HC Deb 14 March 2000 vol 346 cc231-43
Mr. Mike O'Brien

I beg to move amendment No. 110, in page 146, leave out lines 5 to 11.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Amendment No. 182, in page 69, line 11, leave out Clause 111.

Amendment No. 151, in page 148, line 25, leave out Schedule 13.

Amendment No. 146, in page 75, line 17, leave out Clause 122.

Government amendment No. 82.

Mr. O'Brien

I shall deal first with the Government amendments and then turn to those tabled by the Opposition.

When we considered schedule 12 as a Committee of the whole House, the hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) suggested that sub-paragraphs (a) and (b) in paragraph 2 looked out of place. We considered that matter and we agree: schedule 12 is almost the mirror image of schedule 7. Although the exclusions to which the sub-paragraphs relate are appropriate in the context of election campaign expenditure—for example in a general election—they do not fit the circumstances of referendum campaigns. He pointed that out, and we were happy to table amendment No. 110, which would remove those two sub-paragraphs. I hope that it will command the broad support of the House.

I will take the remaining amendments in the group in reverse order. Government amendment No. 82 amends clause 144 so as to add to the list of delegated powers that are subject to the affirmative resolution procedure the order-making power in clause 122. Amendment No. 182, tabled by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) and his colleagues, takes a more drastic approach: it would delete the whole clause and with it the order-making power.

The House will recall that clause 122 was added to the Bill in Committee. It is fair to say that the new clause generated some heat at the end of proceedings on 16 February. It may be as well, therefore, for me to take this opportunity to say a little more about the order-making power set out in the clause.

The purpose of the clause is to enable the Secretary of State to make provision for the conduct of a referendum to which part VII applies. Although, in accordance with precedent, the clause uses the word "conduct", it is in fact concerned with the administration of a referendum—the nuts and bolts of the polling arrangements. An order made under clause 122 may be expected to do no more than apply to a referendum the relevant provisions of the Representation of the People Acts and regulations. An order would thus be concerned with such matters as postal voting, the provision of polling stations, the issue of polling cards and the hours of polling. Those are important but none the less administrative matters, which can sensibly be left to subordinate legislation.

As was pointed out in Committee, there are several precedents for this order-making power, including legislation passed by previous Conservative Administrations—namely the Northern Ireland (Border Poll) Act 1972. Other precedents include the Referendum Act 1975, the Scotland Act 1978, the Wales Act 1978 and, more recently, the Greater London Authority (Referendum) Act 1998. The arrangements for the conduct of the elections to the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales also derive from subordinate legislation made under the Scotland Act 1998 and the Government of Wales Act 1998.

I hope that the House will be reassured that we are creating nothing sinister—nothing that may give the Secretary of State power mendaciously to influence the outcome of a referendum campaign. The provision is simply concerned with the mere mechanics of a referendum poll. I point out to the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire that, if any legal dispute should arise, Pepper v. Hart will apply. No doubt he has had a chance to look it up overnight.

It is appropriate that such an order should be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. I therefore commend amendment No. 82 to the House.

7.45 pm

I turn now to amendments Nos. 182 and 151. It is true that, in its original report, the Neill committee recommended against spending limits in referendum campaigns. Both in the report and in their comments on the draft Bill, members of the committee made it clear that its difficulty with spending limits was based not so much on principle, but on practical grounds. We have rehearsed that argument, so I shall not go into it at great length. The committee had particularly in mind the transient nature of some referendum campaign organisations.

The Government are not persuaded that the practical difficulties are too great. The Neill committee had already recommended that referendum campaign organisations—not merely those in receipt of public funds, but any that intended to spend more than the de minimis limit—should register with the Electoral Commission. That requirement provides in itself much of the control machinery needed for the imposition of expenditure limits. There is no reason why it should be more difficult, practically and technically, to impose spending limits in referendum campaigns than it is to impose them in constituency election contests or—perhaps I dare say it—campaigns to be mayor of London.

As to the principle, the Government take the view that it is every bit as desirable to prevent a referendum campaign from being skewed by the amount of money at the disposal of particular participants as it would be in a general election campaign.

The official Opposition have not really answered that point. There has been much huffing and puffing, but no clear statement as to why they oppose expenditure controls. One of their arguments is that Neill did not recommend them; another is that they would be difficult to organise. However, that does not go to the nub of the issue: why—if it were possible to do so—do the Opposition believe that we should get involved in some form of arms race over who can spend the most in a referendum campaign? That is undesirable. The point is to allow people to choose; it is not about who can spend the most on putting out propaganda. As the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) remarked in Committee, the Conservatives seem to confuse expenditure controls with the amounts available to parties and other organisations.

The serious point, which cannot be gainsaid, is that expenditure controls on parties and organisations cannot be relied on to ensure that the same amount is spent by both sides in a referendum campaign. We have been over that ground on previous occasions. As no scheme has been suggested to achieve that result, it is common ground in the House that it would not be practicable. However, that does not dispose of the case for expenditure controls with more limited objectives and, possibly, more modest results.

We have consistently kept an open mind on the detail of the scheme—especially the figures in schedule 13. We adjusted the limits for political parties, and the basis for such limits, in response to the comments of the Neill committee on the draft Bill. We have continued to invite Opposition Members to tell us if they think that the figures should be further varied.

The official Opposition have consistently declined to make any suggestions; they simply say that they want no limits at all. They are not prepared to enter serious discussions on how we can ensure that people have a choice that is not skewed by an arms race for who can spend the most. Their only reply to our request to enter that debate is that it is all too difficult. Obviously, we shall vote on whether there should be expenditure controls. However, if there is to be a scheme—as we say there should be—the detail is as right as we could fairly and reasonably make it.

We continue to think that it is only realistic to regard the larger political parties as likely to want to participate in a referendum campaign, and that the spending limits should reflect the electoral support they enjoy. However, the Bill does not require a party to participate in a campaign; for example, a party may not do so because it is split or for other reasons.

We have tried to take a principled view; it is right to have expenditure controls, but we do not want an arms race during a referendum campaign. We invited the Conservatives to join us in supporting that view and to discuss how it might be applied. However, they seem to reject the principle altogether. I regret that. If we really care about democracy and the way in which a referendum campaign is conducted, we should try to ensure that there is a reasonably fair playing field. We want to ensure a rough balance—it could never be perfect—so that the people who decide the outcome of the referendum can make up their minds, exercise their judgment and come to a conclusion based on a fair and reasonably balanced presentation of the evidence.

That is how we intend to progress. I hope that, even at this late stage, the Conservatives will join us.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

Before I move to the more substantive issues, I wish to press the Minister about Government amendment No. 110. It applies to the exclusion on direct expenses in schedule 12. He pointed out that paragraph 2 of schedule 12 bears a remarkable similarity to paragraph 2 of schedule 7, which is about exclusions on direct expenses in an election. He pointed out that that was not entirely appropriate, particularly because paragraph 2 of schedule 7 refers to expenses in respect of giving electors information about their elected representatives or existing or prospective candidates. He made the point that, although that provision was appropriate for a general election, it was obviously not appropriate for a referendum.

Government amendment No. 110. goes slightly further. It will delete paragraph 2(b) of schedule 12. That means that any expenses incurred in sending unsolicited material to supporters of a referendum campaign will no longer be excluded. However, it seems to me that, under the provisions of paragraph 2(b) of schedule 7, identical expenditure seems to be excluded, because it refers to any expenses incurred in respect of unsolicited material addressed to party members. It is not immediately clear why it is right to exclude the expenses when one sends unsolicited material to party members, but include them when one sends unsolicited material to supporters of a referendum campaign.

The Minister may be able to tell us why he wants to delete paragraph 2(b) of schedule 12, and I have no argument about knocking out sub-paragraph (a). However, the reasons for the Government's approach are not immediately clear.

The debate revisits familiar territory, but it would be wrong to let Report stage pass without reference to the most fundamental divergence from the recommendations of the Neill committee. At an appropriate time, the Opposition hope to move formally amendments Nos. 182 and 146 and take the temperature of the House on these constitutional issues. I shall talk to amendments Nos. 182 and 151 and my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) wishes to talk to amendment No. 146.

The Minister and the House know our views, which I set out in Committee on 16 February when I was ably assisted by my right hon. and hon. Friends, and in particular by my right hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor). I do not want to repeat that case, but I want to advance the argument by considering the two principal reasons given by the Minister when he resisted our amendment. First, he argued that if, as we have agreed, it is right and practical to control spending at major general elections, it is right and practical to control spending in referendum campaigns. I leave unanswered the question about what might be a minor general election.

I want to address the key argument that the Minister has used time and again, and which he has repeated this evening. He argues that if one can cap spending at a general election, one can cap spending in a referendum. That argument was demolished by Lord Neill, and nothing that the Minister has said in the two months since Second Reading has addressed the fundamental point that Lord Neill made. He considered the Government's case and rejected it in paragraphs 12.20 to 12.22 of his report.

Referendum campaigns are not, as the Minister tells us time and again, the same as general election campaigns. Everyone in the House knows that they are different. In a referendum, we are not choosing a Government, the parties may be split and other organisations are involved. In paragraph 12.30 of his report, Lord Neill concluded: To represent referendum campaigns as merely another manifestation of the usual party political battle seems to us both misconceived in principle and false to the history of referendums since 1975. We have heard that case repeated this evening, without Lord Neill's objection being addressed. The Government's case for limits is based on that false premise.

At no time have the Government begun to answer a related question. Why should one base what might be spent in a referendum campaign on, for example, proportional representation for Westminster on how many votes the Labour party received at a general election in which it was neutral on the issue of proportional representation? Trying to base referendum spending limits on votes at the previous general election has no argument of principle whatever to sustain it, and nor has the Minister advanced any.

As we have heard in many debates today and in Committee, the limits are shot to shreds by loopholes. Foreign residents can take space in newspaper advertisements without restrictions thanks to the European convention on human rights. The 24 trade unions that are affiliated to the Labour party can each spend £500,000, lifting the Labour party limit from £5 million to £17 million at a stroke. As we have just heard, one can buy a newspaper—as long as it is the right newspaper—without the limits applying. The argument that one can cap spending in a referendum campaign in the same way that one can cap spending in a general election campaign simply does not stand up to scrutiny.

The Minister's second argument was that our amendments were a Conservative ploy—a devious attempt by my party somehow to secure advantage. We propose what the Neill committee proposed unanimously. The rules that we want are those that the Government have already applied themselves. The Minister said: We believe that it is simply undesirable to have referendums bought by those who are able to pay the largest sums.—[Official Report, 16 February 2000: Vol. 344, c. 1038-39.] However, all that he is doing is substituting that undesirability with another one. Referendums will be bought by those who are allowed to pay the largest sum. We have explained time and again how, in a referendum on the euro, the scales might be tipped in favour of one side.

The Home Secretary defended those limits by saying that the Liberal Democrats would not be able to spend up to that limit. That is not a powerful argument, not least because, under the Bill, the Labour party could, if it wanted to, give the Liberal Democrats the money to support a campaign for the euro.

Mr. Stunell

The right hon. Gentleman's scenario is improbable. Should he be successful in deleting clause 111, the Labour party could send us an even bigger cheque.

Sir George Young

I am not sure of the logic of that suggestion. However, I am disappointed that the Conservative party does not feature in any way in that important financial transaction. Perhaps we could receive a commission for facilitating such a transaction between the two main parties.

Mr. Stunell

The right hon. Gentleman is at least right about the two main parties. The point that I did not make more explicit—I apologise for that—is that all the things that he has described could happen several times over in a regime with no limits. The restrictions provide some limitation.

Sir George Young

The hon. Gentleman has to address at some point the recommendations of the Neill committee and why it unanimously came to the conclusion that it was impractical to impose limits on referendum campaigns. Although I noticed on the previous occasion we debated this issue that the Liberal Democrats supported the Government, I hope that they will consider the arguments that Neill advanced and the criticisms of the Government's proposal. Perhaps, in another place, they will have second thoughts.

I regret that the Government will not see reason on our suggestion. The scheme that they are persisting with is based on a flawed policy. It has no basis in principle and it will be impossible to implement in practice. At the appropriate time, I shall invite my hon. Friends to express that view in the Lobby.

Mr. Stunell

Three separate issues have come to the fore, and I shall comment briefly on each of them.

I, too, would like to hear from the Minister about the detail of the practical effect of Government amendment No. 110. As I understand it, in the first formulation, leaflets distributed during a campaign are exempt because they will be included elsewhere in the election expenses of individual campaigns. Perhaps the Minister could confirm that. In a referendum, where there is not an individual campaign as such, those leaflets will be included in the global figure.

8 pm

If that is the basis on which we are proceeding, that is fine, but there is potentially a category that is exempted in the first case and now will not be exempted in the second case. I refer to wider campaign literature that does not specifically advocate the case of particular candidates. I seek clarification on that point.

We debated expenditure limits in a Committee of the whole House, and I thought that the intellectual case made by several Conservative spokesmen did not stand the test of the debate, and the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) as good as conceded the case. The argument is straightforward: the rules and procedures set out in the Bill mean that each political party has a ceiling on the contribution that it can make to a referendum campaign. That ceiling is effectively £5 million each for the Conservative and Labour parties, a lesser amount for the Liberal Democrats, and £500,000 for any other party with representation in this House.

If one took the gloomiest view from the Conservatives' perspective, which is that every other party in the House was opposed to the Conservatives' case in a referendum on proportional representation or the euro—they are on the losing side of those arguments, in their perception at least—and spent up to its limit, the total ceiling would be under £20 million. If there were no financial limits and every party in the House other than the Conservatives chose to invest in a referendum campaign the amount that the Conservatives invested in the general election, they would spend some £260 million.

The Conservatives' choice is between no limits, which may mean that some £300 million or even £400 million is spent, or spending that is regulated, however inadequately in their view, which would mean that the disadvantage suffered by them or by minority parties in a referendum campaign—I do not necessarily mean political parties—would not be so great.

The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) suggested that perhaps I had not addressed the intellectual case set out in the Neill report. I put it to him that he has not addressed the intellectual case of the sheer mathematics of the Bill's provisions, as opposed to the alternative of having no limits at all.

Having no spending limits would mean no constraints on the spending of the parties, and therefore on the side of the argument with the biggest and deepest pockets.

Sometimes that will suit cases that the right hon. Gentleman wishes to advocate, sometimes it will suit those that I want to advocate, and there may be occasions when we are on the same side, but that is not the best way to reach decisions in a democracy. While we are introducing a formal process for the general regulation of referendums, we should introduce financial controls as well.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that in a referendum the party with the deepest pockets will always be the Government? We saw in the Welsh referendum the extent to which the Government were able to use all their agencies of publicity to put across their case.

Mr. Stunell

That might be generally true, but there is every indication that in a referendum on the euro, both sides of the argument would have supporters in the UK with very deep pockets, and I would not like to match my personal bank account against that of Mr. Sykes. Time will tell which side of the argument has the money. If we have no financial regulation, and if the hon. Gentleman's point is correct, the Government of the day will be in a position to win every referendum simply because they have the deepest pockets, so I should have thought that his point was an argument in favour of spending limits to level the playing field for the small guys putting a minority view.

We shall support the retention of clause 111. We believe that there should be spending limits. The reasoning used by the Conservatives in Committee was flawed, and they are making a mistake in using it now.

I deal now with clause 122 and the powers of the Secretary of State. We were concerned about those powers when they were imported into the Bill. We had some reassurance from the Minister about their limited nature and the fact that they will be tempered with mercy, so we do not need to worry about them. That is fine, but I want to hear a good deal more from the Minister about precisely how those powers are being circumscribed.

I repeat that we are making legislation that history suggests will last for a long time. The last thorough overhaul of such legislation was in 1883—117 years ago. We are putting in place the foundations of legislation, particularly on referendums, which may not be revisited for a long time. Certainly the legislation will outlast the ministerial lifetime of the present Secretary of State and probably of several Secretaries of State after that. [Interruption.] Well, the Home Secretary may remain in post for 117 years, but that would be an unusual record.

We have to understand that the rules and regulations that we are introducing may have to be effective in more adverse circumstances than the present ones. When we give the Secretary of State powers relating to elections and referendums, we have to be absolutely sure that the possibility of undue influence or decision making by him is minimised, and although we have had some reassurance today, we remain to be convinced that that is the case.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings)

I was inspired to contribute to the debate principally by the speech of the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell). I imagine that he does not often inspire contributions of any sort, so I say that with generosity.

There was a lot of talk about intellectualism in the hon. Gentleman's speech, but little evidence of it. He misunderstands the fundamental difference between limits on expenditure per se and limits on the expenditure of those who are permitted to contribute to or to fund campaigns. That lies at the heart of the amendments and of the arguments put forward by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young). To argue that any restriction or practice is better than none is not a satisfactory way to address our concerns.

I want to make only two substantial points. The first is that it is not good enough simply to disregard the work that the Neill committee did on this matter. The committee was strong and unanimous in its view and it contradicted the position that has been adopted by the Government. The Minister will remember that Neill was particularly critical of the conduct of the Northern Ireland referendum. I make no judgment on the subject that was being debated in Northern Ireland, but Neill made specific and rather critical comment about that, about expenditure in that referendum campaign, and about the Government's whip hand in the conduct of that campaign.

Mr. Mike O'Brien

The Northern Ireland referendum was somewhat different. We are discussing whether there should be expenditure restraints on the various campaign organisations and political parties in a national referendum, where the Government, at least for a time, are excluded.

The Neill committee did not think that that was doable. We say that it is, and we will do it. We paid attention to the Neill argument. Now, perhaps, the hon. Gentleman should pay attention. Let him address the doability argument. That is the only objection that Neill had. There was no objection in principle, as I understand it.

Mr. Hayes

The Minister is right—the Neill committee criticised the practicality of the measure. My right hon. Friend drew attention to that in his remarks. I was making a different point.

My second substantial point is that referendums are fundamentally different from general elections. The public expectations and perceptions of referendum campaigns and the spending in referendum campaigns is, to some extent, prejudiced. In other words, there is a widespread view that Governments do not lose referendums. That does not apply to general elections.

People assume that general elections are likely to be run and financed on a fair and free basis. I suspect that that is not the public expectation and perception of referendums in general. I mentioned Northern Ireland because it illustrates the fact that there is already—I will not say "a presumption of guilt", as that would be going too far—some misapprehension on the part of the public about the conduct and funding of referendum campaigns.

Mr. George Stevenson (Stoke-on-Trent, South)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I have listened to the debate for many hours, and I am interested in his argument. Does he accept that referendums can fundamentally alter a Government's policy and in some circumstances bring a Government down? Why does he persist in arguing that there is no comparison between referendums and general elections in that sense?

Mr. Hayes

I would not say that there was no comparison. They are comparable in that sense, as they may affect the political direction of a Government or a country. Referendums are different from a general election not just in scale, which is clearly a factor, as the scale of a referendum campaign is considerably greater, but in the public expectation and perception of their conduct and nature.

I was being rather complimentary about our democracy. Most people think that the way in which we conduct our general elections and the way the principal political parties conduct themselves in the context of general elections is, for the most part, fair, free and honourable. There is the odd exception, but in essence that would be a tenable position to adopt.

I do not take the same view of referendums. As we already see in press comment and surveys of opinion, people expect referendums not to be conducted in the same free and fair way. We therefore have an extra duty to counteract that and to anticipate those objections by ensuring that the legislation is—to paraphrase the hon. Member for Hazel Grove—fit for the long-term future, if referendums are to play an increasing role in the way we govern our country. That is why I strongly support the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire.

8.15 pm
Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury)

I join the debate on this group of amendments because I spoke on the clause when we discussed it in the early hours of the evening of 16 February in Committee on the Floor of the House. I shall highlight those points again, with good reason—not for the sake of duplication, but because, as is acknowledged throughout the House, clause 111 goes to the heart of fairness in referendums. We all recognise that if the Bill is to be effective, it must increase, not diminish, the democratic legitimacy of referendums.

At the time, I queried how one would manage the suspension of expenditure in local political parties so that that was not computed within the overall limits on expenditure under the rules imposed by the Bill. That was not apparent from the Bill. It is also not clear from the Bill what would happen if a referendum were held on the same day as a general election. In the absence of provision in the Bill, confusion seems to abound.

That was not a facile point. I had been led to that expectation by no less a person than the Prime Minister, who, early in the course of this Administration, perhaps in order to duck the prevailing lack of enthusiasm for the single currency in the country, suggested that it might be better to have a referendum on the same day as a general election to disguise the issue.

The debate proceeded, and the Minister was exceptionally generous in his reply. Not sparing my blushes, referring to my speech the Minister said: He made a very good speech and raised some forensic points, which deserve much consideration. I should like to consider at greater length some of the finer aspects of the issues that he raised and perhaps write to him on some of them. After dealing with a further point, the Minister continued: I should like to consider further some of the hon. Gentleman's points, which may deserve some closer thought… They suggest that he is right: if that happens, perhaps we will need further legislation to clarify some of the issues."—[Official Report, 16 February 2000; Vol. 344, c. 1037-38.] The Minister then went on in characteristically generous vein.

I have received no letter from the Minister on any of those points, which I think are valid and important and go to the heart of the clause. I ask the Minister to reflect carefully whether our amendments are right, and whether the clause should be removed from the Bill until the issues that are fundamental to the fairness of referendums and democratic legitimacy have been addressed.

Mr. Paterson

Following my intervention in the speech of the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell), I shall make a brief contribution and clarify my point.

If there are artificial limits as set out in schedule 13, the whip hand is the Government's. A recent example, which affected people near my constituency, was the Welsh referendum, in which there was a staggering increase in expenditure by the Welsh Office on what is called "extra publicity".

The figures are simple. Total publicity spending by the Welsh Office since May 1997 was £5,285,750. Of that, the amount spent on extra publicity was an incredible £2,724,812.5. The rest of that sum, which is slightly less than half, went on opinion poll research, media advertising, direct mail publicity, press releases and websites.

That shows that if an artificial limit is imposed through schedule 13, those who do not support the Government's cause will be capped. The Government will have access to all the tricks that we witnessed in the Welsh referendum. They will be able to dip into the public purse. Effectively, unlimited spending will be available to finance the Government's cause. That is wrong, which is why I strongly support amendment No. 151.

Sir Patrick Cormack

My hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes)—what a wonderful constituency name that is—and my hon. Friends the Members for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) and for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) made short but pithy speeches which were extremely convincing. It would be remiss of the Under-Secretary not to take account of the point that my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire made. The result of the Welsh referendum was desperately close. Those of us who watched with increasing amazement the extraordinary development of the Welsh Assembly and its dramatis personae, and who remember that the flimsiest majority landed us with that Assembly, stress to the Government that my hon. Friend has made a powerful point.

My right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young), who introduced this brief debate, spoke with his customary eloquence and impeccable logic. I hope that the Under-Secretary will respond properly to my right hon. Friend's trenchant observations.

I want to concentrate briefly on clause 122. The Under-Secretary was all sweetness, reasonableness and light. He claimed that it was simply an administrative matter, which did not count, that we should not worry about it and that we could trust him. I can probably trust the Under-Secretary and we can probably trust several—not all—Ministers not to get up to truly appalling tricks. However, the clause is open ended. It flies in the face of the Under-Secretary's comments earlier in our proceedings.

At the beginning of our proceedings, the Minister promised that the measure would be a truly generic referendums Bill—[Official Report, 10 January 2000; Vol. 342, c. 113.] I do not know what that means. On Second Reading, he promised that the Government would table amendments on the nuts and bolts of organising the poll and the count. We therefore expected some nuts and bolts. However, the nuts have produced no bolts. We are considering a Henry VIII clause, whereby the Home Secretary is able to take absolute power to decide all the rules and regulations for referendums, and to create criminal offences in connection with the rules that he sets. That is inimical to true democratic Government. Such a provision should not be in the Bill.

For all the Minister's personable plausibility and good intentions, he is trying to introduce a wholly unacceptable provision. I was glad that the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) said that he would again support our argument.

Clause 122 is not good enough. I am sure that those in another place will not believe that it is good enough. We intend to press the amendment to a Division. If the Under-Secretary does not listen to us tonight, I hope that he will listen to the other place. I have no doubt that it will find the provision as unacceptable as we do. Unless the Under-Secretary gives a categorical assurance that the clause will be withdrawn, we shall do our best to delete it this evening.

Mr. Mike O'Brien

First, I shall deal with the issue that the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) raised on paragraph 2(b) of schedule 7. The provision is intended to exclude from the ambit of election expenditure unsolicited newsletters and other communications that are sent from, for example, Millbank to Labour party members. Such material is not used to influence the unaffiliated; it is, in a sense, an internal party matter.

However, referendum campaign bodies are likely to be more ad hoc, with no formal individual membership. It would therefore be almost impossible to decide who constituted a supporter. The equivalent provision in schedule 12 does not fit the circumstances, and is best deleted, as the hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) proposed in Committee.

Paragraph 2(b) of schedule 12 refers to supporters. That term is potentially far wider than "members", which is used in schedule 7. However, I shall reconsider the point, and ascertain whether we need to do anything about it. I do not currently believe that I need to make any amendment.

The hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) rightly pointed out that I owed him a letter. We have not forgotten that. He will receive a letter; I shall endeavour to send him it in a week. I ask him to chase me if that does not happen; I am sure that he will.

The hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) asked about nuts and bolts. Clause 122 contains the order-making power, which will apply to the Representation of the People Act 2000 and the attendant regulations. We are including some of the apparatus for proper control of referendum campaigns in the Bill. Provisions under the Representation of the People Act 2000 will also apply because of the way in which the measure affects the organisation of polling stations and the whole paraphernalia of referendums. Many of the nuts and bolts are already in place because of recent legislation. For example, the Representation of the People Act 2000 authorises different ways of providing postal ballots. The nuts and bolts will therefore be introduced to a referendum campaign in different ways.

Sir Patrick Cormack

Again, I do not doubt the Under-Secretary's sincerity, but why cannot those nuts and bolts be included in a detailed schedule to the Bill?

Mr. O'Brien

The operation of the order-making powers is clear. We have said what we intend to do. I do not need to take that further, although I am happy to do so if the hon. Gentleman has another specific point to make. I have made the position as clear I can. There is normally no great problem with the administration of referendums. The contentious matters are those that involve political issues and whether we should cap expenditure.

Let us consider capping expenditure and the arguments made by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire. He repeated the points that he has made on previous occasions. He claims that the Neill committee said that capping was not practical and that our proposals are not perfect. The Neill committee did not object in principle; there was no great intellectual case against it. We are discussing the practicalities of whether that can be done. We take the view that it can, hence we are doing it. I cannot take the matter much further than that.

8.30 pm

The right hon. Gentleman says that the proposal is not perfectly fair. It is not perfect perhaps, but in our view it represents a broad fairness—a balance between the umbrella groups, with some restrictions on the political parties—that is about as fair as possible in terms of the votes received at the general election. If anything, it gives a little more credit to the Conservative party. It would be very regrettable if any millionaire or multi-billionaire—a Paul Sykes, or anyone richer who opposes him on those issues—sought to buy the outcome of a referendum. We say: let the people decide in any referendum after hearing the arguments presented in a fair and balanced way. The issue should be voter choice, not who has the deepest pocket.

Amendment agreed to.

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