Politicians should apologise for errors, says watchdog

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Politicians should apologise when they make mistakes to help restore people's trust in politics, the chairman of the independent Electoral Commission said yesterday.

In an interview with The Independent, Sam Younger said: "In every area of life, if you get something wrong, it is better to say sorry. In most cases, if you are ready to say sorry, you come out of it better. If somebody is big enough to acknowledge that they have got it wrong, by and large people tend to respect that rather than see it as weakness."

His call comes amid a debate in senior Labour circles about whether Tony Blair should apologise over the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq after an inquiry headed by Lord Butler of Brockwell reports next month. Yesterday, President George Bush was criticised for not saying sorry over the mistreatment of prisoners in Iraq.

Mr Younger said: "Part of the reason politicians don't want to admit they have got it wrong is that they are worried that will get presented by the media as 'U-turn' or an inability to be consistent as opposed to an honest acknowledgement that your judgement of the evidence has changed and therefore your conclusion has changed."

But he refused to be drawn on whether Mr Blair should say sorry over WMD. "That would be getting me into politics that I don't think I should get into," he said.

There are fears that turnout at next year's general election could drop below the 59 per cent figure of 2001. Mr Younger said: "The key has to lie with political parties and politicians themselves. It is the persuasiveness with which they can engage the voter that is going to determine it."

One lesson from the commission's research is that more face-to-face contact with voters may help. "Familiarity breeds favourability rather than contempt," he said.

There is obviously a trust problem, he said. "It's not just the politicians; the media has a role to play too. In a sense, part of the problem is the voters themselves. We have a society of very high expectations and low thresholds of patience - 'I want it and want it now'."

Major change takes a long time but politicians are pressured into "promising things they may not be able to deliver".

The commission, which will supervise the 10 June elections for local authorities, the European Parliament, Mayor of London and London Assembly, is worried that voters might be confused by the five voting systems being used. "The danger of confusion is a really significant factor that we should take account of," he said.

Mr Younger, a former managing director of the BBC World Service, wants the Government to tighten the rules on spending in referendum campaigns before the vote on the proposed European Union constitution.

The Government can run information campaigns until four weeks before a referendum. But spending limits for other groups, including the "yes" and "no" camps, apply from 10 weeks before the vote. "Government should operate under the same restrictions as everybody else," he said. He urged ministers not to exploit the loophole before referendums in the North-west, North-east and Yorkshire this autumn on whether to set up regional assemblies.

The Government plans to run a £5m information campaign but is refusing to give such a promise. "Permitted participants" can spend up to £500,000 and there are fears that the "yes" and "no" camps in the Europe referendum will get round the rules by setting up lots of small groups. Mr Younger is considering whether organisations working in co-operation should be counted as a single group.