Speaking ahead of the vote to give 16 year olds the vote in the EU referendum, Paul Tyler, Lib Dem Political Reform Spokesperson, warned that the “the people who will be most disappointed by this decision will be those who are excluded from it when it is their one and only chance to influence a vital decision for our country.”
In an otherwise very careful speech, the Minister implied that this was simply, but only, a once-in-a-generation decision. That is not what the Prime Minister said in his Chatham House speech on 13 November, when he said that the EU referendum,
“Is a huge decision for our country … And it will be the final decision”.
The Minister referred to disappointed voters; the people who will be most disappointed by this decision will be those who are excluded from it when it is their one and only chance to influence a vital decision for our country.
For the sake of brevity, I shall not rehearse all the arguments that I have so often used in this Chamber on the merits of extending the franchise for this vote.
I endorse absolutely what the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan of Ely, said. It would be surprising if I did not; my colleagues and I have supported this increase in the franchise for young people for many years. It would be very inconsistent if we did not do so now. Instead, I want to highlight two wider issues that have been gently referred to already but have perhaps even greater salience for our House.
One of the oldest tricks in the Whips’ trade—I used to be a Whip—when you are losing an argument is to change the subject. That is, effectively, what the Government are now doing. They have moved from trying to defend the inconsistency of the franchise for the Scottish independence referendum compared to that for the forthcoming European referendum to insisting that a clear majority of your Lordships’ House should be ignored on the grounds that we voted in a way that will cost money.
In their letter to us on Friday, Ministers told us, and were at pains to emphasise, that what they termed the Government’s formal reason for disagreeing with the Lords amendment was because,
“It would involve a charge on public funds”.
The Motion and the Minister’s speech this afternoon confirm this statement. That suggestion—that they had no alternative—is simply specious. Elsewhere in the letter, they say:
“It is our view that should this significant change to the franchise be made, it should be debated seriously as part of a wide debate on the franchise, not done piecemeal for a one off electoral event”.
The Minister has already made that statement again in this afternoon’s debate. That has been a constant and respected theme of Ministers at all stages of the debate in both Houses, and indeed from their party’s supporters throughout all stages of the Bill. But it could have been perfectly well incorporated in an amendment in lieu in the other place in last week’s debate. That is what they could and should have done; that would express what is, apparently, the view of the Government. They did not do it. Instead, Ministers deliberately chose to trigger the financial privilege threat. Why?
We are now faced with yet another attempt to restrict the role, responsibility and sheer relevance of this House of Parliament. This time it is the franchise. What next? If in future we amend a Bill in any way that could incur additional expense—a “charge on public funds” as the Minister put it—the Government could use this as a precedent. Next time it could be international development, childcare, legal aid or NHS priorities. That is what they are trying to do—to clip the wings of your Lordships’ House. We should be under no illusion. This is not just a casual, minimalist tweak of the relationship between the two Houses. This is part of a much more insidious exercise to dilute our role—some would say to completely neuter your Lordships’ House.
I suggest to your Lordships that we should be very careful of any attempt to do that, particularly in those circumstances. Look at the wider context. Taken with this House’s effective exclusion from discussions on English votes for English laws, which is now going on—we were not allowed in—and with the Strathclyde review, we will have only ourselves to blame if we fail to note the way the wind is blowing. Please observe the words of Mr Stewart Jackson, the Conservative Member of Parliament for Peterborough, in last week’s debate:
“In conclusion, it is a constitutional outrage that the superannuated, unelected, unaccountable panjandrums in the House of Lords have told us what the elected House should be doing even though we have a settled view on this. They should learn their place. They must be subservient to the elected House, and it is high time that we had House of Lords reform”.
Amen to the last one. That is what is behind this: it is not to give new influence to this House, but to take away what little influence we have.
I take up in particular this issue of the elected House having a right to bulldoze through what they think is right for election law. I have been a Member of the other House. I have to tell your Lordships that it is not unknown for Members of Parliament to have a particular interest in the electoral arrangements that got them there. I reject utterly the idea that somehow your Lordships’ House is not allowed to have a view on electoral law. I have been here some time now—more than 10 years. I have been involved in revision of electoral law many times. No Government have ever sought to stop us.
In the very last minute of his speech in the Commons debate last Tuesday, the Minister suddenly introduced this financial privilege issue. However, he did not even mention the estimate figure that the Government were playing with. Perhaps he could not bring himself to give credence to the incredible. During previous debates there and through all stages of the Bill in your Lordships’ House, no Minister has ever advanced the argument that forecasted cost was a substantial reason for opposing this change to the franchise for this specific vote. The figure of 6 million has not even been hinted at any stage in either House.
When I heard about this I was reminded that, during my period in the other place, the Serjeant at Arms had to keep an opera hat, neatly collapsed, by his chair, so that, if a Member wished to raise a point of order during a Division, he could do so seated and covered. I once or twice used that essential accessory for that eventuality. It is sad that it was subsequently abolished. The opera hat disappeared on the initiative of the then Leader of the House, Robin Cook. George Young and I were accessories to its removal. Last Tuesday, the Minister would have made good use of that hat. Perhaps I should refer to him as the magician, because he pulled this extraordinarily large rabbit out of the hat as a suspiciously rounded total, as the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, said.
The following day, I was chairing a conference of electoral administrators. Nobody there seemed to know the basis of this estimate. So far as I can establish, neither the Electoral Commission, nor the Association of Electoral Administrators, has actually endorsed it. Moreover, we had a presentation at the conference from the convenor of the Electoral Management Board of Scotland, Mary Pitcaithly, who gave an extremely detailed, meticulous account of all the challenges she faced as chief counting officer for the whole Scottish independence referendum process in September 2014. She left nothing out of her remarkably comprehensive account of that very successful exercise. She did not identify any excessive additional expenditure on this scale as a result of the inclusion of 16 and 17 year-olds in the electorate.
I think the noble Lord will accept this, but if we have a difference of opinion, we can discuss it afterwards. The critical point about the process is that it is for the Government, first and foremost, to decide whether they want to table an amendment in lieu or simply reject the views of this House. That was the Government’s decision, not the Speaker’s. Whether there is advice or not, it is the Government’s decision that they wish not to pursue the idea of a more general review of the franchise.
They simply wanted to reject the view of the House of Lords. They then triggered the issue of financial privilege and it is indeed correct that neither the Clerks nor the Speaker could then gainsay them. However, this figure has now got common currency and it is thought that that somehow justifies this process. If your Lordships’ House was only proposing a little baby, they might have let it through; but they thought it was a big baby and they produced it in the way they did to try and scare us. This rabbit has been inflated by Ministers for their own political ends. We should be told exactly what the calculation is; what, realistically, it is as a proportion of the total referendum budget; and who now endorses this figure.
The issue before your Lordships’ House today is no longer simply whether the electorate for the EU referendum should or should not be expanded, important though that is. I have given a lot of time and effort to trying to make sure that this referendum is one that we can be proud of because it has the same electorate as the one that was so successful in Scotland on a similar issue of the future of that generation. However, this matter has now been deliberately escalated by Ministers into an insidious attempt to undermine the constitutional role and responsibilities of your Lordships’ House. We must stand firm, and reject this attack.