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European Parliamentary and Local Elections (Pilots) Bill

European Parliamentary and Local Elections (Pilots) Bill

Column Number: 143

Standing Committee B

Tuesday 4 November 2003

(Afternoon)

[Mr. Frank Cook in the Chair]

European Parliamentary and Local Elections (Pilots) Bill

Clause 4

Electoral commission report

Amendment proposed [this day]: No. 6, in

    clause 4, page 2, line 36, at end insert—

    '(c) the impact of the pilot scheme on the campaigns of the candidates and on the political parties.'.—[Mr. Hawkins.]

2.30 pm

Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

The Chairman: I remind the Committee that with this we are discussing the following:

Amendment No. 34, in

    clause 4, page 3, line 19, leave out 'a statement' and insert 'statements'.

Amendment No. 9, in

    clause 4, page 3, line 22, at end insert—

    '(7A) The report must include a statement by the Commission of the views of the candidates and the political parties on the conduct of the election and on the impact of the pilot scheme on the turnout and result.'.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. Christopher Leslie): As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted—I hope that other hon. Members enjoyed their lunch—amendments Nos. 6, 34 and 9 largely concern securing more information in the Electoral Commission's evaluation report about the impact on the campaigning of candidates and parties of the all-postal pilots and the electronic voting pilot suggestions. There is an important issue relating to remote voting and its effect on the campaigning activities of parties and candidates because as people vote over a period of time, some will have voted before campaigning ends. Therefore, political parties will naturally realise that the normal mechanisms of campaigning are likely to change. The Electoral Commission has tended to report on the campaigning impact anyway. It featured in some of their reports on the previous local pilot arrangements that took place. The amendments are designed to find out whether we could firm up the certainty that we shall have such reports from the Electoral Commission.

Amendment No. 6 is one thing; amendment No. 9 goes a little too far. It would require a statement from the Electoral Commission not just on the view of the parties and candidates, but on the impact of piloting on turnouts and results as well. There is no need for specific legislation for the Electoral Commission to reflect the views of parties and candidates because it already does so where it adds value. The commission is able to judge perfectly adequately what material

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should go into a report, what it might want to add as annexes to its website and so forth.

There is always the likelihood that the views of political parties will be partisan, particularly if they have to talk about the results of an election. It would be wrong to expect the Electoral Commission to report on views concerning how pilots affect actual results. Obviously, that is highly political territory. We could have a long report with lots of different opinions from all the candidates and parties if we include provisions that mean that a report will be written about the different views of the parties on the outcome of the election. I would be concerned if that were to happen.

It would be slightly worrying if the impact on campaigning became the main driving factor in deciding whether we were going to make voting easier or more convenient in the first place. The principle of piloting remote voting and electronic voting is important. We should not let campaigning tactics drive whether that will take place. That being said, amendment No. 6 has a more reasonable tone to it. I do not think that we should accept it at the moment because the drafting of clause 4(6) does not exclude the ability of the Electoral Commission to consider the impact on campaigning.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): I am glad that, for once, one of my amendments has appealed—at least in part—to the Minister. Even though I entirely accept that the language does not exclude what I have suggested, would he accept that if our wording were added, the Bill would be clearer? It would be made specifically clear that the matter was being contemplated. Will the Minister undertake to consider with his officials the idea that amendment No. 6 might add clarity, perhaps with a view to tabling a Government amendment on Report?

Mr. Leslie: The hon. Gentleman almost took the words entirely out of my mouth, in so far as there is a legitimate need to consider whether his points would add something to the Bill. In the spirit of rejuvenating the hope of the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir Teddy Taylor) that the Committee can prove useful, I will talk to officials about this to see whether something might be introduced on Report. I shall not make any promises, as there is probably sufficient provision in subsection (4) to allow the investigation of the effects of campaigning, but it is worth considering the matter further, and I undertake to do that.

I am still not sure whether I see the logic behind the alleged grammatical improvement that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) tries to make with amendment No. 34. ''A statement'' is sufficient and to make the word plural does not add anything. The amendment is possibly a little pedantic and unnecessary, so I ask him not to press it.

Mr. Hawkins: Given the Minister's response, it would be churlish of me not to accede to his request. He is constructively considering a revised version of amendment No. 6, and I would be delighted if we ended up with another Hawkins amendment on Report.

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The Minister is aware that the Opposition appreciate his serious consideration of matters when we try to improve legislation. I hope that we have rekindled the flame of my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East): Although the Minister may be very impressed by that, he must explain matters to all members of the Committee. This is a Committee; it is not just the Front-Bench spokesman and the Minister.

The amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath states that the Commission must consider the impact of the pilot scheme on the political parties. What the blazes does that mean? Does it mean the impact on their morale, their funding or the number of people taking part in elections? Surely, it is not the job of the commission to consider the future of the political parties. I am not being silly when I say that there is a terrible danger with the political parties thinking that they are here for ever and that there is no alternative to them. What difference does it make? This is not an intervention as I was hoping to make a speech because I thought that my hon. Friend had finished his remarks. What difference would the provision make to democracy?

The Chairman: Order. That is definitely an intervention. The hon. Member for Surrey Heath definitely gave way.

Mr. Hawkins: I understand the views of my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East, and no doubt the Minister will take into account what he has said when trying to produce improved wording that might extend the scope of amendment No. 6.

I am grateful to the Minister for saying that there is at least the germ of an idea in the amendment that may be worth considering. Perhaps with the views of my hon. Friend also being taken into account, we might have a Government amendment on Report.

Sir Teddy Taylor: My hon. Friend should say what he means when he uses the words ''on the political parties'' in the amendment. What is the point of them? Are we saying that the object of the amendment is to ensure that the welfare of the political parties continues to improve? The Government might want to consider the effect on the campaigns of the candidates, but we should be discussing the people. The whole point of an election is that the people express a view. If we are saying that the basis of democracy is a strong Conservative party, Labour party and Liberal Democrat party, we are not doing our job properly.

I hope that my hon. Friend will explain what he means by the amendment. Does he wish to ensure that we continue to strengthen the political parties, that they continue to exist or that their funding continues to improve? He has obviously thought the amendment through very carefully and the Government think that it is a good idea but what is the point of inserting the words ''on the political parties''?

Amendment negatived.

Column Number: 146

Mr. Hawkins: I beg to move amendment No. 25, in

    clause 4, page 2, line 37, leave out 'such relevant' and insert 'all'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment No. 54, in

    clause 4, page 2, line 37, leave out 'such' and insert 'all'.

Amendment No. 26, in

    clause 4, page 2, line 38, leave out 'as they consider appropriate'.

Amendment No. 7, in

    clause 4, page 3, line 1, leave out 'relevant'.

Mr. Hawkins: Amendment No. 25 would have the same effect as Liberal Democrats' amendment No. 54, our amendment No. 26, which the Liberal Democrats support, and our amendment No. 7.

We believe that the Electoral Commission must consult all local authorities in the region and not just those that the commission believes are appropriate. To leave the words proposed by the Government puts the cart before the horse and gives the commission too much discretion. It is a brief point, but we are delighted to have the Liberal Democrats' support. We also believe that all local authorities should give the assistance required under clause 4(3).

Those, briefly, are the reasons for our amendments and I need not detain the Committee. I am pleased that there seems to be some unanimity between the main Opposition parties.

Mrs. Annette L. Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole): There is some agreement and also some disagreement on the amendments. Our argument is that all relevant local authorities should be involved in the report and consulted, but the Conservatives' amendment would remove the word ''relevant''. That would mean that parish councils, town councils and everyone else would be consulted. We would confine our amendments to the ''relevant'' authorities: those in charge of organising electoral arrangements. The amendments have our support, but it is not wholehearted support.

 
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