Shortly before Parliament rose, the House of Lords Constitution Committee, of which I am a member, published its report on referendums in the UK. The report not only provides recommendations on the use of referendums but is also an excellent pedagogic tool in that it provides an excellent summary of the arguments for and against the use of referendums.
Much of the evidence heard by the committee proved to be more sceptical of the value of referendums than one may have expected given the witnesses. Baroness Kennedy, for example, who chaired the Power Inquiry, was highly critical. So too was Dr Helena Catt, former New Zealand Electoral Commissioner. Steve Richards of The Independent offered a tour de force in his opposition.
The report reflected this sceptical approach. The Committee was wary of referendums but took the practical view that, as some had been held and others were promised by the main parties, they were not going to go away and therefore it was important to consider when and how they should be held. The Committee felt they should be held on fundamental constitutional issues but recognised the difficulty of deciding precisely what fell within this term. It also wanted the Electoral Commission to have a statutory duty to formulate the question to be put in a referendum. It wanted to see other changes to ensure that as far as possible referendum campaigns were seen to be fair. Achieving that, not least in terms of funding, is far more difficult than one may think.