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The Lord Advocate (Lord Hardie): As the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, explained, these two amendments relate to the establishment of an independent commission to monitor the conduct of the referendums provided for under this Bill and then to draw up recommendations for the future conduct of referendums. I could understand the noble Lord's comments if this was to be the first ever referendum but, as the report of the Commission on the Conduct of Referendums acknowledges, previous referendums have been held successfully without guidelines and without such a commission and I have no doubt that forthcoming referendums will be conducted as successfully. The Government do not therefore see the need to set up such a statutory commission, as the noble Lord has suggested.
Each referendum is different. Whether it is a UK-wide referendum or in relation to a specific part of the country, there are bound to be differences in the conduct. The answer to questions such as how many questions there should be on the ballot paper or the wording of the propositions will depend on the issue in the particular referendum in question. I do not see how it will be possible to set down general rules for all future referendums. Quite rightly, I believe that Parliament will
Amendment No. 45 is unnecessary and would be likely to lead to delay in holding the referendums in Scotland and Wales, despite the statement by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, that that is not his intention. The Government were elected on their manifesto commitment to legislate for a Scottish parliament and a Welsh assembly in our first year, following referendums. This Bill has been introduced to implement that commitment. Furthermore, we are committed to the referendums taking place not later than the autumn of 1997. At this stage perhaps I may put the noble Lord out of his misery. I regret that I am unable to be more precise than were my noble friends, but I am pleased to note--I have concern for the noble Lord's health--that he did not hold his breath while awaiting this information.
I turn now to Amendment No. 47, which would require the independent statutory commission to report on the impartiality of broadcasting and on the publication and distribution of campaign material. There are already rules on broadcasting which require fairness, balance and impartiality. I do not consider that any improvements can be made to these rules by an independent commission.
Under the broadcasting arrangements in this country, responsibility for what is broadcast on television and radio rests with the broadcasters and the regulatory bodies--that is, the governors of the BBC, the Independent Television Commission, S4C (the Welsh Fourth Channel Authority) and the Radio Authority. These bodies are already independent of the government and are responsible for safeguarding the public interest in broadcasting. In carrying out their responsibilities, the regulatory bodies have a duty to treat controversial subjects with due accuracy and impartiality, both in news services and in the more general area of programmes dealing with matters of public policy or of political controversy. Each body is required to establish and follow a code to ensure that those general principles are followed. The code ensures that reporting is dispassionate, wide-ranging and well informed. Programme-makers must ensure that over a reasonable period of time a proper balance of different points of view is achieved. In my respectful submission, the amendment would not add either to the code or to the practice which already exists.
The noble Lord referred to the period of time, but I anticipate that once the Bill is passed and once the date of the referendum is known and published, the period will have begun and broadcasters will then be under an obligation to ensure that due impartiality is observed. In all the circumstances, I cannot accept the amendment and I urge the noble Lord to withdraw it.
Lord Campbell of Croy: I rise to speak because of experience of the only three referendums to have taken place in the United Kingdom. I played a fairly prominent part in the referendum in 1975 on whether
As I have said, both in 1979 in this House and more recently, there were quite a number of complaints about what happened and about whether there were proper rules governing the Scottish referendum. I even had a debate in this House nine days after polling day, when a number of noble Lords raised points about that referendum.
Since 1979 there has been a feeling that a referendum is likely to be a rare event in this country, but as my noble friend has pointed out it appears that we are in for a rash of referendums in future. Therefore, it seems sensible to try to draw up some general rules. Of course, each referendum will deal with a different subject. However, in 1979 in Scotland there was three months' notice. The polling day of 1st March was announced at the end of November. Even with all that time there were many complaints about the running of it because in those days a referendum was something quite new. I believe that it would be worth while drawing up some rules. Recommendations have been made by a body that has looked at the whole of this matter.
I can understand why the Government say that perhaps there is not time to do all of this before September, but I believe that, in the light of the experience of the only three referendums that have ever been held in this country, in principle my noble friend's suggestion that something should be set up to deal with referendums in general in future is very sensible.
Lord Campbell of Alloway: This is a serious problem and another manifestation of the absence in this Bill of any means of implementation. One merely has the broad principle but no means of implementing it. A referendum should have some ground rules. It may be that one cannot have general rules because each referendum has its own quality, but surely the Government can accept that there should be ground rules as a safeguard for the authenticity of the result. I took this point, albeit in another form, on Second Reading. This amendment is in a much better form. I cannot see any objection to it. It cannot delay matters. If the noble and learned Lord questions this, can he kindly say why there should be any delay?
If one incorporates in the Bill some ground rules to deal with these subjects--one does not waste time by referring to them because all noble Lords are familiar with them--can there be any conceivable objection to them? My noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish has not challenged the principle but merely seeks to perfect it and achieve a reasonable result. If the situation is as the noble and learned Lord has stated, what on earth is the object of Orders in Council in the Bill? I invite the noble and learned Lord to look at Clause 3(1). What are these Orders in Council for if everything is perfectly satisfactory? If it is said that they provide a measure of safeguard one replies that the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of
Earl Russell: On Saturday I was struck by a slightly unfamiliar moment of sympathy for the Prime Minister. In the course of driving to Oxford along the M.40-- I am sure that the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod of Borve, knows what I am about to say next--I saw an enormous notice which announced that delays would be possible until 1999. That must be the advice that the noble and learned Lord is receiving from every quarter.
The noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, has made out a very interesting case for a general referendums Act. I am extremely pleased to hear him say that he does not propose to introduce such legislation before the passage of this Bill, which means that a good deal of what he has said is slightly wide of the purposes of this Bill. As to his amendments on the Marshalled List, as far as I understand them they simply say that he is against sin. I hope that the noble Lord who moved the amendment was not in any doubt of it.
Lord Renton: I rise to emphasise the difference between an Order in Council and an independent commission's report. An Order in Council is bound to be party politically motivated because it is formulated by the Government of the day and will very often arouse controversy in both Houses. But if one had an independent commission that advised all concerned on how referendums should be conducted it would be above political suspicion and would be impartial. When it is realised that referendums can have tremendous consequences, and are likely to have in future if they deal with constitutional matters, we should make that big distinction clear in our minds.
Lord Beloff: As always, I rise merely for illumination. I should like to ask the noble and learned Lord the Lord Advocate to explain how it is possible to transfer the responsibilities of the broadcasting authorities for impartiality in general elections to impartiality without further definition in the case of a referendum. One understands that in general elections various conventions have developed over the years that proper weight should be given to all the contesting parties. As has been pointed out, in the proposed referendums there are no contesting parties but simply persons for and persons against. But are the broadcasting authorities required to give some voice also to those who approach the question from neither side? There are those who are neither in favour of the proposed devolution nor against it. Is the Scottish National Party, for whose ideals I retain great admiration, to be allowed a voice during the campaign to put a point of view that is neither "Yes" nor "No" in the ordinary sense? Is there not here a problem of impartiality that should be looked at again?
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