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News, Politics

Look Back with Candour

It seems a long time ago now but the Electoral Commission has just published its report on the referendum in March that resulted in the Assembly gaining new law making powers.

It reveals that the referendum cost the taxpayer £5.89million.

£1.4million came out of the Electoral Commission’s own budget and included the cost of a public information campaign.

The rest was spent by the Welsh Government, largely by meeting the costs of the local officials who organised the voting and counting arrangements.

Public money was not spent on the running of the Yes and No campaigns because the Electoral Commission did not designate lead campaign organisations.

At the event to launch the report this morning, representatives of the True Wales campaign for a no vote argued that the rules laid down by Westminster eleven years ago were hopelessly of date.

They were an informal group that communicated and campaigned largely via the internet; they had no use for the money that was on offer for office costs but they would not have been allowed to spend it on campaigning.

The internet was also the focus of interest for Labour AMs who turned up, they wanted to know whether the electoral Commission knew the ip addresses of people who visited its website (the answer was no) and about the reliability of the information about the number of hits on individual pages.

That was prompted of course by the reinstatement of Aled Roberts, the Lib Dem AM who was disqualified because of his membership of a public body.

He claimed that he had been misled because the Commission had not updated the Welsh language page listing the organisations whose members could not stand in the Assembly election.

The Commission’s chair, Jenny Watson, said she apologised for the error. She took the matter extremely seriously and that mistakes were made which must never happen again.

Despite the doubts over the reliability of the data on website visits, the report includes figures for the individual pages on which the Commission published information from the various campaign organisations.

Most popular was True Wales, with 1,564 hits, with two other no campaigns each getting more than 1,400.

Apparently no-one looked at any of their Welsh language pages. In the case of Yes for Wales, there were 1,249 in English and apparently only two in Welsh, which may tell us more about the accuracy of the measurement software than anything else.

The Commission was keen to get across the sheer difficulty of effectively setting up a referendum from scratch. Although the Assembly voted to call the referendum in February 2010, it was December before the Westminster process was completed.

The report sheds a positive light on Peter Hain’s role when he was Welsh Secretary:

“Before the general election was called, the then Secretary of State set up a project board to coordinate the work on the referendum legislation … meeting regularly from March 2010 … the project board proved to be a constructive and effective forum for highlighting policy issues that needed to be resolved and for processing the legislation. We commend it as a model for dealing with electoral legislation … Nevertheless, drafting the legislation was a tortuous process”.

If True Wales have their way we might have to go through it once again. They are making much of the fact that the Commission advised the Secretary of State (and Cheryl Gillan accepted the advice) that the preamble to the referendum question should include the sentence:

“The Assembly cannot make laws on subject areas such as defence, tax or welfare benefits, whatever the result of this vote”.

The key word is tax. In a statement True Wales argue that as early as November 23, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander ‘stated at the Assembly Finance Committee that, following a Yes vote in the referendum, if there were a “consensus within the Welsh Assembly across the parties in relation to taxation and borrowing” he “would respond positively to that”.

‘The UK Coalition Government showed very clearly that it was keen for Wales to take on more of the tax-raising burden, so that taxpayers in England carry less. True Wales believes that the inclusion of the tax denial in the referendum question was misleading and an inappropriate intervention in the debate between the campaigners’.

In fact I blogged as far back as last August that Cheryl Gillan had made it clear that Yes vote would lead to a fresh look at whether the Assembly should have tax raising powers.

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