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Mrs. Gorman: My point was that the entire population should be considered suitable to express a view on an issue that concerns the whole nation. I was referring not only to people of Scottish ancestry, but the population of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Howarth: I am sorry--I had misunderstood the hon. Lady.

The legislation must also determine the date of the referendum, provide for the appointment of a chief counting officer with responsibility for counting the votes and announcing the result and provide powers to adapt existing electoral machinery as necessary.

In addition, the Referendum Act 1975 provided for grants to be made towards the cost of campaigning. That subject has been well ventilated during the debate, it is dealt with in the Bill, and I shall return to it later. The Neill committee's recommendations consider other issues, such as the registration of campaign organisations, to which I shall also return in due course.

If, as appears to be the case, referendums are to become a permanent feature of our political life, there is certainly an argument for setting up standing machinery for their conduct. We have such machinery for elections, so why not for referendums? There is a good deal of force in that argument, but, on the other hand, the process of selecting items for inclusion in a generic referendums Bill is, as the debate has demonstrated, by no means straightforward.

Mr. Cash: The Minister may recall the rather controversial Referendum Bill that I introduced in 1996, which caused something of a furore, and my Maastricht referendum campaign, which attracted 350,000 signatures, in 1993. That campaign was chaired by me, a Liberal Democrat and a Labour Member. At the heart of our debate is not simply the question of the generics of the Bill, but the extent to which the people may be misled if broadcasting is not accurate and impartial. Will the Minister be good enough to tell me whether the Government's Bill, like this Bill, will include specific and legally accurate provisions to ensure due impartiality on the part of Eurorealists and Europhiles? This is not a party political issue.

Mr. Howarth: The hon. Gentleman mentions fairness in broadcasting. If he will bear with me, I shall cover that point later.

I have already outlined the type of provisions that have typically featured in dedicated referendum Acts. We need to pause before throwing all the individual ingredients into a generic referendums Bill. One approach might be to create a broad order-making power enabling a referendum to be called on any issue. The effect of that, however, would be to restrict Parliament's ability to debate the merits of holding a referendum on any particular issue, the wording of the question and the timing of the poll. There is a strong argument for saying that, on matters of national constitutional significance,

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there should be a full opportunity for Parliament to give its consent to each and every referendum, and that Parliament should set the question.

If we put to one side the question and the timing of any given referendum, we are left with the nuts and bolts of referendums. As the Neill committee recognised, however, these are still matters of great importance. Like justice, referendums must be conducted, and be seen to be conducted, fairly--I think that the hon. Member for Blaby made the same point in slightly different words. A generic referendums Bill could establish clear ground rules to ensure that that is so.

The Bill properly focuses on two ground rules--core public funding and equal access to the broadcast media--but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will concede that there are others. If we are to have ground rules, as I believe that we must, perhaps the first question to ask is, who or what sort of body is to police them? The Bill provides for the establishment of a referendums commission, as recommended by, I think, the Nairne commission--I believe that the hon. Gentleman conceded that his proposal was taken from that model--and as supported by the Jenkins commission on the voting system. The hon. Gentleman has sensibly been open in recognising that his referendums commission is intended only as an interim arrangement until a more suitable body is established under subsequent legislation.

During the debate on the Neill committee's report on 9 November last year, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary announced that the Government had accepted the case for the establishment of an electoral commission. As my right hon. Friend said in that debate, we are considering the precise role and remit of the electoral commission.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) said, it is clear that we do not want a plethora of bodies responsible for different aspects of elections, as well as referendums. If Parliament determines that a body of this kind should have functions in relation to referendums, it would make every sense to confer those functions on the electoral commission. Precisely what that entails remains at this stage a matter for more detailed consideration, but there must be some doubt about the wisdom of setting up a separate referendums commission at a time when the Government have accepted the need for an electoral commission, and there are no new referendums on the immediate horizon. I shall return to that point. It is perfectly possible that a body established in this way would never have any role before being superseded by the electoral commission.

The Government will want to use the next few months--

Mr. Damian Green (Ashford) rose--

Mr. Howarth: I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman, but I must then make progress.

Mr. Green: Will the Minister confirm that he is telling the House that there will be no referendums between now and the next general election, including one on the electoral system?

Mr. Howarth: I have told the hon. Member for West Dorset that I intend to answer that question shortly so, if the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) will bear with me, I shall return to it.

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During the next few months, we want to consider carefully how the electoral commission should be structured. I chair a working party on electorate procedures, on which the Conservative party and Liberal Democrat party are represented. Yesterday, we had a detailed and useful discussion on what the functions of an electoral commission should be, and what enabled us to discover variations in our thinking. We are not just treading water; something is happening. Discussions are taking place, and this debate is part of that discussion. The proceedings of that working party, on which both the opposition parties are represented, are also part of the consideration.

As the Neill committee said, the commission should be independent of Government and, as far as possible, the arrangements for making appointments to the commission and for setting its budget should reflect its independent status. On the appointments side, the hon. Member for Blaby has built in a role for the Speaker. That is one approach, and I would not rule out a role for the Speaker in connection with the electoral commission, but I would not in any way take the role or consent of the Speaker for granted at this stage of our debate.

The Bill is less forthcoming on the arrangements for setting the referendums commission's budget. There is the usual provision for money to be provided by Parliament to meet the commission's expenses, but the implication is that the commission's budget should be part of a departmental vote. The Neill committee pointed out that the mechanism for setting the budget of the National Audit Office provides a useful precedent, and it is one that we want to examine further.

I am sure that the House will agree that it is important to get the structure of the supervisory body right and to consider carefully the functions that it will need. The Nairne commission helpfully identified several possible functions--advising on the wording of the question; allocating funding to campaign groups; liaising with, and acting as a moderator between, any campaign groups; acting in an ombudsman role to deal with any complaints; monitoring balanced access to broadcast media; providing public information, including a balanced statement of the opposing arguments; and supervising the organisation of polling stations and counting and declaration arrangements. The commission also suggested that a continuing role might be to identify lessons from each referendum and to recommend any necessary changes in procedure for future referendums.

That is an impressive list, which requires detailed analysis. The promoter and sponsors of the Bill have obviously concluded that their referendums commission should have a more limited remit. On my reading of the Bill, the proposed commission's functions would be limited to advising and reporting on referendums in general; advising on the wording of the question; designating a referendum campaign body for each possible outcome; making grants to such designated campaign bodies; and reporting on the conduct of each referendum.

There may be a closer affinity between the functions that I have just listed and the functions recommended by the Neill committee, but even the list that I just enumerated is no small undertaking. We need to be sure that the functions conferred on any oversight bodyare appropriate. For example, should a referendums commission have a role in relation to all national, regional

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and local referendums? My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) drew attention to some of the difficulties that might arise in that regard.

Clause 4 requires the referendums commission to

As I read the Bill, that could include local referendums.

I have mentioned the Deputy Prime Minister's plans for local consultative referendums on such issues as major local developments and matters of local controversy. Those consultative referendums would be in addition to the binding referendums on whether there should be a directly elected mayor. The proposals in the Bill create potential for hundreds of local referendums to be conducted throughout the country every year. If the referendums commission was expected to report on every local referendum, it would need very many staff.

I am sure that the hon. Member for Blaby would agree that a balance must be achieved. We do not yet have a ready answer to that problem, but my instinct is that the Bill has not quite achieved a balance, although I accept that that is not as a result of prejudice on the hon. Gentleman's part, but simply reflects the complexity of the issues involved.

Clause 2 would provide for the designation, bythe referendums commission, of referendum campaign organisations. The clause seeks to implement recommendation 85 of the Neill report, which provided that

There is, however, a key difference between whatthe clause provides for and the substance of the recommendation. The Neill committee acknowledged that identifying one organisation on either side of a referendum campaign which stood out from all other such organisations may not always be straightforward.

In 1975, the position was clear. The Government issued a White Paper, which advised:

Events moved rapidly, to such an extent that, when the Referendum Bill was published on 26 March 1975, it provided for grants to be made to two named organisations: Britain in Europe and the National Referendum Campaign. It must be remembered that, at that time, the political landscape was in many ways not as complicated or crowded as it is today.

Other more recent referendum campaigns have spawned their own umbrella cross-party groups. Although such umbrella groups have emerged more often than not, the Neill committee pointed to the no campaign in Scotland in 1997 and the yes campaign in Northern Ireland in 1998, where such groups were not an obvious feature of the campaign.

Clause 2(2) requires the referendums commission to certify one organisation on each side

As my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley pointed out, such a provision could place the commission in a very difficult, if not impossible, position. As the Neill committee sensibly recommended, it would be unwise to box the commission into such a corner.

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Another potential difficulty for the electoral commission is that the Bill refers to

in a referendum. In most cases, as the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) suggested, the possible outcomes are clear because electors are asked to vote either yes or no to a single question, or for one of two opposing propositions. The 1997 Scottish devolution referendum does not, however, fit neatly into this framework.

The House will recall that, in 1997, the Scottish people were presented with a two-part ballot paper. Voters were asked, first, to indicate whether they agreed or disagreed that there should be a Scottish Parliament, and secondly, whether they agreed or disagreed that a Scottish Parliament should have tax-varying powers. In theory, therefore, there were four possible outcomes: yes to a Scottish Parliament and yes to giving it tax-varying powers; no to both; yes to a Scottish Parliament, but no to giving it tax-varying powers; and no to a Scottish Parliament, but yes to giving it tax-varying powers.

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