19 September, 2004
Mr Sam Younger, Chairman,
The Electoral Commission,
Trevelyan House, Great Peter Street,
LONDON, SWIP 2HW
Dear Mr Younger,
Designation of the Official No Campaign in the North-East Referendum
As a north-east voter who is against regional government and has been well-served by Neil Herron’s No campaign over the past two years, I would be grateful if you would let me have in writing your reasons for selecting NESNO as official opposition to the Yes Campaign in the run-up to November’s referendum.
I have racked my brains to think why you should have preferred this recently concocted group to Mr Herron’s well-established campaign, which has both a proven track record and wide-ranging grass-roots support.
Please enlighten me.
In addition, I understand that your officers’ original recommendation went against NESNO. What caused your change of heart?
I further wish to draw your attention to damage already inflicted by your unaccountable decision.
On 15 September, within minutes of being designated the official No Campaign and awarded £100,000 of taxpayers’ money, a representative of your chosen people, NESNO, should have appeared before a House of Commons Select Committee to give evidence. NESNO said sorry, none of them could make it. Neil Herron has since stated in the Newcastle Journal that he was fully briefed and ready to go to Westminster to argue the No case. Your decision made this impossible, thus depriving many north-east voters of fair representation before the committee.
What have NESNO done to deserve selection? Any undecided member of the electorate consulting their website would find nothing at all in the section entitled “Our Case”. They have issued no press releases since the initial one in July. They have no plans for public meetings. How did all this lack of activity qualify them for government funding?
Intriguingly, NESNO were listed by name as the chosen opposition to the Yes Campaign in an ODPM Committee Press Release issued on 9 September, a whole five days before you made your decision. How was this possible? Is the Deputy Prime Minister clairvoyant? Was he given prior information regarding your choice? Or did he lead, and you follow? The implications are disturbing.
It is also disturbing to hear Graham Robb, NESNO’s spokesman, state that they aren’t against an assembly as such: they would merely wish it to have greater powers. We now have a Yes and a No campaign, each of which favours regional government in principle. So who will speak for the many people who argue, quite reasonably, against the very idea of it? No funding is being made available for those attempting to put the full range of No arguments to a wider public. Meanwhile, because of your decision, £200,000 has been lavished on two groups which differ only in how much power they would wish an assembly to have before giving it their support.
Another point: I find it extraordinary that you did not take traditional party loyalties in the north-east into account when making your decision. Typical of attitudes among many people up here is this comment on the Newcastle Journal’s website: “ … if the Conservative party, that did so much damage to this area, and their large land-owning friends are against the idea of an assembly, then it must have some merit”.
To hand financial control of the No Campaign to a group led by Conservative supporters and backed by the Conservative Party at once reduces debate, in this overwhelmingly Labour part of the country, from the rational to the emotive level, and significantly increases the chance of a Yes vote. This may well be crucial when taken in conjunction with misleading leaflets put out by the ODPM which do not accurately state the expense involved in reorganising local and district councils, the cost of running an assembly or the degree of power to be retained by central government (see letter attached).
What were your reasons, when presented with a straight choice between a non-party-political, grass-roots campaign and a group headed by prominent Tory supporters, for picking the one most likely to alienate a significant portion of the north-east electorate?
I await your reply with interest,
Cc Sir Neil McIntosh CBE The Newcastle Journal
Ms Pamela Gordon The Sunderland Echo
Mr Glyn Mathias The Northern Echo
Mr Karamjit Singh CBE warmwell.com
10 September, 2004
National Audit Office,
3rd Floor, Higham House,
New Bridge Street West,
NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE,
Use of Public Funds to Promote Support for Regional Assembly
I wish to draw your attention to the questionable nature of publicity on regional government currently being put out by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister at public expense.
Taxpayers’ money is being used to fund press advertisements and leaflets which go beyond any necessary factual information relating to the actual process of November’s referendum, and which seem likely, if unchecked, to influence its outcome.
In particular, this literature implies that an assembly would have wide-reaching powers over such things as transport, education, employment and economic development. Yet the ODPM must be well aware that no extra funding would be available from West-minster; and that the government’s draft bill clearly states that “key targets” agreed at national level would continue to over-ride purely north-eastern concerns, with the Secretary of State able to give or withhold consent for regional projects.
The Deputy Prime Minister must also know that national policies are themselves subject to directives and regulations devised at supranational level by the EU commission in Brussels, fundamentally reducing the leeway for independent action by any part of the UK, with or without an assembly.
In addition, the ODPM’s leaflets obscure the possible costs of regional government, since they fail to repeat the government’s warning that, after its first year in office, “an assembly would be able to set a higher charge to fund additional spending” (ie, raise council taxes).
The entire tone of this “information” is so biased in favour of an assembly that many people would call it propaganda; and when so little care has been taken to clarify either
the substance or the cost of what is, in fact, on offer, it would not be unreasonable to assume that the ODPM is more interested in influencing votes than in providing unbiased information to the electorate.
To fund such an unbalanced presentation of vital referendum issues from the public purse is an unacceptable misuse of temporary political power and of taxpayers’ money. I understand, in fact, that government spending to influence the electorate’s decision in a referendum infringes the Convention on Human Rights. Any leaflets and advertisements issued by government departments at public expense should therefore confine themselves to factual information, leaving personal opinions to the official Yes and No campaigns, and to debate in the media.
Given unvarnished facts (which the ODPM has failed to provide), the electorate can draw its own conclusions. It is not the government’s job to draw them for us. Even without the disinformation intentionally or unintentionally propagated by the ODPM in its advertisements and leaflets, statements like, “The job of an assembly would be to make the region a better place to live and work” are unacceptably suggestive. It is up to each individual voter, and not to any politician, to decide whether or not this particular form of government reorganisation would improve or impoverish our lives.
There are now less than two months to go before the referendum. Despite the imposition of an all-postal ballot, it is likely that turn-out will be relatively low, and that many of those who bother to vote will be unduly influenced by debatable claims made in these government-produced leaflets and press advertisements
I am therefore writing to request an urgent investigation by your office into the possible misuse of taxpayers’ money for political gain. Since time is now so short, and the consequences of any abuse of government power potentially so harmful to the future of both north-east England and the UK as a whole, I would ask you to make this your absolute priority.
Gillian Swanson (Mrs)