HC Deb 23 April 1975 vol 890 cc1676-90 'No individual, group of individuals or organisations except those named in Clause 3 shall incur expenditure after 1st May 1975 in excess of £50 on campaign activities except with the authorisation of one of the organisations so named'.—[Mr. Ovenden.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Ovenden

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The Temporary Chairman

With this we are to take the following new clauses:

No. 12—"Limit of referendum campaign expenditure"— 'The total expenditure incurred after 1st May 1975, by, or upon the authority of, either the National Referendum Campaign or the Britain in Europe Organisation shall not exceed £500,000'. No. 13—"Penalty for unauthorised expenditure on referendum campaign "— 'The penalty for unauthorised expenditure by individuals, groups of individuals or organisations other than the National Referendum Campaign and the Britain in Europe organisation shall be a fine of £200 or ten times the expenditure involved, whichever is the greater. The penalty for expenditure greater than that permitted in this Bill by the organisations named in Clause 3 shall be a fine of £10,000 or ten times the excess expenditure involved whichever is the greater.' No. 21—"Equal use of parliamentary moneys "— 'No moneys provided by Parliament under this Act or any other Act shall be used unequally to promote the views of either persons who wish electors to vote "Yes" or "No" in the referendum'.

Mr. Ovenden

It is not my intention to detain the Committee for long at this hour of the night. It was nearly my good fortune to start my brief remarks 15 minutes ago, but as that did not happen I shall be even briefer than I should otherwise have been.

The object of the clause is clear. It is an attempt, clumsy though it may be, to restrict expenditure on the campaign. It has been an underlying theme of the debate that we should try to run the referendum campaign in much the same way as a General Election, and it is a principle of our General Elections and local government elections that there is control over expenditure. We have accepted that the right to spend unlimited sums of money confers an advantage on the side that has the power to do that. If we do not accept that, there is no point in having a limit on expenditure in parliamentary elections.

There will be no problems in this campaign if access to funds is equally open to both sides, but it is pretty clear that the "poor" European Movement has access to considerably more money than the anti-Marketeers have. We have accepted this, and we accepted it when we proposed that Government money should be donated to the two sides. That principle is hardly now in dispute.

If we accept that there should be no limit to the expenditure that can be incurred in this campaign, we are saying that access to funds should determine the success of a particular side in it. The grants do not overcome the objection. Although they make money available to one side which may not have funds of its own, that does not overcome the imbalance in the funds that are available to the two sides. There is still authority for one side to raise a considerable amount of money to spend in addition to the grant from the Government.

It was suggested by one Conservative Member who has long since left the Chamber that the Bill takes care of that as there are provisions to limit expenditure. I have read the Bill but I cannot find any such provision. The only suggestion here is that there should be a return of expenditure. That does not imply any limit on expenditure. It merely suggests that when the money has been raised and vast sums have been expended on producing the result which one side or the other wants the figures should be published.

It has been suggested—and I think that the Lord President of the Council took this view—that that may act as a restraint upon the two sides over their expenditure. It is said that they would not want to be seen after the campaign to have spent a vast sum of money. I suggest that that is a fallacious argument. If the European Movement can buy the result it wants through a mass advertising campaign it will not be embarrassed when it must show how much it spent. The leaders of the campaign will gloat over what they have achieved.

1.30 a.m.

If we are to restrict expenditure, we must say who is entitled to incur expenditure. I know that this is difficult. We must single out certain organisations which are permitted to spend money and at the same time say that other organisations are not permitted to spend money. But by the grants we have conferred some status on the two organisations. I see no reason why we should not confer the status of being allowed to incur expenditure on those organisations with the proviso that they would be allowed to authorise expenditure by other bodies. It would be useless to impose expenditure limits on the two main organisations without seeking to impose a bar on spending by other organisations because the money would merely be spent through the back door and the object of the new clauses would be lost.

I tabled an amendment which has not been called to make returns of expenditure compulsory whether or not the money was accepted from Government funds. I understand that returns will be required only if the organisation accepts money from Government funds. I should have liked the amendment to be called because the new clauses hinge on that. It is difficult to impose the limits I propose without having a provision in the Bill which makes returns of expenditure compulsory.

I realise that what we propose may create further imperfections. The vital issue is whether we should allow one side or the other to buy the result it wants with a mass propaganda campaign which could verge almost on a brain-washing campaign towards the end of it. We should consider whether we should permit that principle. I hope that the Minister will give an assurance that on Report he will consider this point and will put forward a proposal for a limit. We are not in a position to hold a democratic election without limits on expenditure. It is naive to imagine that restraint will be exercised by the two sides without legal limits being imposed.

Mr. Michael Marshall

The new clause raises considerable problems. The limit of £50 which is proposed is impractical. Apart from the impracticality of this arbitrary figure, I find it repugnant in terms of the restriction on democratic expression of view implied in it.

The hon. Member for Gravesend (Mr. Ovenden) talked about the possibility of one side buying the result it wants. He must appreciate that there are others outside the umbrella organisations who wish to have their say. I dare say that he has received the representation of the Don't Know Campaign, which wishes members of the public to go through a number of questions and so say whether they have read the Treaty of Rome, to confirm that they have not studied the tons of supplementary paper work on the subject and to confirm that they are not experts on European political, social, trade and economic affairs. Such matters will strike a chord with a number of people.

The Don't Know Campaign asks people to say that they do, through taxes, pay the British Government and Parliament to make decisions of national importance". and, therefore, that they believe that Government can call on learned advice and research regardless of expense"; that Government officials and civil servants have the time and facilities to sift out the facts"; that the British Parliament should maintain its sovereignty"; that the elected representatives of the British people in Parliament should keep the responsibility for this decision". We begin to see some of the strength of feeling with which many people regard the referendum as something in which they do not necessarily wish to take part. Indeed, the advice further on in this paper on how to spoil votes and pass the buck—back where it belongs suggests that there is a powerful movement in the country—an organisation which, so far as I can judge, is perfectly reputable—which will undoubtedly wish to exceed the expenditure of £50 which the hon. Gentleman proposes.

Therefore, while this expression of view as I have outlined it clearly suggests that there are those who do not think that the referendum campaign should be simply a battle between the two sides as the hon. Gentleman has suggested, the whole of this exercise comes back to the futility of this kind of referendum campaign. In that case, restrictions such as are suggested by the hon. Gentleman are immaterial to the exercise, and on democratic grounds, I urge him to think again. I shall find no difficulty in opposing the clause.

Mr. Ken Weetch (Ipswich)

Since my name is down to this and the two following proposed clauses, I should like to support my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesend (Mr. Ovenden).

This referendum and the debate on it will be crucially affected by the resources which each side has available. The communications industry which each side has to use is enormously expensive. Let us look the facts straight in the face. We have a tradition in Britain that in General Elections, as far as we possibly can, we ensure that the result is not in any way affected by the length of the purse that any of the political parties possess. We have by no means solved this problem, but at least we hold to the principle, and that is very important.

Clause 3 of the Bill stipulates that each side shall receive an equivalent amount of money, namely £125,000, but this apparent equality in financial resources backing the respective campaigns is only a semblance of equality and is really a complete fiction. Nobody who has any knowledge of campaigning on this issue over any period of time can doubt the fact that Britain in Europe can raise and spend quite vast amounts of money. Now that the amendments to Clause 3 have been repulsed—amendments which would have increased the amounts of money from public sources—this disparity is starker than ever. The disparity is quite clear for all of us to see. When the documents fall on the mat, they will fall two to one for remaining in Europe before anything else starts. It is also the case that the Press in this country speaks in almost nauseating unison about the issue. Also the CBI and the multinational companies are mobilising and channelling money behind the scenes.

It has been expressed as a principle that we should conform as far as we possibly can to the normal practices of a General Election. If we really mean this, there must be limits on expenditure, and a number of things loom large in what we have to do. First, it must be stipulated that the money spent must be authorised by the umbrella organisations named in this campaign. Secondly, there must be prescribed limits on expenditure. Thirdly, as there can be no disqualification of candidature, there must be penalties for overstepping the mark.

Paragraph 35 of the White Paper says that there is concern in the Government's mind about imbalance. Paragraph 36 says: The Government believe however that it is a matter of legitimate public interest to know how much money has been spent on the campaign by major organisations and interests and the sources of their income. Although this can be known only after the event"— after the event it will be too late, because the horse will have bolted— it could exercise a restraining influence. How much more of a restraining influence could be exerted if there were a firm framework, as outlined in the new clauses!

It is accepted that in such an exercise it will be difficult to account for every penny piece, but in the Bill there is no limit on expenditure. That is unfair and unjust in principle. The new clauses seek to ensure limits on total expenditure by each organisation of £500,000. New Clause 13, sets the penalties for infringement.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will carefully consider the three clauses, because they add up to fair and just treatment of all concerned, and hinge on an important point of principle in the argument.

Mr. Emery

I urge the Minister not to give way on the clauses. Anyone wishing to spend more than they would permit has only to start another organisation with another name. It makes the House look absurd if it enacts legislation that can be easily got round, not in a devious way but in a way as simple as that which I have outlined.

As we could not achieve anything by the clauses, I urge the Minister to reject his hon. Friends' blandishments.

Mr. English

I wish to address myself to new Clause 21, in my name, which, although it is starred, was down in the form of an amendment until yesterday, when I was advised that it should be a new clause.

The object is to deal with the same problem as I mentioned in a previous debate, that of the bias that the Government are endeavouring to bring into the referendum because of their fear about the result. I am referring to the 16 frightened little men who form the majority of the Cabinet, who have not recovered from finding that the majority of their party and of the Government underneath them disagree with them. The fact that they have all the resources of every major company in the country on their side—even with plans at the moment, I understand, for those major companies to tell their employees that they might be in a bad situation if Britain came out of Europe—the fact that they have nearly every newspaper and journal of opinion on their side—all this is not enough for the Government, and they must even use taxpayers' money in a biased way.

1.45 a.m.

The only reason for the Government's wishing to import this bias is fear. They would not wish to have a biased referendum if they were not frightened. Obviously, if they could win their case on an unbiased referendum, it would be a far better case and a much better victory. Only because of fear are they forced to bias it in this way. One can see it as one goes through the differences between the Prime Minister's statement on the referendum, the White Paper on the referendum and now this Bill, and then the sudden accession of Service men's votes at the behest of the Minister of State for Defence. At each stage a little more bias in one direction creeps in.

Now we have civil servants being paid to give biased information, and £1 million is to be spent on a "pop" version of the White Paper. The Government blandly say "We must be allowed to present our case.". In choosing the example of the "Yes" or "No" process in Australia, they have forgotten that in Australia the Government present one of the cases but not their own case in addition. Here, the Government's case is being put twice, as has already been said, and the sole reason is fear.

If the Government were not so frightened of the decision of the electorate, they would want an unbiased referendum. They would want to be able to say "This was an unbiased referendum. We have won it because our case was so good.". But, because they are so frightened about the strength of their case, they wish to bias it in this way.

It has never been the tradition since the eighteenth century that Government money was used for the purpose of influencing voters in a certain way. In the eighteenth century, voters were paid by the Treasury, and Members—not just Ministers but many Members—were paid by the Treasury to vote in a certain way on particular occasions. But that has not been so since.

Can one imagine what the situation would be if we had this practice at the next General Election, with £1 million worth of documents distributed so that every household had a multi-coloured 16-page version of the Labour Party manifesto? It is a lovely thought.

Mr. William Price

It is an appealing thought, too. But there is one problem. By tradition, and in practice, the Government information service closes down during General Elections.

Hon. Members

Hear, hear.

Mr. English

My hon. Friend makes the point precisely. It closes down. At no point in the debate so far has there been so clear and explicit a statement showing the difference between the normal practice and this practice, and showing the gulf between the normal practice and the bias which the Government are introducing because of their fear.

At one time, the Government honestly believed that they would at least carry the majority of their own party with them in the House of Commons. The pro-Marketeers in the Government party intended to put down a list of the names of Labour Members who supported them, but they did not do so because it turned out to be smaller than they had thought.

Mr. Emery

I am listening to the hon. Gentleman with great enthusiasm. Could not his purpose be achieved by his putting down a motion of censure of his Government, so that we could get rid of them?

Mr. English

There are other ways. In a political party one does not have to move a motion of censure on the Government in the House of Commons, because one can do the same thing in the political party and change the Government without changing its political nature. However, I shall not stray into that argument, for it is out of order. I should be out of order if I strayed into discussing the intricate constitutional structure of the Labour Party.

The issue is simple. There are two courses before this country: to stay in the Common Market or to come out. But there is a choice as to how that can be done: it can be done fairly or unfairly. Whichever side does it unfairly will reap the harvest in terms of the opinion of the electorate, eventually if not immediately.

As several hon. Members have pointed out, having a referendum at all creates a precedent. What is the comparison? Britain used to be the envy of the world for its democratic traditions. Now every Swiss and every Australian and every Californian, people who are used to having referenda, can say "At least we conduct them better than they do in Britain. We do not bias them in favour of the Government".

We used to criticise the French for using the media of communication to give only the Government side of a case. The Government here, these 16 frightened little men, can no longer criticise the French. They have adopted the French principle rather than the principles of Switzerland, Norway, Denmark, Australia, or the American States. They have deliberately chosen the least moral examples in the world as examples of how to conduct a referendum, and they will go down in history as having chosen not genuine unbiased democracy but, out of their own fright, the worst examples they could find.

Mr. Goodhart

The Parliamentary Secretary rather put his foot in it when he intervened in the speech of the hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English).

Mr. William Price

I stated a fact that I thought every hon. Member knew anyway. If that constitutes putting my foot in it, so be it.

Mr. Goodhart

Factually right no doubt, but certain people see certain similarities between a referendum campaign and a General Election. I appreciated the speech of the hon. Member for Nottingham, West a bit more when he was delivering it on an amendment to Clause 3 than on this new clause.

The hon. Member for Gravesend (Mr. Ovenden) and his hon. Friends rather underestimate the intelligence of the electorate when they allege that the referendum could be bought by a Press advertising campaign. But there is a substantial difference between the limitations that can be imposed on expenditure in a referendum campaign and the sort of expenditure controls that we have at normal General Elections.

All the controls about a General Election relate to the election of a candidate, but even at a General Election there is no control over expenditure in favour of a political idea. Vast sums are spent at a General Election by trades unions on pamphlets and on the production of special editions of newspapers supporting the idea of the return of the Labour Party. Substantial sums are spent during a General Election campaign by supporters of the Conservative Party on the general idea of returning a Conservative Government, not in favour of returning any specific candidate.

The difference between a General Election and a referendum campaign is that there is no candidate in the latter. It is, therefore, impossible, in our system, to limit the expenditure of money. In a free democracy it is impossible to limit an individual's right to say anything or publish anything in support of an idea.

If we were to pass these new clauses —I am sure we shall not—instead of extending the right of free speech and democracy—this great democratic engine, as the Prime Minister described the referendum—we should be imposing a vast and entirely new restriction on free speech—a restriction that hitherto has never been known in this country. I therefore hope that we shall reject the new clauses.

Mr. Buchan

I shall be extremely brief. I want to make one or two things clear. We on the Government side—all of us, including those who are critical of the Government—welcome the referendum. We welcome the fulfilment of the pledge that the Labour Party made in respect of a referendum and the new expansion of freedom and democracy entailed in it. [Interruption.]If the hon. Member for Rochdale (Mr. Smith) would grow in mental stature to match his physical stature he would be helped.

Secondly, we welcome the freedom that the Prime Minister and the Cabinet have given members of the Government to participate in the debate. Despite the mild incident last week, by and large this was a welcome freedom and extension of democracy. Therefore, the criticisms that we are making are not ones that ignore valid points; our criticism is that there is a grave danger of this referendum losing its own validity, because what has been emerging during the last few weeks has been an enormous bias.

How do we help the Cabinet and Government to fulfil the original intention of having a fair and equal referendum? It is this that has caused many of us to concentrate our questions on the three documents. This is a strange situation. When there are two sides to an argument nothing could be simpler; it is a case of "Yes" or "No". Surely there is a case for only two documents —"Yes" and "No"; the Government's case and the case of those who oppose the Government. That makes sense. To have three documents only weights the balance against those who wish to say "No". That is a simple piece of bias.

We have brought out during the evening other examples of bias in terms of the control of the media and the distortion of the campaign. We have spelt them out in detail. That is the background of the three new clauses. The hon. Member for Honiton (Mr. Emery) is no longer here, thank goodness. He is quite wrong in saying that the clauses do not do the job that hon. Members hoped they would do. They do. Taken in conjunction, new Clauses 11 and 12 bring about the equal expenditure of money. None of us is sure how easy it will be to put this into practice. All of us would prefer a recognition by the Government of the injustice of the case.

I have intervened now not to repeat the fairly harsh statement I made a few hours ago but to appeal to the Parliamentary Secretary. I know how difficult it is to be a Parliamentary Secretary, holding the baby in a situation in which there is a lot of feeling. It is difficult for him to say "Yes, I have changed the Government's mind." All we are asking, therefore, is that we do not get a flat refusal tonight, that the Minister will promise to report back to the Leader of the House and convey to him the strength of feeling which exists that an injustice is being done and will continue if the Bill goes through in its present form. Will he ensure that the Leader of the House takes on board the points we are making, that there must be some limit on the extravagant, ostentatious and undemocratic expenditure which is taking place? We want an assurance that he will devise between now and Report some method of dealing with it even to the extent of bringing in orders in a week or two? If we get those assurances I shall advise my hon. Friends not to divide the Committee.

2.0 a.m.

Mr. William Price

My hon. Friend the Member for Renfrewshire, West (Mr. Buchan) has put the case very fairly. Ministers gave very careful consideration to the possibility of limiting the amount of expenditure which might be incurred by the authorised campaigning organisations, but they came to the view, and many of my hon. Friends below the Gangway will say it is the wrong view, that it was neither right nor practical to do so.

I can give my hon. Friend this assurance, and I hope that it will satisfy hon. Members, that I will certainly report what has happened to the Lord President and my hon. Friends can be sure that the views expressed will be brought to the attention of the campaigning organizations.

Mr. Buchan


Mr. Price

I hope my hon. Friend will permit me to finish. He asked me to draw the attention of the Lord President to the strength of feeling which exists over the fact that there is no limitation in the Bill. We are trying to make those who give the money and those who spend it accountable. Those who provide the donations should be prepared to be identified, and the way in which the money is spent should be known to the public. Many hon. Members, I know, regard that as unsatisfactory. I know that for some of my hon. Friends the flaw in that argument is that steps will be taken too late. I have been asked whether I will draw these matters to the Lord President's attention. I give the assurance that I shall do so.

Mr. Buchan

I wish to pursue certain particular aspects. First, we want a measure brought forward on Report to deal with this problem. If not, we want consideration given to the bringing of orders in a week or two. May I remind my hon. Friend of these two points? Will the Lord President be prepared to meet a broadly-based deputation from these benches to discuss the matter?

Mr. Price

My hon. Friend has been a member of this Government at a more senior level than I have attained. He was kind enough to say that he knew perfectly well that I could not at my rather humble level give that assurance. I am saying in response to what I understood my hon. Friend to be asking that I will ensure that the Lord President knows what has been happening in the debate. I cannot commit him or the Government at this stage.

Mr. Ovenden

I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for his assurances as far as they go, but will he ensure that the message he conveys to the Lord President is not just that there is concern here that we want passed on to the campaign organisations? We want him to look seriously at the idea of bringing in machinery to control expenditure. We want an assurance that the Government have not ruled out entirely the possibility of doing this, that the door is not completely closed. We want to be sure that the Lord President is prepared to accept the need for such controls.

There has been a great deal of criticism of the new clauses tonight but there has not been any great attempt to deal with the principle involved. In fact, there has been little criticism of the principle involved. I ask my hon. Friend for an assurance that he accepts the principle that is contained within the clause and that he sees the justice of the case for controls on expenditure. I hope that he has not entirely closed his mind to that possibility.

Mr. Emery

My hon. Friends and I have been relatively quiet on this matter, but the fact that we have been willing to ensure that the Committee debates it at this late hour is of some credit to us. Although we have been quiet, it should not be thought that we accede to the argument that has been presented by a small section of the Labour Party. The members of that section realise that they represent a small minority. They want to gain an advantage by attempting to ensure that they can have equality and equality of expenditure with those who oppose their view.

Mr. English

The hon. Gentleman has described us as a small section of the Labour Party. Does he usually describe a majority as a small section?

Mr. Emery

I am not confining my remarks to Members of Parliament. I am familiar with the West Country and I know that the views which have been expressed in this debate are not the views of the Labour Party in that area.

Mr. Ron Thomas

Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that the amount of expenditure on both sides should be determined by his prediction of the outcome?

Mr. Emery

No. I was trying to make the suggestion that the proportion should be based not on equality but on the way in which the House voted. That is a very good reflection of opinion. That would mean that the limitation would reflect the vote of 370 to 157. That is not what Labour Members are suggesting. They are suggesting that there should be an absolute equality of expenditure. That is nonsense. As I have made clear, I do not believe that there should be any limitation. I hope that the Minister will express to his right hon. Friend not only the views of the rump of the Labour Party. Let him take with him the views of the whole Committee.

Mr. Grocott

Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that the opinion of the Committee should determine expenditure in terms of the forthcoming reference to the public at large? Does he agree that at the next General Election, bearing in mind there are 319 Labour Members and 276 Conservative Members, the proportionate expenditure of the two parties—

The Temporary Chairman

I hope that hon. Members will not pursue this argu- ment. It has nothing to do with the subject under discussion. I hope that at this late hour hon. Members will confine themselves to the matters under discussion.

Mr. Emery

I was about to sit down. Perhaps the hon. Member for Lichfield and Tamworth (Mr. Grocott) and I could pursue the matter over a drink on another occasion.

The Temporary Chairman

The Question is—

Mr. Ovenden

On a point of order, Mr. Williams. I thought that the Minister was to reply.

The Temporary Chairman

That is not a matter for me.

Question put and negatived.

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