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Dr. Whitehead: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the American experience in propositions and referendums demonstrates an association between huge expenditure imbalances and outcomes? Is he saying that we should make no attempt to curtail such consequences and simply let rip, or that the system that the Government are proposing in the Bill requires amendment?

Dr. Lewis: It is obvious that the Government have taken a decision to reject the Neill approach, and it is not realistic to expect the Government to change their mind and remove the caps completely. However, I am still gravely dissatisfied with the effect of the sliding scale, which will give unequal potential to different parties to campaign on either side of a referendum question, and will give unfair advantages to one side of a referendum debate rather than another.

I shall be quite specific and use the example of economic and monetary union. I suspect that what is really behind the Government's actions and their original flawed scheme--which would have created a much greater disparity between the amounts spent for and against in a referendum campaign on membership of the single currency--is their knowledge that they have a mountain to climb.

Despite all the Government's effort to propagandise on the desirability, as they see it, of replacing the pound with the euro, the evidence of systematic polling has been that the gap in favour of keeping the pound has been widening, so that, currently, a massive majority of at least 64 per cent. of people are in favour of keeping the pound and rejecting the single currency. Therefore, the cause of adopting the single currency is almost as unpopular as the cause of unilateral nuclear disarmament--supported by the hon. Member for Test--was in the 1980s.

The Government, therefore, even using their ability to spend more money on their side of the argument, will have great difficulty in turning that opinion around. For the sake of a hard case, they are in danger of making a bad law.

In my last couple of minutes, I should like to refer very briefly to an issue that I raised on 30 November, in the debate on Second Reading of the Representation of the People Bill, on the need to close a loophole that affected me in the general election campaign, when I was a parliamentary candidate, and provable lies were broadcast against me personally on the internet with the intention of damaging my vote.

On the same day, I discussed the matter with the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien) and I received an indication--which has been renewed since, in a letter that he sent me on 15 December--that, as he said in his letter, he is "sympathetic to the problem" of candidates being attacked, using the internet, to undermine their personal reputation by the telling of lies.

The problem of character assassination in general election campaigns has always been dealt with by the Representation of the People Acts, but, in this case, that

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remedy failed because the material had been posted on to the internet prior to the election campaign. It had not been removed from the internet during the general election campaign. That was deemed inadequate to constitute publication for the purposes of the existing Acts.

At that time, I thought that it would be more appropriate to move an amendment to the Representation of the People Bill. Subsequently, however, I have been advised that it would be more appropriate to move an amendment to the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill. I should be very grateful if, in his reply to the debate, the Under-Secretary--whom I thank for the close interest that he has taken in the matter--might give an intimation of whether he would welcome such an amendment in Committee. I am delighted that the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller), who intervened on me on that previous occasion, has said that he is willing to table an amendment with me. On that note of consensus, I conclude my remarks.

9.30 pm

Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset): The Opposition have always made it clear that we support the recommendations of the Neill committee and that we shall support the legislation that implements the report. Politics in Britain is clearly not corrupt. We already have legislation to deal with corrupt and illegal practices. However, many legal practices that have grown up in recent years have led to concerns in the minds of our electors about the transparency of our democracy.

Concerns about money lead to suspicions about the motives of elected politicians, the army of voluntary workers who support them and the generous contributions made by donors large and small. Neill stated clearly that he

He went on:

    "The pursuit of politics is an honourable profession to which many men and women devote their lives. Behind each career politician stands a regiment of dedicated party workers."

We owe it to our electors, to those voluntary workers and to our donors to use the Bill to create transparent and open financial arrangements for our political organisations that will enhance our democracy, putting those who give so generously beyond reproach, protecting our fundraisers and treasurers, most of whom give of their free time, and leaving us elected politicians to get on with government or legitimately opposing those who govern.

I am grateful to my right hon. and hon. Friends for their contributions to today's debate. I particularly wish to echo the excellent opening speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young). We look to the Minister to answer the questions that he posed. The first and key question related to timing. The provisions of the Bill affect events up to one year before a general election. Can we assume that an election held in October of this year, as was suggested in The Times this morning, or the spring of next year would be excluded? The hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Mr. Smith) mentioned the by-election that Plaid Cymru has called with undue haste in Ceredigion. It will not be covered by the Bill, because it will take place as soon as 3 February.

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The Government are committed to holding a referendum on proportional representation in this Parliament. Will it be held under the new rules? Will policy development grants be paid before the next general election? Do the Government regard the spending of trade union political funds as separate from the funding of the Labour party? Will we get better definitions of donation and sponsorship? Why does the Labour party, which backed the 20-year limit for overseas voters in 1989, want to halve it to 10 years? Why did the Government reject Neill's recommendations on tax relief for small political donations? I shall deal in a moment with my right hon. Friend's comments on referendums.

My right hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor) gave an excellent speech. He is a distinguished member of the Neill committee and made some useful comments on third party expenditure and the de minimis limits. His comments on the obligations placed on local party treasurers and on donors tracking their own donations are most helpful and we shall use them in Committee. His comments on tax relief for small donations will also be pursued in Committee. I hope that the Minister will justify his opposition on the grounds of cost, either tonight or in Committee. My right hon. Friend's comments were echoed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke), who gave a fascinating historical perspective to the Bill and made a series of useful observations which we shall also use in Committee.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan)--who was most restrained in following the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Bradley)--raised some useful points on the powers of the Electoral Commission, on referendums and on the unfairness of the Government's proposals on referendums. Latterly, my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) gave an excellent speech, touching on standards in political life. He raised concerns that we all share about the funding of referendums, and I wish to speak a little about that now.

I wish to deal with that aspect of fairness in our democracy--the equality of opportunity for both sides to be able to put their case in an argument. On this test, the Bill clearly fails when it comes to referendums. Neill's recommendation 83 was:

Neill rightly proposes vigorous standards of financial transparency in the funding of the referendum campaigns, along with some excellent proposals--which are incorporated in the Bill--on core funding from the public purse.

Neill did not propose the elaborate dog's dinner contained in the Bill for limiting the funding of various types of organisations based on some quite bogus criteria. Neill states:

Well, Heath Robinson is alive and well and working in the Home Office. He helped draft this Bill.

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It might be useful for a moment to analyse why referendums are used or proposed in this country. The 1975 referendum enabled Harold Wilson to bypass a deeply divided Labour party and gain a popular mandate for his policy as opposed to that of the national executive committee of the Labour party. The 1979 devolution referendum saw leading members of both major parties in both the yes and no camps. Indeed, the future leader of the Labour party, Mr. Neil Kinnock, campaigned vigorously and successfully against his own Government's proposition. I had the delight, two months later, of being his Conservative opponent in the subsequent general election.

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