HC Deb 14 March 2000 vol 346 cc248-56
Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

I beg to move amendment No. 154, in page 72, line 41, leave out "relevant" and insert "referendum".

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 150, in page 73, line 10, leave out from "poll" to end of line 11.

No. 155, in page 73, leave out lines 19 and 20.

No. 149, in page 73, line 20, at end insert— '(5) (a) No civil servant shall advocate any argument for or against any particular answer to any question in a referendum, notwithstanding the fact that this would be incidental to the issue of a press notice under subsection 3(d).

  1. (b) In this subsection the term "civil servant" includes any person employed as a special adviser'.

Mr. Evans

The amendments relate to the conduct of the Government during referendums. Under the Labour Government, referendums are a growing industry: we have had referendums in Scotland, Wales, London and Northern Ireland, and we are promised three more on Europe, proportional representation and the establishment of English regional assemblies. As we know, there was concern about the conduct of the referendum in Wales, which was held on 18 September 1997. Some of the changes proposed under the Bill, such as those relating to core funding, are welcome, but we remain concerned—in particular about the ludicrous and unworkable limits set on expenditure in referendum campaigns.

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Page 163 of the Neill committee report states:

We were disturbed, in particular, by the evidence we heard in Cardiff to the effect that the referendum campaign in Wales in 1997 was very one-sided, with the last-minute No organisation seriously under-funded and having to rely for financial support essentially on a single wealthy donor. The outcome of the Welsh referendum was extremely close, and a fairer campaign might well have resulted in a different outcome. A Labour member of the no campaign, Carys Pugh, stated: Without Robert Hodge, I do not know what we would have done. We could not have carried on and that would have been gravely unjust. Robert Hodge himself said: I do not know what the other side spent … but you can rest assured that we spent just short of £100,000. I am led to believe that the other side, with the booklets and everything else, possibly spent a seven figure sum. That puts it in proportion. Recommendation 83 in the Neill report says: In any referendum campaign there must be a fair opportunity for each side of the argument to be properly put to the voters. Neill observed the disquiet about the publications issued and distributed to every household during the 1975 European referendum, the 1997 Assembly election in Wales, the parliamentary referendum in Scotland and the 1998 Greater London Authority referendum. In Wales, a small booklet that was distributed to every household had a big tick on the front, which sent a positive message as the devolution process was explained.

On page 169 of the report, Neill puts the case for the defence very clearly. He says: We believe that it is extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, for the government of the day to offer purely objective and factual information in the course of a referendum campaign, especially when, as will usually be the case, it itself is a party to the campaign. We believe governments should not participate in referendum campaigns in this manner, just as it would be thought to be wholly inappropriate during a general election campaign for the government to print and distribute, at the taxpayers' expense, literature setting out government policy. Recommendation 89 states that no literature, "even purportedly 'factual—"' should be sent.

As Wales has learned to its cost, once the decision is made, even with 50.3 per cent. voting yes and 49.7 per cent. voting no, a determined Government will say "Right, that's it", and they will press ahead. I am unclear about exactly what powers the Electoral Commission will have during the period of a referendum. If the Government want to send out a publication, will the Electoral Commission be able to say that they cannot do so? Will it have the power to examine the literature before it goes out, and be able to edit it? Judging by the Bill, the answer is no.

The Government have responded to the Neill committee report. Let us say that a Bill is introduced to have a referendum on the euro. As soon as the Government introduce that Bill in Parliament, all the other rules, regulations and restrictions would kick in and apply to every other organisation taking part in the referendum, except for the Government. They could issue a document promoting their policy, funded by the taxpayer and delivered to every household. Page 48 of the Government's response to Neill states: In most of the cases in which referendums have been held so far, the purpose of the referendum has been to obtain the endorsement of the electorate for a policy which the government of the day has developed and adopted, and the view has traditionally been that a government has not only a right but a duty to explain and promote its policies. The Government have resorted to a 28-day breather when the campaign is not too skewed by the expenditure of large sums of taxpayers' money, as Neill states. So it is all right to spend millions of pounds before D-day—before the 28 days—but then it stops. Before that 28-day breather, the Government can spend millions of pounds on promotions. We know that the Government are good at that.

The Government are now officially the second biggest spender on advertisements. They spend more than BT, McDonald's or Coca Cola. Only Procter & Gamble spends more than the Government on advertisements. Procter & Gamble, of course, spends the money on items associated with spin tumblers, whereas the Government spend it purely on spin. Half a million pounds are currently being spent on the Government's London mayoral election publications.

We are concerned about the role that the Government will play up to and during the 28-day period. I believe Lord Neill to be correct in asserting that no Government money should be spent on promoting, or otherwise, the issue of the referendum. For goodness' sake, the umbrella groups and the political parties will be doing that. I do not think that any additional money need be spent by a Government during the period of the referendum—and I am not talking about the 28-day period.

The question of what the Government and civil servants do during and before "D-day 28" is vital. For instance, the number of special advisers has exploded. In 1997, £1.8 million was spent on them; now it is £4 million. In 1997, there were 38 special advisers; now there are 77. What will all those special advisers be doing at the time of the referendum? What role will, for example, the Treasury advisers play during a referendum on the euro? What role will Home Office advisers play in a referendum on proportional representation? What role will advisers from the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions play in a referendum on regional assemblies? The Government are even allowing press notices to continue to be issued by them during the 28-day period—with, no doubt, the usual spin put on them by the special advisers. No doubt the Government will consider it legitimate to continue to use such advisers to brief on their policies.

The integrity of civil servants must be beyond doubt, and one way in which they can be protected is through the Government agreeing that their advisers will not issue press notices relating to the issue of a referendum, and the briefing that goes with them. I understand from earlier debates that no statutory definition has been given of a press notice: what the Government can do is open ended.

Alastair Campbell must learn the discipline that it would be wholly wrong for him to be paid by the taxpayer to pump out propaganda at the time of a referendum, while briefing journalists accordingly. That would be a rotten practice: it would be against the spirit of the Neill report and against the whole ethos of the Bill.

There is the additional problem of the internet. I spent some time this evening looking at the No. 10 pages.

Mr. Mike O'Brien

Get a life.

Mr. Evans

The Minister has a point.

Some of the pages deal with national health service waiting lists. On a day on which we learned that the number of heart bypass operations actually fell last year, is there any mention of that? Of course not; we are merely told that extra patients have been treated, and told of the desire for waiting lists to be reduced. That, arguably, is propaganda from the Government.

Student maintenance grants are also dealt with. We are told: The old system left universities short of funds and students short of money. Our reforms which were based on the Dearing review of higher education will provide more money for higher education. There is no mention of the fact that Dearing did not say that tuition fees should not be introduced at the time when grants disappeared. That is another example of propaganda from the Government.

The manifesto commitments state: Education is the Government's number one priority and speak of, Delivering economic prosperity for the many not the few. They speak of being Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime. We are used to all these inane soundbites from the mouth of the Prime Minister, but I think we have every cause for concern when taxpayers' money is being spent on a Government website that is spewing out Government propaganda.

I wonder what the website would be doing during the period of a referendum. It even includes the Prime Minister's speeches—for instance, one that he delivered at Ghent city hall in Belgium, which I am sure will interest many of us.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham)

Read it out.

Mr. Evans

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows it by heart, but one section says: A few miles from here, in Bruges, another British Prime Minister made a speech. From it stemmed the isolationist and hostile view of the European Union. The Prime Minister was referring to Margaret Thatcher. Arguably, that is more propaganda on a website.

If the Government are to start to promote a referendum on the euro during the referendum period, we are talking about millions of pounds of taxpayers' money being spent on propaganda using the internet, which, as we know, is a growing medium for dissemination of information; it is growing at a tremendous rate. I should like the Minister to consider carefully the sort of approach that the Government will take on the use of special advisers and websites during referendum periods.

There is another alarming point. In a written question, the shadow Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), asked how many press officers there were in the Home Office. The Home Secretary said that there are 14 press officers, but that the press office was being restructured, which could involve the appointment of up to 10 further press officers. Fourteen are already there, yet the Home Office will take on an extra 10. We wonder what they will all do. Will they play a proactive role? Perhaps the Minister can tell us. I know that there have been several shambles in the Home Department in the past three years. No doubt it needs some extra press officers to help to protect it from media inspection and scrutiny, but will those press officers relieve some of the special advisers during the period of referendum, so that they can carry on spinning?

Our amendments will clean up the stench that surrounds the Government's motives behind the legislative changes. Amendment No. 154 will stop the publication of material during the referendum period by the Government.

Mr. O'Brien

I think that the hon. Gentleman should be a little careful about using words such as "stench", given the history of the previous Government and the reason why the Neill committee was set up. Does he not think so?

Mr. Evans

We have accepted the Neill committee proposals. It is a great shame that the Government did not. We want the Government to accept the fact that the committee said that it did not wish any publication of material during the period of a referendum. We are talking not about the 28 days, but about any time during that referendum. If the Minister gives us that commitment we will be extremely supportive.

Amendment No. 155 is consequential on amendment No. 154. Amendment No. 150 will stop press releases from being churned out about the referendum during the period of the referendum, including the 28 days.

Mr. O'Brien

I have a letter from Lord Neill dated 15 October. The hon. Gentleman may be interested to know that it says: We welcome your proposals on the part which should be played by the government in referendum campaigns, and your recognition of the importance of ensuring that there is a period immediately prior to a referendum in which, as you say, "the government of the day … stands aside and the campaigning is left to the political parties and other organisations. Indeed, the right hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor), a Conservative Member who was on the committee, welcomed the 28-day period when he spoke in a recent debate in the House.

Mr. Evans

I know that; I have the letter and have read the Committee proceedings on the Bill. Although the Neill committee welcomed the proposals on the part to be played by the Government in a referendum and believed that the Government would stand aside, I have explained our grave cause for concern about what the Government are able to do during that 28-day period. The expenditure of vast sums of money before the 28-day period begins is something that we take seriously, too.

Amendment No. 149 will remove the ever-burgeoning army of spin doctors under the chief commander of spin—Alastair Campbell. If Ministers want to get involved in referendums—we would expect them to do so—that is fine, but let them play by the same rules that they are creating for everyone else. Let them stop saying one thing to others, but doing something different themselves. Let them throw away the loaded dice and the marked deck of cards, and let the people decide the issues in a referendum that is free and fair for all.

Mr. Stunell

The issue of press notices, which is the subject of amendment No. 150, was brought to the fore and debated in Committee. The Government owe some duty to the House to say precisely how they intend to define press releases and press notices, and what action they will take to lower Conservative Members' adrenaline levels on the issue. In the previous debate, the Minister more or less conceded that the drafting of the relevant provisions is sloppy and meaningless and requires some attention.

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The 28-day non-aggression period is desirable. The issue is not whether there should be such a period, but whether the period should be longer. Unfortunately, the impact of this group of amendments would be to remove it, leaving the situation somewhat worse than it was to begin with. In Committee, I made the point that although the 28-day period may not be perfect, it is the best one on offer. I suggested that an alternative approach might be for the Government's period of peace to commence on registration of the first body supporting one side or other of the argument. Although that argument did not find favour in Committee, there are other alternatives to the 28-day period. Deleting that period from the Bill is not the right option.

Amendment No. 149 deals with civil servants, including special advisers. We also debated that issue in Committee. From the way in which the debate developed, I had rather thought that Conservative Members had accepted that it was very unreasonable to introduce such a restriction only on referendums, but not on other United Kingdom elections. A referendum is a pretty rare event in the United Kingdom. In this Parliament, we shall not have even one countrywide referendum.

Conversely, we often have local government elections and a variety of other considerably significant elections—for example, to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the European Parliament. There is no suggestion—I do not think that there has ever been a suggestion—that special advisers should be struck dumb for a part of those elections. The turnout of electors and the issues are certainly as important in those elections as they are in a referendum.

The chances of the Government having a partisan view in those elections are also higher. In this Parliament, Labour candidates have stood, or will stand, in each of those elections. However, the opportunities for special advisers to be spinning and doing all the other evils that have been so eloquently described by the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) are not, and have never been, restricted in those elections.

There may be a case to restrict special advisers' capacity to spin. However, I tell Conservative Members that they are getting the issue out of proportion if they think that the time to stop special advisers must be on the comparatively rare occasion of a national referendum. In referendums, Governments are likely to be less partisan than they are in local government, European, Scottish, Welsh and London mayoral elections, when Labour candidates—in the case of the London elections, one and a bit Labour candidates—will be standing, and the Government will be very anxious for a particular candidate to win. If we are considering establishing restrictions on special advisers, we should strike them dumb in those elections.

I share Conservative Members' views on the press notices issue. I believe that the 28-day period is the best offer available, as I have not seen a better one. I disagree with them on the issue of striking dumb the special advisers—although I certainly would not object if a general provision on the matter should be proposed. Additionally, an electronic red herring was dragged through the debate, which I believe is the subject of subsequent amendments.

Mr. Mike O'Brien

The Conservatives get so hypertensive about any references to Europe and a referendum on the single currency that it amazes me that their policy is to oppose having a referendum for two Parliaments. I am worried about their health, because they may not be able to sustain for so long the adrenaline rush that they get every time that Europe is mentioned.

This is not the first time that we have returned to ground that was travelled over in Committee and other debates—so much so that it is almost as if we are going in circles.

Clause 118 is our discharge of the Neill recommendation that, at a certain point before a referendum is held, the Government of the day should stand back and leave campaigning to the political parties and the other campaign organisations. The committee was particularly sceptical about material that, in previous cases, has been circulated to the electorate close to the date of the poll and questioned the distinction between factual and persuasive material.

The clause implements the committee's recommendation by providing for a 28-day embargo on the issuing to the public of Government publications. The charge against the Government is that the clause fails to address the Neill committee's recommendation 89. That will not wash. The clause has been welcomed by the Neill committee. Its comments on the draft Bill were published last summer. More recently, we have had the benefit of the views of the Conservative member of the Neill committee. On Second Reading, the right hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor) said: I am glad that the Bill includes the 28-day moratorium, which meets our point—[Official Report, 10 January 2000; Vol. 342, c. 67.]

Mr. Evans

The Minister is saying that the Government would not publish anything within the 28-day period. Is he giving a commitment that, during a referendum campaign, the Government would not publish any documentation and get it delivered to every household?

Mr. O'Brien

In relation to the referendum campaigns there may well be all sorts of campaigns going on about bonfire night and various other issues. The hon. Gentleman seems to be unclear about the distinction between a general election and a referendum campaign. He has misunderstood what the issue is about.

We have clear endorsements for clause 118 from the Neill committee, so we want it to remain as it stands. Amendments Nos. 154 and 155 would apply the restrictions in clause 118 not just to the 28-day period before the poll, but to the full referendum period, which could be up to six months. That proposition is fundamentally misconceived and fails to recognise that the 28-day period provided for in clause 118 and the longer referendum period perform two different roles.

The referendum period will usually begin on the date on which a Bill providing for a referendum is introduced. That is essentially an accounting period. It is the period during which campaigning organisations will be subject to the limits on expenditure and controls on donations. Subject to the expenditure limits, campaigning organisations will be free to espouse their cause throughout the referendum period.

Clause 118 imposes an absolute prohibition on the publication of material of the kind mentioned in subsection (1). Extending the moratorium to cover the whole referendum period would be equivalent to applying the usual Cabinet Office guidance for the three or four weeks of a general election campaign to the 365-day accounting period provided for in part V. That is daft. The idea that a Government could be run on that basis is absurd. Unlike during a general election campaign, when government is placed on a care and maintenance footing, the Government of the day would continue to function during a referendum campaign. There will be foreign Prime Ministers and dignitaries to see and lots of other issues to be properly undertaken. In presenting a Bill to Parliament for a referendum to be held, the Government must be able to explain and present their policies as a Government.

However, we accept that there comes a time when the Government will step back and leave it to the political parties and others to make the running on the referendum issue. A period of 28 days fits in well with the average length of general election campaigns over the past 50 years. The Neill committee made the analogy with general election campaigns, and that is a standard against which it is entirely appropriate to benchmark clause 118.

Amendments Nos. 149 and 150 are directed at press notices, press officers and special advisers. The Neill committee's concern was principally that the Government of the day might, at public expense, distribute material—even purportedly factual documents—which put forward the Government's case, or at least would have the effect of influencing the vote. Clause 118 is intended to prohibit that sort of distribution of unsolicited material addressed directly to the public at large.

The exceptions in clause 3, including press notices, are entirely consistent with the basic proposition that the Government of the day should not be able unfairly to influence the conduct of a referendum campaign. The exemption for press notices is not an attempt to circumvent the basic principle contained in the clause. The point of the restrictions is to prevent the Government from distributing unsolicited mail.

It was suggested in Committee that the Government of the day might be tempted to stick the words "press notice" on the top of a publicity leaflet and post it through the letter box of everyone in the country. Frankly, this is fanciful and completely ridiculous. A press notice is a notice to the press, and not to the general public, and I cannot see any civil servants getting involved in that sort of scam. If a Government stooped to such tactics, I am confident that the courts would quickly put a stop to it.

On the role of civil servants, I wish to refer to the press officers at the Home Office. I suspect that the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) will find few members of the Gallery—particularly Home Office correspondents—complaining, although getting the phone answered at the press office, despite the number of staff we have, is sometimes difficult. We are doing so much on fighting crime that the press are finding it difficult to get all the information that they need to report it. We want to make sure that the phones are answered. That is perfectly reasonable, and was the result of an independent recommendation. Press officers must be free to direct inquiries made to a Government Department. That they should be able to do so in the run-up to a referendum is wholly in keeping with the approach proposed by the clause.

To reply to a letter from a member of the public—or indeed from an Opposition Member—or to respond to a question posed by a journalist does not amount to publishing, displaying or distributing material to the public at large or to a sector of the public. Such action in response to individual requests for information amounts to no more than good administration, and it would be wrong to deny the public the service that they have the right to expect from a civil service of the state.

The basis of all the amendments is misconceived. They rely on the charge that the Bill fails to implement the Neill committee's recommendation 89. The Neill committee's own response to the White Paper exposes that charge as completely false and bogus. The hon. Member for Ribble Valley should withdraw the amendments and acknowledge that clause 118, to paraphrase the right hon. Member for South Norfolk, fully meets the point.

Mr. Evans

I rather wish that the Parliamentary Secretary—the Minister who normally doles out the cigarettes, as he was described in previous debates—had answered the debate, as we might have got somewhere. That was a characteristically unpleasant response from the Minister.

All our fears have been fulfilled. I understand now that Alastair Campbell will be able to carry on with his spinning, and ensuring that his army of 77 other spin doctors will be able to carry on spinning during a referendum campaign. I understand also that, prior to the 28-day period, the Government are absolutely free to do whatever they like. The restrictions come in on everybody else, apart from the Government. With the restrictions on expenditure, the dice are loaded completely in favour of the Government.

We have had no concessions from the Government, and we are extremely concerned that all the loopholes are still there. Call me a cynic, but it is as if the Bill has been written to ensure that the Government are able to have their way. We still remember the way in which the referendum campaign in Wales was run, and that is why I believe the amendments will be visited again in another place. Although we are not pressing these amendments to a vote tonight, it does not mean that we have stopped the fight.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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