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Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, I support the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Marsh. Anyone who has been a Minister anywhere near the centre of government in the run-up to a general election will know how assiduously civil servants very often attempt the impossible: to differentiate between what is a party political point in the way of information and what is legitimate information of the kind which the noble Lord, Lord Marsh, has been trying to define for the noble Lord, Lord Avebury.
We know how difficult that is. Indeed, it has been one of the more difficult tasks which the Government have had to address during the course of the passage of the Bill. My noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish in particular has acknowledged that the Government have not only a right but a duty to give factual information.
Equally, I am sure that the Government would acknowledge that in the run-up to a general election campaign, over the years, it has been thought to be self-evidently right that government Ministers should try to wear two hats: the hat of a government Minister and the hat of a party politician. We know how difficult that is, but we know also how the convention has grown up in the run-up to general election campaigns--and there are many noble Lords all round this House who have experienced this, as I have--that that attempt is made and, to a surprising extent, it is successfully made. Difficult judgments are drawn in the run-up to a general election campaign as well as during the campaign itself because it is acknowledged that, by convention, we must be extra careful in the run-up to a general election campaign, even though the rules are not explicit. It is part of belonging to the unwritten constitutional club which still works and to which I know the Government still subscribe, at least in that respect.
If that is true of a general election campaign, should it not be true also of a referendum campaign? In many ways it should be easier in relation to a referendum campaign which, by definition, addresses a much
But let us not become side-tracked. Here we have a much simpler definition than we should have if we were facing a general election campaign with the whole gamut of policy issues which are raised under those circumstances. So it does not seem to me to be more difficult under those circumstances; it seems to me to be simpler. If it is simpler, I argue also that it is more important because, almost by definition, the very substantial issues on which the country will be asked to decide in referendums are quite likely to be even more important than the issues of a general election campaign. Whether or not we join the euro seems a matter of huge importance whichever view one takes. What makes it all the more important is that whatever may be the theory, if we were to answer "yes" to that question, to all intents and purposes it would be a "yes" which is irreversible.
The same is true of the referendum question in relation to devolution for Scotland and Wales, particularly for Scotland. However much the referendum was rigged at the time, I do not believe that anyone would argue that the people of Scotland would not have voted "yes" under any circumstances. They clearly would have done. Nevertheless, it is irreversible. This is a matter of transcendental importance which will endure beyond the next general election and the election after that.
Therefore, is it not all the more important that referendums of the kind we are discussing should be seen to be conducted fairly, without unfair practices, by a government than it is in relation to general elections for which practices are already in place? It seems to me so obvious that that is right that I am surprised that it even needs discussing, although experience of the passage of this Bill has proved to us that it does.
The noble Lord, Lord Marsh, made the most telling point of all when he referred to bringing the matter into the courts. We know that one of the agreeable aspects of our present electoral practices is that, more or less all the time, they produce a definite and unquestioned result. We do not have to undergo the agonies which the United States is undergoing at present. Why is that? It is because over the years we have developed electoral law and practice which may not be perfect but which is universally accepted as being sensible.
Again, there are many in your Lordships' House who have had to endure their own counts while waiting to see whether or not they have been elected to another place. Those noble Lords will know the practice of scrutinising votes as to whether they are valid or not. We know who has the authority to decide on those matters and we accept that authority.
As soon as it looks as though the rules are being skewed in one direction or another, that certainty and the stability which flows from it are undermined. I earnestly beseech the Government to think again not only in relation to this amendment but also in relation to many other provisions of this Bill. By undermining that confidence, they will be undermining the stability of our system altogether. That is why this amendment, and others like it, which we have endeavoured to draw to the Government's attention during the passage of the Bill, are so important.
Lord Goodhart: My Lords, I rise to deal with one serious defect in this amendment. The Neill committee was extremely anxious that umbrella groups should be formed and, to encourage them, recommended that they should be entitled to a free mailshot. That recommendation was accepted by the Government and is now dealt with in Clause 110.
The effect of including the Post Office in the proposed subsection (3)(a) in the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Marsh, would make it impossible to provide a free mailshot for umbrella groups since the material to be distributed would plainly fall within Clause 125(1). That being so, it seems to me that that is a serious defect. I wonder whether it is a matter which the noble Lord has considered.
Lord Marsh: My Lords, that issue has been raised. The problem regarding the Post Office has received very wide publicity. It is a public body embarking on a propaganda campaign of its own. That is not comparable with a government issuing a free postage system to all the parties which will have different views and circulating those views as a post office. It is the job of the Post Office to deliver letters; it is not the job of the Post Office to campaign for political parties.
Viscount Astor: My Lords, all participants in a referendum would want a clear result that is accepted by all who have participated so that the issue is not subject to endless further debate or question. The Government have introduced Clause 104 which enables the question to be looked at and it promotes fairness, which we welcome. That will help the conduct of referendums in the future.
In regard to spending, this Bill is slanted in favour of the Government in relation to referendums and it is slanted in favour of outside parties, as we heard earlier, effecting a referendum. The noble Lord, Lord Marsh, has raised an issue of principle which is important. It
My noble friend Lord Cranborne talked about elections and how the system works in the Civil Service. In elections the system works well. There is a clear divide between what is political propaganda--the words that the noble Lord, Lord Marsh, used--and what comprise Civil Service documents. Part of the reason that it works is that the Civil Service knows that its political masters may change shortly, so civil servants are on their best behaviour. However, in referendums the situation is rather different as they know that they will have the same political masters afterwards. It is not for me to cast any aspersions on the Civil Service, but looking at what has been produced in the life of this Government, I believe that the only things that have not been political propaganda have been the statistical reports. The only thing that was not propaganda, for example, in the magazine promoted by the Government on women was the date. As far as I am concerned, the whole of that magazine was propaganda.
In looking at the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Marsh, I was concerned about who would define the words "factual and impartial". I agree with him that when you come across it, you can recognise it. It is the "heffalump" argument: you cannot describe one but when you see one you recognise it. It would be helpful if the noble Lord, Lord Marsh, could say how that phrase would be defined. The amendment raises issues of great importance and we shall listen carefully to the Minister on this subject.
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