The Queen's Speech: Plebiscite rules may change to prevent Euro bias

ELECTORAL REFORM; party gifts controlled; voting made easier
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MINISTERS ARE rethinking new rules on referendums after protests that they could give the pro-euro camp higher spending limits than sceptics in a vote on the single currency.

Both the Conservative Party and Lord Neill of Bladen, who headed an inquiry into political funding, had objected to the government's proposals. Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, had planned to allow each political party to spend pounds 5m in a referendum, but Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the nationalists are likely to support the euro, with only the Tories opposing it.

In a note on its plans for a Political Parties and Referendums Bill, the Home Office suggested compromise. "It is not thought practicable to equalise spending exactly for both sides of a referendum campaign as a whole, but the provisions would help to ensure that particular parties or other organisations did not have a disproportionate voice by reason of the wealth at their disposal."

A Home Office spokeswoman could add no detail. Lord Neill's Committee on Standards in Public Life did not recommend any spending limits.

The Bill announced yesterday follows draft legislation released in July, but is not expected to be published before the new year. It will create a new Electoral Commission to oversee elections, administer new rules on donations (including a ban on funding from overseas). The commission would take over the functions of the parliamentary boundary commissions and the Local Government Commission.

A separate Representation of the People Bill, also announced yesterday, will allow voters to register at any time rather than a single annual qualifying date. Postal votes will be available on demand and local authorities will be able to pilot schemes such as supermarket voting and electronic voting.

Fran Abrams Westminster Correspondent