Column Number: 3
Tenth Standing Committee
on Delegated Legislation
Tuesday 12 March 2002
[David Taylor in the Chair]
Draft National Assembly for Wales
(Representation of the People)
(Amendment) Order 2002
The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Paul Murphy): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft National Assembly for Wales (Representation of the People) (Amendment) Order 2002.
I welcome you, Mr. Taylor, to your position as a member of the Chairmen's Panel and wish you well in it.
The draft order was laid before the House on 14 February 2002. It amends the National Assembly for Wales (Representation of the People) Order 1999, to bring legislation governing elections to the Assembly in line with legislation for parliamentary and local government elections in Wales. The changes are required as a result of the provisions of the Representation of the People Act 2000, the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 and the Representation of the People (England and Wales) Regulations 2001.
The main changes the order makes are: to allow voters to vote by post without giving a reason for doing so; to provide blind voters with a device that will assist them in voting without the assistance of a companion, if they so wish, and to allow persons with other disabilities to vote with the assistance of a companion; to ensure that the 1999 order is consistent with the new arrangements for rolling registration; to accommodate new controls on the expenses of political parties set out in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000; to accommodate the changes made by that Act concerning the description of registered political parties and independent candidates on nomination forms and ballot papers; and to make other consequential amendments to achieve consistency with the amendments to the Representation of the People Act 1983 about the conveyance of voters to polling booths and the use of school buildings as committee rooms.
My officials have worked closely with their Assembly counterparts on the order, and Assembly Ministers have been kept informed. Furthermore, the changes made by the order have been the subject of consultation with the Electoral Commission, which supports them.
All the changes are important, but the changes dealing with postal voting and voters with disabilities are likely to be of the widest interest. Postal votes will be accessible to all who wish to use them. That positive step will encourage the electorate to take part in elections, by giving them more options for voting.
The changes also mean that all voters with disabilities will now be entitled to the assistance of a
Column Number: 4
companion. Previously, such assistance was available only to blind voters. As well as providing that each polling station should be equipped with a device to allow blind voters to cast their votes unaided, if they so wish, the order provides for the display of a large-format ballot paper to assist visually impaired voters. The provisions are in line with those in force at the last general election, which were well received by disabled voters.
The order will make a number of important changes to the Assembly's electoral process, but further changes are required. Therefore, I propose to introduce a further order, which will include new provisions relating to candidates' expenses, the broadcasting of local items during an election period, the publication of exit polls and false statements in nomination papers. Additional consultation will be required on those topics before I can introduce a further order. However, the second order will be laid before Parliament well in advance of the next Assembly elections on 1 May 2003.
Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent): I support all the ideas for making it easier for different groups to vote at Assembly elections, and I am sure that the Assembly will welcome them, too. However, does the Minister think that we may still have a problem, not just with these groups but with the electorate as a whole coming out and placing their X? We were told that the Assembly would make a bonfire of the quangos. As hon. Members know, that has not happened. This is not just about improving a little here and a little there; it involves the whole question of whether people are going to vote.
Mr. Murphy: I understand the points that my hon. Friend has made, is making and shall continue to make for a long time, but they are not wholly relevant to the order. However, he is right to mention turnout, and I can make a general point about that. The low turnout that we experienced in every seat in the general election and that we saw in the by-election in Swansea, East, although less so in Ogmore, concerns all parties. It is important to do whatever we can in this House to change the way in which people vote, to maximise turnout.
The draft order's contents ought not to be contentious. It brings the Assembly elections into line with parliamentary and local government elections in important aspects such as accessibility to postal voting and assistance for voters with disabilities. All the changes are in the interests of increasing enfranchisement and, as I just said to my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Llew Smith), of encouraging our electorate to use their votes. I urge the Committee to approve the draft order.
Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire): May I start by associating this side of the Committee with the remarks made by the Secretary of State in welcoming you to the Chair, Mr. Taylor? I understand that this is the first Committee that you have chaired. Long may you reign over us, even after the next election, when we will be sitting on the other side of the Committee.
Column Number: 5
I thank the Secretary of State and his ministerial colleague for their courtesy in giving the official Opposition details of the ministerial notes on the order. Such actions are nothing but helpful and if other Ministers followed the practice of those at the Wales Office I think that the Government would not be in the trouble that they are in various areas. I hope that that comment has not blighted the Secretary of State's future career.
The Secretary of State explained the order's scope fairly, but I have several questions. Although it brings the law in relation to elections to the National Assembly for Wales into line with that in relation to parliamentary elections in England and Wales, this is nevertheless a freestanding order and it is right that we question parts of its scope. Can he explain the scope of article 16, ''Election Expenses'', which refers to the expenses of constituency candidates? Does that relate in any way to the unfortunate situation that Fiona Jones got herself into in Newark in the previous Parliament? I should be grateful if he could explain why that article is necessary.
Article 26 is about voting by persons with disabilities. Of course, we welcome those provisions, which are very important. Is any advice or direction about practice to be given to the presiding officer about their implementation? My concern relates to whether a voter who presents himself with a companion and asks if the companion can vote on his behalf is to be asked whether that is what he wants in the presence of that companion. I am concerned about the risk of duress being applied in certain cases: for example, an elderly voter may be taken to vote by a relative who has a different view of how that vote should be cast. If the voter is to be asked whether he or she wants to use the services of a companion, it is important that the presiding officer does so out of earshot of that companion to ensure that no duress is used.
The Secretary of State said that a further order would be introduced in due course. When does he expect that to take place, and why is it not happening now? Who will be consulted? I understand that one of the problems is that the consultation process is not complete. Will he confirm that all political parties will be able to make representations before the terms of the order are finalised? Subject to satisfactory answers to those points, we are satisfied that the order is the right and proper way to proceed, and we shall not divide the Committee.
I ask the Secretary of State to confirm that by approving the order the Committee will not be endorsing the recent decision by the Welsh Assembly to delay democracy by postponing local elections in Wales until 2004. Many of us feel that that is a disgrace, and that the local elections should have gone ahead as planned in 2003. Will he confirm that nothing we do here today ratifies that disgraceful decision, which will effectively delay the date of a Conservative revival in local government in Wales?
Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): It is good to hear such an optimistic note struck so early in the morning.
Column Number: 6
However, I fear that we would need more than a year's delay to see the revival of Conservative fortunes in Wales, particularly at local government level.
I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Taylor. I understand that this is your first job chairing a Committee, and it is delightful to see you in your place. I am sure that you will preside over many Welsh deliberations, and that you will find them much more interesting than English ones. Of course, you will be disinterested, which will be even better.
I welcome what has been set out. I apologise to the Secretary of State for missing the first minute of his explanation, but my office was able to contact his office and obtain some background detail, which was useful. It is better that such non-contentious matters should proceed with openness of information.
The hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent made a very good point. Through rolling registrations, easier access to postal votes and improved access for disabled people, we are trying to make the process of voting more accessible and to encourage more people to vote. It has to be said that the jury is out on that, because there was no significant increase—in fact, there was a decrease—in the number of those voting. I am prepared to give the Government and the current electoral system a little more time, and to see the order approved in its current form. However, it only brings Wales in line with what already applies in England.
Extra ways of voting that we could consider for Wales are missing. For example, should we allow the National Assembly to hold its polls at the weekend? Polling stations could be set up in places where people might find them more accessible and be more encouraged to use them. That is not within the scope of the order, so it is a little limiting. I would have liked the Government to think more creatively about how the Assembly could win greater support from voters by changing its interaction with them. We have applied a blanket solution and we should consider more local solutions. I would like local government innovations and new ideas for persuading people to vote in local government elections. There should be freedom to do that. I agree with the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) that delaying elections for a year is not the way to do that and I hope that that does not fall within the scope of the order. We should consider different ways of conducting elections; there is scope for innovation. My party and I would welcome a debate on those issues.
I have some questions on the narrowness of the order. It is welcome that the provision applying to blind voters will also apply to disabled voters. During general election campaigns it is my habit to visit all polling stations in my constituency. It is a close call and takes all day, but keeps me busy and out of mischief.