HC Deb 19 March 1999 vol 327 cc1383-406

Order for Second Reading read.

9.34 am
Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

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

I went to Brussels on 3 December to visit the European Commission. Hon. Members will pleased to know that I shall not make a speech about the current problems of the Commission. Nor shall I speak about the single currency. However, not knowing that there was a private Member's Bill ballot, and not knowing its result, I was surprised, on reaching my office the following day, to find a large number of messages from people who wanted me to call them. Anyone who comes high in the ballot quickly discovers that he has friends he did not know about—or indeed, has never met.

One is inundated with suggestions for the topic of a Bill. In some ways, that is somewhat insulting—it suggests that one has little imagination and that there are no issues on which one feels strongly. Perhaps most extraordinary were the hundreds of letters I received from supporters of Friends of the Earth. I have been a paid-up member of Friends of the Earth for many years and I know a great deal about the issues on which people wrote to me from all corners of the kingdom. I wonder whether any Member of the House is so feeble that he or she would choose the topic of a private Member's Bill solely on the number of letters received.

Some sensible suggestions were made by serious organisations, and I was tempted by several of them. I was tempted, too, by my own hobby horses and by issues in which I strongly believe. However, one suggestion seemed justified beyond all others. I trust that no one will suggest that my choice has shown a weakness in my character. I have taken up the issue because of the merits of the case, and I was put under no pressure of any description to pursue it.

I cannot pretend to believe that referendums are the best way of governing in a parliamentary democracy. Nevertheless, I accept that the decision on some fundamental constitutional issues is so important that every voter should have the opportunity to register his or her opinion and to decide the matter. In holding that opinion, I agree—rather unusually—with the Prime Minister, who said on 24 July 1994: Although there are cases for having referendums on certain issues and indeed we have said we will have one on the electoral system, I am actually not a great exponent of government by referendum. Curiously, the Prime Minister seems to have changed his mind a little. The people of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London have all had the opportunity to vote in referendums over the past 18 months. Referendums, therefore, have—for good or ill—become part of the government of the United Kingdom, and part of the political process.

Other referendums proposed for the future might have an even more fundamental impact than those already held. Both main parties fought the general election on a pledge to hold a referendum before joining the single currency, and the Liberal Democrats may have pledged that too. The Government have made it plain that they will stand by their pledge.

Proportional representation might be the subject of a referendum, although, as the Labour party is split straight down the middle on the matter, that seems marginally less likely at the moment. If proportional representation were to be introduced following a referendum, it would change the face of government in the UK.

Regional assemblies may be introduced following regional referendums, and that could lead to a fundamental shift of authority from both national and local government. We have even heard some pretty strange ideas about holding referendums by county or district on whether fox hunting should take place in a particular locality.

I have introduced the Bill, therefore, because referendums are here to stay—at least in the short term.

Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay)

Does my hon. Friend think that there has been a curious omission from the Labour Administration's referendum mania? No one is proposing a referendum for English people about whether they would like their own Parliament.

Mr. Robathan

My hon. Friend takes her individual position on that matter, but I have never met anyone in England who really wants a Parliament. I do not think that many people in Wales want a National Assembly, but that is another matter.

Referendums are here to stay—at least in the short term. I am a democrat and I believe that the democratic process must be fair, and must be seen to be fair. That idea is neither unique nor original to me; I am delighted to say that the realisation that referendums need fair rules has been growing for a number of years. It is to the benefit of a referendum if people can concentrate on the issues rather than on technical questions about the mechanics of referendums and whether they are equitable and fair. If they are not, people will argue about the result after it has happened.

Fair rules should facilitate a result that is beyond question, and that can be accepted by all as a true and fair account of the wishes of a well-informed electorate. In November 1996, the joint Electoral Reform Society and constitution unit commission on the conduct of referendums, under Sir Patrick Nairne, concluded: There are no established rules, accepted by the main political parties, for the efficient and fair conduct of referendums. If referendums are to be held in the future and their results accepted, they should be conducted efficiently and ensure the fair presentation of competing views. I do not always pray in aid the Electoral Reform Society, but that organisation generally wishes to see a fair and democratic process. For instance, on proportional representation we would disagree, but we would agree about the need for a fair referendum on that matter. Indeed, the aims of the Bill have widespread support across the political spectrum and from many organisations that may disagree on issues but agree on democracy. As well as the Electoral Reform Society, Charter 88, the Institute for Constitutional Research and the Jenkins commission have all identified and supported the need for fair rules.

The referendums campaign, which was largely organised by my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) and the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell), attracted a large number of signatories with all sorts of backgrounds. Certainly, many Conservatives signed up, but there were also a large number of Liberal Democrats from both Houses, Labour peers, at least eight Labour Members who stuck their heads above the parapet, Law Lords, bishops and academics, again from all parts of the political spectrum.

I stress that that was not a concerted or a sustained campaign. Together with other Members of both Houses I received one letter, which might just as easily have gone in the waste paper bin with all the junk that we get, including innumerable pleas to sign early-day motions on some obscure subject. Given the low-key nature of the campaign, the support that it has engendered is remarkable. That is because those people who concern themselves with democracy are concerned to establish a fair method of organising referendums.

My Bill has 11 sponsors. Deliberately, there are three Labour Members, three Liberal Democrats and three Conservatives including me. We also have the invaluable support of the only Independent in the House, the hon. Member for Tatton, who is in Kosovo and so could not be here, together with one representative of the smaller parties. All four parts of the United Kingdom are represented. The House will appreciate that all the Conservatives come from England. Also, those four places that have had referendums are represented. Therefore, the sponsors represent a genuine cross-section of the House and, indeed, the country.

The real genesis and spur for the Bill was the Neill committee report, "Standards in Public Life", on the funding of political parties in the United Kingdom, which was published last October. It made some sensible and important recommendations on the future conduct of referendums, but the first recommendation on referendums—the 83rd recommendation of the report—encapsulates all the others: In any referendum campaign there must be a fair opportunity for each side of the argument to be properly put to the voters. The report quotes evidence given by Peter Riddell of The Times. I do not always agree with him—he is rather new Labour for me—but he gives reasoned evidence when he speaks of the implications…for the way in which the political process operates, for fairness in funding and indeed for fairness in operation. Some things have happened which are already worrying…There should be clear rules over the funding of referendum campaigns, the current procedures are chaotic and unfair, especially when the Government is itself a participant.

The report also comments on how political expediency can play a large part in determining how a referendum is organised at present. The report recommends that the Government of the day should remain neutral. One piece of evidence quoted in the report states that the Government, being on one side of the referendum in Scotland, was also able to write the rules and an information leaflet and send it to every house. Neill agrees that the Government's being a player and writing the rules is fundamentally wrong.

The Neill committee report also recommends that free mailing should be available to each side in the referendum, as takes place for general elections and as took place in 1975, which seems sensible.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon)

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will tell us where his Bill provides for free mailings and deals with the issue that he identified in the previous reference to the Neill report about the involvement of the Government in referendum campaigns.

Mr. Robathan

If the hon. Gentleman will be a little less enthusiastic, he will discover that I am about to come to that. My Bill will only enact the key recommendations of Lord Neill and his committee. Many of the details would be left to a referendums commission. I think that the hon. Gentleman will find that in clause 1.

I will now deal with the details of the Bill. It is a simple Bill of a mere six clauses.

Sir Michael Spicer (West Worcestershire)

Before my hon. Friend moves on, will he say why he thinks that the Government have been so longwinded and tardy in responding to the Neill report, which came out in October, as he said? Is not one of the most important aspects of this excellent debate, which he has initiated, the fact that we must get the Minister to tell us when they will respond to the report?

Mr. Robathan

Of course I will let the Government answer for themselves. I am sure that the Minister will do so. If the inquiries that Governments set up to produce reports are genuinely independent, Governments sometimes get replies that they do not like—that applies to all Governments. I fear that the Government did not like the report as much as they had hoped to when they set up the inquiry into political funds. The Minister will have the opportunity to respond and I look forward to hearing his reply.

The first clause sets up the referendums commission, which would enact Neill's central conclusion that there must be an election commission. Since the Bill is concerned with the more narrow issue of referendums, we have called it the referendum commission. Its role also relates to Neill's recommendation 93.

The commission must be independent. In my view, the most suitable committee already exists—the Committee on Standards in Public Life. The numbers would have to be somewhat smaller, but it or a similar committee are what is envisaged in the Bill. It would be an independent, non-partisan committee headed by a High Court judge. The Bill would give the commission great powers to advise the Secretary of State and produce reports on referendums, which would have to be laid before the House and published.

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham)

I am glad to hear that my hon. Friend wants an independent commission, but a commission is only as independent as the people who appoint the commissioners. Does he have any suggestions as to who should do the appointing?

Mr. Robathan

My hon. Friend may be surprised to hear that I have some faith in this Government to observe some impartiality and the democratic process. Just in case anyone does not entirely trust the Government, not only will the Secretary of State make the appointments but the Speaker will have to approve them. We have greater faith in the Speaker, perhaps, than we have—occasionally—in one or two Ministers and possibly others in the Government.

Mr. Gareth R. Thomas (Harrow, West)

The hon. Gentleman referred to recommendation 93 of the Neill committee report, which says that the election commission should have as part of its remit reviewing referendums and referendum campaigns. Why does he think that a referendums commission is needed when that committee suggested an elections commission?

Mr. Robathan

I wish that the hon. Gentleman would listen—I have been talking for only 10 minutes. The point is that the Neill committee suggested setting up an elections commission, but the Bill is more narrow and concerns referendums, so in the Bill it is called the referendums commission. However, it would play the same part as that envisaged for the elections commission and if the latter were ever set up, it would take over from the referendums commission. That will be made clear later in my speech.

The Bill mentions that the commission could make recommendations on the wording of any question. In February 1975, NOP ran a poll asking a series of questions about a referendum on the Common Market. I do not always believe in opinion polls—sadly, as May 1997 showed, they tend to be right—but the 1975 poll was illustrative in that it managed to get a majority, on one factually incorrect question, for leaving the Common Market. It also managed to get an 18 per cent. majority in favour of staying in the Common Market on a different question. The result of the referendum was approximately two to one in favour of staying in. That illustrates what we all know: that the wording of the question can dictate the result of the referendum in favour of the person who has set the question.

Significant recommendations could be made by the commission on other issues. The threshold of votes is important. Hon. Members will remember that that notion was included in the referendum in Scotland in 1979. For example, the Welsh Assembly has been set up on a vote of approval of only one quarter of the Welsh electorate. Another quarter, approximately, opposed setting up the Assembly and half the electorate did not care one way or the other. It is not the business of the Bill to determine what recommendations the commission might make, but that could be one area for examination. Another issue to be considered would be the timing of separate related referendums.

The aim of the commission is to take political expediency out of the calculation of a referendum. The Welsh referendum was held exactly a week after the Scottish one—a case in point. The Government alleged that they were held on different days to avoid confusion. Most people in all parties would agree that the idea was that the Scottish vote, which was, rightly, expected to be heavily in favour, would influence the Welsh vote. The House might note that there does not seem to be any confusion about having separate elections to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and local authorities on the same day

Mr. Gareth Thomas (Clwyd, West)

The hon. Gentleman does not represent Wales or have the benefit of parliamentary colleagues who could advise him on the situation that prevailed in Wales before the election. If he had, he would realise that there is a media deficit in Wales, which does not have a national printed press such as the Scots enjoy. There was therefore a need for objective information sponsored by the Government on the implications of Welsh devolution. Does he accept that there are distinctions to be drawn between the Welsh and Scottish experiences of devolution?

Mr. Robathan

With all due respect to the hon. Gentleman, that was an unwise intervention. It is kind of him to make my case. The point about the Neill recommendations is that the Government should not determine what people think. The Government are bound to take a line, but, with all the paraphernalia of the civil service, they should not tell people which way to vote. The hon. Gentleman should read the Neill report with particular reference to its comments on the Welsh referendum.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

I am sorry further to trouble my hon. Friend on the composition of the referendums commission, a point that was ably raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait), but does he agree that it is crucial that its composition should be scrupulously politically impartial? It is therefore essential to ensure either that it contains people of different political faiths or people of no known political convictions. Does he agree that it would be supremely inappropriate for someone such as Lord Jenkins to serve on it unless he were counterbalanced by someone of known contrary opinions on the matters in hand?

Mr. Robathan

I accept that, but I think that the Home Secretary, who would appoint the commission, would be impartial. It is difficult to lay down too much in a private Member's Bill, though there may be scope for amendment. The Speaker's Office takes a pretty independent line. Madam Speaker would not allow a commission of such weight to be rigged.

Clause 2 deals with the designation of referendum campaigns and requires a brief explanation. It relates to comments in the Neill report. It is intended that the referendums commission hear from all those who wish to be the designated campaign for a particular outcome. I hope that that would allow—indeed, encourage—groups pursuing the same end to come together in an umbrella group. The Neill committee's comments seem to have been influenced by the fact that both groups in the 1975 Common Market referendum were described as entirely self-appointed federations of activists". I hope that broad-based, inclusive campaigns will be designated by the commission. That relates to recommendation 85 of the report.

Clause 3(1) enacts recommendation 84, which states: each side should be given equal access to an amount of core funding sufficient to enable it to mount at least a minimal campaign and to make its views widely known. Other recommendations on accounting are covered by clause 3.

Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley)

I sympathise with the principles of the Bill, but, like others, I find its mechanics difficult to work out. Has the hon. Gentleman considered how designating referendum campaigns would work in extreme situations, such as the referendum on the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland? Groups from opposite extremes supported the agreement while equally extremely opposed groups campaigned against it. Perhaps no proposal could cover that. Similarly, in the Scottish referendum, different political parties supported devolution but were not prepared to work together. I realise that the point is general and does not relate only to the Bill. It is a difficult issue affecting a general principle that I largely support.

Mr. Robathan

The hon. Lady makes a sensible point, unlike one or two others. Clause 2(2) allows the commission to consider the ability of a group to conduct an effective campaign and the views of political parties. In Northern Ireland, it could have considered whether political parties were prepared to coalesce on the issue. It can consider the degree of public support and such other matters as the Commission considers relevant. We must not be too prescriptive because that would take us away from the independent judgment of what happens in referendums that I want. It should not be for me to lay down that this or that group, generally or specifically, should be designated as a campaigner. The commission should consider such matters.

To take Europe: many from all parts of the political spectrum wish to go into a single currency. Many, many groups wish to oppose it, from, dare one say it, the Conservative party, right the way across the spectrum to trade unions. It is up to those groups to get together and present themselves as a designated campaign or forgo core funding. That puts the onus on the groups involved, rather than on the Bill. It is left to the referendums commission to decide what to do.

Judy Mallaber

The Bill is a useful opportunity to discuss difficult issues, and, even if it does not pass, we will return to them in a subsequent one. Would it be feasible to have two different designated campaign bodies on the same side of the argument? Unless it is a simple issue, there will be a great variety of interests that may not be prepared to coalesce but had equal claim to some of the money to argue their particular position.

Mr. Robathan

I wish that I shared the hon. Lady's confidence that, if the Bill does not get through, the same measures will be pursued by the Government. I do not think that such designation would be reasonable. Lord Neill's report says that there should be one designated campaigner. It is a complicated report, so I shall not quote it in its entirety. People should come together. If they are not willing to, they can campaign on whatever they like. I am glad that this remains a free country. In 1979, the right hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Mrs. Liddell), when she was, I think, general secretary of the Scottish Labour party, said that she was not prepared to enter a loose umbrella group.

Mr. Bercow

Soil her hands.

Mr. Robathan

I think that that was the quote. That was up to her. It is up to any group to campaign as it wishes, but if people want public money—the dosh—they must come together in an umbrella group. Some people may not need the dosh.

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset)

Does my hon. Friend recall that part of the answer to the question asked by the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) is that this feature of the Bill was suggested by none other than the Government themselves?

Mr. Robathan

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that assistance.

Mr. William Cash (Stone)

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Robathan

I will, and then I must make some progress.

Mr. Cash

The question arises whether we would exclude money coming from certain quarters, not least the European Commission and the panoply of bodies in the European Union, because they have a vested interest in a yes vote. Another question is whether limits should be imposed on the amount of expenditure on either side of the argument. I am sure that those matters could be dealt with in Committee.

Mr. Robathan

Those are extremely important points. The question of limits is raised in the Neill committee report. I have judged it best to leave the matter to the independent referendums commission. As for money from the European Commission, it seems to me that that would count as taxpayers' money—it certainly does not come from trees—and should be joined with the other stuff, but that would be up to the referendums commission.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)

To return to what my hon. Friend said a moment ago about the Government's attitude to the issue that he raises, does he recall the Government's reaction to the Neill committee? They said that they agreed with the main thrust of its recommendations. Can my hon. Friend conceive of any circumstances in which the issue could not be said to fall within the main thrust of the recommendations?

Mr. Robathan

Of course, no. It is entirely within the main thrust of the recommendations. The clause is designed solely to implement one of the Neill committee's recommendations.

Mr. Dismore

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Robathan

I will, but I should make progress to give others who sit here waiting a chance to contribute.

Mr. Dismore

I wish to pursue a different aspect of the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber). Clause 2 says that the commission shall certify a body in relation to each of the possible outcomes of a referendum campaign. In the London referendum, mercifully, we had only two possible outcomes—for or against. If the Government had given the Opposition their way, we would have had an additional question on whether we should have a mayor or an assembly, and, if they had given the Liberal Democrats their way, there would have been a question on whether the assembly should have tax-raising powers. If all those questions had been incorporated, there would have been seven possible outcomes. Would the Bill allow for an individual or body to represent each of the seven different outcomes? As I read the Bill, it would.

Mr. Robathan

The hon. Gentleman is right to read the Bill in that way, but the point is that the referendums commission would determine what was fair in discussions with the Government as the Bill went through Parliament. The amount of money would not be enormous. I put a question to the hon. Gentleman for him to mull over quietly—I do not intend to give way to him again in the near future. Is the purpose of a referendum to discover what the electorate think on a particular issue? The answer may not be yes or no. It may be yes, no, yes, yes, perhaps this way or perhaps that way. If there is to be a referendum, it has to be fair. It is no good simply saying, "Back me, we are the Government. Trust Tony"—or whoever it might be.

Clause 3(2) gives equal access to the broadcast media to both sides in a campaign. It relates to the general thrust of Neill about the fair opportunity for each side of the argument to be properly put to the voters", in recommendation 83. It also reflects the comments that Neill makes on broadcasting: The broadcasters fully recognise their obligation to be fair to the various parties participating in referendum campaigns and to be neutral between them". He concludes: The broadcasters should consider allocating free airtime to the two umbrella organisations on each side of a referendum, if two such umbrella organisations exist. There seems no reason on the face of it why the broadcasters should not follow the lead of the election commission in this matter". Clause 4 deals with reports and relates to recommendation 93 of the Neill report. It puts the referendums commission in its context relating to the progress of legislation on a referendum through the Houses of Parliament.

Judy Mallaber

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Robathan

I think not, for the moment.

Clause 5 provides for money for expenses relating to the referendums commission and to the Bill, and clause 6 cites the measure as the Referendums Act 1999.

This is a short and simple Bill. One might have thought that it was so simple that I could sit down now. Do I hear cries of "hear, hear"? No. One would have expected that the Government, who instituted the Neill committee in November 1997, would welcome any legislation that enacted the committee's recommendations as speedily as possible. It will certainly be a year between publication of the report and the time when the Bill comes back for Report and Third Reading.

At my first meeting at the Home Office, I was pleasantly surprised by the sympathetic hearing that I received. However, sadly—the Minister is a decent chap—and unbelievably the Government now seem unwilling to accept the recommendations of the report that they instituted. I fear that the Government intend to block this cross-party measure, which all democrats support.

Contrary to appearances, I am not entirely naive. My initial reaction was that I would meet some Government opposition. I have had a bet with a colleague that the Government would not give the Bill a fair wind—a bet that I have already won. The previous Government also had a great suspicion of private Member's measures, but I have gone to great lengths to allay the suspicions of this Government. There is no hidden agenda. This is just a very simple Bill to enact recommendations of which the Government appear to approve. There are some decent Government Members who, I hope, are as disappointed as I am that the Government may seem to obstruct the measure.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), has, I fear, been told to write to me to state that it would not be sensible to legislate at the moment. Weasel words. If this is genuinely a question of timing, I offer to withdraw the Bill now. I will withdraw it if the Home Secretary will come to the House and guarantee that the provisions of the Bill and all the recommendations of the Neill Committee on referendums will be placed on the statute book before any other referendum takes place in the United Kingdom. I think it unlikely that I shall be withdrawing the Bill.

The Government's position is as follows: The Home Secretary has made it clear that we will publish a draft Bill before the Summer Recess". Shall I list those White Papers, stated intentions and draft Bills that have been published and never seen the light of day? I have a list of draft Bills here. They have all been waiting more than a year and they include the Environment Agencies Bill, published in 1984, the Commonhold Bill, published in 1996, the Lotteries (Frequent Draw) Bill, published with a consultation letter in January 1998, and the Offences Against the Person Bill, published in February 1998. I wonder how much longer we will have to wait for all those Bills.

Mr. Gareth R. Thomas

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Robathan


Draft Bills and White Papers have a habit of being kicked into the proverbial long grass. If a Bill containing the clauses in my Bill is promised for the next legislative Session, with the conditions that I have made already, I will withdraw my Bill, but the Minister tells me that such promise can be given, because the Government's legislative programme for a Session is not announced in advance of the Queen's Speech. As a general rule, that may have some validity, but we all know that it is not true. It is quite one of the lamest excuses that I have ever seen given by a Minister or by his civil servants.

In his courteous and friendly letter, the Minister states: We intend to legislate on the main findings of the Neill report as a package. The letter points out that the report contains 100 detailed recommendations, but it does not say that all the recommendations, particularly those relating to referendums, will be enacted. The Government will argue that there is some logic in proceeding steadily and sensibly with the Neill package.

I would accept that logic if the guarantee for which I have asked were given. But how can one accept the logic that may obstruct the Bill, when the Bill does not entail any great costs or cause any great problems for the legislative process, or for the civil service? It is a simple question of passing the recommendations into legislation. If it is never used because it is superseded by a Government Bill which incorporates its provisions, I shall be very content. My Bill could be passed, and members of the Neill committee could be provisionally appointed as the referendums commission but put on hold pending the Government's Bill, which could contain a clause saying that my Bill was repealed because all the provisions were now incorporated in the new package Government Bill. I would be very happy with that.

My Bill might have deficiencies—I have never claimed to be a brilliant parliamentary draftsman, although I have received great assistance from the Public Bill Office, to whose staff I pay tribute. I should be happy to change its name to "The Referenda Bill" if its current title offends Latin scholars. I do not suffer from such a high degree of amour propre that I should mind in the least if the Government were to take over the Bill. However, what I, all hon. Members on both sides of the House and all democrats both inside and outside the House care about is that any future referendum in this country should be conducted according to fair rules. Past referendums have not allowed sufficient voter awareness. If referendums are to be part of our political process, voters must know both or all sides of the argument and be aware of how their vote will influence their life. If the Government obstruct the Bill, as I believe that they intend to do, I shall be hugely disappointed, not because of some misplaced pride or personal vanity, but because the Government will be obstructing the process of democracy.

The Government's true position was given by the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) on 18 October, on "Breakfast with Frost"; I commend a tape or a transcript of that programme to hon. Members. When asked whether the Government were obliged to accept the Neill recommendations, the right hon. Gentleman replied: We don't have to but we need to be mindful of the analysis that he is offering. The right hon. Gentleman is not present, and I apologise for not having mentioned to him that I would be quoting his words, but I am not criticising him. Even if his position is now more humble than it was then, he remains a force to be reckoned with in Government thinking.

During the debate on the Neill report on 9 November, the Home Secretary was equally equivocal, especially about the position of the Government in a referendum. Let the Minister now present put all that equivocation behind him and say where the Government stand on all the recommendations of the Neill committee. Yesterday, I gave the Leader of the House, with the Home Secretary sitting next to her, an opportunity to state the Government's case, but the right hon. Lady failed to do so.

Perhaps in all this can be seen the hand of Alastair Campbell: a man who defended the actions of Robert Maxwell through the pages of The Mirror and who was described by a High Court judge—perhaps the same judge as I would have to lead the referendums commission—as: A witness in whom one can have no confidence". Sadly, however, he is a man whose influence on decisions made by the Labour Government is all-pervasive.

The Government spend a lot of time calling themselves "the people's Government", and almost every policy is the people's this or the people's that. It is not a cheap jibe to point out that everyone in the House knows the contempt that the Government have shown, and continue to show, for Parliament. However, if they obstruct this valuable and small constitutional measure—a measure that will assist the people when voting in referendums—this arrogant Government will have shown that they have a contempt for the people that I thought even they would never dare to show. I commend the Bill to the House.

10.13 am
Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

I am glad to have an opportunity to speak on the Bill, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) on having introduced it. I shall not support the Bill, but it gives us an opportunity to discuss the important issues surrounding referendums.

Like the hon. Gentleman, I am not greatly enthusiastic about holding referendums, although I believe that, on certain important and crucial issues, it is right to give the people of this country their say through a referendum. The Government of the day were right to hold the 1975 referendum, because it gave the people an opportunity to make a decision on what was then the Common Market and is now the European Union. Similarly, it was right of the new Labour Government to follow the example set by the Labour Government in 1978–79 and hold referendums on whether to establish a Parliament in Scotland and an Assembly in Wales. Those referendums gave the people of Scotland and Wales the right to grant legitimacy to that form of devolution by showing that they wanted it. The results of those two referendums fully endorsed the commitment given during the 1997 general election and gave legitimacy to the bodies that are to be established after the May elections in Scotland and Wales.

The hon. Member for Blaby referred to the London referendum. Again, it was right to hold a referendum on the subject of whether to have a mayor and assembly for London. This time, having reorganised London government, we do not want it to be undone as soon as there is a change of Government; the people have shown that that is what they want and that they do not want it to be changed subsequently. I well recall the Herbert commission in the 1960s recommending that changes be made to the system of local government. The year after the 1963 election, the new Greater London council took full effect, followed 10 years later by changes to the metropolitan counties. Those changes—reorganisation in London and in the rest of the country—were introduced by Conservative Governments, but were then undone by the Thatcher Government because the bodies concerned would not do exactly what she wanted them to do. This time, the people of London have expressed a clear view on what they want.

There are two crucial future referendums. First, there is to be the referendum on whether to join the single currency. As a strong supporter of the euro, I believe the sooner that referendum is held, the better. Manufacturing industries in my constituency believe that it is crucial that Britain should be involved in the euro, and in the decision-making processes at an early stage, rather than trying to join it at a late stage. If we had been in Europe right at the start, we would have been in on the formulation of the common agricultural policy; as it is, we joined late and then tried to make changes.

The second referendum to which we are committed is on the Jenkins proposals. I realise that I am standing behind some of my hon. Friends who hold a different view from mine on the question of proportional representation versus first past the post, but I am firmly committed to campaigning in favour of first past the post. However, it is right that the people of this country should be given a chance to determine whether any change should be made, because those are extremely important issues.

New Zealand held a referendum on the same issues and, on the basis of an extremely low poll, eliminated first past the post from its system, with the result that, in the second-stage referendum, first past the post could not be considered. Even though the poll was far higher and people had changed their minds by the time the second referendum was held, they were not able to choose to stay as they had been, but had to vote for some alternative. It is therefore absolutely crucial that we get the question absolutely right when we hold our referendum on the same subject. The form of the question is an issue covered by the Bill. We have to ensure that the question is put correctly, so as to give people the proper choice.

In connection with the issues of publicity and how opposing campaigns are run, we need to consider the only nationwide referendum held in this country: the 1975 referendum on the Common Market.

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)

Would the hon. Gentleman concede that the 1975 referendum was held simply to cover up the splits in the Labour party? The then Labour Government could not take a firm decision themselves, so they subcontracted the decision to the people of this country. They held a referendum to cover up the splits that the issue had caused in their own party.

Mr. Pike

The hon. Gentleman might be partially correct, but it does not really matter; if he had been listening to what I was saying, he might not have intervened.

I accept that, at that time, the Labour Government were divided, but they made a clear decision, right at the start, that all members of the party, both inside and outside Parliament, should be able to campaign whichever way they wanted during the referendum. We gave the people the opportunity at an early stage—we had been members of the Common Market for only a short time—to decide whether our future lay within the Common Market. The decision taken at that time underpins the way in which we have proceeded in the many years since then, through the single market, the Maastricht treaty, and so on.

It is true to say that about two thirds—a majority—of Labour Members at that time supported the view of the then Prime Minister Harold Wilson that our future lay in Europe. Outside the parliamentary Labour party, about two thirds of Labour supporters rejected that view and only one third were in favour. I make no apologies for the fact that I campaigned vigorously for a yes vote. That did not help my immediate progress within my party, although it did not prevent my selection as the Labour candidate in 1981 to contest the seat of Burnley in the 1983 general election.

Mr. Gareth Thomas

I share my hon. Friend's scepticism about the role of referendums and his fear that they will undermine the strength of Parliament. Although the Government were divided in 1975, that is no reason to argue against referendums—indeed, we could argue that a referendum should be held when a major constitutional issue must be determined and none of the political parties can reach a consensus about it.

Mr. Pike

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It may be that this country will further strengthen its links with Europe over the next 20-odd years.

I referred to the events in 1975 because a clause in this Bill mentions the media. We must look back to 1975 and ensure that we do not make the same mistakes. Although I campaigned for a yes vote in 1975, I believe there was overwhelming pressure on the public to vote yes—despite the steps that were taken to try to ensure that both cases were represented fairly. The broadcasting media was not the only culprit: the overwhelming majority of the press campaigned for a yes vote. This Bill refers to controls on, and access to, the broadcast media, but it does not mention any other ares of the media. It is the same with general elections: we often talk about balance and access with regard to the broadcasting media, but we do not always insist that the same rules apply across the board.

Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge)

I have listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman's comments about the 1975 referendum. Does he accept that there is a distinction between a genuine referendum, when the Government remain neutral and there are real divisions across the board, and a bogus referendum, when the Government adopt a clear position but are unwilling to take the risk of testing it by going to the country in a general election?

Mr. Pike

No, I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. I hope that the Government will state clearly that they want the people of this country to vote yes overwhelmingly in a referendum on the euro. That was our position at the last election. We also said in our election manifesto that we would hold a referendum on the voting system. So we have a mandate to hold those referendums. Furthermore, we declared our intention to hold referendums on self-government for Scotland, Wales and London. I do not believe that a choice must be made between holding a referendum or going to a general election.

Judy Mallaber

I have listened carefully to my hon. Friend's remarks. When canvassing during the election campaign specifically on the issue of the euro and whether a referendum could be useful in resolving that question, I met strong Labour supporters who were unhappy about the euro and, similarly, Conservative supporters—although not very many—who were in favour of the euro and unhappy about their party's policy in that regard.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, when views differ within the political parties—although the Government might wish to advance a particular view strongly—it may be helpful to hold a referendum so that the electors do not have to sign up to an entire policy platform? That is particularly important when it comes to major constitutional issues, as I may wish to disagree with my party in a referendum.

Mr. Pike

My hon. Friend is absolutely correct; that is a key point. I have strong views about the voting system and the euro. At the end of the day, I hope that the Government will reach the same conclusions on first past the post—although they may not. It is clear that we should hold referendums to decide such questions. Through his Bill, the hon. Member for Blaby seeks to ensure—as did the Neill report—that people have a genuine opportunity to consider fairly both sides of the argument. I accept the legitimacy of that point.

Mr. Gareth R. Thomas

My hon. Friend points out correctly that the Neill committee called for fair rules in referendums. Does my hon. Friend agree that the problem with this Bill is that it lacks a series of controls recommended by the Neill committee, such as the requirement to register any campaigning group or individual intending to incur expenditure of more than £25,000? It also lacks any provision to ban donations from foreign sources.

Mr. Pike

I thank my hon. Friend—that is my next point. On the question of publicity, I believe we must regulate the whole of the media, not simply the broadcasting area, if we genuinely wish to ensure that a referendum campaign represents both sides fairly.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas) is correct to say that the Neill committee cites certain figures and contains recommendations regarding donations by organisations and so on. The Bill's failure to address those points is a serious omission. The Bill also fails to address the question of free mailing and the free use of public rooms. That is not an issue in parliamentary and other elections in this country, and I believe that the same rules should apply to referendums.

I agree with the principle of the Bill. Its introduction provides an opportunity to discuss the issues, but I do not think it goes far enough. I hope that the Bill will not make progress today and, if it does, I hope that it will be much amended in Committee. I look forward to the Government's introducing legislation that addresses all the Neill committee's recommendations, rather than one specific point. The hon. Member for Blaby recited a rather nonsense list of draft Bills, the majority of which were introduced by the previous Government but fell when the general election was called. I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's arguments. The Government are fully committed to acting on the Neill committee's recommendations sensibly and positively. They will legislate on the conduct of all elections and referendums.

I had meant to be brief, but interventions have extended my speech. I realise that many hon. Members wish to speak in the debate. I reiterate that I reject the Bill and I am sure that the Government will deal positively with these issues. We will ensure that future referendums are controlled openly and sensibly so that people can exercise their vote on the basis of full and accurate information.

10.30 am
Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross)

I strongly welcome the initiative and success of the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) in introducing the Bill. It is an important opportunity for the House to express its concern to ensure that referendums, which are becoming a regular feature of our constitutional development, are conducted fairly and command complete support—not only while they are being conducted, but afterwards.

In the past 18 months, we have had more referendums than we had in the previous 18 years—perhaps because there was a period of constitutional stasis prior to the last general election—and that has underlined the importance of making rapid progress on the matter. At least two referendums were promised by the Government in their manifesto before the election. The first relates to the possibility of an alternative electoral system for Westminster and the other to the adoption of the euro.

Those are major issues for the country and the setting up of referendums on those questions should be subject to regulation that has been determined prior to the enactment of the necessary Bills to enable the referendums to be held. We need what the constitution unit has called generic referendum legislation. I am encouraged by the fact that the Government are committed to publishing—this summer, I believe—a Bill setting out their conclusions on the Neill committee's recommendations, particularly on an electoral commission.

It is desirable that the work of regulating elections and referendums should be in the charge of a body that is seen to be independent of the Government. The current arrangements are far from satisfactory. The hon. Member for Blaby was right to draw attention to our particular experiences. It was not satisfactory that the Government decided to put a two-question referendum to the Scots without any prior cross-party discussion. That was bounced on the Scots. The outcome was not unfortunate, and I dare say that the Government's political judgment could not be faulted in that case. However, the referendum should have been processed by agreement.

Similarly, the single referendum question put to the people of London about the proposed reform to establish a mayor and an Assembly did not allow for the expression of diverse opinions that might have been more redolent of exactly what the people favoured. Once again, there was a question about the question.

Those two experiences point to the appropriateness of what the hon. Member for Blaby advocates in his Bill: the commission should be able to proffer advice on the referendum question to the Government and Parliament when the arrangements for particular referendums are being contemplated.

The genesis of the hon. Gentleman's proposals goes back a long way. There has long been an awareness of the need for fairness in referendums. I draw attention to a Labour party policy paper, published in 1996, "A New Voice for England's Regions", which says that the Labour party would establish a body that would be directly and solely responsible for all aspects of electoral administration and for ensuring freedom and fairness in all aspects of our electoral system. There have been calls from the House for an electoral commission to regulate referendums and elections, notably in the report of the Select Committee on Home Affairs of September 1998, HC 768.

The hon. Member for Blaby properly referred to the important recommendations of the commission on the conduct of referendums, established in 1996 by the Electoral Reform Society and the constitution unit at University college, and chaired by Sir Patrick Nairne. That commission concluded: 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.

Extensive reference has been made in the speeches of the hon. Members for Blaby and for Burnley (Mr. Pike) to the recommendations of the Neill report published in October 1998. I have no doubt that the overwhelming majority of hon. Members broadly agree with those recommendations and want them to be enacted as soon as possible.

The House will have to come to grips with certain of the Neill report's recommendations, for example, on the making of the Government's case. I said when the report was published, and still believe, that the mere decision to hold a referendum should not make it more difficult for the Government freely to express their side of the argument. That is almost certainly not the intention of the Neill committee, but some of the language in the report gave support to the view that the Government should drop out during a referendum and leave the advocacy of their case to an umbrella body. That would be artificial and unsatisfactory.

Mr. Martin Linton (Battersea)

I was interested to find out whether the right hon. Gentleman would repeat the comments that he made during last year's debate on referendums. He remarked on the Government's role in fighting in a referendum and he now repeats that it would be artificial for them to have to contract the expression of their case to an outside body over which they would have no control. Does he agree that the Bill would force a Government into that position and that they would not be able to spend money to support their own case?

Mr. Maclennan

The Bill contains a risk of that happening, but it could possibly be amended in Committee to take account of the problem. The clear objective of the Neill committee, the Bill, myself and, no doubt, the hon. Gentleman is that there should be fairness as well as clarity on both sides. [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

Order. A number of private conversations are breaking out. Hon. Members ought to listen to the right hon. Gentleman, who is addressing the House.

Mr. Maclennan

As referendums are, of their nature, held on questions of Government policy, it is clearly right that the advocacy of the Government's case should not be subcontracted to any other body and the Government should be the spokesmen on the issue.

Mr. Gareth R. Thomas

The right hon. Gentleman said that, in a couple of instances, the Neill report had arrived at the wrong conclusion. I would suggest that it also arrived at the wrong conclusion about the spending limits for referendums. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that one of the criticisms of, and concerns about, the 1975 referendum was the wide disparity in the funding of the two campaigns, and that spending limits should be imposed in referendums?

Mr. Maclennan

It is unquestionably true that there was great disparity in the 1975 campaign and that it may have had an untoward effect on perceptions about its fairness. Again, we have to avoid artificiality. A Minister appearing on a broadcast, saying what the Government's view is, might cost almost nothing but have an immense impact. Somehow we have to maintain a balance.

I am not entirely happy about the Bill's mechanistic proposals on broadcasting. Broadcasters might give less attention than they should to both sides of the case if we constrain them too much by the proposed rules of balance. However, the reason behind the proposals is extremely important—there should be fairness, and broadcasters should seek to ensure that there is. This is precisely the type of matter on which the House would value not so much the regulations in the Bill, as the advice of a truly independent referendums election commission, which would no doubt carry great weight with broadcasters.

The Bill has great merit, especially in that it focuses on the urgency of the situation. It was quite right to introduce the Bill. I have no complaints about that, even in the knowledge that the Government intend to introduce an election commission Bill at some stage. It is right for the House to know that referendums are coming down the pipe. We want to make sure well in advance that we are not bounced into passing a referendum Bill to establish a poll on the euro, without having a well-established framework that is accepted by all parties and understood throughout the country. It would lend great weight to the outcome of such a referendum if such a framework were established soon.

I hope that, as a result of this debate, we might hear a little more from the Government about their intention to introduce a Bill and whether they would like it to be enacted in the next Session of Parliament. I heard the Minister saying that Governments do not divulge what will be in the Queen's Speech. That rule is becoming more honoured in the breach than in the observance, although I do not expect the Minister to give a definitive response today.

There is widespread support for the introduction of a draft Bill this Session. Indeed, I and my right hon. and hon. Friends have suggested that it would be possible to introduce a draft Bill in this Session of Parliament and carry it through into the next, a procedure that the Government have already adopted in respect of an electronic commerce Bill and a financial services Bill. There is much merit in getting matters into the open as soon as possible to get comment and support from all sides so that we can ensure that we reach our common ends in good time.

10.44 am
Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) on introducing the Bill. As has just been said, there is recognition of the need for reform. The question that we have to ask today is whether the Bill deals with that need in the way that it should. As the hon. Gentleman may have gathered from my interventions, my main concern is that many of the issues that need to be addressed have been left out of the Bill. They include, for example, the registration of campaigners, funding rules—including those in relation to donations—and the role of the Government in referendums, something that the hon. Gentleman touched on in response to me. I shall return to those issues later.

Mr. Letwin

I do not want to detain the hon. Gentleman for long, but would it be of interest to him to know that the suggestion to remove the registration of campaigners derives from his Government?

Mr. Dismore

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will be patient and wait for me to get to that point.

Any reform should be comprehensive. In response to a motion for the Adjournment of the House on 9 November 1998, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary made it clear that the Government were going to consider the issue in the round. He said: The next step is to turn the report"— the report into the funding of political parties— into legislation. We are setting about that straight away. It will not be possible to introduce and carry through a measure of such scope with due attention to getting the framework and the detail right in the next Session of Parliament, but we intend to introduce a draft Bill before the next summer recess and to bring forward legislation so that new rules can be in place before the next general election."—[Official Report, 9 November 1998; Vol. 319, c. 53.]

There has been a great deal of argument about the Government's intention, but the Home Secretary's remarks were given particular force and emphasised by the Lord Chancellor when he spoke at the annual constitution unit lecture on 8 December 1998. The Lord Chancellor stressed the importance that the Government attach to the issue and said: As the Home Secretary has made clear, we shall be giving careful consideration to all the Neill Committee's recommendations on the conduct of referendums and we will examine how best to take them forward in the context of the draft Bill which we will be publishing by next year's summer recess. I understand the impatience of the hon. Member for Blaby that progress be made in respect of the Neill committee's recommendations, but he is jumping the gun because the Government have said that their Bill will be published by the summer and that we shall be able to consult more widely on much of the detail.

Judy Mallaber

Does my hon. Friend agree that referendums and the broader matters raised by the Neill committee's recommendations are complex? I have not looked at them in great detail, but I am finding it hard to work out exactly how the proposals should be implemented. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government's Bill would benefit from pre-legislative scrutiny by a Committee of the House? Might not that assist us in making sure that the Bill is not only properly formulated but has support from all parts of the House? We have to get it right, otherwise we shall lose the legitimacy of the democratic and political process.

Mr. Dismore

My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. When I was researching my speech for tonight—[HON. MEMBERS: "Tonight?"] I spent a happy hour or two in the Library the other night. The more I read up on this matter—I read the Neill report, the Jenkins commission's report, the Library brief, Hansard and all the other documentation available—the more that I became increasingly concerned that the detailed issues, some of which have already begun to be elucidated, were much more complex than might appear at first blush. I therefore welcome my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary's announcement about the draft Bill. The suggestion made by my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) that there should be pre-legislative scrutiny of that Bill would be an excellent way to proceed. In longer discussions we could flush out the important issues that are already starting to emerge at this early stage.

Mr. Gareth R. Thomas

My hon. Friend has obviously conducted wide research for his speech. Was he able to look at the Home Affairs Committee report on electoral law and administration? If he has seen it, would he comment on the evidence presented by Dr Butler and Professor Blackburn, who expressed concern at the large number of bodies with a role in the electoral process? One of their arguments in favour of an electoral commission with responsibility for the rules governing referendums, was that that would allow a much more coherent view of those matters to be taken.

Mr. Dismore

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. I admit that that is one of the reports that I have not read; perhaps my hon. Friend will lend me his copy afterwards so that I may read up on what the Home Affairs Committee said. There is much in what my hon. Friend says; in fact, that would have been my next point.

One of my main anxieties about the Bill is the fact that the hon. Member for Blaby regards the Bill as a referendum Bill, and therefore he proposes a referendum commission, which might, in due course, be subsumed into an elections commission. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas) makes an extremely important point when he says that we risk a plethora of different bodies advancing a variety of ideas and suggestions, some of which may be mutually contradictory.

Later, if there is time, I hope to point out some of the contradictions that exist between, for example, the Jenkins report and the Neill report on one or two of those important issues. In that context, I believe that it is extremely important that one body oversees all these issues—a Neill committee recommendation that the hon. Gentleman does not seem to have taken into account when drafting the Bill.

Mr. Cash

Surely the Government would understand that there is a distinction between a referendum and an election. I strongly support the proposal made by my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan), irrespective of the Neill committee report, for precisely that reason. There are rules relating to broadcasting and to expenditure which are, and should be, specifically geared to the question of the issues that arise in a referendum, which is quite different from an election. The electorate vote in both elections and referendums, but in one case one is asking for support for a Government, and in the other for support for a yes or a no to a question.

Mr. Dismore

The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting intervention, but I am not sure that the distinction that he draws is as clear cut as he suggests. In the end, many of the issues that a referendum commission would address—precisely the points that the hon. Gentleman raises about party funding or campaign funding—need to be looked at in the round. It would be bizarre if, for example, the ceiling on funding for a referendum campaign was totally out of kilter with the ceiling on party election funding for a general or local election. Those issues need to be considered comprehensively, in the round, as the Neill committee recommended.

Sir Michael Spicer

It was the Neill committee that drew the distinction between endorsement of policy and consultation about policy, which is what a referendum is all about. That was a fundamental point within the Neill committee, and much flows from that.

Mr. Dismore

I do not believe that that greatly affects my argument. I believe that a single body should oversee all the aspects of involving the electorate in the decision-making process, whether it be through elections or referendums, to ensure that we have a comprehensive way of supervising those things that knits together and does not produce contradictory and conflicting ideas.

Mr. Linton

Does my hon. Friend agree with the evidence that the Labour party submitted to the Neill committee—but that, sadly, does not appear in its report and is not incorporated into the Bill—that there should be a limit of £5 million on what a party spends in a referendum campaign, and of £500,000 on what any outside organisation spends, to prevent the huge spending that has been mentioned? At one stage, Paul Sykes said that he might give £20 million to the no side in a referendum campaign. Whatever one's view on that, such huge donations risk distorting a campaign. The Bill would benefit from a limit on spending.

Mr. Dismore

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. I know that he has done a great deal of work on all the issues relating to elections and referendums. He makes a valid point and I hope to return to it. Whatever emerges from the decision-making process, there must be a level playing field and, inevitably, that must include caps on spending during an electoral or referendum campaign.

In that context, we need to consider the issue of donations made by individuals to campaigns, to ensure that those are properly supervised and above board. That is another issue that the Bill does not address, and to which I hope to return shortly.

I shall now consider some of the detail of the Bill. My first concern is that, although the Bill is called the Referendums Bill, nowhere in it do we find a definition of "referendum". There could be a very grey area about whether something was a referendum.

Perhaps I may start my development of this argument by questioning the hon. Member for Blaby about whether a ballot on the future of an individual grammar school would be a referendum in the context of the Bill. As I read the Bill, I believe that a grammar school ballot would fall within the definition, because that ballot would be held under an enactment, which is the criterion that the hon. Gentleman sets for control of the referendum by his proposed referendum commission.

Mr. Robathan

I have been listening to the hon. Gentleman's wise and wonderful words with great interest for the past 13 minutes. I note, though, that his interest in referendums must be quite new, as he has only recently realised what a referendum means. I trust that he has consulted a dictionary. Could it possibly be that he has been asked—I should like him to state categorically whether this is the case—by a member of the Government to make as long and boring a speech as possible? If he is one of those supine and feeble members of Government parties who do such things, may I assure him, from my greater experience in the House, that it never leads to advancement and always elicits the scorn of his fellows?

Mr. Dismore

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman finds my speech boring. The interventions that I have had from both sides of the House may show that it is not as boring as he says. Perhaps I may return the compliment and say that I found his recitation a little turgid.

The hon. Gentleman questions whether I know what a referendum is. I actually asked that question of him. Perhaps it is my legal training, but, as a lawyer, if I were to take a case—which of course I would not, because I am not taking cases while a Member of Parliament—I might well be asked to construe the Bill. I was going to give one or two examples later of how the legal profession might make a large amount of money out of the Bill. That might be done by taking advantage of the lack of a definition of "referendum".

When the hon. Gentleman intervened, I was giving the example of grammar school ballots. I believe that, as the Bill stands, a referendum commission would look at grammar school ballots, because those ballots are conducted under the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 and the Education (Grammar School Ballots) Regulations 1998. The Library brief says that categorically.

Judy Mallaber

I am slightly surprised, as a non-lawyer, that my hon. Friend is suggesting that the Bill might apply to referendums on the future of grammar schools—an issue in which I am greatly interested. Will he give me some advice as a lawyer? I do not like to be rude about lawyers, but they are all able to go on at inordinate length about the most nit-picking matters. I believe that it comes naturally to them; they never need to be asked to do so.

Can my hon. Friend give me guidance on clause 2(1)? It appears to me that, when the Bill says that the referendum would apply to any bill which provides for the holding of a referendum", it means that it would apply only to a referendum campaign in respect of that referendum—that is, that referendum would have to have been specifically mentioned in the Bill and therefore, on my reading of it—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Lady must sit down when I am speaking. The hon. Lady's interventions are getting longer and longer. I think that she has said enough in this intervention.

Mr. Dismore

I think that I have the thrust of my hon. Friend's point.

It being Eleven o'clock, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER interrupted the proceedings, pursuant to Standing Order No. 11 (Friday Sittings).