Complaint to the Audit Commission
7th September 2004
Referendum on a Regional Assembly in the North East
There is to be a referendum in the North East of England on November 4th, asking the electorate whether or not it wishes to have an elected regional assembly in the area.
It is Labour Party policy to have such assemblies; until recently, it was intended that there would be referenda in Yorkshire & Humberside and the North West too, but these have been postponed.
Since at least July, the Government, and in particular the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM), has issued numerous advertisements promoting the Referendum. These adverts have appeared regularly, for example, in all the regional daily papers, namely the "Journal" the "Northern Echo" and the "Evening Chronicle", as well as in all the more local weekly papers, such as the "North Tyneside Herald". A copy is enclosed.
Similar adverts are on public transport, hoardings and posters at key points, for example, beside the Tyne Tunnel toll booths.
At the same time, the ODPM has also sent leaflets about the Referendum entitled "Have your Say" to every house within the North East. A copy is enclosed of this document too.
Both these forms of advertising are misleading and are promoting a particular political view but using public money to do so. I believe that this is a clear misuse of taxpayers’ money.
The newspaper advertisement, for example, states " The job of an assembly would be to make the region a better place to live and work. It could have powers for jobs, businesses and skills; housing; planning; transport;….."
The key word is "could" – in fact, the Assembly as proposed does not actually have this power.
If it were the Government’s intention to give such powers, it would be done now, and included in the draft Bill.
The Government’s lengthy Policy Statement clearly states "Central Government would retain powers to ensure that elected assemblies……continue to address national priorities" – but no reference to this document is made in the adverts.
The same Policy Statement makes it clear that there will be "key targets which they [the assemblies] will be expected to agree with central government". The electorate are not told that in the adverts – the plain implication is that the assembly would be in complete control – this is untrue.
Likewise, there is no reference to the clauses in the draft Regional Assemblies Bill which give the Secretary of State powers over an assembly, nor to those clauses which restrict the assembly’s power.
With regard to the leaflet, this too is misleading. I have no objection to the public being alerted to the fact that a vote will take place on 4th November, but the leaflet goes far beyond this, and is plainly advocating a "Yes" vote.
In particular, I draw your attention to the photos used in the leaflet.
The first, for example, shows a smiling young woman, with a soft-focus background, giving the ‘thumbs up’ sign to the referendum question. On the following page, by contrast, there is a picture of member of the ethnic community, unsmiling, in a drab location, giving the ‘thumbs down’. Likewise, further on, there is a picture of a white young man, in a smart suit, smiling, beside a modern shop front, giving the ‘thumbs up’, whilst the adjacent photo shows an elderly person, wrapped up against the cold, with a walking stick, with a background which appears much less affluent, giving the ‘thumbs down’ sign.
The intended message is plain: the young, modern, up-to-date, white (majority) voters are in favour of an elected assembly, whilst those who are old, or from the minority communities, are opposed.
The text of the leaflet is, similarly, misleading and inaccurate.
It states, for example, "The assembly would have planning powers, taking over responsibility for a region-wide development strategy … these decisions are currently taken by Government Ministers in London.." . There is no mention of the fact that the Bill requires an assembly to have regard to national policies, and that the Secretary of State can force the assembly to revise its plans.
There is a clear imbalance in this publicity.
The statements in the leaflet on the assembly’s budget give only a part of the picture. "It would directly control spending of around £500 million.." says the leaflet – but fails to point out that this in less than 4% of current government expenditure in the region, and is therefore of little significance.
The public is not told that the Secretary of State can make the payment of the general grant to any assembly "subject to such conditions as he thinks fit" [Draft Regional Assemblies Bill].
On the matter of the running costs of the assembly, the leaflet states "the cost in the first year..is estimated to be around 5p a week for Band D properties..". The public is not told that after the first year the costs could soar – according to the ODPM Policy Statement "an assembly would be able to set a higher charge to fund additional spending….".
The voters are being told only part of the truth.
There has been a clear misuse of public money, which is, I believe, unlawful.
The Electoral Commission has, as one of its aims, "openness and transparency in the financial affairs of political parties and others involved in elections…".
I have asked the Commission to investigate this misuse of public money, but was told that it has no power to investigate the ODPM, and that I should instead approach the National Audit Office. (The Electoral Commission informed me that it was not shown the Government’s leaflet prior to its distribution).
Accordingly, I shall be obliged if you will investigate this abuse.
I should like to know
- What can be done to prevent further abuse?
- What steps can be taken to correct the misinformation?
- How much in total has the ODPM spent on this advertising campaign?
In view of the fact that referendum will take place shortly (it is to be an all-postal ballot and the voting packs will be sent to voters on 18th October), I should be obliged if you will investigate this complaint at an early date: the information should be available to the public prior to the vote.
Mrs J. A. Wallace Chairman, North East No Campaign
National Audit Office
3rd FloorHigham House
New Bridge Street West