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Sixth Standing Committee
on Delegated Legislation
Thursday 13 February 2003
[MISS ANNE BEGG in the Chair]
Draft National Assembly for Wales (Representation of the People) Order 2003
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Don Touhig): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft National Assembly for Wales (Representation of the People) Order 2003.
May I say how pleased I am that you are chairing the Committee this morning, Miss Begg? I believe that you chaired the Committee considering a similar order that applied to Scotland. If we need any assistance, we will benefit from your experience as you guide us through this complex document.
I will briefly explain the intentions behind the order and take questions or comments later. The purpose of the draft order is to bring the provisions on elections to the National Assembly for Wales into line, so far as practicable, with those that apply for parliamentary or local government elections. The statutory authority for making the order is section 11 of the Government of Wales Act 1998. The order regulates most aspects of the process for electing and returning Assembly Members and establishes mechanisms for questioning an election and for remedying any irregularities.
I make no apologies for the fact that the order is lengthy—it must be if it is to deal with every conceivable eventuality. It might be helpful if I summarise the background to the order and explain why we felt it necessary to present a comprehensive new order in advance of the Assembly's second term elections in May.
The first Assembly elections were conducted under the terms of the National Assembly for Wales (Representation of the People) Order 1999, which was considered by the predecessor to this Committee about four years ago. The then Secretary of State explained at the time that the order drew heavily on the provisions of the Representation of the People Act 1995, which governed parliamentary and local elections. That was right because our objective was consistency of practice. The 1999 order successfully achieved that objective.
Since 1999, the Government have taken great strides forward in their commitment to modernise electoral law. Much was achieved through the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, which, among other things, established the Electoral Commission as an independent overseer of the electoral process. That Act, together with the Representation of the People Act 2000, has made significant changes to the legislation on which the 1999 order was based.
The National Assembly for Wales (Representation of the People) (Amendment) Order 2002, which was taken through Committee by my right hon. Friend the
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present Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, implemented most of the essential changes that needed to be in place in the event of a by-election within the Assembly. It dealt specifically with the issue and receipt of ballot papers, provision for voters with disabilities, absent voting, voting by proxy, the effect of registration, expenses of political parties and certain changes to the detailed rules of conducting Assembly elections.
Even then it was recognised that further amendments would be necessary, but a second amending order at that time would have caused practical difficulties both for the electoral administrators and for political parties, because they would have needed to have consult at least three separate documents to be clear about every detail of the rules and procedures governing elections. We therefore decided to consolidate all the necessary changes since 1999 into the new order before the Committee this morning.
The order restates the amendments made in 2002. In addition, it introduces new changes, covering offences relating to false statements in applications for absent and proxy votes, false statements in nomination papers, restriction on the publication of exit polls while the poll is being conducted, control of donations to candidates, candidates' expenses, the broadcasting of local items and provisions relating to the consequences of conviction for corrupt electoral practices.
In view of the limited time that we have, I do not propose to cover every detail of the order. I shall, however, briefly summarise each of the five parts, drawing attention to the more significant changes that the order proposes. I shall do my best to answer any questions that hon. Members may have.
Part I deals with the usual citation and commencement provisions. It repeals the 1999 order and the amendment order of 2002. Article 2 deals with interpretation.
Articles 3 to 14 in part II are concerned primarily with voting, registration and polling places. They incorporated the changes made in the 2002 amendment order to reflect the introduction of rolling registration, which we now have, and the universal right to apply for a postal vote. Those provisions are essentially unchanged from those in the 1999 order, as amended. However, we have added new provisions to article 13, which clarifies the legal implications of making false statements in relation to an application for a postal or proxy vote. Anyone found guilty of such an offence will be liable to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the current standard scale, which is £5,000. That is consistent with provisions for parliamentary elections in schedule 4 to the Representation of the People Act 2000.
Articles 15 to 27 deal with the conduct of elections and the role of the returning officer. Again, those are unchanged from the existing order.
Articles 28 to 34 deal with a range of specific offences. For the most part, they reflect the provisions of the existing order. However, new provisions are made at article 32 to deal with false statements on
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nomination papers and related documents, and at article 34 to extend to Assembly elections the prohibition of the publication of exit polls, which was introduced for different sorts of elections under the Representation of the People Act 2000.
Part III sets out the rules of conduct for the election campaign, including controls on election expenses of constituency candidates and of individual candidates on the top-up list, as we in Wales tend to call it. Since 1999, one significant change has occurred. The regulation of party expenditure now rests with the Electoral Commission. The legislation that established the commission amended the Government of Wales Act to remove the Secretary of State's role in making provisions about expenses of political parties.
We have agreed with the Electoral Commission that expenditure incurred by party list, or top-up, candidates, with the exception of personal expenses, constitutes party expenditure. It therefore falls to be regulated by the commission. That significant change from the 1999 arrangements is reflected in the new order, which concentrates on expenditure by constituency and individual candidates at regional level.
Article 39 makes new provisions about the control of donations to candidates, which are spelt out more fully in schedule 6. Articles 41 and 42 cover controls on the payment of candidates' expenses. They have been recast to reflect amendments made to the parallel requirements in the Representation of the People Act 1983 following the passage of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000.
In view of what I said a few moments ago, it is pertinent to draw attention to article 42, which imposes limits on candidates' personal expenses—relatively small sums that need to be paid through an election agent. Exceptionally, those provisions apply to candidates on a party list as well as to constituency candidates and individual candidates standing at regional level. That reflects the fact such expenses cannot properly be viewed as party expenditure.
Article 45 sets limits on the election expenses of constituency and individual candidates. The provisions are broadly similar to those in the earlier order, and the figures have been uprated to reflect changes in prices and the value of money.
Articles 47 to 63 set out ancillary provisions on expenses, requirements for submitting returns of expenditure and penalties for failing to do so. There is nothing novel in the provisions. With appropriate adjustments, they reflect those applying to parliamentary elections to this House. The form of return of election expenses, which is set out in schedule 7, is consistent with the return prescribed for Westminster elections. However, the Electoral Commission is working on an improved version of the form, with a view to its being prescribed for the purposes of the Representation of the People Act. With an eye to that, article 50 requires completion of returns
''in the form set out . . . in Schedule 7, or to the like effect''.
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That will facilitate adoption of the commission's revised form if and when it is approved for other electoral purposes.
Article 64 deals with the right of candidates to send every elector one piece of election literature post-free. Candidates for membership of the House of Commons also benefit from that long-standing facility. The cost of that service, as of the elections as a whole, will be a charge on the Assembly.
Articles 65 and 66 deal with broadcasting. New provisions relate to the broadcasting of local items during the election period and reflect changes introduced by section 144 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. They require the broadcasting authorities to adopt a code of practice in respect of the participation of Assembly candidates in items about the constituency or electoral region in which they are standing.
The remainder of part III deals with a range of matters relating to the conduct of the election campaign. With one exception, they reflect provisions of the existing order. The exception is in article 83, which updates the definition of ''candidate'' to make it consistent with the new definition adopted in 2000 for the purposes of parliamentary elections.
Part IV makes provision for legal proceedings. It is designed to ensure that procedures apply in connection with Assembly elections comparable to those that apply in connection with elections to Parliament. The one significant change is in article 122, which deals with circumstances in which an individual convicted of corrupt or illegal practice already holds a seat in the Assembly. The conviction would require the person to vacate their seat. However, it is right to allow a short period of grace while the Assembly Member has the opportunity to appeal against conviction. The expanded article 122 now provides for that. During a period of grace, however, the individual would be suspended from performing the functions of an Assembly Member.
Part V, the final part, covers a range of miscellaneous and supplementary matters that are unchanged from the existing order.
Schedule 1, which deals with the provision to candidates of information from the electoral register and the sale of copies of the register, is unchanged from the existing order. Schedules 2 and 3 deal with absent voting and the issue and receipt of postal ballot papers. That was one of the areas significantly altered by the 2002 amendment order.
The new order replicates the existing provisions with only two exceptions. Transitional provisions, which by their nature are now obsolete, have been deleted from schedule 2. In schedule 3, the form of statement as to numbers of ballot papers has been revised in line with the new form K, which is prescribed for parliamentary elections in the Representation of the People (England and Wales) Regulations 2001.
Schedule 4 deals with the combination of polls when Assembly elections are held on the same day as those for local authorities. Those provisions have been
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altered to reflect the future possibility of mayoral elections in Wales, but are otherwise unchanged from the existing order. Schedule 5 sets out the general rules for conduct of Assembly elections and return of Members. Again, those provisions are unchanged from the existing order.
New schedule 6 deals with controls on donations to candidates and reflects provisions for other elections that have been implemented in schedule 2A to the Representation of the People Act 1983. The rules make it clear that, as well as direct financial support, they cover sponsorship, donations in kind and loans on non-commercial terms. Assembly candidates will be subject to the same list of permissible donors as candidates for election to the House of Commons. The schedule also sets out clear rules for reporting donations, thereby ensuring that all sums are accounted for.
Schedule 7 prescribes the returns and declarations to be made by constituency and individual candidates under articles 50 and 51. Those are in line with the recommendations of the Electoral Commission and are consistent with those used in elections to this House and the Scottish Parliament. Both schedule 8, which deals with the use of rooms for election meetings, and schedule 9, which modifies the Election Petition Rules 1960, reflect wholly schedules VII and VIII to the existing order.
The order is complex, but that is necessary for comprehensive coverage and to provide us with the necessary reassurance that Assembly Members will be elected through an equitable and transparent process that everyone can trust. In accordance with the requirements of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, the draft has been subject to consultation with the Electoral Commission.