. However, a political decision was made by the Minister to impose two new unitaries, which seemed to most people in my community to have little local support. The noble Lord, Lord Phillips, who is not now in his place, said earlier that public confidence in consultation is very low; I am not surprised that that can be said.
I pay tribute to those who are making the new system of east and west Cheshire work, but there remains the widespread feeling that the community of Cheshire was subject to an executive decision in London that did not take sufficient account of what the people of Cheshire judged was best. The very fact that the new unitaries are called east Cheshire and west Cheshire rather indicates that there is an underlying social and geographical reality of Cheshire to which both belong. The exercise has been much more expensive than a single unitary would have been. The people of Cheshire as a whole deserved the chance to be consulted before a decision was taken by the Minister, just as the people of the north-east were consulted about regional devolution.
Perhaps it is implied in the coalition agreement that this should have happened, because a referendum is required for the introduction of an elected mayor. Should it not also be required for any major change in local constitutional arrangements? Amid my general support for the government response, I look forward to the Minister's response on that specific point. It is relevant not just to elected mayors.
Lord O'Neill of Clackmannan: Can the right reverend Prelate, in a national, rather than a local government, context, take account of the fact that referenda tend to be judgments as much on the proposer as on the proposition? If the proposer is not very popular at any time, it affords the electorate an opportunity to have a go at them. That is probably the reason-more so than any other-why devolution in the north-east was rejected. In 2004 the status and popularity of the Labour Government in an area where they were normally held in high regard were somewhat lower than we would otherwise have expected them to be.
The Lord Bishop of Chester: That point was raised earlier in the debate. Of course there will be a range of factors that come into play. I lived and worked in the north-east for nearly 10 years. I was not surprised that when the people were consulted they gave the response that they did. I think that most people would now think that it would have been wrong to introduce regional government. However, to address the point more directly, the very fact that referendums are held so sporadically, in such an ad hoc way, has contributed to the fact that they can be misused or interpreted as a judgment on the proposer. That is why a slightly more organised protocol for the use of referendums, particularly, perhaps, for local issues but occasionally also for national issues, would be beneficial to our democracy. However, there is no panacea and there are dangers with whatever approach one takes.
I conclude with a more general point about the exercise of political power. The notion seems to have grown up that strong government necessarily means powerful government, with the government of the day being perceived to be in charge of events. Yes, that is understandable. However, the intolerable pressures of the modern media can push a Government too far. Is it not one of the implications of the idea of a big society, as opposed to a big state or big government, that a strong Government can display their strength by sharing their power with the people most affected by a decision? That, I believe, lies behind the proposed localism Bill. It is also the underlying reason why we should be prepared to welcome a rather wider use of consultative referendums than has been the case in recent times, and as the committee's report recommends.
Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester. We owe the existence of the Lords spiritual as a valuable element in your Lordships' House to their medieval predecessors' reluctance to serve in a court to try their fellow Peers. It is good to know that referendums can honourably enter the purview of the Lords spiritual.
On a personal note, I mourn the recent death of Lord Bingham. His maiden speech in your Lordships' House as Lord Chief Justice was on the then constitutional settlement. On principle he never spoke in this Chamber as a Law Lord, save to give judgments; but one had hoped that in retirement he might have come back to speak in this Chamber, not least on constitutional subjects-so he is already missed.
I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Jay of Paddington, not only on securing the chairmanship of the Constitution Committee of your Lordships' House but on having celebrated it so admirably today. I congratulate her, too, on the compliment paid her by the Electoral Commission at lunchtime today in providing briefing in room 13 on the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill and its referendum implications, which I like to think was a deliberate act.
I have myself never been a member of the Constitution Committee, so what qualifications do I have to speak? Perhaps I should declare one interest in that the local polls in Wales on the Sunday opening of pubs during the 1960s, referred to in paragraph 2 of this report, was the product of a suggestion by my noble and leaned friend Lord Howe of Aberavon-as he then was not-and was implemented by my late noble kinsman as Minister for Welsh Affairs. I have a miniature qualification in having lived in Switzerland for a year 50 years ago, and thus breathed the referendum air.
I spoke in Marlow on the yes platform on the 1975 referendum and was told engagingly afterwards by my fellow speaker, a Wing Commander Martin, that I had developed arguments he believed no one else in the hall had ever thought of before. Wing Commander Martin was, I think, the first British officer into Sarawak after the Japanese surrender and remarked to me that he thought the people of Sarawak might well have voted for the return of the Brookes as white rajas if the opportunity had been afforded them.
I lived through the 1977-79 debates on Welsh and Scottish devolution as a participant opposition Back-Bencher, and 20 years later in the 1997-1999 period I felt unease about the referendum arrangements regarding Scotland, Wales, the Greater London Authority and the Belfast agreement, which seemed to be made up as the Government went along and were regulated and finally corralled only by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 after all four of these referendums had been done and dusted. The more's the pity given the international praise that that Act has since received. Perhaps that Act may let us draw a line under the past.
In relation to the Belfast agreement referendum, the Prime Minister-whose name had already been deployed in the Welsh referendum by a plane drawing a banner across south Wales, saying, "Vote yes, vote Blair"-was pressed to campaign on the Belfast agreement referendum by Labour MPs who had been campaigning for the yes vote, which they feared they might lose without his participation, which gave rise to one pledge or promise of his which he, of course, was later unable to fulfil. That brings me, as a new reader, to the excellent report that we are debating today. The gallimaufry of quotations assembled from relevant academics is a rich quarry even if it occasions the
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On the issue of choice of subjects for referendums, I have on a prior occasion cited one of my late noble kinsman's constituents, a very competent photographer named Miss Compton Collier. She lived in a flat in West Hampstead, possessed neither radio nor television and never read newspapers. She told her bank manager that it was his obligation to let her know if anything of real significance occurred. He prudently inquired what her standards of "real significance" were. She said that that was a very easy question to answer: they were the death of the sovereign or the outbreak of war. That procedure has much to recommend it, but as a resolution for the choice of subjects by one's bank manager, it is as unpredictable and impenetrable a method as the Duckworth Lewis one is to the average spectator at a limited-overs cricket match.
Knowing, however, that the noble Lord, Lord Wills, will have both the right and opportunity of reply, I shall follow the principle of getting your retaliation in first which is pursued by the British Lions on rugby football tours, and say that, on his point on the composition of the House of Lords being irrelevant because the people of this country have had decades to consider this change-a view which the coalition seems to share, as other speakers have said-as the right reverend Prelate said, the same might likewise have been said about regional government in the north-east, when the noble Lord, Lord Prescott, was driven back to that far-off fastness because he believed that he knew the answer for sure, as in the example given by Professor David Butler to the committee that a referendum on 4 November some years back proved otherwise and earned the experiment the title of 4/11 throughout Whitehall. If I had a preference for elections to your Lordships' House, I would not bet my own house on such a result if a national referendum on the composition of your Lordships' House were held.
My own interpretation of the overall tenor of this report is that the referendum is a device not without worth but that it should not be abused by overuse. That seems to me a very British conclusion to which I have no difficulty subscribing.
I suppose that, so far in my life, I have been involved in one real referendum and two failed referenda. I took part in the 1975 referendum on the European Union. I was one of the organisers of "Oxford says yes to Europe" and greatly enjoyed the campaign. In
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In 1975, I had come to the view that a referendum was a good thing because it would settle the Europe issue for all time. Well, it did not. I think that that should be a warning to all referendum enthusiasts-it does not settle issues for all time. When I started working for Tony Blair I allowed myself to be persuaded again that a referendum on the euro would be a good thing. It was the arguments of Hugo Young that I found most persuasive. He said that this would be an existential choice for Britain, about Britain's future direction in the world, and it was right that we should have a referendum on it. As we know now, that issue became bogged down and blocked in questions of whether the economic circumstances were right for Britain to join, and whether the five economic tests were fulfilled. In retrospect my view is that if a referendum were to have been held, it should have taken place in 1998 or 1999, on the principle of whether Britain should join the euro. Then the decision on when we did it, according to when the economic circumstances were right, should have been left to the Chancellor and to the Cabinet. That was what the late Lord Jenkins of Hillhead urged on the Prime Minister at the time, and in retrospect he was right.
The constitutional treaty referendum was announced by the Prime Minister to the House of Commons in April 2004. I could never see a case for it because the constitutional treaty, despite its portentous title, was nothing more than a classic amending treaty to the basic treaties of the European Union. In its policy content it was a lot less significant in its effects than the Single European Act. I remember a meeting at which Mr Blair expressed these views very forcefully to the then Foreign Secretary, saying, "Jack, are you saying that we should have a referendum on this treaty? That would involve running up and down the streets, telling people to come out and vote in favour of a double-hatted Foreign Minister. Do you think that that is what people are going to respond to?".
When the referendum was proposed in 2004, it was done purely for tactical reasons, not for reasons of principle. The tactical reasons were, first, a misjudgment about how this House would vote on the treaty and a feeling that a referendum clause would be added; and secondly, a fear that the issue would be very damaging to Labour in the European elections that were coming up. Those are not good reasons for having referenda, and I was extremely pleased that when Gordon Brown became Prime Minister, he saw no case for a referendum on the Lisbon treaty and that, once he had made the decision and explained it clearly, the passage of the Bill through the House was a complete damp squib. I remember the then Minister for Europe, Mr Jim Murphy, telling me that he had had hardly any letters about it in his postbag.
In the recess, the coalition Government announced in a Written Ministerial Statement by David Lidington on 13 September that legislation would be introduced
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Secondly, if the Bill had been in place in 1997, we would have had referenda on every amending treaty that has passed since-not just on the treaty of Lisbon but on those of Nice and Amsterdam. That makes three referenda in all. Technically-the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, may correct me-we would have had a fourth, because in 2004 it was decided under a passerelle clause to make immigration and asylum a matter of qualified majority voting, which certainly would have passed the Government's test of what would have required a referendum. So many referenda in such a short period would be ridiculous and I do not think that people would know what they were all about, but having referenda on so-called passerelle clauses is an added great confusion. Who will decide which passerelles represent a fundamental so-called transfer of power? That is very unclear. We will probably have the Supreme Court deciding which matters should be subject to referenda. Therefore, I see this as an undesirable development, and frankly I am amazed that my good friend the noble Lord, Lord McNally, and the Liberal Democrats have agreed to these proposals being brought forward by the coalition Government. I find it amazing that what was the most pro-European party in Britain has agreed to them.
I do not rule out all referenda. If we in Britain are to have a referendum on Europe, let us have it on big and simple choices. Let us have a referendum on whether we are going to be fully committed members of the European Union or whether we are going to pull out. It seems that we could have a referendum on that. However, do not let us kid ourselves that, except on these very big issues, referenda are a way of dealing with the problem of legitimacy in our democracy. We do that by restoring trust in our parliamentary institutions and by having politicians and political parties that are prepared to argue and lead-not to go for the cop-out of referenda, which I believe just encourage the backstairs politics of tactical manoeuvre.
Baroness Quin: My Lords, I, too, am pleased to participate in this debate, particularly as this was the last report in which I was involved as a member of the Constitution Committee, and it is a subject that I was particularly keen to see the committee examine. I am glad to say that I strongly support the report and its recommendations.
I take this opportunity to congratulate my noble friend Lady Jay on her appointment as chair of the committee. I add my own words of thanks to the outgoing chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Goodlad, who also addressed us this afternoon.
I hope that this debate is timely. It is good to see that, unlike the debates on many committee reports on the Floor of the House which are often dominated by committee members, the debate on this one has also attracted a large number of Members who were not involved in the committee's deliberations but have obviously been very interested in the committee's work on this subject.
I was certainly concerned about aspects of the Government's policy on referendums, and that concern was triggered when the then leader of the Opposition, now the Prime Minister, said on 10 June 2009 in another place:
"Is it not time to allow people the opportunity to present a proposition and have it voted on in a local referendum ... Should we not give them the right to hold a referendum on massive council tax rises?-[Official Report, Commons, 10/6/09; col. 800.]
That seemed to herald a considerable change in our political system, perhaps even going so far as to introduce a California ballot initiative system of a kind which I think has caused many problems. Certainly it begged a lot of questions about how massive tax rises should be defined, and indeed perhaps, following the comments of my noble friend Lord Foulkes, whether massive reductions could also be the subject of a ballot.
I was also concerned that at the time the then leader of the Opposition and his team did not wish to give oral evidence to the committee, despite being invited to do so. I am therefore very glad that the current committee has been pressing the Government to give their opinion on these issues. I hope that the Minister who has the possibly unenviable task of responding to the debate will be able to give us more information about the Government's precise plans.
In that connection, I have learnt-and certainly the point has been made-that the Government are proposing to transform the leaders of 12 large councils into mayors, with mayoral powers, and then to ask for this to be subsequently confirmed in a referendum at some unspecified date. That seems to be an extraordinary way of bringing in a change. If you agreed with referendums, presumably you would ask the people beforehand, but it seems very strange to bring in this change and then, at some unspecified date, to ask for it to be confirmed. Perhaps in his reply the Minister can enlighten us on that specific point.
In some ways it is difficult to argue against referendums, certainly when one hears comments such as, "Let the people decide" and "Let the people's voice be heard". However, I share the concerns of both the committee and many others who have spoken in this debate that, despite what the Government say, we have tended to proceed on an ad hoc basis for a variety of political reasons and for political expediency. Certainly, the precedents are not good. The 1975 referendum was essentially devised as a way of massaging divisions in the Labour Party. I think that the current Minister and I-I was a junior member of his staff in the Labour Party at the time-both remember that period very
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I believe that we need to think about when we want to use referendums, and I also believe that we should try to proceed on a cross-party basis as much as possible. That might be seen as a naive belief in our party-political system; none the less, when we talk about constitutional innovations and major constitutional changes, it would be much more satisfactory if cross-party, or at least a fairly broad measure of, agreement could be achieved in those circumstances.
We need to think about how far we are a parliamentary or representative democracy and how far we want to move towards being a plebiscitary democracy. The noble Lord, Lord Liddle, mentioned the debates about the Lisbon treaty and I largely agree with him. It was a long, complicated treaty and I would be the last person to say that members of the public are not capable of judging for themselves the nature of a treaty such as that. However, one part of me wonders what Parliament is about if it is not there to scrutinise in detail, line by line, treaties and then come to a decision as a result. That seems to be a fundamental element of a representative democracy and it is certainly something that we should think about very carefully before changing it. Sometimes a referendum can seem to be an abdication of responsibility in which a Government say, "Oh well, this issue is too difficult. Let's not deal with it ourselves", yet sometimes in politics you need the courage to make difficult political decisions.
I was not going to mention the north-east referendum at all, having been indelibly scarred by the experience. However, I was provoked into doing so by the comments of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester and those of the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, who I think, to my horror, said something about the north-east being a "far-off fastness". I say to the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, that if you live in the north-east, you think of the south-east of England as being a far-off fastness.
I do not think that the north-east referendum was a case of a Government very keen on the idea trying to foist it on an unwilling population. The genesis of north-east devolution is rather different. Many north-easterners-indeed, I was one of them- campaigned for years to try to promote the idea of regional devolution, and the Government, of whom I was very proud to be a part, had some members who were not very enthusiastic about it. I very much agreed with the comments made in an intervention by my noble friend Lord O'Neill, who said that of course a referendum is very much influenced by what is going on in the country at the time of that referendum.
I say to the right reverend Prelate that there had been many opinion polls before the actual referendum in the north-east which showed that people favoured the idea of regional devolution and yet the timing of the referendum must, in many ways, have delighted the No campaign almost beyond its wildest dreams. There was an anti-politician feeling around which was not
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Quite rightly, the report looks at international examples. I wish to add one which does not appear in the report: it is interesting that Germany, a strong and decentralised democracy, is very much against national referendums because of past experience particularly in the interwar years and when the regime used them to manipulate public opinion and to engineer particular outcomes.
In conclusion, I think that the committee is right to urge caution. We need to think carefully about referendums becoming an integral part of our system. Preferably, we should proceed on a cross-party basis. In highlighting these points, this debate is very much to be welcomed. Like others, I look forward to the Minister's reply without envying him his task.
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