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This Lords Library Briefing has been prepared in advance of the debate due to take place on 19 July 2018 in the House of Lords on the motion moved by Lord Higgins (Conservative) “that this House takes note of the impact on parliamentary democracy in the United Kingdom of the use of referendums”.

It contains brief information on the use of UK-wide referendums thus far, and commentary on their use in the context of the UK’s parliamentary system. In addition, section 3 highlights further reading on the subject from external bodies.

The first modern nationwide referendum in the UK was held in 1975 on the UK’s membership of the European Community. At the time, a number of concerns had been raised about the possibility of holding such referendums, with some politicians referring unfavourably to their previous use in other countries to bolster dictatorships. However, the Labour Government claimed the referendums were consistent with parliamentary sovereignty, and stated that it could not bind Parliament and that Parliament would have a role scrutinising any associated legislation. Since then, two further UK-wide referendums have been held, both in the 2010s. The first, in 2011, was held on the potential introduction of the alternative vote system for general elections, and the second, in 2016, was on the UK’s EU membership. In addition, a number of referendums have been held on matters of devolution over the last 30 years, most recently the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence.

In response to apparent moves towards an increasing use of referendums (such as the referendums held on devolution in the 1990s and the then Coalition Government’s plans to hold a referendum on the alternative vote system), in 2010 the House of Lords Constitution Committee published a report considering their use, including the positive and negative aspects of holding them. It expressed a number of concerns about the use of referendums, but agreed that, if they are to be used, they should be held on issues of constitutional importance. This view was shared by the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee in its 2017 report about the EU referendum. Both reports also made a number of recommendations for how the use of referendums can be improved, and highlighted the important role to be played by Parliament in ensuring they were used and run appropriately.


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