CONSERVATIVE
New Forest East

STANDARDS, REFERENDA & INTERNET LIES – 10 January 2000

Dr Julian Lewis: It was a pleasure to hear the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (John Smith) pay tribute to his predecessor, the late Sir Raymond Gower. I come from South Wales, and I well remember the respect in which Sir Raymond was held. The hon. Gentleman was right to suggest that such personal regard can have a massive effect on votes at a general election, but I would take that argument further, and draw an analogy with personal regard for the behaviour of a party. When such personal regard disappears – as it had undoubtedly disappeared for the Conservative Government by 1997 – it too can have a massive effect in a general election.

Along with most of my colleagues, I welcome the Bill for the most part, but we should recognise the importance of having faith in the democratic process. It may be a bit rough and ready, and it may take some time to come into effect, but, at the end of the day, if a party behaves badly it will be punished. I think that we in the House are mistaken if we feel that everything must be tied up in clauses, subsections and schedules, because eventually the British people will have their say. They will make their judgment, and deliver their verdict.

I assure the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan, and all hon. Members present, that plenty of Conservative Members are determined, by their examples, to try to restore the standing of Members of Parliament in the public perception, in the same way as the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues. That applies to new Conservative Members, and to those who were here during the last Parliament, and who viewed much of what happened then with dismay.

In the spirit of agreement that has permeated today's debate, I want to raise three issues. Two have been mentioned today; I have mentioned the other in a different context, but I believe that it is relevant to the Bill. My first point relates to the excellent speech made by my right hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr MacGregor). He mentioned the Neill Committee's concern about the fact that the referendum for the establishment of the Welsh Assembly was almost even more one-sided than it turned out to be: only by sheer chance was there any financial support for the "no" campaign. That is why I agree with the Bill's provision that public money should be available for umbrella groups – up to £600,000 for each group on each side of the argument.

As I said in an earlier intervention – and as a number of hon. Members seemed to confirm by agreeing with me – we have a major problem with the provision imposing a cap on what individual pressure groups can spend from funds that they manage to raise privately. Naturally, if they are not members of umbrella groups, they will have to raise the funds privately. In my intervention, I explained that I used to run a campaigning pressure group, which, as the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead) was kind enough to remind the House, dealt with nuclear weapons and the importance – as I saw it, and as it was seen by people who shared my beliefs – of retaining the nuclear deterrent in the climactic closing years of the cold war in the early and mid-1980s.

Let us suppose, for example – I believe that examples help to concentrate the mind – that, in 1983 or 1984, a referendum had been held on whether Britain should retain its independent nuclear deterrent. Let us suppose that the various groups campaigning in favour of either side of the argument had been able to raise a certain amount of money. I was running a group with the short and snappy title of the Coalition for Peace Through Security. Lady Olga Maitland, who later became a much respected and doughty Member of Parliament, was running another group with an equally short and snappy title: Women and Families for Defence, later truncated to Families for Defence.

What would we have done if we had been told that we could spend only a fraction of the money that we were able to raise? Let us say, for example, that we were allowed in that campaign to spend £10,000 per group and could have raised £30,000 each. What would we have done? I can tell hon. Members what I would have done. I would straight away have disbanded the Coalition for Peace Through Security and set up the Coalition for Peace, the Coalition for Security and, with all due deference to Lady Olga, the Coalition for Defence.

What would Lady Olga have done? She would have set up Families for Peace, Families for Defence and Families for Security. Straight away, we would each have trebled our capability to spend money, if we could raise it. It is manifestly obvious that such a restriction is no restriction at all.

No doubt the pro-nuclear disarmament lobby would have adopted similar tactics. It had plenty of groups. There was CND, Teachers for Peace, Women Opposed to the Nuclear Threat, Scientists Against Nuclear Extermination and even, notoriously, Babies Against the Bomb. Those would all have been able to subdivide and to replicate themselves ad nauseam. I do not see the hon. Member for Test disagreeing with that. I suspect that he was a member of at least some of those groups and knows that I am telling the truth. The Government have to deal with that problem because it is a meaningless restriction as it stands.

I turn to the point that was rightly highlighted in the excellent speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr Robathan). My calculation slightly differed from his as to what money would have been available to political parties that were campaigning for and against the single currency, but the broad principle applies. I calculated that, under the Government's original provisions, probably a £20 million limit would have been imposed on parties campaigning in favour of the single currency and only a £5 million limit would have been imposed on parties campaigning against it; that limit could possibly have been £10 million. However, from my calculations, it still appears that the limit for those campaigning in favour will be at least twice that for those campaigning against. That will lead to a disparity in the campaign resources that parties are able to spend.

Let us suppose, however, that the Conservative party and those who campaigned to retain the pound could raise more money than they were allowed to spend. What would happen under those circumstances? Do people honestly believe that that money would just remain in the pockets of potential donors, who had been willing to give it to the Conservative party to campaign to save the pound? I doubt it. They would find other avenues. It would go to other groups, bodies and organisations.

That is why the whole concept of putting caps on what may be spent by parties or groups in a referendum is fundamentally flawed. I am not alone in that opinion. I understand from my right hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr MacGregor) that that is precisely the reason why the Neill Committee did not recommend capping the limits in that way. I was particularly impressed by the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby – that the whole point of having a referendum is to cut across the normal party divisions that form in general election campaigns, and that determining how much each party should be able to spend in a referendum by its vote at the previous general election misses the whole point of creating special referendum arrangements.

Dr Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the American experience in propositions and referendums demonstrates an association between huge expenditure imbalances and outcomes? Is he saying that we should make no attempt to curtail such consequences and simply let rip, or that the system that the Government are proposing in the Bill requires amendment?

Dr Lewis: It is obvious that the Government have taken a decision to reject the Neill approach, and I do not expect that it is realistic to expect the Government to change their mind and remove the caps completely. However, I am still gravely dissatisfied with the effect of the sliding scale, which will give unequal potential to different parties to campaign on either side of a referendum question, and will give unfair advantages to one side of a referendum debate rather than another.

I shall be quite specific and use the example of economic and monetary union. I suspect that what is really behind the Government's actions and their original flawed scheme – which would have created a much greater disparity between the amounts spent for and against in a referendum campaign on membership of the single currency – is their knowledge that they have a mountain to climb.

Despite all the Government's effort to propagandise on the desirability, as they see it, of replacing the pound with the euro, the evidence of systematic polling has been that the gap in favour of keeping the pound has been widening, so that, currently, a massive majority of at least 64 per cent. of people are in favour of keeping the pound and rejecting the single currency. Therefore, the cause of adopting the single currency is almost as unpopular as the cause of unilateral nuclear disarmament – supported by the hon. Member for Test – was in the 1980s.

The Government, therefore, even using their ability to spend more money on their side of the argument, will have great difficulty in turning that opinion around. For the sake of a hard case, they are in danger of making a bad law.

In my last couple of minutes, I should like to refer very briefly to an issue that I raised on 30 November, in the debate on Second Reading of the Representation of the People Bill, on the need to close a loophole that affected me in the general election campaign, when I was a parliamentary candidate, and provable lies were broadcast against me personally on the internet with the intention of damaging my vote. On the same day, I discussed the matter with the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, and I received an indication – which has been renewed since, in a letter that he sent me on 15 December – that, as he said in his letter, he is "sympathetic to the problem" of candidates being attacked, using the internet, to undermine their personal reputation by the telling of lies.

The problem of character assassination in general election campaigns has always been dealt with by the Representation of the People Acts, but, in this case, that remedy failed because the material had been posted onto the internet prior to the election campaign. It had not been removed from the internet during the general election campaign. That was deemed inadequate to constitute publication for the purposes of the existing Acts.

At that time, I thought that it would be more appropriate to move an amendment to the Representation of the People Bill. Subsequently, however, I have been advised that it would be more appropriate to move an amendment to the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill. I should be very grateful if, in his reply to the debate, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department – whom I thank for the close interest that he has taken in the matter – might give an intimation of whether he would welcome such an amendment in Committee. I am delighted that the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr Miller), who intervened on me on that previous occasion, has said that he is willing to table an amendment with me. On that note of consensus, I conclude my remarks.