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Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. The issue will arise later in another context, but I heard what he said about the electoral commission being consulted. Will its view be made public?
Amendment No. 233 would vest the decision in the electoral commission alone, removing any parliamentary scrutiny. We do not believe that to be appropriate. Parliament determines whether a referendum is held. Parliament would ultimately agree the form of the proposition or question to be put to the electorate. Equally, it is entirely appropriate that Parliament should have the final say in determining which of the possible outcomes should be supported from public funds. Of course the electoral commission should have an important say in this matter and its views will carry considerable weight.
However, there is a wider political perspective to determining such matters which an independent electoral commission cannot properly bring to bear. We have provided for proper parliamentary scrutiny of the Government's decision and I suggest that the order-making power set out in Clause 103 is the right way for these matters to be determined.
Amendment No. 234 provides for the designation of more than one permitted participant in respect of a particular outcome in a referendum. It raises drafting points but, suffice it to say, by replacing the existing subsection (5) of Clause 104 it is not clear on what basis the commission could decide to designate only one permitted participant in respect of a particular outcome where there had been more than one applicant.
The amendment envisages that the commission may designate more than one permitted participant in respect of a particular outcome if certain criteria are met; namely, that the commission is satisfied that more than one applicant enjoys substantial support and has a distinct reason for campaigning for that outcome, and that it would be unreasonable to refuse designation. In those circumstances the commission will apportion such assistance as is available between the designated permitted participants as it thinks fit.
That is clearly contrary to what the Neill committee envisaged. In framing its proposals the committee's intention was to ensure that each side should be able to mount a campaign so that each side of the argument was heard. The committee recommended that the available core funding should, therefore, be sufficient to cover the establishment of a campaign headquarters with basic equipment and staff. The committee considered that a sum equivalent to that provided to the two umbrella organisations in the 1975 referendum would be appropriate.
As drafted, the Bill simply requires the commission to identify the permitted participant which "to the greatest extent" represents those campaigning for a particular outcome. That broad-brush test points to the designation of an umbrella organisation which represents the broad spread of opinion on one side of a referendum question: it is essentially the test used in the 1975 referendum. The White Paper on that referendum indicated that assistance would be available to organisations "which adequately represent" the two sides. However, the noble Lord's amendment would involve the commission in an altogether different kind of exercise. Its task would not be to ask which, if any, of the organisations stood out as representing the case for the particular outcome, but, instead, whether each of the competing claims, on its own merits, deserved a slice of the pie.
To assist the commission with this altogether more difficult task the noble Lord seeks to devise some rather more specific criteria, such as the separate levels of support enjoyed by different groups and their distinct reasons for campaigning. Although they might look objective on paper, inevitably they would open up the commission's decision to challenge; indeed, the proposal that the commission should grant an application if it would be unreasonable to do otherwise would positively invite it.
Nor is it easy to see how the assistance available to designated organisations might be apportioned as proposed. Certainly, the grant might be divided up but we do not see how the free mailing facilities could be. If there is to be only one mailshot, are the two or more designated organisations on a given side of the campaign supposed to divide up the country between them? Or perhaps it is the noble Lord's intention that each designated organisation on a particular side should benefit from a free mailshot so that it could explain its distinctive arguments to the electorate. If so, each additional designated organisation would cost the public purse £3.6 million for a mailing to each household. More to the point, it would give one side in the campaign an unfair advantage over the other, which was the very thing that the Neill committee sought to overcome.
The whole purpose of the designation procedure is to ensure that there is an adequately resourced "yes and no" campaign in any referendum. To make provision for the designation of a number of organisations on each side would limit the resources available to them and could thereby result in the arguments on one side or the other not being properly heard. We believe that that would defeat the object of these provisions. For those reasons, I invite the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.
The noble Lord asked whether the views of the commission would be made public. As the noble Lord is aware, that matter is not covered in the Bill. However, the views of the commission will undoubtedly be published either by the commission itself or by the Government. I refer to the next line of
Lord Elton: As to the first of my noble friend's amendments, I am a little anxious about the Minister's suggestion. Presumably, the issues to be decided by referendum will be highly political, and they may also be complex. The decision as to which organisations shall be funded to campaign depends on the possible outcome to be specified in relation to permitted participants. I do not suggest that the following example would have happened in this case but it illustrates the mechanics of it. Let us suppose that the governing party at Westminster had a very large majority and wished to have a devolved assembly elsewhere in the United Kingdom but that it should not have tax-raising powers. The specified permitted outcome might be that there could be a devolved assembly but not one with tax-raising powers. That would be such a broad, blunt and controversial issue that, no doubt in the light of public pressure, it would be decided that both outcomes could be possible.
In trying to provide for the unforeseen future, in which perhaps some of our citizens regard certain matters as of great importance but central government do not agree and may not want others to be persuaded to that view, one is giving to the executive of the day a very powerful weapon to suppress the expression of minority interests. I believe that that is something that the Committee should think about carefully before proceeding.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I was interested in the Minister's reply. I do not believe that he turned his mind to the question which arose in the Scottish referendum where there could have been four umbrella groups to address the four possibilities. Although only two sides of the argument were up and running, an attempt was made to create an organisation to say "yes" to a Scottish parliament but "no" to tax-raising powers, and the other way round; in other words, "no" to a Scottish Parliament but "yes" to tax-raising powers, on the principle that if one had to have such an arrangement it should be a proper one and take responsibility for some of its own decisions vis a vis the taxpayer. Those two organisations did not get off the ground simply because a great deal of support was not forthcoming. Clearly, if the electoral commission had given them funding to get off the ground they would have been up and running. It would not have influenced the final outcome, but there would have been a good deal more split voting than there was in the final analysis.
I do not approve of two-question referendums which complicate the issue; there should be only one question and that should be the end of it. But if the Government insist on two questions, or even more, obviously this Bill should contain provisions to ensure that all the various outcomes can be covered by umbrella organisations. Can the Minister provide any advice as to that? To help the noble Lord in that
One is supposed to have a generic referendum Bill so that when Parliament wants a referendum the only matter that it must decide, after (one hopes) consultation with the electoral commission, is the question to be put and on what date the referendum should be conducted. The rest of the rules should slot into place, as they do for a general election, without any need for Secretaries of State to take powers to make rules and regulations for one specific referendum.
Perhaps I may suggest to the Minister that no great pressure arises from the part of the Bill on referendums. We could quite easily take out the whole matter which would allow a quicker passage of the Bill and enable us to reach the end of the Session more quickly. It would also allow Her Majesty to come down to this Chamber very much sooner than is likely if we carry on with the whole of the Bill. I suggest to the Minister that he take out the referendum part completely. His right honourable friend the Prime Minister has clearly signalled that this part will not be needed because we will not have a referendum on the euro in the next Parliament. Even if we do, the Prime Minister will vote no, which at least gives me some confidence about the eventual outcome.
But it is a serious point. If this is not a generic referendum Bill, which clearly it is not--otherwise I would not need my first amendment and the Secretary of State would have no involvement--why do not the Government take away this part of the Bill and come back with it in the next Session? After all, that is only two or three weeks away, or two or three months away or perhaps next year--who knows? They could then give us a proper generic referendum Bill which we could discuss separately from the provisions surrounding general elections, which I understand the noble Lord wants to get on the statute book quickly because of the election that the Government want to hold on the first Thursday in May.
Lord Bach: I have learnt a great deal from the noble Lord about both the Prime Minister's views and about the date of the general election. I am very grateful to him for telling me. As always, the noble Lord is very seductive indeed in the proposition he puts forward, which is that the whole of the referendum part of the Bill should be taken out and brought back on another day. However, I am afraid that I shall not fall for that, seductive though it is. It is important for all political parties and all those concerned with these matters that we get the Bill through as quickly as possible. Who said that the only referendum would be on the euro? How does the noble Lord know that there may not be referendums on other items before any referendum on the euro?
Where there are two questions, a particular outcome may be absurd. It would not therefore be appropriate to have a designation in such cases. That then opens the possibility of two organisations being designated on one side and only one on the other. There is a political judgment to be made, which in the end must rest with Parliament. It will rest with Parliament through the affirmative order that will have to go through both Houses of Parliament before it can be implemented.
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