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Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, this is an important amendment. The noble Baroness referred to the fact that, in the North East, there has been a grave suspicion that public money from council tax payers has been used to support one side of the argument.
I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, and Mr Raynsford, for reacting positively to suggestions that government money was being used on one side of the argument. They made it absolutely clear that they do not approve of government or taxpayers' money being used on one side of the argument. That is very welcome, but a fear remains that in some parts local authorities are using public money.
Neil Herron, of the metric martyrs association, is taking action against Sunderland Borough Council on the grounds that it has participated in an organisation campaigning for regional assemblies to be established. I well remember that in the Welsh referendum, the money and the opinion expressed in the newspapers was skewed towards the "Yes" campaign, and there were accusations that public authorities had used public money in advance of the referendum and, in some cases, during the referendum.
This is an important amendment, which enables this House to establish that it believes that any referendum should be carried out very fairly, without rate payers' or taxpayers' money being engaged on any one side of the argument. It also gives the Government the opportunity to reiterate that they will not allow, under any circumstances, government money to be used on one side of the argument. I can only hope that, if they have any influence with local authorities, they will prevail on them to take the strong, fair and legal line that the Government themselves are taking.
Lord Waddington: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, was right to draw attention to what is happening in the North East. However, jiggery-pokery is also being practised in the North West. I had occasion earlier to draw attention to a letter addressed by the chief executive of the North West Regional Assembly to Lancashire County Council. The council had told the assembly that it had reason to believe that money that it had given the assembly was being wrongly spent on campaigning. The assembly had the effrontery to write back to the council, admitting that it had passed a resolution, saying,
Rather unconvincingly, when it was pointed out to the assembly that if it was so campaigning it would be acting illegally, the assembly tried to go back on what it had said in the press release. That was hardly convincing, given the plain wording of the press release.
Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: My Lords, in Committee, when we debated an identical amendment, my noble friend Lord Rooker said that he agreed with the whole thrust of the noble Baroness's case but argued, nevertheless, that her amendment was unnecessary. I believe that the noble Baroness is really looking for reassurance today that the Government agree with the position she has taken. I hope that I shall be able to reassure the noble Baroness.
As my noble friend said in Committee, the Electoral Commission is an independent body that takes a fair and responsible approach to all its statutory duties. It should not be seen to favour one outcome of a referendum over another. Under Clause 7, we consider that the commission would have a public law duty to act in a reasonable and balanced way. It could be subject to challenge by way of judicial review if it acted in a biased way. The power is simply to encourage voting; it is not to encourage any particular outcome.
I should respond to the interventions made by the noble Lords, Lord Waddington and Lord Stoddart of Swindon. The amendment relates to Clause 7, which is solely about the role of the Electoral Commission. It has nothing to do with the activities of other bodies. During proceedings on the Bill, both in Committee and on Report, we have heard many stories about the activities of the North East and of the North West, but, so far, there is no evidence in that respect.
However, I can tell the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, that the Government would not under any circumstances use money to favour one side over another. I believe that that was the substance of his intervention. With that explanation, I ask the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, as always, we shall want to reflect upon the noble Lord's response. I believe that he has given us a good deal of what we wanted by way of these amendments. I thank the noble Lord, and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, the provisions of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (PPERA) will apply for the purposes of a referendum on regional assemblies. Consistent with the provisions of that Act, Clause 8 of the Bill is currently drafted to permit the Electoral Commission to step in and ensure that voters have the information they need in order to make an informed choice when they vote about whether they want an elected assembly. It limits the Electoral Commission's role to situations where it has not otherwise appointed "designated organisations" in relation to each possible outcome at the referendum; in other words, where it has not designated yes or no campaigns.
With the introduction of the second referendum into local government reorganisation, upon which we agreed yesterday, we need to establish the rules that will apply. The amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, permitted the Secretary of State to establish such rules by order. We shall be talking to the Electoral Commission about how these referendums should be run. There are a number of options available.
Baroness Hanham: My Lords, as we now find ourselves "muddled" on these two referendums, perhaps the Minister can enlighten us on one point. I do not know whether the Minister has had time to think about this, but is it the Government's intention to have two separate questions on two separate ballot papers? If that is the case, they will be separated and people will be able to see that they are voting on two entirely different matters and on a different referendum. Alternatively, is it the intention to introduce this as a second question tied up with the first referendum?
It is an important point. We have many concerns, but one of the problems with the second question is that there does not seem to be any way of voting against it; in other words, there is no way for someone to say "I don't want this local government reform"or, indeed, any of it. People will just be asked to choose an option. It should be made clear that these are two separate entities, even though they may be taking place on the same day.
Lord Rooker: My Lords, I cannot answer the noble Baroness's question because no decisions have yet been made. However, I shall base my response on past experience. As my noble friend Lord Evans said when moving earlier amendments, essentially we want the referendums to take place on the same day and in the same polling booth. We do not know the degree of the questions or of the options on the local government referendumat least two choices, possibly moreor, indeed, how they will be set out and deployed in the length of a ballot paper.
As is normal, I suspect that it may involve two separate ballot papers, one being a different colour to the other to make clear that difference. They may be put in the same ballot box and then separated later, or placed in separate boxes. I simply do not know. It may be wholly impractical to put all the information on one paper because we would not know the exact layout of the local government options. This is a matter for consideration. The layout must be clear to voters.
As regards the regional referendum, this will clearly be a case of whether the voter is in favour, or not in favour, of the proposal. With the local government referendum, it follows from the whole thrust and the patterndoes it not?that there will be two or more options from which to choose. It is up to the elector
I have just been given some further information. I shall read out the advice in this briefing note, in the knowledge that what I have just said may be completely contradictory. On the question of whether there will be two ballot papers or one, I am advised that either approach is possible. I think I said that. My briefing goes on to say that we are discussing the matter further with the Electoral Commissiongood! As for which approach is appropriate, I am advised that that may depend on the number and length of the local government options. Indeed, that is what I just said. Clearly, further work is required on the matter.
By and large, the answers are self-evident. It depends to a certain extent on the nature of the options for local government; in other words, how many there are in a particular area. They will vary. It is a county-wide, local referendum, which may be different in the same region. Such considerations are a matter for the Electoral Commission. People must be able to understand the information supplied.
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