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8.51 pm

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): I have not come here to attack the Labour party, but it is customary to say something nice about the speech preceding one's own and I shall not do so today. Under the cover of privilege in this House, I could make many allegations about the Labour party, individual party members and Labour Members of Parliament. Generally, however, I consider them to be a misguided but well-meaning bunch of people with whom I disagree.

I might go on, but I shall not be too rude about the speech of the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Bradley) except to say that he should dwell on what he has done. Perhaps he thinks that he will reap a few more votes in The Wrekin, but I think that the good burghers there will see the error of their ways, oust him at the next election and return a Conservative.

I shall comment on what the hon. Gentleman said about donations always influencing the way in which parties react. He mentioned Asil Nadir. What exactly did Asil Nadir get from the Conservative Government as he fled to Cyprus to escape British judgment? Absolutely nothing. Closer to home, in my constituency, somebody who supported the Conservative party said to me, "I have given all this money to the Conservative party, and I don't get anything for my planning applications." I replied, "Well, no. What did you expect?" He may have expected something, but I can assure the hon. Member for The Wrekin that that person got nothing because donations do not, as he tried to say, always mean influence. They may get someone a hearing, but they certainly do not get influence.

This party, like the Labour party and other parties in the House, has very little to apologise for in general, although some individuals may have erred.

The problem of speaking late in a debate is that all the best arguments have already been made. I do not intend to bore the House by repeating the arguments made by some of my right hon. and hon. Friends, which have been extremely good. I shall concentrate instead on referendums. The House may recall that I introduced the Referendums Bill last year. It was talked out by the Government, acting, as the hon. Member for The Wrekin will know, altruistically without any consideration of their own interests.

I welcome the Bill, particularly the provisions for referendums, but with qualifications. The Government have, I fear, included provisions that I view with a certain amount of suspicion. Even Labour Members may agree that the Government like to be in control, particularly of elections. Whereas an election or referendum is a chance for people to express their feelings democratically, Labour Members may agree that, for some in Millbank, an election is more of a chance to find out whether they can meddle a little.

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Those who do not agree might ask the hon. Members for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) or for Cardiff, West (Mr. Morgan) about the arrangements put in place for selecting the Labour candidate for the mayor of London or choosing the candidate for the First Secretary of the Welsh Assembly. Nationally, almost everybody--even most members of the Labour party--disliked the closed party lists used for elections to the European Parliament, which were debated at length in the House. One further example is that of the Welsh devolution referendum, in which a large majority of the Welsh population did not vote for devolution. The Government created the Welsh Assembly none the less.

I welcome the creation of an Electoral Commission to take Government interference out of referendums. In the spirit of bipartisanship, I acknowledge that all Governments, not only the Labour Government, might feel the urge to interfere. I believe that the commission will be able to enforce many of the recommendations made by Lord Neill and his committee. I should like to make a few suggestions regarding the powers of the commission set out in clause 5, which states:

I hope that the Minister will say whether my suggestions fall within the commission's remit.

My first suggestion is that the commission should make recommendations on the wording of any question to be asked in a referendum. Those who, like the hon. Member for The Wrekin, follow such matters closely will know that, in February 1975, NOP ran a poll asking a series of questions in respect of the Common Market. I do not always believe opinion polls, even though, sadly, the events of May 1997 show that they tend to be right. However, the 1975 poll is illustrative in that, on a factually incorrect question, it managed to garner a majority among respondents in favour of leaving the Common Market. On another question, it managed to get an 18 per cent. majority in favour of staying in the Common Market. As the House will know, the eventual result of the referendum was approximately two to one in favour of staying in. That demonstrates something that we all know: the wording of a question can dictate the result of a referendum in favour of the person who has set the question. Therefore, I recommend that the Electoral Commission should have the opportunity to comment, and make recommendations, on the wording of any referendum question.

My next suggestion is that a voting threshold should be included in any future referendum. The House will remember that there was a threshold in the 1979 referendum on Scottish devolution. Earlier today, regional assemblies--a matter that leaves every one of my constituents cold--were mentioned. I doubt that they would turn out to vote on the establishment of an east midlands regional assembly. We should set a threshold before establishing such bodies. The Welsh Assembly was created on the approval of only one quarter of the Welsh electorate, so no one can pretend that the Welsh desperately wanted it.

Another matter for the commission should be the timing of separate but related referendums. The House might not think that an important issue, but if we want to remove political expediency from the calculations underlying referendums, we should consider how the

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Welsh referendum was held exactly one week after the Scottish one. The Government allege that they were held on separate days to avoid confusion, but most people in all parties would agree that the Scottish vote, which was rightly expected to be heavily in favour of devolution, was thought likely to influence the Welsh vote. The House will note that there appears to have been no confusion about holding separate elections to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and local authorities on the same day last year, nor about county council elections and a general election coinciding on occasions in the past and, no doubt, in future.

The question of spending limits has already been discussed at length, but it is worth recalling a little of the convoluted route by which we arrived at the current position. The White Paper suggested a limit of £5 million for each umbrella organisation and each political party with more than two Members of Parliament. Those proposals were widely regarded as being unfair. For example, if we were to hold a referendum on entry to a European single currency, the yes campaign would be able to spend £25 million and the no campaign only £10 million, based on current party positions. We and others, including Lord Neill, criticised those proposals, and the Home Secretary had to abandon what many perceived to be a partisan attempt to influence funding for a future referendum on a single currency.

Under the new sliding scale rules that the Bill introduces, the figures come out better. My calculations show that the yes campaign in a single currency referendum would be able to spend approximately £14 million, and the no campaign approximately £10.5 million. That is much more equitable.

We should also consider a point of principle: referendum spending limits should not be based on how well a party did in a previous general election. The point of a referendum is to determine what was not decided at a general election. The referendum is an instrument for teasing out a specific large issue from the rest of the issues that were decided by a previous general election. Making spending limits in a referendum campaign dependent on the way in which people voted in a general election replaces the issue among the others that had previously been decided. That negates the purpose of a referendum.

If a general election is not adequate for making a decision on a specific issue, why should it be adequate for determining the amount of money that can be spent on deciding the issue? Why should people's view of the Labour Government's stealth taxes at the next general election determine the number of leaflets that they receive about the euro in a referendum after the election?

My colleagues, especially my right hon. Friends the Members for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) and for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor), have made other comments on funding and capping. I believe that the proposals in the Bill remain flawed, but I shall not pursue that.

I want to consider briefly Government involvement in referendums. The Neill committee recommended that the Government of the day

It is interesting to ascertain why the committee said that. Evidence quoted in the report states that the Government,

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being on one side of the referendum in Scotland, was able to

    "write the rules and an information leaflet and send it to every house."

The Neill committee agrees that it is fundamentally wrong for the Government to be a player and to write the rules. In the Scottish devolution campaign, the Government distributed information leaflets to every household. They omitted any argument in favour of a no vote. In Scotland, that Government propaganda cost £730,000.

In Wales, the Government spent £164,000 on the campaign. The Neill committee stated that it was "disturbed" by the "one-sided" referendum campaign, and added:

The committee had good cause to demand Government neutrality.

Unfortunately, the Bill does not provide for Government neutrality, which would prevent a Government from influencing a referendum. The Government have rejected Lord Neill's proposals and decided that neutrality should apply only for the final 28 days of a campaign. In a long-drawn-out campaign such as that on the single currency--I am sorry to use that example again, but it is pertinent--28 days of neutrality is laughable.

The Treasury is already spending £29 million on its euro preparations--more than the total that the yes and no campaigns will spend in a future referendum. The Minister for Europe is touring the country--appropriately with Eddie Izzard--in some sort of two-man show to persuade people of the benefits of a single currency and the European Union.

Government propaganda is aimed at making the last 28 days of any subsequent referendum campaign as unimportant as possible by creating a mood of resigned fatalism among the British public about the supposed inevitability of joining the euro. The 28 days of neutrality, after all the organs of state have weighed in for months, is an inadequate safeguard of a fair and balanced campaign. Government neutrality should start when the plan for a referendum is presented.

I generally welcome the Bill, but its provisions for referendums are flawed. I suspect that the Government cannot resist attempting to retain their control over all elections and referendums. The Minister may be delighted to know that I do not totally distrust them on these issues, notwithstanding the speech of the hon. Member for The Wrekin, but they have already held several referendums and are committed to holding more, not only on the euro but--possibly, probably or perhaps not--on proportional representation. I fear that the Bill is in danger of representing a missed opportunity for producing a generally fair framework for the succession of plebiscites that are already planned.

Various hon. Members have said that we may need to revisit the situation. That may be true, but I hope that some of the issues that have been raised can be ironed out in Committee. I have to say--I hope that the Minister will listen--that a Committee of the whole House should

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consider the Bill because this is a constitutional matter and it should be examined on the Floor of the House. I hope that the Committee will be given the opportunity to improve the Bill and, especially, to address the concerns that have been raised on this side of the House.

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