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Lord Archer of Weston-Super-Mare: My Lords, perhaps the Minister will allow me to intervene. I apologise for not warning her that I would bring up this matter. She used the words "our campaign". I hope that it will be a campaign in which all sides of the House can join on equal terms, that it will not look as though it is a campaign being promoted by 10 Downing Street or by certain Ministers in the Labour Party in the Lower House and that those of us who are just as interested as they are will be allowed to express our views. We will not have the £500,000 to spend that the Minister mentioned.

Baroness Hayman: The noble Lord, Lord Archer of Weston-Super-Mare, tempts me to talk about campaigns and the effectiveness of the campaigning by individuals and parties as well as the Government. I should make it clear that the campaign about which I am talking involves informing people about the election taking place. It is factual, non-partisan campaigning. It is not campaigning for a yes or no vote or for a particular candidate. It is a campaign to inform people about the election which, I believe, is correctly government responsibility.

In that very limited, specific and non-partisan campaigning--I hope that a variety of individuals and groups will be involved in the referendum campaign as in the local government election campaign--I believe that we have made a correct assessment of where limited

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funds should best be applied. We have a fixed budget for the referendum drawn up, bearing in mind constraints on public expenditure. We have taken the view that the best use of available funds is to have a substantial absent-vote campaign. Such a campaign may also have valuable spin-offs for other elections, for example, for people who experience difficulty in attending polling stations. They may realise for the first time just how easy it is to obtain an absent vote and to apply for it in subsequent elections. That would do much more for extending democracy than simply a one-off extension of hours in this particular referendum.

On the broader issue, the Government are committed to improving access to democracy. Last week the Government launched a review of electoral procedures. The working party charged with carrying out the review includes representatives of central and local government and of the main political parties. In that context, clear recommendations will emerge on improving people's experience of participating in the democratic process. Some of the wider issues that have been brought to bear in this debate will be properly covered there. That is the proper avenue for those kinds of areas to be addressed. In view of what I have said, I urge the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment.

Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, I take the point that work is being carried out on electoral procedures. With some reluctance, I shall not push for an alteration as there might be further alterations very close at hand in the pipeline.

The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, said that he had drawn the short straw in having to be outside a polling station between 9 and 10.00 p.m. It is an even shorter straw to have to run a committee room, trying to get people to continue working between those hours. That is my experience. But I shall volunteer for that. I do not discount the point about cost and hours. That could lead one to ask why in general elections and European elections polling hours are two hours longer. I note that the Minister understands the thrust of that point.

She said that the application is not hassle-free. It is not very difficult, but it has to be made early. I believe it has to be 13 working days before the election. I have checked rather quickly so I might be wrong, although I do not think so. On this occasion it will mean an application by 20th April. That is the Monday following the week in which Easter Monday falls. In other words, that will be the week after the Easter holidays. I also guess that it will fall within some school holidays. Those who are able to be away for Easter are likely to be absent until that weekend.

There is the hard work that the political parties will do besides the information published in the press. People are unlikely to catch up with the need to make an application until it is too late to do so. I was fascinated by the figures available from Ealing. They were 6 per cent. and 5 per cent.--11 per cent. overall. Some of those people may have voted at other times, but that appears to me to be far too large a percentage to discount. I hope that the expressions of concern raised at various stages of this Bill on this matter, even if they are not to have any effect on the conduct of the polls

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on 7th May, will feed into the work on the electoral arrangements in a constructive manner. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

5.45 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 3:

Page 2, line 30, at end insert--
("( ) Where the polls referred to in subsection (1) are taken on the same day registered electors may apply to vote by post or proxy at the referendum and the election on a single form.").

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, this amendment refers to a related matter. It is a probing amendment regarding the application form to be completed by electors who apply for absent votes. The Minister has advocated the use of the absent voting procedure. The published forms ask if the applicant requires an absent vote either in general or for particular elections.

I raise the point because I understand that when the county and general elections coincided, there was some confusion. Two forms were required from voters, one for each election. It may be that the point was not considered early enough in the arrangements for the elections. I am sure the Minister will agree that it is important to make the application as easy and as straightforward as possible.

I can well imagine voters saying, "I have filled in that form". The proxy will go to the polling station or open the envelope for the postal ballot, and find only one ballot paper. I do not believe any noble Lords would want to see that situation. I hope that the Minister can give some assurances about necessary steps being taken, which I would not wish to see on the face of the Bill. Alternatively, perhaps she can give an assurance that if the box for the local government election is ticked, that refers to the referendum for London, if that takes place on the same day. I beg to move.

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I hope that I can reassure the noble Baroness on this point. I understand her concerns. We would certainly not wish the circumstances she described to occur.

This amendment seeks to ensure that people can apply for a postal or proxy vote for the referendum and the local election on a single form. I hope to explain to the House why this amendment is unnecessary.

We have made quite clear in the secondary legislation in Part I, Schedule 2, paragraph 7(1) that anyone who applies for a postal or proxy vote for either the referendum or the local election will automatically be sent an equivalent postal or proxy vote to participate in the other poll, unless they specify that they do not want one. Therefore, there is no need for this amendment. If people apply for one or the other, they will get both. They need not of course exercise their vote if they do not wish to do so. But we are determined that no one should miss out on their chance to vote in both polls. That will be made clear.

As I said earlier on in talking about opening hours--I note the point that the noble Baroness made earlier about the timeframe for applying for postal and proxy votes--we hope that because people will be getting

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information about that well in advance of the poll at the same time as information about the referendum, it will encourage them to apply early on and in good time. With those assurances in mind, I hope that the noble Baroness will be able to withdraw her amendment.

Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, that reply is extremely helpful. I am sorry that I did not spot that detail in the draft of the secondary legislation, which I have read. It is the sort of document which causes one's eyes to glaze over a little. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish moved Amendment No. 4:

After Clause 4, insert the following new clause--

Independent Statutory Commission

(" .--(1) The Secretary of State shall appoint an independent Statutory Commission, which shall monitor the conduct of the referendum provided for under this Act, and shall, in the light of the referendum and of the referendums carried out under the Referendums (Scotland and Wales) Act 1997, draw up recommendations for the conduct of future referendums, having regard to the 1996 Report of the Commission on the Conduct of Referendums.
(2) Any report containing recommendations under this section shall be laid before each House of Parliament.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in moving this amendment, I shall speak to Amendments Nos. 8, 9 and 10. Some noble Lords may recognise these amendments. I see the noble and learned Lord the Lord Advocate in his place. He will certainly recognise them. They are exactly the same amendments that I proposed to the Referendums (Scotland and Wales) Bill. I shall try to shorten my arguments although I notice a number of noble Lords in the House who were not present when I advanced them as regards the earlier Bill, including the Minister. As a new Minister is to answer me this time, I live in the hope that I may get a slightly more positive answer than I received from the Lord Advocate. However, the very fact that the noble and learned Lord is here suggests that he will ensure that the noble Baroness does not stray from the text.

We are moving towards the third referendum in less than a year, with the probability of more to come. I shall not go into the detail of whether referendums sit comfortably in our Westminster model. It is a model that has served us well over time and I am pretty sceptical about the use of referendums inside our model of parliamentary democracy. However, we know that the Government intend to have a number of referendums in the future. As their so-called "reform"--I prefer to say "change"--to the constitution is of a very piecemeal fashion, who knows what other piece they may decide to try to change? If they have a grand plan, they are certainly not telling us.

If we are to continue to have referendums, it really is time that we had a proper generic referendums Act. We should not conduct each referendum piecemeal. The noble Baroness would not get into problems such as

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those she encountered earlier this afternoon on the question in the referendum if she took my advice on board.

The Constitution Unit and the Electoral Reform Society established a Commission on the Conduct of Referendums in April 1996. Those two bodies are not naturally in my part of the political spectrum but, as I said in August, if we are to have referendums, I very much agree with the commission's conclusions. The commission's briefing paper states:

    "The conduct of referendums should be entrusted to a statutory independent body, accountable to Parliament, in order to ensure maximum confidence in the legitimacy of the results. This could be a free-standing commission--a 'Referendum Commission'; or an Electoral Commission, if one were established.

    The responsibilities of an Independent Commission could include: advising on the wording of the referendum question; liaising with and funding campaigning organisations; the fair presentation of public information and equitable access to the broadcast media; and the organisation of the poll ...

    A generic Referendum Act could establish an Independent Commission and a statutory framework for the efficient, fair and consistent conduct of referendums. Those matters which will be different in each referendum and are likely to be of Parliamentary concern could be the subject of primary legislation on each occasion".
I shall probably quote from that document once or twice again.

I stress that the commission's membership was by no means narrowly drawn. Perhaps I may mention a few of those who served on it. It was chaired by Sir Patrick Nairne; its vice-chairman was Dr. David Butler and, to take just three names at something like random, the membership also comprised the noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton; the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, and Mr. John Whittingdale, MP, from my party. The commission was broadly based and its conclusions were very clear. I do not think that those conclusions represented a minority view. I hope that the Government will give me some reassurance that they will address this issue.

When I raised such issues in August, I was told that I could not expect the Government to establish a commission in the time available between August and the holding of the Scottish and Welsh referendums. I was told that that was impossible; and that was more or less that. I have no doubt that the noble Baroness will say the same thing now, but I must advise her that I do not accept that argument now because the Government have had since last August to deal with the issue and to come forward with a more substantial and more positive reply than that which they gave then. I am afraid that the same argument simply will not do today.

It is interesting to note that if a proper Bill were introduced we could discuss then some of the issues that I raised in August. I am raising one or two of them again today, but I could certainly have kept the House going all evening (if I had chosen to do so) by tabling a series of amendments covering a variety of issues that should be properly addressed. As happened last time, the noble Baroness will have to bring forward orders to change the Representation of the People Act. As I said previously, you will only be able to understand those orders if you sit in the Library with a copy of the

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Representation of the People Act beside you and work your way through it. The orders will change legislation which Parliament passed and which was designed specifically for general elections with parties and candidates. That legislation is to be changed in a piecemeal way to meet the circumstances of referendums. That is not satisfactory.

An independent commission could address a number of issues. Indeed, paragraph 47 of the report outlines them. It refers to:

    "advising on the wording of the question; allocating funding to campaign groups; liaising with and acting as moderator between any campaign groups; acting in an ombudsman role to deal with any complaints; monitoring balanced access to the broadcast media; providing public information, including a balance statement of the opposing arguments; supervising the organisation for each polling station; counting and declaration arrangements".
All of those matters could be dealt with by the commission. That is the first part of my argument.

The second part of my argument is that a generic Act would mean that guidance could be drawn up. Guideline No. 1 states:

    "Guidance should be drawn up dealing with organisational, administrative and procedural matters associated with holding a referendum. Established guidelines should include fixed rules for some matters (for example, the organisation of the poll, the election machinery and the count). For other matters, on which it is impossible to determine rules in advance (for example, wording the question), the guidance should state how a decision should be reached".

It is not an elegant way to conduct a referendum if part of the argument here and in another place relates to what the question should be. Having sat through the arguments on why there should be two questions in the referendum Bill relating to Scotland which the Government advanced against amendments which some of us tabled to provide that there should be only one question, it was most interesting to listen to the Government turning that argument on its head in relation to London. A commission could sort out just such issues. They would therefore no longer be matters of party argument on the Floor of the House with decisions having to be made in the Division Lobbies and, dare I say it, the Government being defeated. My suggestion would hugely help in any future referendums which the Government intend to hold.

I am not asking for such an electoral commission to be set up; I am using this amendment, as I used the same amendment in the summer, as a trigger to start the process. I am saying, "Let us have a commission that can inspect how the London referendum works. Let us have a commission that can look back at how the Scottish and Welsh referendums worked and then propose to government--and government can come to Parliament with--a generic Bill before we have the next referendum". I believe that that will be on the day that Tony and Gordon agree that we ought to join the single currency. I hope that we shall have a generic Act before then and that we shall not have to go through the same procedures then as today.

I turn now to my three other amendments. They would not need to be discussed if we had an Act such as I have suggested. Amendment No. 8 is straightforward. I raised the same argument last time and I received

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assurances, but I am afraid that I shall have to raise the same points again and get assurances again that no public money will be paid to any organisation established to campaign for either side on the question and that no civil servants shall engage on the side of--I presume--the Government's case in any referendum. I received perfectly satisfactory reassurances from the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, last time and I hope that I shall receive such assurances this time, but if we had a generic Act, I would be saved asking the same questions every time.

The same point is made on broadcasting. Guideline No. 17 states:

    "A balance should be maintained between the 'Yes' and 'No' viewpoints rather than between the different political parties. Broadcasters should be encouraged to provide a limited amount of airtime for setting out the arguments for each option in the referendum. The content of such broadcasts would be the responsibility of any formally recognised campaign organisations. In the absence of such organisations the Independent Commission should appoint production companies to produce such broadcasts. Party political broadcasts should not normally be transmitted during the referendum campaign".
I would be grateful if the noble Baroness could provide me with assurances in that regard.

In a contribution from the noble Baroness a few moments ago I noted that the Government had set in train a review of electoral procedures. I would be perfectly willing to withdraw my new clauses if I received an assurance from the Minister--normally, the Government are teased about reviews--that the whole subject would be seriously considered and that the Government intended to act upon it; otherwise, I have to say that the procrastinating reply that I received in August will not do this evening. I beg to move.

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