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Lord Marsh: My Lords, then it would probably be sensible if I did not pursue Amendment No. 203. I am deeply disappointed with the reaction of the Government. Nonetheless, on second thoughts, I think I will pursue it--I am taken rather by surprise by this turn of events--because I believe that this is a major and fundamental issue.
Lord Bach: My Lords, Clause 122 is designed simply to deal with the point raised by the Neill committee that the government of the day should not circulate material at the public expense in the run up to an election. As we understand it, it is not designed to prevent the government of the day from operating as such or from expressing views. The clause clearly contemplates the possibility of the government of the day responding to inquiries about their views and policies. As I understand it, no one challenges that. If an issue arises on which the Government, and not merely the party of government, are challenged, they ought to be able to respond. The press notice provides one means of doing so. It would be absurd if, in those circumstances, all the Government could say was "No comment".
The Official Opposition have tabled two alternative proposals, and the noble Lord has spoken with that in mind. The effect of his Amendment No. 201 would be to remove the protection that paragraph (d) gives to press notices as against the general prohibition on the issue of material which Clause 122 sets up. His Amendment No. 202 would make it possible for some sorts of press notices to be issued, but not others. We believe that he is wrong in both amendments.
By Clause 122, we attempt to prevent a government from seeking to push, at the public's expense, material which relates in any way to a referendum campaign. We do not seek to prevent the government of the day from operating as governments do. Governments deal with issues as they come up. They express opinions, just like oppositions and other parties. For example, the clause does not prevent a government from responding to inquiries, including inquiries about policy. No one seems unhappy about that. If a government simply issue a succession of press notices which do nothing except repeat their view on the referendum question, two things will happen. First, they will be in breach of the internal government rules, because they will be using the government machine to promote a political object. Secondly, they will make themselves quite absurd, and the press will have a great deal of fun with it. There could be circumstances in which issuing a press notice might be reasonable and right for a government to do, but in which either of the amendments before the House, if passed, would prevent them from doing.
Let us suppose, for example, that in the run-up to a referendum on the single currency some violent movement occurs in the international value of the euro; or perhaps a statesman abroad makes a statement about the issue which seems to put a different light on the matter from what the Government had been saying. The question arises whether it still makes sense for the United Kingdom to join the single currency. The Opposition would gleefully seize on the point and capitalise on it, and there would be nothing to prevent them from so doing. But the government of the day, if either of the amendments is carried, would be unable to address the issue. They would be required to refer the matter to their party to deal with, notwithstanding that the issue may be a matter on which only the Government have the necessary information.
We think that that is a recipe for evasion and subterfuge. Let us suppose that a journalist rings up to ask if there will be a press notice commenting on what has occurred. If either of the amendments is carried, there are two possible answers. The first is, "You must ask my party, and of course I will be in touch with them straightaway to supply them with the answer". The other is, "We can't issue a notice, but if you ask for our answer, we can give it, and if any of your colleagues ask for it, we can give it to them too. Please spread the word around. We will increase the number of press officers to answer their calls".
I end by repeating that Clause 122 is meant to serve a specific purpose in a specific way: to prevent a government of any colour from putting material through people's post-boxes. It is not meant to prevent them from answering as a government for their policies and views, and I do not believe that any realistic party would want such a restriction. We believe that both Amendments Nos. 201 and 202 should be withdrawn.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I notice a total and utter failure to address the question I posed about press conferences and press notices in the light of the judgment of your Lordships' House, just as if that did not matter or exist. I am staggered.
Lord Bach: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for giving way. We heard exactly what was said by the noble Lord about the important decision made by the Judicial Committee of this House. However, I do not believe that anything I have said goes against the principle or spirit of that judgment. We understand the view taken by that court in relation to press notices. Nothing I have said goes against the principle in that case.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I believe that the noble Lord does not read the press notices issued by the Government. If he did, he would see that most of them have the spin which the Government want them to have. Few are entirely factual; they all have a spin. Frankly, if they did not have a spin I would be amazed. It is not just this Government which do that; all governments do it.
As to the fact that during the purdah period the Government will not be able to put notices into post-boxes, perhaps I may say that they will. The new post-boxes are e-mail addresses and the website. People will be able to access the website and receive notices just as if such notices had come through their front door.
Lord Bach: My Lords, I apologise to the noble Lord. I know that this is Report stage; I am the one who mentioned that earlier. However, I should have dealt with this point. As I am advised, press notices on the Internet would, in any event, be covered by Clause 122 (3)(a), which I invite noble Lords to look at. It states that subsection (2) does not apply to:
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I now wonder what purdah is about. To say that, if I open up a website to look at information contained on it, I am somehow seeking the information and that it is not coming to me is, frankly, splitting hairs in the modern world. I think that many companies would not view that as the way in which people use their websites. People browse at information which then comes to them. In any case, that does not address the problem of a press conference.
However, much more worrying was the example given by the noble Lord. To carry on with the referendum theme, if a foreign government, perhaps the Government of Denmark where the people have said "no", were to issue a press release stating, "We very much hope that the British people will also say 'no' for these reasons", the Government during the purdah period would feel free to put out a press notice, call a press conference and all the paraphernalia that happens, in order to counter the statement made by a Minister in Denmark.
I do not see any problem with the Government simply saying, "We are in purdah on this. This is a 28-day period. You will have to go down the road to talk to Millbank", or talk to the Liberals, the "yes" campaign or whatever. I see no problem with that. The press are not daft. They would understand what was happening and that some fair rules were being played.
The example given by the noble Lord makes me feel that purdah will be a farce. The Government will use all the machinery of their press office to carry on as they did before the purdah started. I believe that this is a serious matter, to such an extent that I shall test the opinion of the House, not on my compromise--clearly, that is brushed aside--but on the main amendment.
Lord Monson: My Lords, before the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, tries to put his amendment, perhaps I may suggest that it would be better to concentrate upon Amendment No. 203, which is not open to the same challenge as the previous two amendments, and therefore has more chance of success.
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