Friday, September 24, 2004

That other referendum – again!

Following the distribution of a government information leaflet to all households in the North East Region, supposedly setting out the facts relating to the proposed elected regional assembly, a number of egregious errors were discovered by campaigners, not least the people's "North East No" campaign run by Neil Herron.

Formal complaints were made to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM) and the Electoral Commission last week and, by the beginning of this week, it was learned that the ODPM was prepared to issue a letter of correction, but only in respect of one error, relating to the costs of local government reorganisation in the Durham area, and then only for distribution to residents in the Durham area.

With the letter due to be sent out this Monday and no response having been received from the ODPM, Herron and his team yesterday consulted lawyers in London and then wrote to the Minister of Local Government, Nick Raynsford, giving him a deadline of 5 pm that evening to undertake to circulate all the households in the region with corrections to the original leaflet.

Raynsford’s office asked for more time but, by mid morning, nothing further had been heard and a writ was thus prepared seeking to require the ODPM to withdraw the limited-circulation correction and to distribute a more comprehensive correction to all households.

The writ was served at 3.11 pm this afternoon and, at the direction of the Court, a copy was served on the Electoral Commission, as an interested party. The papers will be reviewed by a judge on Monday, when a decision will be made as to a hearing.

Throughout these events, the officially designated "No" campaign (NESNO) was kept fully informed of developments, and invited to join with the action as equal partners with the North East No campaign.

NESNO, however, was unable to come up with an official response and no representative of the campaign was present with Neil and his colleagues when the papers were served. A number of other campaigning organisations, however, did attend, to show solidarity.

In what is widely regarded as a dress rehearsal for the EU referendum campaign, therefore, we see the government being accused of promulgating misleading information, failing to respond when complaints are made, with action taken by an unofficial and under-funded people's campaign while the "official" campaign apparently sat on its hands.

One hopes that the "real thing" will be somewhat better conducted.

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