HC Deb 19 March 1999 vol 327 cc1414-54

Question again proposed, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

11.28 am
Mrs. Gorman

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Before the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) continues, will you give your view on the scope of the Bill and, therefore, the limits of our discussion? As I read it, it is tightly worded on the mechanics of holding a referendum when the Government of the day have proposed that a specific issue should be dealt with in that way, and therefore would exclude discussions of matters such as referendums among parents should a school decide to consider becoming grant maintained, and other diversions which have been introduced by the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber), who seems to be more interested in filibustering this Bill than in dealing with the important issues that it raises.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

The Second Reading of a Bill gives quite wide scope for discussion and debate on the principles of the Bill, and so far this morning that is precisely what we have had.

Mr. Dismore

I think that, before the private notice question I had just taken an intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley in the context of grammar school ballots. My hon. Friend's forensic skills are excellent because I think that she has highlighted a contradiction within the Bill. She drew my attention to clause 2(1), which refers to the holding of a referendum campaign and the designation of that campaign soon…after the introduction to Parliament of a Bill. I draw my hon. Friend's attention to clause 4(1), to which I referred in the context of grammar school ballots. It states: The Commission shall make a report to the Secretary of State on the conduct of any referendum conducted under any enactment. The grammar school ballots are being conducted under the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 and the Grammar School (Ballots) Regulations 1998. The Bill would inevitably cover grammar school ballots and the importance of that will become apparent as I proceed with my remarks.

Local referendums are being used increasingly throughout local government. The Government are encouraging that through the White Paper "Modern Local Government, In Touch With the People". Paragraph 3.30 on page 32, which has the heading support for a directly elected mayor", refers, first, to the Greater London authority ballot. It states that before a council could adopt arrangements which include a directly elected mayor, it should be required to conduct a referendum on its proposals giving local people the opportunity to have their say. I assume from the Bill's wording that it would apply to a referendum on the election of a mayor for a local authority.

In paragraph 4.8 on page 39 of the White Paper, the Government again stress the importance of referendums in the local government context: The Government believes that councils should see and use referendums as an important tool to give local people a bigger say. The Government will therefore introduce legislation to confirm the power of councils to hold referendums. The White Paper says that referendums may or may not be binding except in the particular circumstances described and adds: Councils might wish to use referendums to consult their local people on such issues as major local developments or matters of particular local controversy. I assume, therefore, that the Bill would apply to such ballots as well. Page 45 of the House of Commons Library briefing helpfully refers to recent precedent. It says that Milton Keynes council conducted a referendum, in February 1999, seeking the views of the electorate on three options for increasing council tax levels for 1999/2000.

Returning to a point that I have already made during an intervention, let me point out that that referendum gave three options for increasing council tax levels. Bearing in mind the point that I made about clause 2(2), there could be at least three different outcomes and three different campaigns on that proposition. There could have been a fourth and a fifth option.

My local authority in Barnet has taken the Government's point of view to heart and has started to consult widely. There was wide consultation with the population on the council's draft budget. I am not sure whether that would count as a referendum, but my local authority is also experimenting with the use of electronic voting machines, citizens' juries and citizens' panels as part of that consultation process. I know from my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Coleman), who gave me a full briefing on those issues last night, that similar proposals are being discussed in Hammersmith.

My principal point is that the Bill lacks a definition of a referendum, and that is a problem. As things stand, clause 4(1) provides such a broad interpretation that all the possibilities to which I have referred could be taken into account by the Bill and local referendums could come under the influence of the proposed referendum commission, but is that a development that we should welcome?

Although we may want guidelines on the conduct of referendums in general to be laid down, I am concerned about the wide powers proposed by the Bill for the referendums commission to interfere in the conduct of referendums. I question whether it would be appropriate for a national body to get involved in the decision-making processes of a local referendum—for example, the setting of a question. I do not know how a national body could take on board all the relevant local factors; there may need to be sub-divisions or local referendum commissions if the national body is to have such wide scope.

In the context of grammar school ballots and local mayoral referendums, that issue also raises the question of fairness in the trigger arrangements, such as the petitions that could set off a grammar school ballot. I know from discussions with parents in my constituency that they are extremely concerned about the fairness of the arrangements for the trigger mechanism in respect of a ballot on grammar schools in Barnet. They think that those mechanisms are, to some extent, rigged against people who want grammar schools to be abolished, bearing in mind that substantial thresholds must be achieved to trigger a ballot. I question the Bill's current drafting. If it is to proceed, it should be redrafted to make it absolutely clear that it deals only with national referendums and that local referendums should not come into its scope.

My next concern relates to the powers proposed for the referendum commission under clause 1(5)(a), which refers to the wording of any question to be put". The right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan) raised his concerns about the fairness of the questions for the London referendum. I shall return to that point in detail, and I am sure that hon. Members will be pleased to hear that. The right hon. Gentleman questioned whether the commission should have the power to be involved in the setting of the question.

Hon. Members will remember that there was extensive debate in the House on what the questions for the London referendum should be. The House came to a conclusion and voted on it. That conclusion formed part of the Greater London Authority (Referendum) Act 1998. The House decided what the question should be, so I am not sure whether the right hon. Gentleman was suggesting that the referendum commission should be in a position to overrule the Act of Parliament that set the question and impose a different question of its own, a series of questions or variations on the questions.

That serious point is not properly addressed by clause 1(5)(a) and comes into even sharper focus when we consider the possibility of a referendum of electoral reform. The Government have said that the referendum will have the first-past-the-post system as one option and a proportional representation system as the other. I remain an avid supporter of the first-past-the-post system and have yet to hear anything that would convince me otherwise. We know from the extensive public debate on PR and the full report produced by the Jenkins commission that there are a plethora of different solutions for electoral reform.

Let us suppose that the Government decided to propose a particular option for electoral reform as part of the process relating to the wording of the question and that the referendum commission decided that it preferred a different option. Would it be open to the referendum commission to interfere with the Government's suggested option and to suggest a different option?

Indeed, could the referendum commission second-guess the Government's position and allow the referendum to have not only the first-past-the-post system and one other option, but a series of options? In respect of clause 2(2), that opens the question of how many different campaigns could be undertaken. There could be a whole series of different campaigns and different outcomes. Presumably, all would qualify for public funds—an issue that the Bill fails to address.

I have another concern about clause 2(1). My hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley was concerned about the timing of the referendum. I question the wording, which says that it would come into operation As soon as possible after the introduction to Parliament of any bill". Opposition Members have made their position clear: they wold like to see the referendum campaign conducted fairly, above board and with no one feeling left out. The wording of clause 2(1) could lead to a premature decision about which campaign would be the favoured campaign. It very much favours the establishment.

We know that in the European campaign the sides are already lining up. Page 34 of the Library brief says: The pro and anti organisations have begun to mobilise. The Britain in Europe campaign, led by prominent business people, looks likely to be the main umbrella organisation for a Yes vote, while David Owen has agreed to lead the organisations likely to oppose a single currency, known as New Europe. This may not encompass all the views of those opposed to a single currency. That is precisely my point. We have two relatively established campaigns on the European issue, but, as the public debate develops, and should a referendum Bill be introduced, other campaigns may be created. Those would have an equal right to be considered as the official campaign. Under the Bill, they would become disfranchised and the two establishment campaigns—not the Government campaign—would be left to slug it out among themselves. That would disfranchise people who are interested in single issues and who, to a large extent, feel excluded from the parliamentary process. I should be extremely concerned, therefore, if the wording of clause 2 were to stay as it is, as it suggests that the referendum campaign process should start as soon as possible after the enactment of the Bill, before the public debate on those issues had begun.

I am also concerned about clause 2(2), which lists as the criteria that should be taken into account the ability to conduct an effective campaign; the views of political parties; the degree of public support; and such other matters as the Commission considers relevant"— which is an open question. However, the clause gives no indication of the weighting to be given to each of those criteria. That is an important factor to take into account when deciding which body should be certified to run the campaign.

We heard earlier this morning about the problems that can arise when different parties within a campaign are dealing with other issues. The Europe campaign is a prime example. May I pray in aid the comments of the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne), who is in the Chamber, during the debate on political parties funding on 9 November 1998? I find myself in a difficult position because, for the second time in three weeks, I agree with the hon. Gentleman. The previous occasion was on the Fur Fanning (Prohibition) Bill. That is a strange position for me to be in and he may find it strange to have me on his side on this issue. He said: It is unnecessary and undesirable to require opponents to operate under one political umbrella, even if they support the same side on a political question. There are quite different ideological routes that might lead to the same case. That is obviously clear with the campaign that would emerge against the single European currency. It comprises a host of very different groups reflecting different ideological backgrounds. I believe that it would be a restraint on free speech to impose any sort of financial limit on those groups collectively.

Those groups would be handicapped if one side or the other within that debate were made the official campaign. In the same debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) made a similar point: I expect different people to have different points of view. In case the Whips are listening I point out that I declared in my general election manifesto: 'I shall vote against a single currency.'"— [Official Report, 9 November 1998; Vol. 319, c. 104–07.]

My hon. Friend came to that conclusion by a different route from some Conservative Members on the Euro-sceptic wing of their party. If we have the referendum campaign that has been promised if the Government decide that it would be wise to join the single currency, my hon. Friend may join the no campaign, but he will do so for different reasons and will put forward his views in different ways. If there is only one official campaign, it will be extremely difficult for both sides to express their views fully and fairly.

In a helpful intervention, my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley raised the issue of Northern Ireland. That is well highlighted in the Library brief that we have been given for this debate, which says: By contrast, in the referendum campaign the reasons for voting Yes or No may be exceedingly large in number, extremely disparate and possibly even contradictory. The Yes campaign in Northern Ireland, with the Ulster Unionists, the SDLP and Sinn Fein all on one side, and Republican splinter groups and the DUP on the other, provides a vivid illustration. Future referendum campaigns on electoral reform or on joining the European Economic Monetary Union could easily take the same form … Given this possibility, we believe that speaking to impose spending limits in referendums would not only be administratively impracticable but would, or at least might, impose an unwarranted restriction on freedom of speech. Thus, the point is made in a number of different ways that various groups could be disfranchised under the Bill.

Similarly, the problem could arise if there are a number of different options. Earlier, I mentioned the London debate. Had the Opposition parties had their way, we would have had a complicated ballot paper and a series of different possible outcomes: there could have been one campaign against everything; one for a mayor only and no tax-raising powers; one for a mayor and tax-raising powers; one for an assembly only and no tax-raising powers; one for an assembly and tax-raising powers; one for an assembly, a mayor and tax-raising powers; and one for an assembly, a mayor and no tax-raising powers. That is seven possible outcomes and, under clause 2(2), seven possible campaigns. I question whether that would lead to a fair outcome. It would mean six parties working within the referendum supporting London government and only one campaign opposing all those options.

Therefore, the Bill would achieve exactly the opposite of what it is trying to achieve—equity and balance between the different sides in a referendum—because six different campaigns would be competing in favour of London government of some sort and only one would be opposed. The hon. Member for Blaby would say that that could not possibly happen. Looking at the Bill as a lawyer, I believe that, if I were representing one of those six options and found that my campaign would not be certified under clause 2(2), I would rush off to the law courts for a judicial review demanding my share of the action. We may find people with different viewpoints wishing to challenge the referendum commission by way of judicial review. People who get involved in referendums can be quite litigious and forceful in their views. They may wish to challenge the decision about which campaign should be supported.

Clause 3(1) brings into play the issue of funding and clause 3(2) that of broadcasting. My remarks on London very much bring that home.

Mr. Letwin

I shall not intervene for more than five seconds. As the hon. Gentleman is determined to speak for another 20 minutes, it would be helpful if he explained why he is bothering to filibuster the Bill rather than just continuing to witter endlessly to no purpose.

Mr. Dismore

I am not attempting to filibuster the Bill. When I began to read up on it, I became increasingly concerned about its wording. Sooner or later, if the Bill were to proceed, lawyers would come to construe it, and I see a minefield of detail from which my professional colleagues could make a huge amount of money. I am highlighting my concerns about the wording of the Bill and the enormous loopholes that it contains.

Mr. Robathan

I have listened attentively to the hon. Gentleman's absolutely fascinating comments. Has he been asked by any member of the Government to make as lengthy a speech as possible? I guarantee to ensure that he is on the Committee for the Bill, where he can make all his points at as much turgid length as he wants. Let me repeat my earlier warning to him that those who do the bidding of the Whips in a supine and feeble manner never achieve the respect of their peers, nor that of the Whips. Nor do they gain advancement.

Mr. Dismore

I am not making my speech with any view to advancement. I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman now finds my remarks fascinating, having previously suggested that he found them boring. I must be winning him round with my cogent points.

Mr. Gareth Thomas

Does my hon. Friend accept that many of us are listening to his speech with great interest? Many who support the general principle of a level playing field and more openness in the conduct of referendums also feel that the cumulative effect of the various defects and lacunae of the Bill mean that it should not be given a First Reading—[HON. MEMBERS: "Second Reading."] I apologise; I meant a Second Reading.

Mr. Dismore

My hon. Friend succinctly makes the point that is the main thrust of my speech. I do not believe that we should not legislate on this matter: we should. However, we should do so comprehensively and in a thought-through way after having had the benefit of substantial public debate. We might, perhaps, take up the suggestion of my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley that we could have pre-scrutiny of a properly drafted Government Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Thomas) is quite right to say that the Bill is so full of holes that it will not hold water.

Mr. Robathan

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Dismore

I need to make some progress.

Mr. Robathan

Come off it.

Mr. Dismore

I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would want me to make some progress. I have given way to him several times already.

Mrs. Gorman

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You have long experience of the way in which the House conducts itself. The hon. Gentleman has been on his feet for more than 40 minutes, and many of us wish to contribute our views on the Bill. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman does not know that the civilised behaviour of the House requires that hon. Members should not abuse their opportunity to speak by keeping debate going longer than is necessary on issues that are not relevant to the Bill.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

All the remarks made0 by the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) have been entirely in order.

Mr. Dismore

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Should I stray from the terms of the Bill, I am sure that you will quickly call me to order.

I was discussing funding before that batch of interventions. I was making a point about the severe distorting effect that a plethora of campaigns could have on funding if the Bill were enacted.

Clause 3(2) relates to broadcasting, and the same problem of possible disproportionality emerges there. There is also a risk of giving credibility to one or two dotty causes. During general election campaigns, broadcasts are awarded in proportion to the number of candidates standing for each party. That is right and proper, as it provides a rough reflection of possible support for the party in question.

I am concerned, however, that the Bill's reference to equivalent coverage may prove anti-democratic. It might give great credibility to an idea, perspective or point of view that frankly deserves little consideration. I share the objective of trying to achieve fairness, but fairness does not necessarily amount to equivalence. Fairness must reflect the broad terms of the debate, and, as I have already said about the European debate, equivalence of coverage for official campaigns—perhaps on Europe, perhaps on proportional representation—would create a strong chance that a disparate range of views could be disfranchised in the referendum process. People might not be able to put their point of view or say how and why they had come to it. They would not be able, perhaps, to influence people of similar views to vote in a particular way in a given referendum.

I should be very concerned if the broadcasting provisions in the Bill were to be enacted as phrased. They could have an effect opposite to that intended.

Mr. Stephen Twigg (Enfield, Southgate)

When I read the Bill in preparation for the debate, it struck me that the second part of clause 3 is not only counterproductive, but unnecessary. It adds nothing to the existing requirement for balance and impartiality in current broadcasting legislation. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is so, and that it would be foolhardy of the House to add unnecessarily to legislation in this area when the existing framework is sufficient?

Mr. Dismore

My hon. Friend, who has studied these issues carefully and written widely on electoral reform, makes a valid point. I am concerned about clause 3(2) because I believe it could have the opposite effect to that sought by the Bill's supporters. I return to what I said at the beginning of my speech: we need an election commission that can consider all the issues in the round and ensure that we have a consistent national policy for referendums and elections. That would provide a balanced approach, with nothing to suggest that anything was out of kilter.

The final part of my speech is perhaps the most important. It relates to my earlier interventions on the hon. Member for Blaby about what the Bill does not deal with and what it misses out. My starting point was the recommendations of the Neill committee, and funding in particular. The Bill deals in a fashion with public funding to provide core support for referendum campaigns, which would perhaps be uprated by comparison with that for the 1975 referendum on Europe, although I suspect that the uprated figures would in fact bear little relationship to the amounts that would be needed. The Bill is totally silent on some key recommendations of the Neill report—in particular recommendations 90, 91 and 92. Recommendation 90 states: Donations to campaigning individuals and organisations in referendums from one source which total £5,000 or more should be publicly disclosed in audited accounts which should be delivered to the Election Commission within three months of the holding of the referendum". The Bill contains nothing about donations having to be declared.

Recommendation 91 is: Campaigning individuals and organisations other than political parties that wish to incur 'referendum expenses' of £25,000 or more, should register, like a political party, with the Election Commission. No individual or organisation not so registered may incur expenses in connection with a referendum in excess of £25,000". Again, there is no mention of that in the Bill.

Recommendation 92 is: Campaigning individuals and organisations taking part in referendum campaigns should be restricted to the receipt of donations only from a 'permissible source'. The report goes into detail on what permissible sources are. I do not propose to go into those, given the time constraints under which I am operating but, as has been pointed out, page 20 of the Library briefing, on the European campaign, states: There may be disparities of expenditure in the campaign on the single European currency, especially as the business man Paul Sykes has reportedly promised £20 million to the anti-euro campaign. For a Bill on the supervision of referendums not to deal with that crucial issue of funding is a woeful omission. That issue goes to the heart of the democratic process. If Mr. Sykes is going to commit £20 million of his own money to that campaign without any restriction—without fear or favour—or control from the Bill, it will have a distorting effect on the process.

Mrs. Gorman

Surely the logic of the hon. Gentleman's remarks is that, if the Bill became part of the law of the land, people such as Mr. Sykes would not need to put up their hard-earned cash to ensure a fair campaign. Massive contributions of that sort could be excluded and I should think that Mr. Sykes and anyone with similar amounts of money would be delighted to keep that money.

Mr. Dismore

That is an interesting point. The limits on central Government support from public funds for the different campaigns are significantly lower than the sort of money that Mr. Sykes is talking about. The figures being bandied around are in the region of £600,000. I do not think one could mount much of a national campaign on an issue as important as the European referendum or the voting system for this place with such a sum. My argument is that it is not merely a question of core funding, with which the Bill deals to an extent, but of all the other party-funding issues raised by the Neill committee, which are transferred within the three recommendations from the Neill report to the context of referendums.

If we do not have open declarations of election funding and proper registration, we will be open to being hijacked by millionaires who want to promote their own political point of view. We saw the extent to which the late Sir James Goldsmith tried to influence the general election by setting up the Referendum party. He threw huge amounts of cash into the campaign to try to create a political process and, to an extent, influenced the election—the issue certainly came up on the doorstep far more than it might otherwise have done.

Unless we have restrictions of some sort on individual campaign donations I can see Mr. Sykes thinking, "With my business, I have a lot at stake as well as the country," and being more than happy to put up £20 million of his money because he can afford it to influence the outcome of that campaign. That crucial issue is not dealt with in the Bill in any way.

Finally, I shall deal with the Neill report and, most importantly, the role of Government, I am sure that you will recall, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I asked the hon. Member for Blaby during his opening speech why the Bill was silent on that matter. He said that it was a matter for the referendum commission to consider. Frankly, that is not good enough. We have wide and diverse views on that issue. The hon. Gentleman suggests in promoting the Bill that the Neill committee would be the transitional referendum commission, unless and until something better happened along. Recommendation 89 of the Neill committee dealt with that point, stating: The government of the day in future referendums should, as a government, remain neutral and should not distribute at public expense literature, even purportedly 'factual' literature, setting out or otherwise promoting its case". That is a fascinating comment. It is entirely at odds with the conclusions of the Jenkins commission on electoral reform—the independent commission on the voting system. Indeed, the Jenkins report came to the opposite conclusion. Paragraph 166 states: The representations have without exception placed strong emphasis on the need for a publicly-funded (and therefore impartially informative rather than partisan) civic education programme to prepare the general public for the decision they would be asked to make on the voting system which should follow this report. Paragraph 168 seems to pray in aid the Neill committee, but perhaps does not help it, by calling for an independent body to oversee the conduct of referendums, although we think that the Government should be entitled to express its own view in any such referendum. It seems to us that an Electoral Commission would be best placed to discharge this role in relation to the referendum on the voting system.

Two eminent committees reached opposite conclusions on this crucial issue. The hon. Member for Blaby ducked that question, which is fundamental. A leading complaint of Opposition parties has concerned the extent to which the Government should be entitled to participate in referendum campaigns. The Bill's supporters rightly want to ensure that the debate is fair and above board. That demands a proper public information campaign. Electoral matters are complex. I have read about them and my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton) has written a book on the subject. How are we to expect the public to form a view without explanations beyond the partisan?

Those of us who support first past the post argue our position vigorously, as do those who support electoral reform. Where is the point of view that puts the middle ground? Of all issues, the election of this Chamber demands a public information campaign, as recommended by Jenkins but apparently dismissed by Neill. The same applies to our possible entry to the euro. There are two diametrically opposed views with a plethora of different opinions within them. How are the public to sort the wood from the trees without a clear lead from the Government on the fundamental issues?

Since the general election, I have spent most weekends in my constituency knocking on people's doors and talking to them about the issues of the day, as I did before the election. Time and again, Europe comes up but it is not raised in an informed way. It tends to be, "We don't want the Germans, French or Italians telling us what to do," rather than detailed analysis of the crucial issues facing the British economy. It is incumbent on the Government to advance them.

Page 18 of the Library brief refers to the Good Friday agreement referendum in Northern Ireland, which was mentioned by the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross. The document states: The referendum on the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland affords a different kind of example. The Government sent copies of the whole agreement to every household, but then, as a Government, confined itself to urging people to turn out to vote. Despite that, the Government made its position perfectly clear. Mr. Denis Murray, the BBC's Ireland correspondent, said in his oral evidence: Mo Mowlam got the tone for the Government absolutely right. Somebody asked her, 'Are you biased in this?' She replied, 'I didn't spend five years on this and a year at Stormont, hammering it out, not to say I'm going to back this agreement.' She got the public mood exactly right. People said, 'Yes, that's fair enough.'

It is wrong not to anticipate that the Government would have a point of view in advancing a referendum. It is important that the public has before it the facts, presented in a non-partisan way. If the only people entitled to campaign are those with a partisan view, the public cannot get that. I am amazed that the hon. Member for Blaby has ducked that fundamental question. It is not an easy question to answer. That is why two high-powered committees have different perspectives on it. I again pray in aid the helpful intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley. She suggested that there could be pre-legislative scrutiny of a draft Bill on the subject. The issue could be explored in depth so that much stronger and better legislation came out at the other end of the process.

Mr. Maclennan

The hon. Gentleman has attempted to demolish the Bill, but it will be helpful to the House if we hear from him whether he takes the view not only that the issues are important—something that he has made clear—but that it is urgent that they be dealt with.

Mr. Dismore

I do regard the issues as important. That is why I have spent some time analysing them in detail. I believe that the Bill is fatally flawed, for the reasons that I have given. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that we need to get on with the matter. That is why I welcome the statement by the Home Secretary, which was emphasised by the Lord Chancellor in my quotation, that the Government propose to produce their draft Bill in the summer. That will enable time for pre-legislative scrutiny, perhaps through the autumn.

I should very much like to see a Bill introduced in the next Session of Parliament, but I shall not press my hon. Friend the Minister on that, because it is not for him to say what will or will not be in the Queen's Speech. I should like to see a Bill not only on referendums but on a series of other issues. If I had the difficult job of ranking Bills that the Cabinet faces, I am not sure that I would know which should come this year and which should come next year.

I certainly agree with the basic point that this is an urgent matter. I should like to see some progress on it, but I regret to say that the Bill does not provide the answers to some of the difficult points raised by the Neill committee and the Jenkins commission.

12.12 pm
Mr. John MacGregor (South Norfolk)

The hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) has given the game away, and in a very unsubtle manner. About 30 minutes ago, I was going to commend him on one thing only, and that was on his industry, and say that that would no doubt earn him brownie points from the Government Whips Office. He has gone about his speech in such a cack-handed manner that he has now exposed exactly what the operation is, and I do not think that he will get any brownie points. He has led us even to become suspicious of the Government's intentions. If this is how the Government tackle a debate such as today's, will they delay the legislation on referendums in exactly the same way? I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that a reputation for filibustering is not a good criterion for office.

The House knows that I was a member of the Neill committee, and still am, and was a member of the committee that drew up the report on political funding. I shall be very brief in my remarks because I have little time. I shall draw heavily on the Neill committee, but I also want to speak as a Member of Parliament. The first question is why the committee included a big chapter on referendums in the report. The issues and questions document on political funding that we originally issued did not treat referendums as a central issue. It was the almost universal evidence that we received from day one that led us to the view that referendums were a crucial matter and that committee had to address it.

I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) on introducing the Bill, which he did in an admirable manner. He drew attention to what Peter Riddell said on day 1 of our evidence. It is worth quoting it again. He said that referendums had: massive implications, I think, for your exercise, for the way in which the political process operates, for fairness in funding and indeed for fairness in operation. That comment was mirrored time and again subsequently, and it became clear that we had to address the issue.

It became clear as we went round the country, especially in Wales and Scotland, that the system used in recent referendums by the Government was seriously deficient and dangerously so. That was overwhelmingly evident. Almost everyone who gave evidence to us in Cardiff said that the way in which the Wales referendum was conducted was seriously deficient. There would not have been a no campaign if one member of the Labour party, Mrs. Carys Pugh, had not decided to go to her bank manager and ask for an overdraft of £4,000. She made that clear in her evidence to us.

Robert Hodge was so impressed by that that he gave a much larger sum—about £80,00—to the campaign. Overall, the no campaign had about £100,000, but the point is that nothing would have happened unless Mrs. Pugh had gone to a bank manager, whereas the yes campaign was backed by massive Government funding, far greater than anything that the no campaign could raise. No one can be certain whether that made a difference to the final result, but we know that the result was extremely close, so one wonders what the outcome would have been had there been fair funding. All of us on the committee were enormously impressed by the evidence that we received from everyone who contributed.

Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test)

Is the right hon. Gentleman saying that occasionally it might be necessary artificially to create a campaign, so as to ensure that there are two sides in a referendum on any issue?

Mr. MacGregor

Of course I am not saying that. My point is that there must be a reasonable element of core funding for both sides. It is expensive to run a campaign and it was only Mrs. Pugh's courage in going to a bank manager that got the no campaign's funding off the ground. I cannot stress sufficiently strongly my belief that, for the sake of democracy and of giving a fair hearing to both sides in future campaigns, the implementation of proposals along the lines set out in the Bill and by the Neill committee is absolutely essential.

Because of the long filibuster that we have just heard, I shall confine myself to only a few points of detail. First, there is the referendums commission—or what members of the Neill committee would regard as the election commission detailed in our report. I fully understand why my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby has had to make that limited recommendation. He made it perfectly clear that he assumes that the referendums commission would be subsumed in the election commission set up when the full Bill on party political funding is finally produced and implemented. However, the reason for his having to propose a referendums commission in a Bill entirely dedicated to that subject is his concern, shared by many of us, that the Government will procrastinate on the issue. Clause 1(5) sets out a role for the referendums commission that is exactly like the role the Neill committee envisaged for the election commission. No doubt, it could be developed, but that can be done in Committee.

My second point relates to the crucial issue of core funding. I have already spoken about what happened in Wales, which is at the heart of my case. The Neill committee suggested a minimum of £600,000, but that was simply a figure derived from indexing what was spent on both sides during the 1975 campaign, and whether it is sufficient is a matter of argument. I think that that should be the minimum sum, and a reasonable argument could be made that it should be slightly more.

One or two people argued—I think the argument was made in the official evidence of the Labour party to the Neill committee—that political parties form the basis of campaigning in referendums. I do not agree, because it is fairly clear—it will be extremely clear in the two forthcoming referendums—that the issues cross parties. Therefore, it is essential to have national organisations that are recognised and registered by the election commission—or the referendums commission—as the organised bodies to which core funding should be paid. The one point on which I wholly agreed with the hon. Member for Hendon was in respect of first past the post; I just hope that he does not speak in any debate on first past the post, because he will absolutely ruin the case for it.

Core funding lies at the heart of the matter. I believe that the Bill could go further, because it does not positively state that core funding from taxpayers' resources will be made, but merely sets outs the conditions for such payments. It is essential that the Bill should state that that core funding will actually happen.

My next point goes beyond core funding, to other important issues. As in general election campaigns for election addresses, there should be compulsory free mailing for both sides in a referendum campaign. That should not extend only to a single document, as was done in 1975, if memory serves; it is right that both sides should be able to put out separate and individual free mailing. That is important because the cost of free mailing in general election campaigns is quite high. It is also important that correspondence is sent to every household in the country. I also believe that election broadcasts by both sides should be part of the process so that there may be communication through television.

Related to core funding is the question of disclosure and foreign donations. It would be sensible if the same principles governing party political funding in general elections were to apply to referendums. I foresee no difficulty in that regard.

The Home Secretary's views about the Government's role differ from those of the Neill committee. In previous debates, the Home Secretary has used that as an excuse for offering qualifications and for expressing reservations about the Neill recommendations.

Mr. Linton


Mr. MacGregor

I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman because he follows these matters carefully.

Mr. Linton

I had hoped that the right hon. Gentleman was about to move on to the question of funding limits. His convincing arguments about fairness in referendum campaigns—involving core funding, free mail and disclosure of donations—should lead to calls for funding limitations. It is possible for a referendum campaign to be unfair because one side is completely unfunded and must apply to the bank for a loan to set up the campaign. However, it is equally possible for a referendum campaign to be skewed unfairly because one side is funded disproportionately. There were spending ratios of 10:1 in the New Zealand campaign and 20:1 in the 1975 referendum campaign. The next referendum campaign on the single currency could be skewed the other way because donations have already been promised. Why did the Neill committee—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I think the hon. Gentleman has made his point.

Mr. MacGregor

That was almost a speech. I did not intend to address that issue today as I am conscious that other hon. Members wish to contribute.

The Neill committee came to a conclusion about expenditure limits in referendums in paragraph 12.47 of the report, which states: Given this possibility,"— we sought to differentiate between referendum and general election campaigns— we believe that seeking to impose spending limits in referendums would not only be administratively impracticable but would, or at least might, impose an unwarranted restriction on freedom of speech. I agreed with that conclusion, which is why I offered a minority recommendation against expenditure limits in general election campaigns. Those are the sorts of arguments that the committee worked through, and I tend to agree with them. Real abuse occurs when a lot of Government funding goes to one side of the campaign and no public funding is available to the other side. That is why core funding is so important.

I return to the Home Secretary's comments about the role of Government, where I think there has been some misunderstanding in the past. In the debate on the Neill report, I pointed out that the wording of that report could have been better and more precise. I think Lord Neill also expressed that view in a letter to the Home Secretary.

The committee sought to avoid double funding by taxpayers of one side of the campaign. For example, if the majority of the Government were in favour of a yes vote in a particular campaign, we thought that it would be unfair if that case were to receive core as well as Government funding. We would never allow that to occur in a general election, and our recommendation addresses that anomaly.

Of course, Ministers should be free to campaign for a yes or no result, as they wish. That is made clear in the report, which says: We believe it is perfectly appropriate for the government of the day to state its views and for members of the Government to campaign vigorously during referendum campaigns". It is important to emphasise that Ministers are perfectly entitled to campaign and, in my opinion, to use material from the civil service, in favour of a particular policy. That happens in general elections, because there is often civil service input in policy development. However, Ministers are not entitled to use Government resources during the campaign, such as using money to distribute leaflets that put only one side of the case, or using Government cars.

Mr. Gareth Thomas

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. MacGregor

No, time is short.

That is such a narrow point that the Home Secretary should not make anything of it by suggesting that the overall package put forward by Neill is flawed. There is no disagreement on that narrow point, so I hope that no more will be made of it.

My conclusion is that there has been strong universal support from many parts of the country for the Neill committee's recommendations on referendums. The Government, in their heart, believe that there is a fair case for those recommendations, and I hope that they will not try to continue to run the argument about Governments not being able to make known their views.

It is important that the Government state clearly in this debate what they intend to do. I strongly urge that their actions follow the lines of the Bill and the Neill recommendations. Above all—I very much agree with the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan) on this point—there is much suspicion that the issue might drag on and arise late in the day before a referendum takes place—so, if the Government intend to filibuster on the Bill, I urge them to introduce legislation as quickly as possible.

12.27 pm
Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside)

When the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) made the case for his Bill, he said that it was short and simple. In considering the Bill, we must ask whether it is adequate to deal with complex and wide-ranging issues. I have listened to the comments of several hon. Members, and it is clear that the issues are ones of principle and of significant detail.

Referendums will become increasingly important. We know that there is to be a referendum on joining economic and monetary union and we expect one on electoral change. Referendums are also likely to be held on devolution to the English regions. The Government are encouraging referendums for a wide range of activities relating to local government.

The principle of holding more and more referendums highlights the relationship between elected authorities and the people who elect them. It raises questions of the legitimacy of those referendums and of parliamentary democracy itself. I am sure that all hon. Members would agree that it is vital that referendums are conducted so that the results are credible and do not undermine elected authority. I am convinced that statutory regulation is required to achieve that. We must consider carefully the processes by which referendums take place and their results can be assessed. What we are considering today is whether the Bill, described by its promoter as short and simple, deals adequately with those important and fundamental issues of constitution and practice.

The major difficulty with the Bill is the scope of the referendums and the different types of decisions with which it is designed to deal, and the scope of the proposed referendums commission, which would deal with matters relating to economic and monetary union, electoral change, devolution and, presumably, local government referendums. It is clear that we are going to have more and more referendums in local government. Indeed, we are told that there may be legislation on that. The White Paper on local government reform referred to specific new legislation giving specific powers to local authorities to carry out more referendums. Is the Bill to supersede such legislation? Would it be compatible with it? Is it intended to embrace it? We simply do not know.

The question of local government legislation for referendums and the scope of future referendums is extremely important. The Government's stated policies envisage the Government themselves enforcing local government referendums on local authorities considering whether to change their structure. They envisage the public being able to trigger a referendum on having a directly elected mayor; they envisage compulsory referendums before a directly elected mayor can be installed; and they encourage referendums as tools of consultation on controversial local issues. Clearly, these are wide-ranging measures which encourage more referendums.

Dr. Whitehead

Does my hon. Friend agree that, as she seems about to say, the Bill is silent on the question of what might be termed citizens' propositions, whereby the local electorate can trigger referendums? It is also silent on how those propositions are put together in terms of signatures and how the appropriate wording might appear on the ballot paper. Would not that require regulation in itself?

Mrs. Ellman

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. He makes an extremely important point. One of the deficiencies of the Bill is that, being simple and short, it does not deal with the complexities of the practical issues that are likely to arise.

The Bill's proposals on the role of the referendums commission ignore many fundamental issues. Should the same regulations and procedures apply for a referendum that is binding and for one that is simply advisory? Should the same recommendations and procedures apply for a referendum that could change national economic policy—for example, the decision to enter economic and monetary union—and one that expresses the view of a section of a local electorate about an issue on which a reversal of that referendum decision might be possible?

In other words, should a binding decision on electoral change, EMU or regional devolution equate to a referendum taking a view on a proposal about local car parking restrictions? They are fundamentally different issues, and the respective referendums must vary in force and importance. However, the Bill does not distinguish between those issues; indeed, it does not consider them at all.

There are other matters of concern relating to the Bill—matters of concern because of their omission. My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) and the right hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor) have each detailed those issues in their own way. The matters raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon are of great importance, and I refer hon. Members to them.

The right hon. Member for South Norfolk drew attention to some very important issues, and in doing so highlighted the fact that the Bill does not reach any conclusions about them. They include matters to do with financial rules on the conduct of referendums and to do with the question of when a referendum campaign has begun. Has a referendum campaign on economic and monetary union started already?

The Bill does not ask questions about proper public access to information. It does not consider whether there should be free airtime for competing viewpoints, access to free public rooms or free mail—issues considered by the Neill committee.

The Bill does not consider the proper remit for the commission. It does not look at other related issues of importance, such as the idea of a rolling electoral register. It does not consider very important issues concerning the relationship between the referendum commission and the constitution unit of the Home Office, which is also involved in these matters.

Therefore, many crucial aspects are omitted from the scope of the Bill. The House should not be asked to approve a Bill of fundamental importance, relating to an area that will become increasingly important, until those issues have been considered. They are not simply issues of detail; they have, and will increasingly have, great significance.

All the matters that have been mentioned in the debate are of great importance and complexity, and require thought and consultation. That is why a Bill that has been described by its promoter as short and simple is inadequate to deal with those important and fundamental matters.

It would be far preferable for the Government to come up with a proposal and to allow widespread consultation on all those important issues. Pre-legislative scrutiny might be a consideration, but it is important that the House has the opportunity to consider documentation that sets out all those important issues, which touch the heart of our constitution, and that proper public consultation is undertaken on all those matters before a decision is taken.

We are considering issues of public importance—and growing importance. We are considering issues to do with the legitimacy of government and the credibility of the results that will emerge from, no doubt, a growing number of referendums. Those matters deserve deeper thought than the Bill permits. For that reason, the Bill is deficient and should not be allowed a Second Reading today.

12.38 pm
Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) on introducing this immensely important Bill, and doing so in a very stylish way. The Bill relates to an issue of fundamental importance to the way in which we are now governed, given the Government's appetite for referendums on many different issues, all of them in a pre-legislative form.

I was most interested to note that the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) said that, since my hon. Friend had described his Bill as short and simple, it could not deal adequately with the complex issues raised in the debate. I remind the hon. Lady that "short" and "simple" are two of the three words that the Leader of the House has used to describe the Government's House of Lords reform Bill. Presumably, given that description, the hon. Member for Riverside believes—by her own logic—that the Government are dealing inadequately with the complexities of House of Lords reform in that Bill.

Mrs. Ellman

Is the hon. Gentleman not aware that the description given by the Leader of the House concerned the first phase of House of Lords reform? The proposal is indeed short and simple, but there is to be full consultation. A commission is sitting at this moment, considering the detailed complexities of what is to follow.

Dr. Fox

That is definitely a case of when the accused should opt for the right to silence.

This debate has been a test of the Government's democratic credentials. It has been a chance for them to prove that, as they have always said, they want a fair and equitable democratic system. We all know for our experience in this House exactly what is happening today. The Government have decided—it is in their power to do so—that this Bill should not be given a Second Reading. Labour Members have attempted to filibuster, although the quality has been fairly poor. It is a great pity that the Government have decided not to accept the fairly reasonable Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby.

This Bill is part of a wider debate. In this Parliament, we are experiencing a battle between democratic man and Executive man, in which Executive man is increasingly taking the upper hand. I am disappointed that some Labour Members have rolled over in the face of the Executive's desire. In doing so, they have not only failed to defend the rights of Parliament, but have allowed the Government to extend Executive power beyond both Houses of Parliament into areas such as how people can speak in a referendum. I find that an extremely disturbing trend.

Let us be clear about the intention behind the Bill: it is that referendums should be conducted fairly. The Bill asks for fairness in setting the question, so that the Government are not allowed to set a question that suits them. I can imagine the sort of objective question that the Prime Minister might set on economic and monetary union: "Well, I'm a great sort of guy, and if maybe I can come up with the right sort of solution at some point in the future, do you think maybe I should be given the chance to accept it if I think the timing is right?" We want a separate body to set a fair and objective question.

We want fairness in the timing of referendums, so that no one group is favoured. The hon. Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Thomas) told us, in an answer that would have made Pravda proud, that the Welsh and Scottish referendums were staggered because there was a media deficit in Wales. Apparently, that does not apply to the elections for the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament—the Scots and the Welsh are apparently now quite capable of distinguishing which country they live in.

We want fairness in the funding of referendums. We believe that both sides of the argument should have reasonable access to funding, so that the disadvantage in the Welsh referendum, to which my right hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor) referred, does not recur. There should be fair access to the media. In this day and age, when the broadcast media matter so much, it is essential to the democratic process that both sides in a referendum campaign, just as in a general election, are given equal access and equal air time.

Judy Mallaber

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there should be a limit on the amount of money that either side can spend on a referendum campaign? Does he believe that such a limit should be in the Bill? I understand why he is supporting the Bill—I support its principles—but does he not agree that a Bill that covered other issues, such as funding, would be preferable?

Dr. Fox

Those are valid questions for consideration in Committee. Maximum levels of funding should be considered in Committee. We want an urgent response to the problem that we face. The Government would have no problem if they allowed this Bill, with its limited provisions, a Second Reading, and then introduced a wider Bill to cover its functions. It would be entirely possible to repeal this Bill.

Why have Labour Members decided that they do not want this Bill to become law? They have done so because of the will of the Executive, not of Parliament. The Executive ask, "Why should we give anything away when we might be able to use it to our advantage?" That is the worst aspect of the way in which we are governed.

We must ask is why we need fairness. The overriding reason is that the legitimacy of any referendum result requires validity. In Wales the legitimacy was questioned because there was a 0.6 per cent. majority on only a 50 per cent. turnout. That occurred after the Government had used public money—by definition, from those who support both sides of the debate—for Government propaganda. The case put forward was not objective—it was the Government's case.

In this country, not only is no threshold set for a referendum to give it validity, but we have no numerical barriers in our Parliament to changes to our constitution. Results such as that in Wales can therefore lead to questions about validity. That is the wrong basis for making any form of constitutional change, and we should all be deeply worried about it.

What if we get a referendum on electoral reform, and what if that system is entirely dependent on a tiny proportion in a low turnout? What would be the validity of the result? That is why we require a referendums commission.

The Government have shown their fondness for pre-legislative referendums. There is a difference in legitimacy between the results of a pre-legislative referendum and a post-legislative referendum. In a pre-legislative referendum, the people have an idea of what principles they are voting for. In a post-legislative referendum, they know what legislation they are supporting. There can be a world of difference between the two.

The hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) is no longer in his seat. His points were entirely based on the concept of legitimacy. As he raised the issue of the current fair British voting system, as against the gerrymandering proposed in other quarters, I would ask him to consider the proposition that a post-legislative referendum would be a far fairer basis for such plans.

Apart from the potential electoral reform referendum, there is concern about the way in which the Government are spending money on the so-called national changeover plan, which is actually the national handover plan, for economic and monetary union. We must make sure that a firm and equitable basis for conducting a referendum is in place before we ever conduct a referendum on electoral reform, and before we conduct a referendum on the most constitutionally important step this side of 1066—the economic and monetary union referendum.

We must have fair rules. The Bill would go some way to achieving that. The Minister will no doubt tell us not to worry, as the Government will put some measure in place. We will have draft legislation. We can have pre-legislative scrutiny. We will get a vague timetable, but we will be given no firm assurances.

If the Government's democratic credentials mean anything at all, the Minister will give us an assurance, with the authority of the Government and the specific authority of the Prime Minister, that no referendum on any constitutional change will be introduced in Parliament without a body having first been established to determine objectively the question, the timing, the funding and the media access to referendums in this country.

If the Minister can give us that assurance, my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby has reasonably said that he will not press his Bill any further. If the Minister fails to give us such an assurance, he will boost our fear of the Government's motives. He will boost among the many cross-party groups that supported the Bill the suspicion that the Government are out to concoct a system that suits the Labour party's interests, not the national interest. That is what we have seen from them before, and what we suspect we will get in future.

12.49 pm
Mr. Gareth Thomas (Clwyd, West)

I am prepared to accept that the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) tabled the Bill in an altruistic spirit. He seems to be good-humoured individual. I am prepared to accept that, although there is a battle raging within the ranks of the official Opposition on the role of Britain in Europe and on the single currency, the hon. Gentleman's main motive, if not that of his colleagues, in pursuing the Bill has nothing to do with the anti-European stance of many within his party, but has to do with a fundamental democratic issue, which all those who are interested in democracy and fair play should recognise—the need for a level playing field and a fair and open regulatory system for the conduct of referendums.

Mr. Gareth R. Thomas


Mr. Gareth Thomas

I give way to my hon. Friend. It is always a pleasure to give way to my namesake.

Mr. Gareth R. Thomas

Does my hon. Friend think it a shame that the official Opposition spokesperson did not have the courage to take a few more interventions? Does he think also that it is a little rich for Conservative Members to be asking questions about our democratic credentials when they opposed any attempt to establish the equivalent of the Neill committee at a much earlier stage?

Mr. Gareth Thomas

My hon. Friend raises a significant point with which, he will not be surprised to learn, I agree wholeheartedly.

As I have said, I am prepared to give the hon. Member for Blaby the benefit of the doubt. I agree with the valid points made by the right hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor). However, the Bill contains many defects and lacunae, and in my view should not receive a Second Reading. I recognise that the Bill addresses a fundamental issue. That being so, it should have been thought through in a fundamentally sound manner. There should be full consultation with the public and all interested groups. The Bill is premature and precipitate. Much more work has to be done on it. The devil is in the detail, and I shall take up some of the detail of the Bill, or, rather, the lack of detail, which causes me concern.

I express my gratitude to my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore). Although he was unfairly criticised by some Conservative Members, he did the House a favour in his comprehensive analysis of the problems and defects associated with the Bill. My hon. Friend mentioned that there is no upper limit on the spending that could be brought to bear by designated referendum campaigns. That is a fundamental defect. The right hon. Member for South Norfolk said that, in some way, such a limit would cut across the grain of the right to freedom of speech.

However, if the main motive behind the Bill is to ensure a competitive environment for a referendum campaign, an upper limit is essential in the interests of fair play.

Dr. Whitehead

Does my hon. Friend accept that we do not need to look into a crystal ball on this point? I have in mind what has happened over the years in America, particularly in the holding of local and state referendums. The proportional difference in spending between one side and the other, especially when business spending is involved, goes up to 200:1, despite whatever the state may do to apply fair funding and fair information between both sides.

Mr. Thomas

My hon. Friend raises a fundamental point. Many Labour Members could be forgiven for thinking that the fact that there is no upper limit in the Bill gives the lie to the suggestion that it is an entirely altruistic measure designed to combat the perceived democratic deficit.

Mr. David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden)

I have a great deal of sympathy with the argument for an upper limit. However, everything that the hon. Gentleman has said so far suggests that he should be a member of the Committee that amends the Bill to fill the lacunae to which he has referred. His proposed alternative—that the Bill should not receive a Second Reading—does not follow on from what he has said.

What is the implication of delaying the passage of a referendum Bill through the House when one of the major referendums that this country will face—as my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) said—will be on joining monetary union? The Government are already spending large sums on what the Neill report referred to as putatively factual information. How does the hon. Gentleman deal with that problem—the idea that delay will influence one of the most important referendums that is coming up?

Mr. Thomas

Although I agree with many of the principles of, and some of the concepts behind, the Bill, we must none the less take a detailed approach to the drafting of such legislation. My view is that the cumulative effect of the defects and the lacunae is that the Bill should not receive a Second Reading. Over and above that, if a fundamental measure of this sort is to be considered by the House, full consultation on all its details, and with all interested parties, is essential. That has to be undertaken before such legislation reaches the statute book. I hope that that answers the right hon. Gentleman's point.

May I deal with some other lacunae in the Bill? As I have said, there is no upper spending limit, and there is no definition of what constitutes a referendum, which is a startling omission. I endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon said: that could cause all manner of difficulties. The Bill could be a charter for lawyers, because it raises innumerable questions about what constitutes a referendum. It would cause complications over the freedom that the Government may wish to give to local authorities to conduct ballots, to establish citizens' juries or to ask questions of local electorates on matters of concern within local communities.

The Bill contains no details of how the referendum commission would operate. In my view, it should have a far more wide-reaching brief than the Bill suggests. I would favour an electoral commission charged not only with ensuring fair play in the conduct of referendums but with raising public awareness and enhancing public participation in elections generally. I believe that the Government would support that proposal.

Another of the Bill's defects is the absence of a reference to what should be the permitted role of the Government. Much of the debate has turned on that important point, and my view is that the Government of the day have a responsibility to raise public awareness. Indeed, the Government should use public money to enhance public awareness on matters of constitutional importance, such as the Welsh and Scottish referendums. I shall discuss those referendums, as well as the European single currency, in a moment.

The case for using public money is all the greater if the printed press is inclined to give a one-sided view of a case. It is essential that the Government be allowed to put their case, but the Bill does not refer to what their role should be. I believe that their role should be defined. Many Conservative Members have said that it would be wrong for the Government of the day to enter the arena overmuch, and I accept that point. There should be some control over the manner in which the Government generate information; it should not be propaganda, but, on the other hand, the Government have the important duty of raising public awareness.

I agree that practical difficulties are associated with the operation of designated referendum campaigns, and problems could also be caused by the Bill's broadcasting provisions. As has been said, it could be strongly argued that the current regulatory framework for broadcasters covers the position sufficiently, without further legislation being required.

May I deal with the position in Wales? As a Welsh Member and someone who was actively involved in the Welsh referendum campaign, I have a particular interest in that matter. Although the result of the referendum for setting up the National Assembly for Wales was close, it was none the less a victory for the yes camp. The Government should be congratulated on moving forward speedily with legislation to set up a democratic tier of government in Wales. It is well overdue and is a recognition of the national status of Wales within the British unitary state.

The problem in Wales arose because of the nature of the topography and the fact that Wales does not have a national printed newspaper. Moreover, many people in Wales either cannot, or choose not to, receive television or radio signals from Welsh channels. That creates the problem that I described in an earlier intervention. The hon. Member for Woodspring did not seem to accept my argument, perhaps because, with the greatest respect, he does not have sufficient knowledge of conditions in Wales. I advise him strongly to listen to some of his Welsh Assembly candidates, who will say that there is a media deficit in Wales. We do not have a national newspaper like the one that exists in Scotland. Right up until polling day for the Welsh referendum, many people did not understand that there was to be a referendum or what it would mean. In those circumstances, the Government had a duty to hold a public information campaign supported by public money—indeed, it would have been an abdication of their responsibility had they not done so.

Dr. Fox

Most of what the hon. Gentleman has said is nonsense, but surely he agrees that the logic of his argument is that both sides of the argument should have been presented to all the electors in Wales, rather than just one side, supported by public money.

Mr. Thomas

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman adopted a churlish tone in dismissing what I would like to think is an objective contribution to this valuable debate. Incidentally, I congratulate the hon. Member for Blaby on raising this issue. The Government did not overstep the mark in Wales. The information that was delivered to each doorstep in Wales was objective. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Woodspring and I will have to agree to disagree. My view is that the Government had a role to play in Wales. Given the lack of public awareness of issues surrounding devolution, they had a duty to step in and fill the media deficit.

We can learn from the results of the referendum in Wales. In terms of the yes and no votes, there was not a north-south split, but an east-west split. The west of Wales, which one might regard as the Celtic fringe—it certainly covers the more Welsh areas of Wales in terms of language and place of birth of the majority of the inhabitants—recorded large majorities in favour of an assembly, whereas the east, including parts of my constituency, recorded an equally large number of votes against devolution.

One can read many things into that, as one can with all referendums, which is why many people believe that they can be an unsatisfactory and inaccurate way of gauging public opinion. Many people in Wales believed that the result of the referendum reflected the degree to which people felt an affinity with the Welsh culture and nation. It may not have had as much as it should have to do with the fine detail of the democratic argument in favour of—or for that matter against—an assembly. However, it was necessary for the Government to invest money in educating the public.

When we have a referendum on the European single currency, the Government will have a similar duty to provide dispassionate information to the general public on the merits and demerits of joining the single currency, if only to counteract what may transpire to be the xenophobia that will emanate from many sources, not least some elements of the press.

Mr. Robathan

I do not want to detain the hon. Gentleman, as I should like other hon. Members to have a chance to speak. He has twice said that the Government have a duty to inform people, but he has also said that he will oppose the Bill. The Bill is about allowing people to make informed choices. Each side of the argument will be presented to everyone so that they can understand what it is that they are being asked to vote for. If only one side of the argument is given, how can anyone make an informed choice?

Mr. Thomas

I entirely agree with the principle that the public should hear both sides of the argument, delivered loud and clear. I should like there to be upper limits on spending so that fairness exists and so that the voice of parties to the arguments can be heard in equal proportion. However, there are fundamental problems with the Bill, and I cannot accept it.

Much has been made of the fact that the no campaign in Wales, which was poorly financed and resourced, achieved quite a degree of success. Most political parties in Wales—with the notable exception of the official Opposition—were in favour of the establishment of the National Assembly for Wales; it was an important commitment in the Labour, Liberal Democrat and Plaid Cymru general election manifestos. My own view is that there ought not to have been referendums in either Scotland or Wales because devolution was clearly a fundamental principle at the heart of the general election campaign. There was a stark division in both Scotland and Wales between the Conservatives and Labour on that principle.

The role of broadcasters during the referendum campaign in Wales was problematic. Broadcasters must give a balanced view of both yes and no campaigns, but they must surely be entitled also to give weight to the strength of opinion. To create an artificial balance would be completely wrong-headed. All political parties in Wales—except the Conservatives—supported devolution. It was artificial to allow the no campaign so much coverage when it had little support outside certain areas. Points made this morning about the Bill's problematic broadcasting provisions have highlighted a fundamental defect in the Bill.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Blaby on introducing an important Bill that deals with issues which the Government should comprehensively address. I hope that they will do so in the near future, because those issues go to the root of our democratic system. However, I cannot accept the Bill as it stands.

1.10 pm
Mr. David Davis

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I understand from the news that the hon. Member for Newark (Mrs. Jones) has been found guilty in the election expenses-rigging trial. Have you received any notification from the Government that there will be a by-election?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)

I have had no notification of a statement.

1.10 pm
Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay)

I, too, add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) on producing this important Bill, which is based on the well-researched Neill committee report and which had all-party support and should therefore be given a fair wind in the House—there is no excuse for not doing so.

In passing, I must inform the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) that hon. Members who are prepared to act as the Government's pooper-scoopers rarely come up smelling of roses when it comes to promotion. The hon. Gentleman illegitimately took up almost an hour of the House's time to pour out a lot of nonsense—he knew it was nonsense—in the hope of doing deals with his Front Bench.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor) said, we could be forgiven for thinking that the Government do not intend to introduce any fairness into the system in time for the referendum that they have promised after the next general election, if they happen to win it. We will have a referendum if we win the election. The Government are deliberately delaying introducing that fairness because they do not want it for that referendum. As has been remarked, they are already pumping money into their side of the debate. That is why we are here this morning. We are trying to allow the people of this country to have a legitimate say in a matter that is of crucial importance to our future democracy and independence.

I had intended to raise two issues, but as one was partly dealt with by my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox)—what I would have called the thresholds involved in a referendum and what he calls the legitimacy of outcome—I will move on to the second in the interests of brevity.

That issue is the scope of referendum, and we may deal with it in Committee. We need to define to some extent the issues that could legitimately qualify for Government support. As the hon. Member for Hendon remarked, ballots of parents concerning a school would clearly be outwith the scope of any legislation dealing with referendums, which should be held on matters of national importance—issues that should be the concern of every citizen at the time of the referendum.

The question of who is to be balloted in a referendum is another issue. I mention that because, in the recent past, there have been a number of referendums dealing with matters of fundamental importance to the whole population—the future of the legitimate structure of the United Kingdom—in which voting has been restricted to certain parts of the country. Had even all those of Scottish birth been given the right to vote in the Scottish referendum, we might have had a different outcome—and that will not have escaped the Government's attention. The point of that referendum was not to take note of public opinion but to achieve the political objective of the Government of the day.

The same was true in Wales where, as has been pointed out on a number of occasions, the turnout was extremely low—that is relevant to the question of the threshold that should be allowed. In the London referendum, the turnout was derisory. However, the Government now legitimately claim that they have a mandate to go ahead with a new form of administration and, again, they have a political motive. The Government know full well that the central part of our capital city sensibly returns Conservative councils such as Westminster—despite all the abuse and concoctions of the Labour party to discredit it— and Kensington and Chelsea. Though we do not know this from elections, I suggest that the City of London would be Conservative. If we tack on Wandsworth, we have a core in the centre of London likely to remain predominantly Conservative. The Government's actions are designed to undermine that position.

That brings me to the electorate in referendums and the Government's intention to exclude certain parts of the country from the overall game plan. Most particularly, that means the people of England. They, too, have a legitimate case, under the Government's criteria, to be asked whether they want a government to handle domestic issues that affect people who live in England and no other—a government of the sort that the Scots, and, to a large extent, the Welsh, will have.

Mrs. Ellman

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Gorman

I want to make progress. The hon. Lady has made her speech and others want to contribute.

I challenge the Government to say why people in England are not to be afforded the same courtesy and democratic right accorded to other parts of the United Kingdom. Several people who have written to me about this tell me that they also write to the Prime Minister, only to be told that there is no real interest in the issue. That is not a legitimate reason for excluding the people of England, because the referendums have presented them with an anomalous situation. Major domestic concerns such as health and education and welfare will be decided by separate Parliaments in Scotland and Wales, but Scottish and Welsh representatives will be free to vote on such issues as they affect the people of England. I hope that that will be at the forefront of deliberations in Committee.

The outcome of all this should fair to all citizens. So far, the Government's referendums have been anything but. They have been politically motivated and exclusive and do not qualify as legitimate consultation of the people. Polls are one thing, but matters likely to affect the construction of the United Kingdom are for general elections. The Government would say that they brought those things up in their manifesto and that they are therefore legitimate.

When the Government ballot the people of the United Kingdom through referendums on issues fundamental to all parts of the United Kingdom, the process should include all the peoples of the United Kingdom. We have gone past that stage for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but we can still accord the same fairness and courtesy to the people of England. If the Government are not prepared to do that, and continue to hold the people of England in contempt, there will be a repercussion. The people who represent the people of England in this Chamber will surely not stand by and continue to allow those who are not elected as English Members to the Westminster Parliament to determine matters of fundamental importance to the people of England. I hope that fairness and legitimacy will be to the fore in the Committee's discussions.

1.20 pm
Mr. Gareth R. Thomas (Harrow, West)

As other hon. Members on both sides of the House have said, fair rules on referendums and elections are clearly an important issue. However, Opposition Members should be extremely wary of using words such as "democracy" and "fairness". My constituents remember only too well that the Conservative party refused to extend the remit of the Nolan committee to consider political party funding.

I am slightly surprised to see so many members of the Conservative party supporting a referendums commission in the light of the evidence that Lord Parkinson gave on its behalf to the Home Affairs Select Committee. The Committee noted that he was not convinced that an electoral commission was necessary or, indeed, that it would be desirable. It seems a remarkable volte-face, so soon after he gave that evidence, that so many Conservative Members should now support the Bill.

I fear that the Bill was born of the Conservative party's hysteria on all matters to do with the euro and their opposition to any future sensible attempts to modernise our electoral system. It is a badly drafted Bill that raises more questions than it answers. Therefore, I will not support it or urge the Government to support prolonging its life. Nevertheless, I congratulate the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) on securing such a high slot in the private Member's ballot and on the way, albeit misguided, in which he set out his case.

The background to the Bill lies in our party's decision to extend the remit of the Nolan Committee on Standards in Public Life. One of the most important recommendations made by the Neill committee was for the establishment of an elections commission. Recommendation 93 of its fifth report states that one function of such a commission should be to keep referendums and referendum campaigns under review, and that reports should be made to the Government and to Parliament about them.

In the debates on 9 November on the Neill committee's fifth report, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary clearly stated his intention to produce a draft Bill before the next summer recess and to bring forward legislation so that new rules can be in place for the next general election."—[Official Report, 9 November 1998; Vol. 319, c. 53.] The hon. Member for Blaby said in answer to my intervention that an elections commission would take over the role of a referendums commission. In the light of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary's assurance, a referendums commission is entirely unnecessary, since legislation to establish a much more crucial elections commission, with a role in referendums but with even more fundamental responsibilities, will come before the House.

In the concluding part of his speech on 9 November, the shadow Home Secretary said, or at least claimed, that he wanted to see legislation that covers all the report's proposals, for referendums as well as elections."—[Official Report, 9 November 1998; Vol. 319, c. 66.] Yet here is the Conservative parliamentary party turning out in force to support a proposal that is not in the Neill report—indeed, much of it flies in the face of what he recommended—and does not cover the bigger picture of elections.

Clauses 2 and 3 relate to the need for equal access to core funding to enable at least minimal campaigns to be mounted by designated pro and anti campaigns. Yet, in paragraph 12.35 of the fifth report, the committee states unequivocally: We believe that the new Election Commission should be the body both to receive applications for core funding from organisations intending to campaign in any referendum and to decide which of the organisations should be in receipt of the core funding. The report mentions an elections commission, not a referendums commission.

The question in my mind is why the hon. Member for Blaby, backed by so many of his hon. Friends, is proposing a referendums commission and not an elections commission. I suspect that the Conservative party fears an elections commission. It fears the honesty, transparency and integrity that a commission would demand of all political parties. The Conservative party was most reluctant to see lasting reform of party funding. The former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), consistently opposed extending the remit of the Nolan committee to party funding.

What is particularly astonishing about the Bill is the absence of a broader regime of controls recommended by the Neill report, which, over a defined period, would require the registration of any campaigning group or individual intending to incur expenditure of more than £25,000.

The Bill contains no requirement to report donations of more than £5,000 to campaigning individuals or groups. Where is any restriction on the source of donations to campaigning organisations? Specifically, why does the Bill not at least ban foreign donations? The omission of such controls has an echo in the Conservative party's reluctance to accept tighter controls on, and tighter scrutiny of, election spending. Who could forget the extent to which the Conservative party was reliant on foreign donors at the last election? There was the £1 million gift from a Hong Kong businessman, and £1.5 million from a Greek shipping owner, not to mention the Asil Nadir debacle. At the time, the Conservative party was desperate for money—any money—to try to buy election success or, more realistically, to minimise—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is going a bit wide of the Bill.

Mr. Thomas

Thank you for your advice, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Dismore

Perhaps I can help out my hon. Friend by reminding him of the suggestion that Paul Sykes might make a contribution of up to £20 million to a no campaign in the European referendum. Does that help to illustrate my hon. Friend's point?

Mr. Thomas

My hon. Friend makes a good point. I was asking why the Bill contains no ban on foreign sources of funding for referendum campaigns. Is it because, as I suspect, the hon. Member for Blaby and his right hon. and hon. Friends want to ensure that a treasure chest can be built up to buy advantage at any price in a referendum on entry to the euro, or to fight any form of sensible electoral reform?

The omission of references to the need for disclosure of the sources of funding, which was recommended by Neill not only for elections but for referendums, reminds me of the improper close relationship that existed between those who funded the Conservative party and those who held power in it, as described in Lord McAlpine's biography. Any referendum campaign must avoid such stigma, or even the hint of it, especially as the campaigns in the possible referendums on entry to the single currency and on electoral reform would inevitably be fronted by high-profile political or business figures. Without rules on disclosure and the source of donations, and thus without transparency and accountability, there will always be concern about the nature of the relationship between funders and funded in a referendum campaign.

The hon. Gentleman made much of the need for broadcast media to give equal access to both sides in a referendum campaign. I do not see what his Bill adds to existing legislative requirements, as broadcasters are already required to be impartial in their coverage of matters of political controversy. Another example of bad drafting is the absence from the Bill of a requirement for the commission to account for the expenses it incurs. Neither is it clear, either from the Bill or from the speeches in support of it, how the establishment of a permanent body dealing solely with referendums can be reconciled with the fact that referendums are, by definition, infrequent.

There is one other major omission from the Bill, which is any limit on the spending allowed during a referendum. The Neill report's recommendations that there should not be curbs on referendum expenditure are fundamentally flawed. The committee advanced two arguments for allowing any amount of spending. First, it argued that referendum campaigns are often fought by people and organisations who have never worked together, or who might not work together even during the campaign, and that it would thus be impractical to try to control campaign spending. I recognise the additional complexity that referendum campaigns bring, but I do not accept that control is impossible. The issue is one that an elections commission should explore in more detail.

The second argument against control over spending advanced by the Neill committee is that it would result in some sort of unwarranted restriction of freedom of speech, because the reasons for voting yes or no might be large in number, disparate, and even contradictory. The same conflicts exist during election campaigns, with the number of such conflicts reflecting the number of parties contesting the election. Therefore, if there should be constraints on spending during election campaigns, there should also be limits on spending during referendum campaigns.

I am extremely suspicious of the motives of Conservative Members who back the Bill. The Bill selectively picks out recommendations from the Neill committee report, it does not address key criticisms of the report and it completely ignores the need for more wide-ranging reform of our election system. That wide-ranging reform is necessary, in part to clean up and guarantee as far as is possible a continuing clean relationship between the Conservative party and its funders.

I think that this Bill is really about trying to secure an advantage for the Conservatives' position in a referendum campaign on the euro. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that he has been rumbled, that he will withdraw his Bill immediately and engage instead in a more mature and genuine debate about the rules governing both electoral and referendum campaigns when my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary publishes draft legislation this summer.

1.30 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. George Howarth)

I join other hon. Members who have congratulated the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) not only on his success in the ballot, but on raising this important issue. It has given the House a welcome opportunity to debate several important points regarding the conduct of referendums. I also thank the hon. Gentleman for the good-humoured way—for the most part—in which he introduced his Bill and for his courteous comments about me.

As many hon. Members have said, the case for a generic referendums Bill is clearly stronger now than it was 10 years ago. As several hon. Members recounted, since 1973 eight referendums have been held either throughout the United Kingdom or, more commonly, in a particular part of the country. Some might find it surprising, given the subsequent history of referendums, that it was a Conservative Government who conducted our first referendum in 1973 on whether Northern Ireland should continue to remain part of the United Kingdom.

That was followed by three referendums under the last Labour Government. The first of those, in June 1975, was on the United Kingdom's continued membership of the European Community. It remains, to date, the only occasion on which a referendum has been held throughout the country. It is worth recording that the Neill committee saw the legal and administrative arrangements for the 1975 referendum as a model for future nationwide polls. There followed, in 1979, separate referendums in Scotland and Wales on whether the devolution legislation, enacted the previous year, should be put into effect.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) pointed out, the conduct of referendums fell into disuse during the 18 years of the previous Conservative Administration. However, the Labour Government were elected with a commitment to making some sweeping changes to this country's constitution, and we believe that key parts of that programme of constitutional change should be underpinned by the explicit consent of the people affected. To this end, we have already held four referendums. The first two, in 1997, sought the endorsement—which we received—of our proposals for devolved government in Scotland and Wales. They were followed, in 1998, by referendums in London and on the establishment of the Greater London authority and in Northern Ireland on the acceptability of the Good Friday agreement respectively.

However, as most speakers have conceded, the use of referendums will probably not stop there. Our manifesto contains a number of further commitments to hold referendums at an appropriate time. Last month, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, when launching the national changeover plan, reiterated our commitment to hold a referendum on membership of the single currency after a Government decision to join. In addition to the euro, we have also said that we will hold a referendum before changing the voting system for elections to this House and before introducing directly elected regional government in England. The hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) referred to England as one region or nation. As she well knows, the Government have no plans to introduce an English Parliament, although any demand for some sort of regional government will be pursued via a referendum in the area concerned.

Our commitment to referendums to strengthen the democratic legitimacy of our new constitutional settlement is not confined to changes at national and regional levels. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister announced in the Government's White Paper on modernising local government that local people should decide, in a referendum, whether they supported the creation of a directly elected mayor.

The White Paper also signalled the Government's support for the use of referendums as an important tool to give local people more say in such issues as major local developments or matters of particular local controversy. Several hon. Members have referred to that important and welcome development.

Mr. Letwin

Does the Minister recall the words of the Prime Minister, who stated: I want to renew faith in politics through a government that will … play by the rules"? Will he now give a categorical assurance that his Government will not hold any more referendums beyond those that he has already described without implementing rules to give effect to those words?

Mr. Howarth

The hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) asked specific questions to that effect and I shall answer those in due course, so if the hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) exercises a little patience, I will come to that point.

It is clear from the agenda for modernising the political structures of our country that referendums will continue to play an important part in our political life. That was recognised by the Neill committee's report on the funding of political parties and the Electoral Reform Society's commission on the conduct of referendums, which reported in 1996 under the chairmanship of Sir Patrick Nairne. The right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan) and the hon. Member for Blaby referred to the work done by Sir Patrick Nairne and those who sat on his commission.

Until now, the practice has been to organise referendums case by case. In seven out of the eight referendums that have so far been held, statutory authority for the poll was derived from dedicated primary legislation. In the eighth case—the 1998 Northern Ireland poll—the statutory authority was derived from an order made under the Northern Ireland (Entry to Negotiations, etc) Act 1996.

It is clear from a quick reading of the various referendum Acts that there is now a reasonably well-established set of statutory provisions that are needed to provide for a referendum to be held. Typically, legislation for holding referendums has defined persons eligible to vote. The hon. Member for Billericay implied that anybody who has Scottish ancestry should have had a vote in the Scottish referendum, even if they did not live in Scotland. We do not agree, but it is important, as she suggested, to define who is eligible and who is not. The legislation usually needs also to specify the question.

Mrs. Gorman

My point was that the entire population should be considered suitable to express a view on an issue that concerns the whole nation. I was referring not only to people of Scottish ancestry, but the population of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Howarth

I am sorry—I had misunderstood the hon. Lady.

The legislation must also determine the date of the referendum, provide for the appointment of a chief counting officer with responsibility for counting the votes and announcing the result and provide powers to adapt existing electoral machinery as necessary.

In addition, the Referendum Act 1975 provided for grants to be made towards the cost of campaigning. That subject has been well ventilated during the debate, it is dealt with in the Bill, and I shall return to it later. The Neill committee's recommendations consider other issues, such as the registration of campaign organisations, to which I shall also return in due course.

If, as appears to be the case, referendums are to become a permanent feature of our political life, there is certainly an argument for setting up standing machinery for their conduct. We have such machinery for elections, so why not for referendums? There is a good deal of force in that argument, but, on the other hand, the process of selecting items for inclusion in a generic referendums Bill is, as the debate has demonstrated, by no means straightforward.

Mr. Cash

The Minister may recall the rather controversial Referendum Bill that I introduced in 1996, which caused something of a furore, and my Maastricht referendum campaign, which attracted 350,000 signatures, in 1993. That campaign was chaired by me, a Liberal Democrat and a Labour Member. At the heart of our debate is not simply the question of the generics of the Bill, but the extent to which the people may be misled if broadcasting is not accurate and impartial. Will the Minister be good enough to tell me whether the Government's Bill, like this Bill, will include specific and legally accurate provisions to ensure due impartiality on the part of Eurorealists and Europhiles? This is not a party political issue.

Mr. Howarth

The hon. Gentleman mentions fairness in broadcasting. If he will bear with me, I shall cover that point later.

I have already outlined the type of provisions that have typically featured in dedicated referendum Acts. We need to pause before throwing all the individual ingredients into a generic referendums Bill. One approach might be to create a broad order-making power enabling a referendum to be called on any issue. The effect of that, however, would be to restrict Parliament's ability to debate the merits of holding a referendum on any particular issue, the wording of the question and the timing of the poll. There is a strong argument for saying that, on matters of national constitutional significance, there should be a full opportunity for Parliament to give its consent to each and every referendum, and that Parliament should set the question.

If we put to one side the question and the timing of any given referendum, we are left with the nuts and bolts of referendums. As the Neill committee recognised, however, these are still matters of great importance. Like justice, referendums must be conducted, and be seen to be conducted, fairly—I think that the hon. Member for Blaby made the same point in slightly different words. A generic referendums Bill could establish clear ground rules to ensure that that is so.

The Bill properly focuses on two ground rules—core public funding and equal access to the broadcast media—but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will concede that there are others. If we are to have ground rules, as I believe that we must, perhaps the first question to ask is, who or what sort of body is to police them? The Bill provides for the establishment of a referendums commission, as recommended by, I think, the Nairne commission—I believe that the hon. Gentleman conceded that his proposal was taken from that model—and as supported by the Jenkins commission on the voting system. The hon. Gentleman has sensibly been open in recognising that his referendums commission is intended only as an interim arrangement until a more suitable body is established under subsequent legislation.

During the debate on the Neill committee's report on 9 November last year, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary announced that the Government had accepted the case for the establishment of an electoral commission. As my right hon. Friend said in that debate, we are considering the precise role and remit of the electoral commission.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) said, it is clear that we do not want a plethora of bodies responsible for different aspects of elections, as well as referendums. If Parliament determines that a body of this kind should have functions in relation to referendums, it would make every sense to confer those functions on the electoral commission. Precisely what that entails remains at this stage a matter for more detailed consideration, but there must be some doubt about the wisdom of setting up a separate referendums commission at a time when the Government have accepted the need for an electoral commission, and there are no new referendums on the immediate horizon. I shall return to that point. It is perfectly possible that a body established in this way would never have any role before being superseded by the electoral commission.

The Government will want to use the next few months—

Mr. Damian Green (Ashford)


Mr. Howarth

I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman, but I must then make progress.

Mr. Green

Will the Minister confirm that he is telling the House that there will be no referendums between now and the next general election, including one on the electoral system?

Mr. Howarth

I have told the hon. Member for West Dorset that I intend to answer that question shortly so, if the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) will bear with me, I shall return to it.

During the next few months, we want to consider carefully how the electoral commission should be structured. I chair a working party on electorate procedures, on which the Conservative party and Liberal Democrat party are represented. Yesterday, we had a detailed and useful discussion on what the functions of an electoral commission should be, and what enabled us to discover variations in our thinking. We are not just treading water; something is happening. Discussions are taking place, and this debate is part of that discussion. The proceedings of that working party, on which both the opposition parties are represented, are also part of the consideration.

As the Neill committee said, the commission should be independent of Government and, as far as possible, the arrangements for making appointments to the commission and for setting its budget should reflect its independent status. On the appointments side, the hon. Member for Blaby has built in a role for the Speaker. That is one approach, and I would not rule out a role for the Speaker in connection with the electoral commission, but I would not in any way take the role or consent of the Speaker for granted at this stage of our debate.

The Bill is less forthcoming on the arrangements for setting the referendums commission's budget. There is the usual provision for money to be provided by Parliament to meet the commission's expenses, but the implication is that the commission's budget should be part of a departmental vote. The Neill committee pointed out that the mechanism for setting the budget of the National Audit Office provides a useful precedent, and it is one that we want to examine further.

I am sure that the House will agree that it is important to get the structure of the supervisory body right and to consider carefully the functions that it will need. The Nairne commission helpfully identified several possible functions—advising on the wording of the question; allocating funding to campaign groups; liaising with, and acting as a moderator between, any campaign groups; acting in an ombudsman role to deal with any complaints; monitoring balanced access to broadcast media; providing public information, including a balanced statement of the opposing arguments; and supervising the organisation of polling stations and counting and declaration arrangements. The commission also suggested that a continuing role might be to identify lessons from each referendum and to recommend any necessary changes in procedure for future referendums.

That is an impressive list, which requires detailed analysis. The promoter and sponsors of the Bill have obviously concluded that their referendums commission should have a more limited remit. On my reading of the Bill, the proposed commission's functions would be limited to advising and reporting on referendums in general; advising on the wording of the question; designating a referendum campaign body for each possible outcome; making grants to such designated campaign bodies; and reporting on the conduct of each referendum.

There may be a closer affinity between the functions that I have just listed and the functions recommended by the Neill committee, but even the list that I just enumerated is no small undertaking. We need to be sure that the functions conferred on any oversight body are appropriate. For example, should a referendums commission have a role in relation to all national, regional and local referendums? My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) drew attention to some of the difficulties that might arise in that regard.

Clause 4 requires the referendums commission to make a report to the Secretary of State on the conduct of any referendum conducted under any enactment". As I read the Bill, that could include local referendums.

I have mentioned the Deputy Prime Minister's plans for local consultative referendums on such issues as major local developments and matters of local controversy. Those consultative referendums would be in addition to the binding referendums on whether there should be a directly elected mayor. The proposals in the Bill create potential for hundreds of local referendums to be conducted throughout the country every year. If the referendums commission was expected to report on every local referendum, it would need very many staff.

I am sure that the hon. Member for Blaby would agree that a balance must be achieved. We do not yet have a ready answer to that problem, but my instinct is that the Bill has not quite achieved a balance, although I accept that that is not as a result of prejudice on the hon. Gentleman's part, but simply reflects the complexity of the issues involved.

Clause 2 would provide for the designation, by the referendums commission, of referendum campaign organisations. The clause seeks to implement recommendation 85 of the Neill report, which provided that the Election Commission should decide which organisations, if any, should be in receipt of core funding". There is, however, a key difference between what the clause provides for and the substance of the recommendation. The Neill committee acknowledged that identifying one organisation on either side of a referendum campaign which stood out from all other such organisations may not always be straightforward.

In 1975, the position was clear. The Government issued a White Paper, which advised: The Government are prepared to consider providing limited financial assistance, to be equally divided between the two sides, if it is possible to identify two organisations which adequately represent those campaigning for and against continued membership of the Community. Events moved rapidly, to such an extent that, when the Referendum Bill was published on 26 March 1975, it provided for grants to be made to two named organisations: Britain in Europe and the National Referendum Campaign. It must be remembered that, at that time, the political landscape was in many ways not as complicated or crowded as it is today.

Other more recent referendum campaigns have spawned their own umbrella cross-party groups. Although such umbrella groups have emerged more often than not, the Neill committee pointed to the no campaign in Scotland in 1997 and the yes campaign in Northern Ireland in 1998, where such groups were not an obvious feature of the campaign.

Clause 2(2) requires the referendums commission to certify one organisation on each side as the designated referendum campaign". As my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley pointed out, such a provision could place the commission in a very difficult, if not impossible, position. As the Neill committee sensibly recommended, it would be unwise to box the commission into such a corner.

Another potential difficulty for the electoral commission is that the Bill refers to each of the possible outcomes in a referendum. In most cases, as the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) suggested, the possible outcomes are clear because electors are asked to vote either yes or no to a single question, or for one of two opposing propositions. The 1997 Scottish devolution referendum does not, however, fit neatly into this framework.

The House will recall that, in 1997, the Scottish people were presented with a two-part ballot paper. Voters were asked, first, to indicate whether they agreed or disagreed that there should be a Scottish Parliament, and secondly, whether they agreed or disagreed that a Scottish Parliament should have tax-varying powers. In theory, therefore, there were four possible outcomes: yes to a Scottish Parliament and yes to giving it tax-varying powers; no to both; yes to a Scottish Parliament, but no to giving it tax-varying powers; and no to a Scottish Parliament, but yes to giving it tax-varying powers.

Mr. Cash

Will the hon. Gentleman please answer this question: is he suggesting that, under the Bill, there could be two questions in a referendum—one asking people whether they wanted a single currency, and the other asking people whether they wanted to be part of the European Union? If that is what the Government have in mind, they are following a very dangerous path.

Mr. Howarth

The hon. Gentleman knows full well that that was not what I meant. I was merely referring to the fact that, in different campaigns and referendums, there could be more complicated sets of questions.

In practice, in the Scottish devolution referendum, campaigners fought for either a yes or a no vote to both propositions. None the less, given four possible outcomes, the referendums commission would be obliged under the Bill to designate four referendum campaign organisations, and pay each of them a grant in order that a campaign may be conducted. That example, and others that we have heard, demonstrate the difficulty of setting up a framework that covers all possible future circumstances. Despite the difficulties, we should not be put off trying to find a workable solution. All credit is due to the hon. Member for Blaby for introducing the Bill so that we can begin to discuss the issues.

Once we get over the problem of identifying the lead campaign body on each side of the referendum, there is the question of core funding, which several hon. Members raised. Clause 3(1) provides for grants to be made to the designated referendum campaigns and stipulates, in paragraph (b), that the same amount must be given to each side. It is worth spending a little time examining that proposition.

Recommendation 84 of the Neill report did indeed propose that each side should be given equal access to an amount of core funding". From the preceding paragraphs in the report, it is clear that the concern was that each side should have sufficient funds to enable it to mount a minimum campaign. By "sufficient funds", the Neill Committee meant sufficient to cover minimal office accommodation, the purchase or rental of a quantity of office equipment and supplies, and the salaries of three or four members of staff for the duration of the campaign". In making that recommendation, as the right hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor) accepted, the Neill Committee pointed to the precedent of the 1975 referendum. Section 3 of the Referendum Act 1975 provided for a grant not exceeding £125,000 to be made to the two main campaign organisations.

The official accounts of Britain in Europe and the National Referendum Campaign were published in October 1975 (Cmnd. 6215). As an historical insight into the politics of the 1970s, that document makes interesting reading. As well as the audited receipts and payments accounts, the document lists all the individual donations of £100 or more received by the two campaigns.

The list for Britain in Europe—the yes campaign—includes the names of 369 individuals and organisations who together donated nearly £1 million. The list reads like a "Who's Who" of British industry and commerce, including as it does such companies as ICI, Marks and Spencer, Shell UK and the Rank Organisation. The list of donors to the National Referendum Campaign—the no campaign—makes rather more poignant reading. There were just seven individuals or organisations identified as having given more than £100.

The key fact that the accounts reveal is that the Government grant to the Britain in Europe campaign represented only 8 per cent. of its total income, whereas the grant to the National Referendum Campaign represented a massive 94 per cent. of its total income. In a typically thoughtful speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) alluded to that problem, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas).

If the purpose of core funding is to ensure that each side has sufficient funds to run at least a minimal campaign, it is arguable whether it was strictly necessary in 1975 to award funding to the Britain in Europe campaign at all. I am not making the case one way or the other, but simply posing the question whether the requirement to be fair to each side overrides all other considerations.

Dr. Fox

The Minister has been speaking for 29 minutes. He has three times said that he would answer a straight question. Will or will not the Government give a commitment that they will not introduce proposals for a referendum in this country until fair rules are established, under this Bill or subsequent legislation?

Mr. Howarth

If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, I intend to cover that in my speech. If he will exercise a little patience, I shall deal with the matter—there is plenty of time.

The question is whether, in the circumstances that I described, it was necessary to give a commitment to funding for both sides. Where core funding is available, it seems sensible not to spread it too thinly across a number of campaigning groups. The Neill committee's approach, which the Bill adopts, was to allocate the funding to only one organisation on each side of the referendum. However, we should not lose sight of the fact that there may be many other organisations, in addition to the lead umbrella groups, that are campaigning in the referendum.

Mr. Robathan

rose in his place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put.

Question put, That the Question be now put:—

The House divided: Ayes 129, Noes 5.

Division No. 121] [2 pm
Ainsworth, Peter (E Surrey) Johnson Smith, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey
Amess, David
Arbuthnot, Rt Hon James Key, Robert
Atkinson, David (Bour'mth E) King, Rt Hon Tom (Bridgwater)
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham) Kirkbride, Miss Julie
Baker, Norman Laing, Mrs Eleanor
Baldry, Tony Lait, Mrs Jacqui
Benn, Rt Hon Tony Lansley, Andrew
Bercow, John Letwin, Oliver
Beresford, Sir Paul Lewis, Dr Julian (New Forest E)
Body, Sir Richard Lidington, David
Boswell, Tim Lloyd, Rt Hon Sir Peter (Fareham)
Bottomley, Peter (Worthing W) Loughton, Tim
Bottomley, Rt Hon Mrs Virginia Luff, Peter
Brooke, Rt Hon Peter Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas
Browning, Mrs Angela MacGregor, Rt Hon John
Bruce, Ian (S Dorset) MacKay, Rt Hon Andrew
Burns, Simon Maclean, Rt Hon David
Butterfill, John Maclennan, Rt Hon Robert
Cash, William McLoughlin, Patrick
Chapman, Sir Sydney (Chipping Barnet) Madel, Sir David
Malins, Humfrey
Chope, Christopher Mates, Michael
Clappison, James May, Mrs Theresa
Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey Moss, Malcolm
Collins, Tim Nicholls, Patrick
Colvin, Michael Norman, Archie
Cormack, Sir Patrick Ottaway, Richard
Cran, James Page, Richard
Curry, Rt Hon David Paice, James
Davis, Rt Hon David (Haltemprice & Howden) Paterson, Owen
Pickles, Eric
Day, Stephen Prior, David
Dorrell, Rt Hon Stephen Randall, John
Duncan, Alan Redwood, Rt Hon John
Evans, Nigel Robathan, Andrew
Faber, David Robertson, Laurence (Tewk'b'ry)
Fallon, Michael Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne)
Flight, Howard Rowe, Andrew (Faversham)
Forth, Rt Hon Eric St Aubyn, Nick
Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman Soames, Nicholas
Fox, Dr Liam Spelman, Mrs Caroline
Fraser, Christopher Spicer, Sir Michael
Garnier, Edward Spring, Richard
Gibb, Nick Steen, Anthony
Gill, Christopher Streeter, Gary
Goodlad, Rt Hon Sir Alastair Swayne, Desmond
Gorman, Mrs Teresa Syms, Robert
Gray, James Tapsell, Sir Peter
Green, Damian Taylor, Ian (Esher & Walton)
Greenway, John Taylor, John M (Solihull)
Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archie Taylor, Sir Teddy
Hammond, Philip Townend, John
Hawkins, Nick Tredinnick, David
Hayes, John Trend, Michael
Heald, Oliver Tyrie, Andrew
Heathcoat-Amory, Rt Hon David Walter, Robert
Horam, John Wardle, Charles
Howard, Rt Hon Michael Waterson, Nigel
Howarth, Gerald (Aldershot) Wells, Bowen
Hunter, Andrew Whitney, Sir Raymond
Jenkin, Bernard Whittingdale, John
Wilkinson, John Yeo, Tim
Willetts, David Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Wilshire, David
Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton) Tellers for the Ayes:
Winterton, Nicholas (Macclesfield) Mr. Edward Leigh and Mr. Dominic Grieve.
Woodward, Shaun
Dismore, Andrew Whitehead, Dr Alan
Ellman, Mrs Louise Tellers for the Noes:
Hill, Keith Ms Bridget Prentice and Mr. Gareth R. Thomas.
Sedgemore, Brian

Question accordingly agreed to.

Question put accordingly, That the Bill be now read a Second time:—

The House Divided:Ayes 128, Noes 0.

Division No. 122] [2.11 pm
Ainsworth, Peter (E Surrey) Hammond, Philip
Amess, David Hawkins, Nick
Arbuthnot, Rt Hon James Hayes, John
Atkinson, David (Bour'mth E) Heald, Oliver
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham) Heathcoat-Amory, Rt Hon David
Baker, Norman Horam, John
Baldry, Tony Howard, Rt Hon Michael
Benn, Rt Hon Tony Hunter, Andrew
Bercow, John Jenkin, Bernard
Beresford, Sir Paul Johnson Smith, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey
Body, Sir Richard
Boswell, Tim Key, Robert
Bottomley, Peter (Worthing W) King, Rt Hon Tom (Bridgwater)
Bottomley, Rt Hon Mrs Virginia Kirkbride, Miss Julie
Brooke, Rt Hon Peter Laing, Mrs Eleanor
Browning, Mrs Angela Lait, Mrs Jacqui
Bruce, Ian (S Dorset) Lansley, Andrew
Burns, Simon Letwin, Oliver
Butterfill, John Lewis, Dr Julian (New Forest E)
Cash, William Lidington, David
Chapman, Sir Sydney (Chipping Barnet) Lilley, Rt Hon Peter
Lloyd, Rt Hon Sir Peter (Fareham)
Chope, Christopher Loughton, Tim
Clappison, James Luff, Peter
Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas
Collins, Tim MacGregor, Rt Hon John
Colvin, Michael MacKay, Rt Hon Andrew
Cormack, Sir Patrick Maclennan, Rt Hon Robert
Cran, James McLoughlin, Patrick
Curry, Rt Hon David Madel, Sir David
Davis, Rt Hon David (Haltemprice & Howden) Malins, Humfrey
Mates, Michael
Day, Stephen May, Mrs Theresa
Dorrell, Rt Hon Stephen Moss, Malcolm
Duncan, Alan Nicholls, Patrick
Evans, Nigel Norman, Archie
Faber, David Ottaway, Richard
Fallon, Michael Page, Richard
Flight, Howard Paice, James
Forth, Rt Hon Eric Paterson, Owen
Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman Pickles, Eric
Fox, Dr Liam Prior, David
Fraser, Christopher Randall, John
Garnier, Edward Redwood, Rt Hon John
Gibb, Nick Robathan, Andrew
Gill, Christopher Robertson, Laurence (Tewk'b'ry)
Goodlad, Rt Hon Sir Alastair Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne)
Gorman, Mrs Teresa Rowe, Andrew (Faversham)
Gray, James St Aubyn, Nick
Green, Damian Soames, Nicholas
Greenway, John Spelman, Mrs Caroline
Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archie Spicer, Sir Michael
Spring, Richard Waterson, Nigel
Steen, Anthony Wells, Bowen
Streeter, Gary Whitney, Sir Raymond
Swayne, Desmond Whittingdale, John
Syms, Robert Wilkinson, John
Tapsell, Sir Peter Willetts, David
Taylor, Ian (Esher& Walton) Wilshire, David
Taylor, John M (Solihull) Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)
Taylor, Sir Teddy Winterton, Nicholas (Macclesfield)
Townend, John Woodward, Shaun
Tredinnick, David Yeo, Tim
Trend, Michael Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Tyrie, Andrew Tellers for the Ayes:
Walter, Robert Mr. Dominic Grieve and Mr. Edward Leigh.
Wardle, Charles
Tellers for the Noes:
Mr. Gerald Howarth and Mr. David Maclean.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Bill read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee, pursuant to Standing Order No. 63(1) (Committal of Bills).