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Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. O'Brien: I will give way shortly.

The amendment deals with Europe. We know from past experience what happens when one mentions the word "Europe" to Conservative Members. Unlike Pavlov's dog, they tend to break out in indignation, splits and general hypertension. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman will do precisely that, but I shall give way to him to find out.

Mr. Robathan: I am so grateful to the Minister, because I can see that he is looking forward to my intervention. The task that he is setting the Electoral Commission of promoting public awareness of the institutions of the European Union is fairly large. Will he therefore illuminate the House as to his awareness of its institutions? Could he tell us what DG VII and DG VIII do?

Mr. O'Brien: I cannot do so off the top of my head, because I have not been involved in these matters recently. However, I can tell the hon. Gentleman what DG V does--but can he tell me?

Mr. Robathan: No.

Mr. O'Brien: It might serve us both to be properly educated about the role of the European Commission, the European Parliament and the institutions of Europe. We could both do with a little more education on these matters. If we accepted amendment No. 157, which was tabled by Conservative Members, we might not receive the education that we need.

Sir George Young: I welcome Government amendments No. 9 and 10. They reflect amendment No. 42, which we moved in Committee. However, I think that amendment No. 159 is also necessary for reasons that I shall explain shortly.

As the Minister said, Government amendments Nos. 9 and 10 will keep the neutral and impartial Electoral Commission out of contentious issues by allowing it to promote only those electoral systems made by enactment. It will keep it out of promoting AV-plus and other forms of proportional representation before the House of Commons approves them--if, indeed, it ever does. I am grateful that the Minister confirmed that the commission could not promote public awareness of elected regional assemblies when they are not pending. It is worth reminding the House that the Neill committee did not envisage the commission embarking on the functions set out in clause 11.

I shall speak to amendments Nos. 157 and 159. Amendment No. 157 is similar to an amendment that we moved in Committee, so the Opposition's beach towel has already been laid on this deckchair. The amendment would preclude the commission from promoting public awareness of the institutions of the European Union.

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The Minister may recall the powerful speech that I made on 14 February, from column 711 onwards, which he interrupted to make numerous concessions, but sadly not on that particular amendment.

Our case is the one that was just implied by my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan). The European Union already has a substantial budget, far larger than that of the proposed Electoral Commission, to promote its institutions. It has 45 million euros to spend on general information and communication work concerning the European Union. The budget document published by the European Commission says of the budget for information and communication work:


There is therefore no need for UK taxpayers to double-fund a function for which they are already paying through the Commission.

The Minister needs to take on board another issue. One of the institutions of which the Electoral Commission could promote public awareness, under clause 11, is the European central bank, which is a European institution. We could of course have a referendum on whether the UK should join the euro. Interest rates are fixed by the ECB, and the bank has responsibility for the conduct of monetary policy in Europe. The ECB's performance could therefore be at the heart of a debate about whether the UK should join the euro. Against that background, is it right that the commission should be involved in that debate by publishing literature about; and promoting public awareness of; the ECB?

The Minister mentioned the commission's voter education role, which I understand, but the commission also has a role to remain impartial and above the issues that may be raised in a referendum. For that reason, it should not embark on promoting awareness of European Union institutions. The commission, after all, would be the umpire in that referendum.

I shall use the argument that the Minister used on 14 February, when he said:


that is the commission--


    if it were seen to adopt a position on the question of alternative voting systems.

That argument is equally valid if one applies it to the question of joining the euro: it would be injurious to the perceived neutrality of such a body if it were seen to promote public awareness of the role of the European central bank.

Last time round, the Minister was less than convincing in his argument against the amendment. He simply said:


He repeated that argument again this evening. He went on to say that if the commission did not have that scope, turnout at European elections would remain low.

There are two responses to that argument. First, by entering the euro debate the commission would prejudice its impartiality. Secondly, there is already a huge budget

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to promote awareness of European institutions, so I was not reassured by what the Minister said today any more than I was on 14 February.

Mr. Robathan: My right hon. Friend and I agree entirely on this matter. Contrary to what the Minister said, I do not get excited when I read the word "Europe". Indeed, I can tell him that I am going on holiday in Europe this summer, God and the Government willing. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is such a low turnout in European elections because people are moved by Europe only in a contrary manner? To involve the Electoral Commission--which, as he said, is meant to be entirely neutral--in arguing for European Union institutions might not only compromise its neutrality, but lead everybody to doubt the worth of the commission, with which we agree.

Does my right hon. Friend agree also that today's opinion poll, showing that 69 per cent. of people are now ill-disposed towards the European single currency, reinforces his argument? If the Electoral Commission argues against that opinion, is not that likely to lead people to think that it is in some way flawed?

Sir George Young: My hon. Friend makes a valid point. The Bill gives the Electoral Commission a duty, not an option, when it says:


One of the EU's key institutions is the European central bank, and it would be difficult for the commission to promote public awareness of that institution without in some way involving itself in what would inevitably be a controversial political argument about whether the ECB was doing a good job or a bad job. It would be better for the commission if it simply did not engage in that particular function at all.

I move on to amendment No. 159. I hope that the Minister can persuade me that it is not necessary, but he has not yet done so. The amendment is needed because the phrasing of amendments Nos. 9 and 10 allows grants to be made to promote change in particular areas or elections so long as the proposed system is in use elsewhere in the UK. For example, a grant could be given to promote the use of the additional member system, the single vote or the single transferable vote for elections to the House on the grounds that those systems are already in use elsewhere in the UK for mayoral elections and elections to the Scottish Assembly, the Welsh Assembly, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the European Parliament.

If amendment No. 159 is not made, the commission will get involved in exactly the sort of controversy that the Minister said he did not want it to become involved in. Although those systems do not at present apply to elections to the House, they are in use elsewhere in the UK. The position without the amendment would be inconsistent with the Minister's remarks on 14 February, when he said that


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    The Government amendments do not achieve that, so I hope that the Minister will accept amendment No. 159 to close the loophole.

Mr. Stunell: I oppose the Conservative amendments--and I am not happy with the Government amendments, either.

I say to the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan), who has said that some of his best friends are European and, indeed, that he is going on holiday to Europe, that he lives in Europe. One of the problems for Conservative Members is that they do not accept that they are part of Europe in the first place.

It would be a serious mistake to clip the wings of the Electoral Commission and give it the role of explaining what local government does and why it is a good idea to participate in the decision-making process--although not to promote a specific form of local government--but say that it cannot do the same for the European Union.

The Conservatives' argument is somewhat two-edged because if their complaint about Europe is that it is dominating our lives, passing laws that we do not control and generally disrupting the universe, that is surely all the more reason to explain that evil to the British electorate and encourage them to play a part in European democratic procedures.


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