INTERFERENCE IN REFERENDUM CAMPAIGNS – 16 February 2000

[COMMITTEE STAGE]

(i) EU EXPENDITURE IN REFERENDUM CAMPAIGNS

Dr Julian Lewis: I want to reinforce the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve). When we considered other provisions in Standing Committee, we were worried about the framing of clauses that might be deemed to be motivated by the circumstances of a specific, wealthy individual donor. Today, we are considering a clause which could be regarded as tailor made to allow the European Union, as an international body, to overwhelm completely, through the money that it spends on propaganda, the strict limits on such expenditure that the [Political Parties, Elections and Referendums] Bill imposes on individual parties that may campaign on the referendum question at issue.

What would be the point of having such strict limits on the sums which the national parties on either side of the argument would be allowed to raise and spend – for example, in a referendum on the single currency – if the European Union, as an international institution and in support of those who wanted Britain to join, could outspend the whole lot of them put together, and multiplied by an untold factor? That would not only drive a coach and horses through the restrictions, but show up the entire system as skewed.

At Prime Minister's Question Time a couple of weeks ago, I raised the issue of public money being spent by each side in a referendum campaign – for and against – and he went to considerable lengths to try to reassure me and the House that the system is fair. This country faces the possibility of a referendum on the single currency – which will determine what happens to our political and economic independence, perhaps irrevocably – and the parties are being told that they can spend only up to certain limits. However, the EU and its institutions could outspend them all.

I do not know why my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr Robathan) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr Forth) were unable to move amendment No. 14, but I am sure that it has nothing to do with the merits of the case. If the Bill is to include meaningful provisions on referendums, the Minister must show the same consideration, fairness and concern on the Floor of the House as he manifestly showed in Committee –time and again, I am delighted to say.

(ii) GOVERNMENT PROPAGANDA IN REFERENDUM CAMPAIGNS

Dr Lewis: I was fortunate enough to be on the Standing Committee that dealt with other parts of the Bill. I congratulate the Government on having reserved the most controversial parts for the Floor of the House.

Mr Tipping: The hon. Gentleman should be praising his hon. Friends on the Opposition Front Bench.

Dr Lewis: I am delighted. That accords far better with my thesis, which is that the Government's proposals are incredibly unfair – and which is why I thought it strange that they were willing to give this part of the Bill a wider and more public airing. Now that I have been informed that my hon. Friends on the Opposition Front Bench are responsible, I am even happier to congratulate them on taking the opportunity to bring these abuses more clearly to the attention of the public.

I am astonished at the difference in the atmosphere – the difference between the relative consensus on uncontroversial matters in the Standing Committee, and what is being proposed here. I well remember when the Home Secretary himself, on July 1997 in the House, compared Neill's recommendations with the Government's proposed responses to them. The one issue on which I felt it incumbent on me to intervene at the time was this very question of the 28-day limit on Government propaganda in favour of one side of the argument on a future referendum issue.

Clearly, the Neill committee was recommending that the Government should keep their nose out of referendum campaigns. Equally clearly, the Government want to observe only the tiniest part of the letter of that recommendation, while wholly ignoring the spirit of it. In any future referendum, whatever the topic, while Labour are in government, they intend to be able to spend as much public money as they like for weeks and months leading up to the crucial vote and to stop doing so a mere 28 days before the votes are cast. If it is wrong that Governments should be able to spend a great deal of public money during the last 28 days, it is equally wrong that they should be able to spend great quantities of public money for significantly longer periods, up to that tiny window of abstention just before the vote is cast.

Equally, as my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) points out, why should it be the case that, throughout even that 28-day period, when even the Government are prepared to be a little abstemious in the amount of propaganda that they pump out to try to skew the referendum result, they are still entitled to put the words "press notice" on any further propaganda that they wish to issue, exploiting the loophole in the clause to persist in pumping out their message – right up to polling day, as far as I can see?

The point has been made: just as the use of public money to pump out literature is wrong, so the use of public money to pay civil servants to do the Government's partisan campaigning is wrong. I am concerned about the way in which the Government are trying to turn what was meant to be the cleaning-up of partisan distortions of referendum campaigns into something that is of advantage to the Government of the day.

Mr Hayes: Contrary to the suggestion from the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Stunell), is not the debate a fine opportunity to tighten up and straighten out the business of special advisers, about whom there is growing concern in terms of their political involvement? That would apply to a Government of any political persuasion. Is not the debate an ideal opportunity to assuage those concerns and fears by defining more clearly their role and limiting their involvement in such a political process?

Dr Lewis: It is not only that. The point has been well made by the Conservative Front-Bench team that the matter will affect any future Government. It is like the introduction of a new weapon into warfare, even if it is only political warfare: people should realise what it will be like when that weapon is turned on them and the roles are reversed.

One day, roles will be reversed. I hope still to be in this place when that happens. I will remember the current debate and how the Government have conducted themselves when we hear the squeals of outrage from Labour Members on the Opposition Benches as we seek in government to exploit the very loopholes that they are wrongly building into the Bill. Rather than have such tit-for-tat abuse of the system, such mutual rejection of the spirit of the Neill proposals, I appeal to the Minister to observe on the Floor of the House the same spirit of compromise, consensus and fairness that he has observed elsewhere and at least to promise that, if we do not divide the Committee tonight, he will revisit the matter on Report and introduce more satisfactory proposals.