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GOVERNMENT AGREES TO CONSULT OVER WORDING OF REFERENDUM QUESTIONS

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Hansard 16 Feb: Column 953-1076 ...
Hansard 16 Feb: Column 953-1076

The government agreed to consult the new Electoral Commission on the wording of questions in referendums, but home office minister Mike O'Brien said it was parliament which must approve the final wording.

Speaking during the continuing committee of the whole house on the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill, Mr O'Brien was warned by Conservative frontbencher Patrick Cormack that the opposition would press an amendment during report stage if the

government did not bring forward it own change to the Bill.

The government, however, did not accept opposition arguments that the dates of referendum should be decided by the commission. Mr O'Brien said a 28-day period was suffiecient for campaigning - particulalrly when there was a fixed date for voting and, inevitably, there would have been months of discussions and arguments bfeore that period

on issues likely to be the subject of a referendum. A Conservative amendment to given the duty to set the date to the commission was defeated by 176 votes to 323.

Shadow leader of the house George Young sought to remove the spending limits set out in the Bill for political parties, and individuals, organisations and companies registered as interested participants in a referendum. No such limits had applied to previous referendums - most recently the Greater London Assembly referendum and the grammar

school ballot campaigns. The Local Government Bill, who provides for local referendums on mayoral appointments and other issues, also contained no spending committee.

He said the Neill Committee considered the circumstances of referendums - unusual coalitions, participants not confined to political parties and unknown timing. The committee concluded: 'It appears to us that under these circumstances it would be impracticable to try to control campaign spending. The number of individuals and organisations involved would often be too large. The time-scale would often be too short. Adequate accounting procedures would often be impossible to put into place. Tha administrative apparatus

would resemble one of Heath Robinson's most outlandish contraptions - and would almost certainly not work'.

Mr O'Brien said if it was right and practical to control spending at general elections, it was right to do the same in referendum campaigns.

'Although the need to avoid an arms race perhaps does not arise so acutely in referendum campaigns as in general election campaigns, nevertheless we believe that it is desirable to ensure that the outcome of a referendum is not unduly influenced by the often substantial sums that individuals or organisations may have at their disposal', added Mr O'Brien.

Sir George's amendment was defeated by 334 votes to 137.

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