On 19 July, a debate took place in the House of Lords on the impact of referendums on parliamentary democracy. During the debate, several speakers drew upon the recently published report of the Independent Commission on Referendums, which was established by the Constitution Unit last year to review the role and conduct of referendums. Jess Sargeant and Basma Yaghi summarise the debate.
On 10 July the Independent Commission on Referendums (the Commission) launched its final report; just a week later the pertinent topic of the role of referendums in parliamentary democracy was debated in the House of Lords. Discussion echoed many of the key points of the Commission’s report, which was regularly cited in support of speakers’ arguments.
Referendums and parliamentary democracy
A major theme of the debate was the tensions that can arise between referendums and representative institutions. In opening the debate its sponsor, Lord Higgins (Conservative), argued that allowing people to vote directly in a referendum diminishes the ability of elected representatives to employ their own judgment regarding the issue at hand. Lord Bilimoria (Crossbench)raised the predicament of MPs whose constituencies voted leave but who believed that it was in the UK’s best interests to remain in the EU. By way of example, he mentioned the difficulties some MPs had experienced when making their decisions as to how to vote on the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act, an issue discussed by the Unit’s Director, Meg Russell, on our blog. Continue reading →
Lord Norton of Louth argues that the Strathclyde Review recommendations are based on a false premise that there is a convention that the Lords does not reject statutory instruments. Instead of rushing into wider changes the immediate response to October’s tax credits controversy should be to address the inconsistency in the way Commons financial privilege is recognised in relation to SIs. In the longer term there is a case for a wider review of how both houses deal with secondary legislation.
The report produced by Lord Strathclyde is based on two propositions. First, that there is a convention that the House of Lords does not vote to reject statutory instruments. Second, that the problem of the vote on 26 October last year, when the House withheld agreement to the Tax Credits Regulations, is one of failure to comply with that convention. Both propositions are false, the second necessarily so given that the first has no basis in fact.
There is much misunderstanding of what constitutes a convention. They are non-legal rules that determine a consistent, indeed invariable, pattern of behaviour. Those who comply with them do so because they accept that they are, as David Feldman has cogently expressed it, right behaviour.
Conventions do not become such by the words of a particular person, be it Viscount Cranborne in 1945 or Lord Sewel in 1998. They are not created, but develop. A convention exists once there is an invariable practice. That is not the same as standard or usual practice. If one deviates from it, it is not an invariable practice. Kenneth Wheare distinguished between conventions and usage. I think it more appropriate to distinguish between invariable and usual practice.