Peers have condemned the use of referendums to determine key constitutional issues as “risky and dangerous”.
Members of the House of Lords warned about the impact of referendums on parliamentary democracy amid continuing turmoil over the 2016 vote to leave the EU.
But Cabinet Office spokesman Lord Young of Cookham said some of their arguments risked “patronising the electorate”.
Former justice of the Supreme Court Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood said: “Referendums are by their very nature a risky and dangerous way of determining important political issues.”
The independent crossbencher said they were often ill-informed and rode “roughshod over minority interests”, but with appropriate safeguards there may be occasions when a referendum was appropriate.
Former Cabinet secretary Lord Wilson of Dinton said referendums should be the “final step in a long process of democratic debate and discussion” so the result did not come as some “great shock”.
Lord Wilson, an independent crossbencher, told peers: “What we cannot have is options put forward in a referendum where no-one knows what they mean at the beginning of the process.”
On Brexit, he said the process had been the wrong way round.
“We should only have the referendum when we know what it is we are voting for,” he said.
Governments should never offer an option in a referendum which ministers thought could be damaging for the country, which is what happened with Brexit, Lord Wilson added.
Tory former Cabinet minister Lord Pickles, in his maiden Lords speech, recalled the saying: “Once you’ve squeezed the toothpaste out of the tube, it’s just about impossible to get it back in.”
All the “fine distinctions made makes not a jot of difference to the public”, who had voted to leave the EU, he said.
Labour’s leader in the Lords Baroness Smith of Basildon said the “divisive” EU referendum was all about “political management” for the Tories.
She said much greater caution should be exercised in the future not because of the outcome of the 2016 referendum but because of the lack of clarity about what was voted on.
This had led to a “weak and divided” government and no majority for any option currently on the table in the Commons.
Lady Smith warned the exercise had decreased trust in politicians.
“The public expected politicians to sort it out and they have failed to do so,” she said.
Lord Young said there was a case for referendums.
Since 1973 there had been 11 held in the UK, the majority on devolution issues.
He said some of the criticism risked “patronising the electorate” since the high turnout indicated a “high degree of engagement”.
Lord Young said the result must be respected and it was now for Parliament to deliver on that verdict in the way it thought best.