Parliament should make decisions on use of referendums

07 April 2010

The House of Lords Constitution Committee have today concluded that there are significant difficulties in the use of referendums, but that, if they are to be used, their use is most appropriate to determine 'fundamental constitutional issues', and that it should be Parliament, not Government, that decides whether a referendum is appropriate on any particular issue.

In their report 'Referendums in the UK' the Committee say that there are significant drawbacks relating to the use of referendums, but that, if they are to become a more regular part of the UK's democratic and constitutional framework, it is important they are used consistently and not as a tactical device as has been the case in the past.

They argue that it is inappropriate for the decision as to whether referendums should be used to be left entirely in the hands of the Government. Parliament should judge what issues should be the subject of a referendum.

The report states that while it is impossible to provide a precise definition of what constitutes a 'fundamental constitutional issue' they would consider the following potential proposals as falling within that criteria:

  • to abolish the monarchy
  • to leave the European Union
  • for any nations of the UK to secede from the Union
  • to abolish either House of Parliament
  • to change the electoral system for the House of Commons
  • to adopt a written constitution
  • to change the UK's currency

The Committee recommend that the formulation of referendum questions should also not be left exclusively to the Government. They suggest that the Electoral Commission should be given statutory responsibility for formulating referendum questions which should then be presented to Parliament for approval.

They also suggest that in most cases the question should pose only two options but acknowledge there will be situations where multi-option questions are more appropriate.

The Committee also consider the use of citizens' initiatives, a distinctive type of referendum that allow citizens to propose matters on which referendums should be held. The Committee acknowledge the need for greater public engagement with the democratic process but suggest citizens' assemblies or citizens' juries might be more appropriate than the use of citizens' initiatives as a way of achieving this.

Commenting on the report, Chairman of the Constitution Committee, Lord Goodlad said:

"There are calls for referendums to become a more regular part of the British political process, often linked to increasing public engagement in the democratic process. While we sympathise with these arguments we think it is important that if they are to be used at all, their use is reserved for significant constitutional issues.

"Importantly it should be Parliament, not the Government who should decide if a referendum is appropriate. This is too important a judgment to be determined on an ad hoc basis or on the basis of tactical party political motives.

"The Electoral Commission should also have a statutory role in devising the wording of the referendum question. This will be an important step in ensuring the process is seen as fair by the public."

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