Clause 1 — Referendum on the alternative vote system

Part of Royal Commission (London) – in the House of Commons at 6:15 pm on 12th October 2010.

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Photo of Bernard Jenkin Bernard Jenkin Chair, Public Administration Committee 6:15 pm, 12th October 2010

I am merely quoting the former chief political adviser to the BBC who said that it would put broadcasters in an impossible position. My hon. Friend's argument is with her, not me.

Broadcasters are especially important in referendums and elections. Viewers may not be generally aware of the obligation for broadcasters-unlike newspapers-to provide balanced coverage, but they accord respect to broadcast programmes reflecting that obligation. Using the BBC as a proxy for the centralism of British broadcasting, it is worth reflecting that only 3% of the output across seven BBC networks broadcast to the whole of Britain comes from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, where 17% of the audience live. Those figures may be out of date but that does not invalidate the substance of the point.

Viewers in Scotland will see the AV referendum on the UK news with little or no news of the Scottish election. Coverage of the Scottish elections will therefore be more in the hands of the press, who are not bound by the requirements of balance. This tension in the structure of broadcasting proved politically controversial in April 1995 when the BBC in London scheduled an extended edition of "Panorama" with an interview with the then Prime Minister John Major. Unfortunately, that was only three days before the Scottish elections. After a court action, Lord Abernethy, later backed by Lord Hope, Lord Murray and Lord McCluskey, granted an injunction banning transmission in Scotland so as to ensure fair coverage of the elections there. How would it be possible for any programme about the referendum transmitted in London to be banned in the same way if it were thought that it might distort the coverage of the elections in Scotland?

It goes without saying that the AV referendum will be heavily covered by the broadcasters in London, where there will be no elections at the time-not even local ones. The Ladbroke Grove set will therefore be obsessed with the referendum and not very interested in anything else. I cannot see how a business of the size and complexity of the BBC can balance all these issues so as to provide fair coverage.

The Electoral Commission also mentioned respect for devolved institutions. I was an opponent of devolution, but we now have a Scottish Parliament that reflects the sovereign will of the sovereign Scottish people. I am afraid that the suggestion from my hon. Friend Iain Stewart-an English Member, albeit with an impeccable Scottish lineage and a lovely Scottish accent-that we could tell the Scottish Parliament to move its elections, because we are more important, is not a very Unionist sentiment. It is bound to cause exactly the kind of resentment and mistrust between the Westminster Parliament and the Scottish Parliament that surely we want to avoid-so the Scottish nationalists would probably love it.

The Electoral Commission concluded its now famous press release from July 2002 by stating:

"Referendums on fundamental issues of national importance should be considered in isolation".

As a coda to that account, I shall turn briefly to the arguments advanced by the commission today. It says that it has based its decision to reverse its position on the date on the available research, including from countries where combining referendums with other polls is commonplace. In the US, for example, the big concern about combined elections is that people have so many ballot papers to deal with at a time that they vote in the elections but not in the referendums. That system is therefore not necessarily a guarantee of turnout and the US is not a great model for the good conduct of referendums.

The commission cites the US, Australia, Ireland and several European countries, including Switzerland and Finland. However, the commission has ignored the fact that Australia has compulsory voting, so turnout is hardly an issue. We can therefore dismiss that argument. Finland is an interesting example. I was forwarded an e-mail from Dr Maija Setälä who is a research fellow in the political science department of the University of Turku. She says:

"The UK electoral commission is absolutely wrong; we have had two national referendums: one in 1931 on prohibition law and another one in 1994 on the EU accession. Both were initiated by the parliamentary majority. Both of these referendums were advisory. So, Finland is about as active in using referendums as the UK."

In fact, we have more experience of using referendums than Finland. For the Electoral Commission even to mention Finland as an example that we should follow, when it has had so little experience of referendums, underlines the lack of quality in its research.

The Electoral Commission paper, which went along with what the Government wanted, reflects a distinct lack of consultation outside the commission until the date was already decided on. The people in the BBC whom I personally addressed on this question said, "Well, we don't really want to pick a fight with the Government, because we have our own battles to fight with them." To expect the BBC to weigh in against the Government's date was perhaps a little optimistic of me, but I had to try. The quality of the commission's consultation and research has been lacking, which probably reflects the fact that most of its people have changed since 1992. However, the fundamental point about the paper is that it does not address substantively any of the arguments advanced in 2002 in favour of separate polls.