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Lord Molyneaux of Killead: I support what the noble Lord has said. I, too, wondered whether a press notice could be isolated from all the other publicity weapons which are at the disposal of a government of any complexion. A press notice would be issued, possibly in time to catch the eight o-clock news; but before that, the "Today" programme could have an unidentified spokesman for the government initiate a debate. It might not be possible to get anyone else to give another side to the argument. I do not level this at any particular party, but with a press notice the temptation would always be for the government of the day to take advantage--to light the fuse, as it were. The controversy would then start, and government spin doctors would be the only people who really understood what was behind the press notice. We must therefore be extremely careful.
I accept, as the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, said, that in that narrow band of legitimacy, it might sometimes be necessary to give straightforward information on methods of administration of the election and matters pertaining thereto, without in any way drifting into the politics of the referendum.
Lord Norton of Louth: I support the views expressed on Amendment No. 243. On the face of it, subsection (3)(d) does appear to undermine the intention of the clause. I do not think that it can be rescued by a definition of "press notice". However it is defined, unless we change the normal use of language, that would not rescue it at all. One would have to redraw the paragraph itself. A press notice is essentially a notice that is issued to the press. I do not see how the basic definition can be changed.
So what is to stop a government department issuing a document dealing at length with the issues raised in the referendum and simply heading the document "press notice" and releasing it to the press? That is then covered. That is surely publication by another route. It seems to offer an obvious way to circumvent the whole purpose of the clause. One cannot get round that by redefining "press notice". One either has to delete paragraph (d), or take it away and come back with a provision that is more clearly circumscribed; otherwise, unless the Minister has some compelling justification, it seems on the face of it to undermine the whole intent of the clause.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: Clause 120 is our discharge of the recommendation in the Neill report. It simply says that we should stand back and leave campaigning during the critical part of the referendum to the political parties and other campaign organisations. The committee was sceptical about material which in previous cases was circulated to the electorate very close to the date of a poll. Clause 120 implements the committee's recommendation by providing for a 28-day embargo on the issue to the public of government publications.
The Neill committee has endorsed the approach that we have taken in Clause 120. In a letter to the Home Secretary dated 15th October 1999, the noble Lord, Lord Neill, writing on behalf of his committee, said:
With Amendment No. 243 we return to ground that has been dealt with in another place. Clause 120(3)(d) exempts press notices. The Neill committee was principally concerned that the government of the day might at public expense distribute material, even factual documents, which put forward the government's case or at least would have the effect of influencing the vote. Clause 120 is intended to prohibit that sort of distribution of unsolicited material addressed directly to the public at large. The exceptions in subsection (3), including press notices, are entirely consistent with the basic proposition that the government of the day should not be able unfairly to influence the conduct of a referendum campaign.
It was suggested in another place that the Government might be tempted to put the words "press notice" at the top of a publicity leaflet which was then posted through everyone's letterbox. That is plainly absurd. A "press notice" is a notice to the press, not to the general public. I am sure that the courts would quickly put a stop to that sort of nonsense.
Turning to Amendment No. 242L, this is concerned with the period during which the restrictions imposed by Clause 120 are to apply. Its effect would be to apply the restrictions in Clause 120 not to the 28-day period prior to the poll, but for the full referendum period--which, as was recognised by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, could be six months. That proposition is misconceived. The 28-day period provided for in Clause 120 and the longer referendum period perform two different roles.
The referendum period, which will usually begin on the date specified in a Bill providing for a given referendum to be held, is essentially an accounting period. It is the period during which the referendum campaigning organisations will be subject to the limits on expenditure and to the controls on donations.
In presenting a Bill to Parliament to provide for a referendum to be held, the government of the day must be able to explain and promote their policies. We accept that there comes a time when government should step back and leave it to the parties and others to make the running. A period of 28 days fits in well. Generally speaking, as an average--the noble Lord, Lord Norton, is probably more knowledgeable about this than I--most general election campaigns have lasted for something like 28 days; the previous one was an exception. The Neill committee made the general election campaign analogy. We believe that that is the right benchmark.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: Before I decide what to do, perhaps the noble Lord can help me on one point. I listened very carefully to the Minister's response. He rightly questioned what would happen if the Bill were still being passed within six months of the date of the referendum. He pointed out that the Government have to continue to argue their case for having the Bill. But if the Bill is not passed until, say, four months before the referendum, would the expenditure clock start ticking on the day that the Bill is enacted or would it look back to the six months? I hope that I am making myself clear. I should be grateful if the noble Lord could help me with that query.
Lord Norton of Louth: Before the Minister responds, perhaps I may return to the point about a press notice. Presumably, the Government would not need to produce literature, place a heading of "Press Notice" on the top and have it put through letter boxes. All they need do is produce something that actually is a press notice and give it to a friendly tabloid that will publish it. In that way, it would reach exactly the same people for less cost.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: The difference between the noble Lord and I on this issue is that I accept that that is a legitimate course of action for government to take and the noble Lord probably does not. That much is clear. There is no attempt here, by some sleight of
Lord Norton of Louth: The way that the clause is drawn would not confine this to factual material; indeed, it could go beyond that and express an opinion, as long as it was in a document that was headed "Press Notice" and was released to the press.
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