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Christopher Booker's Notebook
(Filed: 19/09/2004)

The rigging of a referendum
Council censors are at it again
Life-threatening emissions

The rigging of a referendum

The forthcoming referendum on an elected regional government for the North-East is generally dismissed by the media as just a "local story". This is their loss, however, for not only do they miss its far-reaching national implications, they are losing an opportunity to report on a fascinating political soap opera.

Last week, as the campaign got under way, John Prescott's Office of the Deputy Prime Minister ended up with egg all over its face. It had to admit to putting out an inaccurate - and possibly illegal - leaflet: an error that it plans to rectify by issuing a further document that may also be illegal.

Then there was the curious way that the Electoral Commission chose to accredit one of the two rival "No" campaigns that could have been eligible to receive Government funding, in defiance of its own officials' advice and in a way that plays into the hands of Mr Prescott's "Yes" campaign.

For two years, the opposition in the fight against Mr Prescott's proposed assembly has been led by the "North East No" campaign run by and Neil Herron, a Sunderland businessman. This group has a successful track record, not least in getting the Audit Commission to declare as illegal payments made by 25 local authorities to a body set up to issue propaganda for the elected assembly.

Two months ago, however, another group, "North East Says No", entered the arena. Originally masterminded from London by the Conservative Party, its main (and useful) achievement has been to win endorsement from a phalanx of local business leaders (including John Elliott, formerly chairman of the other "No" campaign).

Run and staffed by Tories, the group has no track record and its grasp of the issues appears to be minimal. When applications were made to the Electoral Commission for official "designation", those responsible for examining the applications concluded that Herron's group better met the criteria.

Yet when the commission met last Monday to decide, their advice was overruled. On Tuesday, Mr Prescott thus had the best news he could have hoped for: the designation - and 100,000 of taxpayers' money - went to a campaign run by a party now so weak in the North-East region that it has only one MP.

If the referendum could be presented as a party battle, with a "No" campaign identified with the Conservatives (plus the UK Independence Party), this would be Mr Prescott's best chance of snatching victory against all odds.

As Mr Elliott shook hands with a visibly relieved Professor John Tomaney, the leader of the "Yes" campaign, after the announcement, it was scarcely a promising start. The North East Says No spokesman, a former Tory candidate, claimed that the campaigners were not opposed to an elected assembly in principle, and that if such an assembly were given more powers, they might support it.

Despite this setback, Mr Herron and his supporters are fighting on as a "people's campaign". Meanwhile, the shambles that Mr Prescott has made of his own campaign is compounded by the Government's admission that it made a serious factual error in its propaganda leaflet, Your Say, recently sent to every North-East voter, by seriously understating the cost of setting up a unitary local authority in Durham.

The ODPM now plans to issue a "clarification" letter, but only to voters in County Durham - even though its earlier statement was sent to all 1.9 million voters, most of whom will thus be voting on the basis of what Mr Prescott's deputy, Nick Raynsford, admitted last Wednesday was erroneous information.

The ODPM knows that it is barred from sending out information during the 28 days before a referendum, but as its own website shows, this period ends 28 days before ballot papers go out on October 10, not, as the ODPM is now pretending, 28 days before polling day (November 4).

Furthermore, the ODPM's leaflet (which was not submitted for vetting to the Electoral Commission) is now the subject of investigation because of two, still more serious, errors. First, it claims that elections to the new assembly will be by proportional representation, although the Regional Assemblies Bill makes clear that two-thirds of the seats will be "first past the post".

It also claims that the assembly will be wholly independent of central government, when the Bill makes clear that in crucial respects it will be subject to Government control.

On Thursday, a formal complaint about these errors was lodged with the Audit Commission and the Electoral Commission by Mr Herron's "North East No" campaign. If this is upheld, it seems that, with only six weeks to go, Mr Prescott could face his biggest embarrassment yet.

Council censors are at it again

Last week I reported on the practice, apparently encouraged by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, whereby councillors are told they may not speak or vote on any issue on which they might have a "prejudicial interest".

They may not, for instance, debate the siting of mobile phone masts if they themselves use a mobile. They must even leave the room if issues are discussed affecting the town or village where they live.

Another instance has come to light in North Shropshire. Last Wednesday, more than 500 angry residents packed out a public meeting in Wem, demanding to know why the district council plans to close the town's swimming pool, built with private donations 30 years ago.

North Shropshire council, which is being forced to make cuts to pay for a Government-ordered recycling scheme, claims that bringing the Wem pool up to regulatory standards would cost 500,000 - and it is already losing 160,000 a year. The council is, however, to spend 1 million from ODPM on building a new "customer contact centre" at its own offices, to give easier access to disabled people.

Another pool closure, at Ellesmere, has sparked similar protests. Yet when the closures were recently discussed in council, three councillors from Wem and one from Ellesmere were ordered to leave the room because they had a "prejudicial interest".

As their local MP, Owen Paterson, told Parliament when he raised the issue last Thursday, "The Deputy Prime Minister has become a public menace in my constituency."

Life-threatening emissions

Michael Howard's pains to position the Conservative Party on "the environment" almost exactly where Tony Blair was to position his party the following day did not come as a huge surprise. Both men posed as wanting to "save the planet" by accepting the Kyoto accords on global warming.

Both trotted out the same stock "green" mantras on "renewable energy". Both pussyfooted around on our only serious hope of reducing carbon emissions: a new generation of nuclear power stations.

Eleven years ago, when Mr Howard was environment minister, I reported the shocking story of how the opening of a 5 million chemical plant on Tees-side, run by Chemoxy International, was being thwarted by a body called Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Pollution (now part of the Environment Agency).

HMIP's officials, at a cost to the firm of 60,000 a week, were trying in a cackhanded way to enforce new EC anti-pollution rules on a plant whose sole purpose was to recycle chemicals in the most environmentally benign way.

Mr Howard took the unorthodox step of inviting me to his office to sit in, with him, on a debate between two of Chemoxy's directors and the senior officials of HMIP.

It was a surreal non-meeting of minds. The experts from Chemoxy explained how their plant was so efficient that it would emit only eight kilograms of volatile organic compounds a year, mostly acetic acid (vinegar). The HMIP inspector's weekly visits to the plant were doing far more damage to the environment with the exhaust from his car.

In contrast, HMIP's top brass came over as unreconstructed 1970s eco-freaks, babbling about the need to save Tees-side from "a new Bhopal" (the 1984 chemical disaster in India that has caused the deaths of 20,000 people).

I went away deeply depressed at their arrogance and technical illiteracy. The next day I ran into Mr Howard. "I thought my officials did very well," he beamed.