Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that in a referendum the party with the deepest pockets will always be the Government? We saw in the Welsh referendum the extent to which the Government were able to use all their agencies of publicity to put across their case.

Mr. Stunell: That might be generally true, but there is every indication that in a referendum on the euro, both sides of the argument would have supporters in the UK with very deep pockets, and I would not like to match my personal bank account against that of Mr. Sykes. Time will tell which side of the argument has the money. If we have no financial regulation, and if the hon. Gentleman's point is correct, the Government of the day will be in a position to win every referendum simply because they have the deepest pockets, so I should have thought that his point was an argument in favour of spending limits to level the playing field for the small guys putting a minority view.

We shall support the retention of clause 111. We believe that there should be spending limits. The reasoning used by the Conservatives in Committee was flawed, and they are making a mistake in using it now.

I deal now with clause 122 and the powers of the Secretary of State. We were concerned about those powers when they were imported into the Bill. We had some reassurance from the Minister about their limited nature and the fact that they will be tempered with mercy, so we do not need to worry about them. That is fine, but I want to hear a good deal more from the Minister about precisely how those powers are being circumscribed.

I repeat that we are making legislation that history suggests will last for a long time. The last thorough overhaul of such legislation was in 1883--117 years ago. We are putting in place the foundations of legislation, particularly on referendums, which may not be revisited for a long time. Certainly the legislation will outlast the ministerial lifetime of the present Secretary of State and probably of several Secretaries of State after that. [Interruption.] Well, the Home Secretary may remain in post for 117 years, but that would be an unusual record.

We have to understand that the rules and regulations that we are introducing may have to be effective in more adverse circumstances than the present ones. When we give the Secretary of State powers relating to elections and referendums, we have to be absolutely sure that the possibility of undue influence or decision making by him is minimised, and although we have had some reassurance today, we remain to be convinced that that is the case.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings): I was inspired to contribute to the debate principally by the speech of the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell). I imagine that he does not often inspire contributions of any sort, so I say that with generosity.

14 Mar 2000 : Column 239

There was a lot of talk about intellectualism in the hon. Gentleman's speech, but little evidence of it. He misunderstands the fundamental difference between limits on expenditure per se and limits on the expenditure of those who are permitted to contribute to or to fund campaigns. That lies at the heart of the amendments and of the arguments put forward by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young). To argue that any restriction or practice is better than none is not a satisfactory way to address our concerns.

I want to make only two substantial points. The first is that it is not good enough simply to disregard the work that the Neill committee did on this matter. The committee was strong and unanimous in its view and it contradicted the position that has been adopted by the Government. The Minister will remember that Neill was particularly critical of the conduct of the Northern Ireland referendum. I make no judgment on the subject that was being debated in Northern Ireland, but Neill made specific and rather critical comment about that, about expenditure in that referendum campaign, and about the Government's whip hand in the conduct of that campaign.

Mr. Mike O'Brien: The Northern Ireland referendum was somewhat different. We are discussing whether there should be expenditure restraints on the various campaign organisations and political parties in a national referendum, where the Government, at least for a time, are excluded.

The Neill committee did not think that that was doable. We say that it is, and we will do it. We paid attention to the Neill argument. Now, perhaps, the hon. Gentleman should pay attention. Let him address the doability argument. That is the only objection that Neill had. There was no objection in principle, as I understand it.

Mr. Hayes: The Minister is right--the Neill committee criticised the practicality of the measure. My right hon. Friend drew attention to that in his remarks. I was making a different point.

My second substantial point is that referendums are fundamentally different from general elections. The public expectations and perceptions of referendum campaigns and the spending in referendum campaigns is, to some extent, prejudiced. In other words, there is a widespread view that Governments do not lose referendums. That does not apply to general elections.

People assume that general elections are likely to be run and financed on a fair and free basis. I suspect that that is not the public expectation and perception of referendums in general. I mentioned Northern Ireland because it illustrates the fact that there is already--I will not say "a presumption of guilt", as that would be going too far--some misapprehension on the part of the public about the conduct and funding of referendum campaigns.

Mr. George Stevenson (Stoke-on-Trent, South): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I have listened to the debate for many hours, and I am interested in his argument. Does he accept that referendums can fundamentally alter a Government's policy and in some circumstances bring a Government down? Why does he persist in arguing that there is no comparison between referendums and general elections in that sense?

Mr. Hayes: I would not say that there was no comparison. They are comparable in that sense, as they

14 Mar 2000 : Column 240

may affect the political direction of a Government or a country. Referendums are different from a general election not just in scale, which is clearly a factor, as the scale of a referendum campaign is considerably greater, but in the public expectation and perception of their conduct and nature.

I was being rather complimentary about our democracy. Most people think that the way in which we conduct our general elections and the way the principal political parties conduct themselves in the context of general elections is, for the most part, fair, free and honourable. There is the odd exception, but in essence that would be a tenable position to adopt.

I do not take the same view of referendums. As we already see in press comment and surveys of opinion, people expect referendums not to be conducted in the same free and fair way. We therefore have an extra duty to counteract that and to anticipate those objections by ensuring that the legislation is--to paraphrase the hon. Member for Hazel Grove--fit for the long-term future, if referendums are to play an increasing role in the way we govern our country. That is why I strongly support the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire.

8.15 pm

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury): I join the debate on this group of amendments because I spoke on the clause when we discussed it in the early hours of the evening of 16 February in Committee on the Floor of the House. I shall highlight those points again, with good reason--not for the sake of duplication, but because, as is acknowledged throughout the House, clause 111 goes to the heart of fairness in referendums. We all recognise that if the Bill is to be effective, it must increase, not diminish, the democratic legitimacy of referendums.

At the time, I queried how one would manage the suspension of expenditure in local political parties so that that was not computed within the overall limits on expenditure under the rules imposed by the Bill. That was not apparent from the Bill. It is also not clear from the Bill what would happen if a referendum were held on the same day as a general election. In the absence of provision in the Bill, confusion seems to abound.

That was not a facile point. I had been led to that expectation by no less a person than the Prime Minister, who, early in the course of this Administration, perhaps in order to duck the prevailing lack of enthusiasm for the single currency in the country, suggested that it might be better to have a referendum on the same day as a general election to disguise the issue.

The debate proceeded, and the Minister was exceptionally generous in his reply. Not sparing my blushes, referring to my speech the Minister said:

After dealing with a further point, the Minister continued:

    I should like to consider further some of the hon. Gentleman's points, which may deserve some closer thought. . . They suggest that he is right: if that happens, perhaps we will need further legislation to clarify some of the issues."--[Official Report, 16 February 2000; Vol. 344, c. 1037-38.]

The Minister then went on in characteristically generous vein.

14 Mar 2000 : Column 241

I have received no letter from the Minister on any of those points, which I think are valid and important and go to the heart of the clause. I ask the Minister to reflect carefully whether our amendments are right, and whether the clause should be removed from the Bill until the issues that are fundamental to the fairness of referendums and democratic legitimacy have been addressed.

Next Section

IndexHome Page