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Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, I rise to support my noble friend in what he said. I have only one question for the Government. Referring back to earlier remarks I made today, when the Minister replies, perhaps he will address himself to what is perceived on many sides of the House to be a real and growing danger; namely, that the equity with which referendums will be conducted in the future will be as liable to challenge as the Welsh and Scottish referendums were liable to challenge.
If that is a growing worry, which I assure him it is--not only within this House but elsewhere--and if it is a worry which has been acknowledged by the noble Lord, Lord Neill, and his committee, do the Government also acknowledge that and are they prepared to answer it in detail? If not, why not?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the Official Opposition have put their names to two proposals which are alternatives to each other as well as to what is in the Bill. Amendments Nos. 199 and 204 would remove the idea of a "relevant period" from Clause 122. On the other hand, Amendment No. 205 would retain the expression but redefine it.
The effect of the first two amendments would be that the period during which the government of the day cannot spend money on promotional material would not be the 28 days prior to the poll but a longer period, beginning, in most cases, when an order is made. The order would normally be made around the time of the introduction or Second Reading of a Bill for a referendum. I acknowledge that it is at that earlier point that spending controls on referendum participants will begin to bite.
The alternative amendment, Amendment No. 205, would have the effect of taking back the commencement of the embargo to a point half way between when the order is made and when the poll is held. I wish to persuade the House that neither of the amendments is necessary or desirable and that the right course is to stick at 28 days.
The mischief with which the Bill seeks to deal here, if "mischief" is not too strong a word, is of a government putting round partisan material at the public's expense at the time when the electorate is thinking about the issue and making up its mind how to vote. The Neill committee thought that the distinction between factual and promotional material, which had been relied on in some cases, was unsound. We do not necessarily accept that that was so in the cases referred to, but we came to the conclusion that the right response was "no contest".
The Neill committee did not itself propose a precise time-limit. But we concluded that what was needed was a simple, straightforward rule; and in another place a member of the Neill committee, Mr MacGregor, acknowledged, as the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, said, that the Government's proposal met the committee's point.
One important thing to recognise about the proposal in the Bill--and I dare say we will come back to this on the next group of amendments--is how far-reaching it is. It is not simply an embargo on partisan or overtly promotional material. The prohibition applies equally to general information and to material which deals in any way with issues raised by the referendum question.
That being so, it would simply be unreasonable to apply the embargo to the period in which the Bill for the referendum is actually going through Parliament. During that time, the government of the day are not
For those reasons, we are opposed to both of the alternative schemes now put forward. Amendment No. 205 is, obviously, milder in its effects than Amendments Nos. 199 and 204. But it is scarcely less objectionable, because it still involves the risk of preventing the government of the day from acting as a government at the time when they have every right--and some would say a duty--to do exactly that govern.
The point has been made, in favour of the amendments, that spending limits for referendum campaign groups will be effective from the beginning of the "referendum period" so why should the government not be subject to similar restrictions? I shall leave aside the obvious and perhaps rather crude point that, if the Official Opposition had their way, there would be no spending limits. But I will make two other points. First, although the "referendum period" will begin quite early on--as it has to if the electoral commission is to designate umbrella organisations and so on--the actual political campaign will not really get under way until some time later. Whichever party then forms the Opposition, for example, will no doubt be concentrating its energies at the earlier stage on opposing the Bill in Parliament.
Secondly, there is no real equivalence between a spending limit and an absolute embargo. The embargo is not a spending restriction but a statement of what is or is not the proper role of a government during a referendum campaign. And by referendum campaign we mean, as the Neill committee did, the campaign in the country and not the process of a government taking a Bill through Parliament.
We have put a strong, perhaps even generous, self-denying ordinance into the Bill in response to the Neill report. The thought has crossed my mind, not for the first time on this Bill, that perhaps the Opposition cannot believe their luck. They are clearly, by putting forward alternative amendments, testing how far the House is prepared to go. The Government's clear view is that the Bill is perfectly satisfactory on this point and that no amendment needs to be made.
The noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, asked whether we are worried about inequities which might occur in referendum campaigns. In a sense, what I have said addresses that issue. Of course, we recognise that it is an issue of concern and it was an issue of concern for the Neill committee. For those reasons, we have constructed the framework which we have placed on the face of the Bill. That is the Government's view.
I understand the point about Amendments Nos. 199 and 204: that during that period, it is possible that the legislation might still be going through Parliament. But I do not believe that that criticism can be levelled at Amendment No. 205, which is my compromise attempt to find a way to get round the Government's problem. Therefore, I am much more in favour of the compromise in Amendment No. 205. Whatever the noble Lord says, it remains a fact that everybody bar the Government will have some limit placed on their expenditure. For a fair amount of time, the Government will have unlimited expenditure; and it is expenditure which they do not have to raise from the people who want to vote "yes" or "no". They will raise that money from the taxpayers--from those who want to vote "yes" and those who want to vote "no". That is what is unfair about it.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, we shall see how we get on. If the success of this amendment pre-empts the other amendment, I shall be more than happy for the Government to accept this in order to stop me dividing later on.
Amendment No. 201 is in the same vein and it is grouped with Amendment No. 202. We have just discussed the purdah period. This amendment is a variation inside the purdah period. There are things that the Government will be able to do throughout the referendum campaign, including the 28-day purdah period. The first three of these exceptions have attracted little comment. Indeed, they seem for the most part to be unexceptionable exceptions, though I am a little concerned about whether the Government may prompt people to seek information in order to be able to issue more propaganda under Clause 122(3)(a).
The fourth and final exception to the issuing of referendum propaganda at public expense is the issue of press notices. The drafting of Clause 122(1) allows such exempt press notices to contain anything that is listed in that subsection, including putting arguments for or against answers to the referendum questions. That has sparked some debate in your Lordships'
In Committee on 24th October, I specifically asked the Minister whether the government of the day would be allowed, on the basis of such press notices, to use the government information service, civil servants and government press officers to brief the press during the purdah period. He failed to respond. I would like him to do so today.
There is also an issue about whether these documents will be made available to the public at large, perhaps via the Internet. The Minister will know that his own press releases, those of other Home Office Ministers and those of all government Ministers are placed on the Internet for all to see. To that extent, they are not press notices. They are in fact public notices. In Committee, the Minister said:
From the look on the Minister's face, I suspect that he has not had his attention drawn to that case. The noble and learned Lords clearly stated in those judgments that a meeting which was described by its organisers as a "press conference" fell within the definition of a "public meeting" in the Northern Ireland Defamation Act 1955. In his judgment, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bingham of Cornhill, said:
I am extremely suspicious of this provision in the Bill and how it will be used. I would prefer to delete press notices from the exception. However, I recognise that the Minister may well deploy some argument
In this group of amendments, I have not only met the Minister's concerns but I have anticipated that he may raise new concerns and have tried to cover them. However, my concerns remain. I believe that my case has been hugely advanced by the judgments delivered in your Lordships' House. I look forward to what the Minister has to say about them. I believe that this point is as serious as the point relating to extending the purdah period. In fact, it may be more serious. I am aware that, via the Internet, government departments daily issue many press notices which could be openly reported. Anybody can access these websites--that is what they are there for. It seems to me that, in those circumstances, the Government will be communicating directly with the public. I believe that stopping this during the purdah period may be even more important than extending the purdah period. I beg to move.
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