Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Stunell: I add my words of support for the revisions, which very much reflect the character of the previous debate. It is good to see the Minister reflecting that debate and returning to the House with proposals that will go a long way towards ensuring not just that the Committee behaves fairly, but that it is absolutely above reproach in the public's eyes.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendment made: No. 4, in page 2, line 14, leave out "six" and insert "five".--[Mr. Tipping.]

Schedule 2

The Speaker's Committee

Amendments made: No. 86, in page 103, line 20, leave out "Commission" and insert "Committee".

No. 87, in page 103, line 25, at end insert--

'(aa) the Speaker of the House of Commons;'.

No. 88, in page 103, line 41, leave out paragraph 3.

No. 89, in page 104, line 9, at end insert--

'(3) The Committee may appoint a member of the Committee to act as chairman at any meeting of the Committee in the absence of the Speaker.'.--[Mr. Tipping.]

Clause 3

Appointment of Electoral Commissioners and Commission chairman

Amendment made: No. 5, in page 2, line 36, leave out--
'chairman of the Speaker's Committee'
and insert--
'Speaker of the House of Commons'.--[Mr. Tipping.]

Clause 5

Reviews of electoral and political matters

Amendment made: No. 6, in page 4, line 21, at end insert--
'(4A) Each report made by the Commission under this section shall be published by them in such manner as they may determine.'.--[Mr. Tipping.]

13 Mar 2000 : Column 94

Clause 6

Commission to be consulted on changes to electoral law

Amendment made: No. 7, in page 5, line 7, at end insert--
'(i) an order under section 17A(3) of the Greater London Authority Act 1999 (free delivery of election addresses at elections to the Greater London Authority).'.--[Mr. Tipping.]

Clause 9

Broadcasters to have regard to Commission's views on party political broadcasts

Mr. Mike O'Brien: I beg to move amendment No. 8, in page 6, line 45, leave out from "broadcasts," to end of line 5 on page 7.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: With this it will be convenient to discuss Government amendment No. 109.

Mr. O'Brien: During consideration in Committee of part I, which was taken on the Floor of the House, we had a useful debate on two amendments to clause 9 tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton). My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary said that we would reflect on the views that were being expressed from both sides of the House. Since then, we have had an opportunity to discuss the matter further with the BBC. Amendment No. 8, which has the support of both the BBC and S4C, is the result of those discussions.

The effect of amendment No. 8 is to remove subsection 3(b) from clause 9. In doing so, it brings the relationship between the Electoral Commission and the BBC more closely into line with the relationship between the Electoral Commission and both the Independent Television Commission and the Radio Authority. In all cases, the broadcasting authorities will have to have regard to the views of the Electoral Commission when determining their policy or rules, as the case may be, on party political broadcasts. Any such views will be non-binding, but the broadcasting authorities will be bound to give them proper consideration.

The Electoral Commission will no doubt have views on the criteria for determining which political parties qualify for party political broadcasts and on the length and the frequency of such broadcasts. The amendment will not in any way prevent the commission from commenting on those important aspects of the BBC's overall policy on party political broadcasts, but the Government agree that it is inappropriate to single out those aspects of the BBC's policies in subsection (3) when they are not singled out in subsections (1) and (2) as they relate to the Independent Television Commission and the Radio Authority.

Amendment No. 109 is a parallel amendment to the provisions on referendum broadcasts in schedule 11. I hope that the House will accept the amendments.

Mr. Grieve: I welcome the Minister's remarks and the amendments. There was never any criticism of the Government's intention to involve the Electoral Commission, but Opposition Members and some Labour Members were concerned that the detail was likely to expose the commission to a degree of involvement in the

13 Mar 2000 : Column 95

minutiae of editorial policy that was undesirable for both the BBC and the commission. The likely consequence would be that any aggrieved person would take the commission to judicial review proceedings in the same way as occasionally happens to the BBC when it starts to allocate party political broadcasts at election times and the courts are called on to resolve the matter.

Editorial policy should be left to the editors, and I am grateful that the Minister has taken that point on board while in no way detracting from the proper involvement of the Electoral Commission in stimulating debate and putting forward ideas and proposals to all broadcasters on the way in which broadcasts should properly be handled. On that basis, Conservative Members welcome the amendments and we are grateful to the Minister for responding to the representations that were made from both sides of the House.

Mr. Linton: I do not wish to detain the House except to thank my hon. Friend the Minister for being as good as the word of my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, who said in Committee that he would take a fresh look at the wording. They have done that and they have adopted the amendment that I moved in Committee. That is the best course of action because it will preserve the unwritten, voluntary and informal parts of the constitution.

Amendment agreed to.

Clause 11

Education about electoral and democratic systems

Mr. Mike O'Brien: I beg to move amendment No. 9, in page 8, leave out lines 12 and 13 and insert--

'(a) current electoral systems in the United Kingdom and any pending such systems, together with such matters connected with any such existing or pending systems as the Commission may determine;
(b) current systems of local government and national government in the United Kingdom and any pending such systems; and'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Amendment No. 157, in page 8, leave out line 14.

Government amendment No. 10.

Amendment No. 159, in page 8, line 28, at end insert--

'(4A) Notwithstanding anything in subsection (4), any grant under subsection 3(b) may not be used to promote or otherwise publicise--
(a) any change in the system of national government in the United Kingdom (other than a change that is pending for the purposes of this section);
(b) any change in the electoral system in use at any particular election within the United Kingdom (other than a change that is pending for the purposes of this section); or
(c) any change in the system of local government in use in any particular part of the United Kingdom (other than a change that is pending for the purposes of this section).'.

Mr. O'Brien: A number of concerns were expressed in Committee about the extent of the remit given to the

13 Mar 2000 : Column 96

Electoral Commission under clause 11. The clause sets out the commission's voter education function. It will have an important role to play in promoting a greater sense of citizenship and encouraging participation in the democratic process. However, it is not for the commission to promote alternative electoral systems or alternative systems of local, regional or national government.

The commission will be the custodian of fair play in any referendum on proportional representation for elections to the House or on the introduction of elected regional assemblies. In such circumstances, the commission's impartiality would be called into question if it had previously campaigned for electoral reform or for the introduction of elected regional government.

8.15 pm

Government amendments Nos. 9 and 10 will confine the commission's voter education function to promoting current or pending electoral or governmental systems. The reference to "pending" systems denotes new systems that have already been enacted, but are not yet in force. It is not a question of trying to promote something that is not yet in place.

For example, were the commission already in being, it would fall to it to explain the arrangements for the election of the London mayor, and we would wish it much luck in performing that task. It would also have to explain the arrangements for elections to the Assembly, albeit that the Greater London Authority is not yet in place.

The effect of the Government amendments is that the Electoral Commission will not be able to make grants to a body, under the provisions of clause 11(3), to promote the cause of proportional representation for elections to the House, or to campaign for regional elected government. With that assurance, I hope that the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young), who is concerned about these issues, will decide not to press amendment No. 159.

Amendment No. 157 covers slightly different, but none the less familiar, territory. It would omit the reference in subsection (1) to the institutions of the European Union. Opposition Members appear readily to accept that if we are to boost turnout at local government elections, it will be necessary for the Electoral Commission to explain how local government works and impacts on our daily lives. People will be more inclined to vote if they believe that the body that they are being asked to elect is relevant to them and will make a difference to the community in which they live. If that is true of local government, it is surely also true of the European Parliament.

At the previous European elections, voter turnout was very low. If there are ways in which we can improve turnout, we should seriously consider them. The commission must have the scope to explain the role of the European Parliament and its relationship with the European Commission and the other institutions of the European Union. If amendment No. 157 were passed, the Electoral Commission would not be able to discharge its voter education function in respect of European parliamentary elections.

13 Mar 2000 : Column 97

No political party can take comfort from the low turnout at last June's elections. The Electoral Commission cannot reverse the downward trend on its own, but, if it is to have any impact, it must at least be given the scope to run a meaningful campaign.

Next Section

IndexHome Page