Previous Section Index Home Page

13 Jun 2006 : Column 732

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I think that the hon. Gentleman’s intervention is going on for rather a long time.

Bridget Prentice: I, too, am disappointed that we have not been able to find a solution in the Bill. However, there is logic behind asking Sir Hayden to consider the matter, because all the work on party funding and election spending will thus be carried out together. It would be unwise to pre-empt the results of the review by keeping the four-month provision in the Bill. If Sir Hayden’s review shows that we require legislation, we will try to deal with that at an early stage.

May I make a final point on the matter by commending the work that was done by our colleague, Peter Bradley, who put the matter in the public domain and showed the scandalous state of affairs that existed?

9.30 pm

Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab): We are talking about not just a few leaflets, but concerted campaigns in which, in some cases, hundreds of thousands of pounds are spent to target specific seats, although other seats are often ignored. The amount of money that is poured in shows that this is not a minor matter. Large sums are targeted at specific seats at an early stage, and some seats are being targeted even now.

Bridget Prentice: My hon. Friend makes the case for action extremely well. I hope that he and other hon. Members—not just Labour Members, because I hope that Opposition Members will reflect on the matter and realise how scandalous the situation is—will offer positive solutions to Sir Hayden so that we can rectify the situation as soon as possible.

Lords amendments Nos. 27 to 46, 84 to 86, 97 and 99 deal with a system of electoral observation in the United Kingdom. As a member of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, we have sent teams to be observers of elections. The organisation also has responsibility for sending teams of international observers to elections that take place here. However, the UK has never had an official method by which international electoral observers may attend election proceedings in the United Kingdom. The amendments thus give effect to the recommendations of the Electoral Commission and other electoral observation experts by facilitating such observations.

It was intended that the UK should be brought into line with many newer democracies by giving independent electoral observers the right to observe proceedings and working practices, and that we should bring greater transparency to the electoral system, in line with international electoral practice. However, we received representations that suggested the provisions of clause 33 did not go far enough to ensure that UK elections could be observed freely and objectively. We accepted those arguments and hence brought forward amendments.

The Lords amendments will remove the requirement of accredited individual observers to apply for the permission of a returning officer or counting officer to attend proceedings at the issue or receipt of postal ballot papers, proceedings at a poll and proceedings at
13 Jun 2006 : Column 733
a count. They also remove the ability of election officials to revoke their permission at any time, with reasons. That means that any removal of accreditation will have to be made by the Electoral Commission, which will give reasons for that revocation.

As part of the removal of those requirements, observers should not have to inform electoral administrators of the places that they intend to observe, or, indeed, the time at which they will arrive. However, observers will be subject to any existing enactments that regulate attendance at election proceedings. We have included two caveats in the provisions: the Electoral Commission will be able to specify a maximum number of delegates that may attend any single election proceeding, and may revoke an organisation’s observer accreditation, giving reasons. It must be clear to the House that the power to specify a maximum number of delegates will not limit the number of delegates that an organisation can send to observe an election generally. The limit will be on the number of delegates who can attend a particular proceeding. For example, the commission may object to an organisation requesting to send 50 delegates to the counting proceedings for a parliamentary by-election. The amendments also remove the requirement for representatives of the Electoral Commission to apply for the permission of a returning officer to observe an election or other electoral proceedings, or for the permission of a counting officer to observe proceedings at a referendum.

Mr. Heath: May I express my gratitude to the hon. Lady for listening to the points raised? As a sometime observer for the OSCE, it was a huge embarrassment to learn that this country was unable to offer the facilities that it expected other countries to provide to observation missions. The original draft was hopeless in its inadequacy. That has been corrected, and I am grateful.

Bridget Prentice: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that. I am glad that we have managed to reassure him.

The safeguards do not affect any other power an electoral officer may have to maintain order at any election proceeding. The particular power in this group of amendments is needed to enable electoral officers to protect the integrity and proper conduct of the electoral process. Without such safeguards, electoral proceedings could be open to abuse by an observer whose motives for attending turn out not to be legitimate, objective scrutiny of the elections.

The purpose of Lords amendments Nos. 50 to 52 is to fulfil the commitment that my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State made on 17 November to provide for the piloting at a local level of photos on ballot papers. Should a subsequent evaluation prove positive, the amendments also allow for roll-out at parliamentary and local elections and by-elections. The Electoral Commission supports the piloting of the provision.

Lords amendments Nos. 53 and 125 relate to voting by persons detained under the Mental Health Act
13 Jun 2006 : Column 734
1983. If a doctor considers someone to be well enough to be absent from the hospital, he or she should not be prevented from voting in person. The amendments provide that detained patients may vote in person if they are granted permission to be absent from the hospital and if voting in person does not breach any condition attached to that permission. The amendments continue to give detained patients the option to vote by post or proxy if they so wish.

Lords amendments Nos. 54 to 58 relate to the provision of guidance in alternative formats and languages other than English and Welsh, as provided for in clauses 36 and 37. That is aimed at improving access to the electoral process for certain groups of electors who may previously have had difficulties in obtaining documents in formats that are appropriate for their needs. Clause 36 provides for the translation of election documents apart from the nomination papers and ballot papers into different languages and formats, at the electoral officer’s discretion. Clause 37 covers the provision of guidance to those voting by post.

As drafted, the clauses provided that election officials “may” provide documents in other formats as they think appropriate. The amendments replace “may” with “must”, changing the requirement on election officials to provide the documents in alternative formats for those voting in person and by post where necessary. The amendments also extend the type of guidance that can be offered under clauses 36 and 37 by giving election officials a general power to produce documents in formats besides Braille, other languages and graphical representations, and by specifying that election officials can provide documents in an audible form, such as a tape.

Lords amendments Nos. 98, 100 to 102, 123 and 130 relate to access to the count and nominations. Currently, access to the count is limited to the candidate’s spouse or civil partner. The amendments will provide that a candidate can invite a person of their choosing. They respond to points raised by Baroness Gale in the other place. The amendments will also cover attendance at nominations.

The amendments deal with one further issue in relation to access to the count because they restore the discretion of the returning officer to invite any person to the count who does not appear in the list of specified persons who automatically have a right to attend under electoral law. We had originally planned to remove that discretion, but electoral administrators suggested that it could cause a problem—for example, it might prevent a local mayor who is not the returning officer from attending a count in a constituency in his area. I dare say it would also apply to Members of Parliament who wish to attend local election counts.

Mr. Bone: Am I correct in thinking that Members of Parliament do not have an automatic right to attend a local count, as I had to apply to become a local agent?

Bridget Prentice: Members of Parliament do not have an automatic right to attend the count, which is why we reinstated the returning officer’s discretion to allow a Member of Parliament or the mayor, as I said, to do so. If the returning officer uses his discretion, Members of Parliament would not require nomination to attend the count.

13 Jun 2006 : Column 735

Finally, Lords amendments Nos. 104, 106 and 132 are Scottish technical amendments that clarify the fact that certain provisions in the schedules do not affect local government elections in Scotland; otherwise there could be an impact on devolved matters. I hope that the House will accept all the Lords amendments.

Mr. Heald: The Opposition accept the amendments in this group. Lords amendment No. 19 deals with the important issue of whether pre-election expenses should be capped, which was raised by the Electoral Commission. Some hon. Members believe that only one or two parties in the House target certain constituencies, but I can assure them that all parties target particular seats at particular times. We should consider the proposal to prescribe a pre-election period with capped expenses. The Government were right to include it in the Phillips review, and we are interested in the outcome. It is difficult to try to impose a retrospective cap, as it is hard to persuade agents or candidates to take responsibility for a period when they were not involved, so we may need to return to the issue.

Dr. Whitehead: The issue is not whether parties target seats—clearly, they do—but the large amounts of money that are raised nationally. Those funds are diverted from a national purpose and put in the hands of local parties to target local seats, giving them an uncompetitive advantage against parties that do not do so. It is difficult to resolve that central problem, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees that we must do so.

Mr. Heald: The hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I am wrong, but all political parties target seats when they campaign. More funding is probably available for candidates in a target seat than for other candidates. That is not a new development—it is part of politics in every country—but it is right to look into it.

Dr. Strang: The hon. Gentleman’s approach is constructive. We all target seats, but is not the fundamental issue the question of whether capping is practical? That is not an easy solution, as the experience in the United States demonstrates, but it deserves careful consideration, as he said.

Mr. Heald: As ever, the right hon. Gentleman also adopts a constructive approach. I agree that we should look at the proposal, but we must consider whether a cap would be effective. Finally, we welcome the fact that the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe has been given an official right to observe elections, as that was needed in the light of scandals in recent months and years.

9.45 pm

Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South) (Lab): The last time the House debated the Bill, I waited patiently to discuss my 20 amendments to clause 33. The House did not get anywhere near clause 33, and when I realised that I would not have an opportunity to speak, I confess that I walked out in anger and missed my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State,
13 Jun 2006 : Column 736
Department for Constitutional Affairs saying, “Don’t worry. Although we have not discussed your 20 amendments, we will pay close attention to them.”

It was a matter of great delight, therefore, when I found that the Department, through the House of Lords, had almost completely rewritten clause 33, all six and a half pages of it. I could never understand how the Department dared draft the clause in its original form. I thought that I had made representations, and I assumed that my complaints and those of others would have been taken into account by a rational Government responding rationally.

What passed for allowing in observers would have besmirched the name of Kazakhstan and Belarus—not just democratic countries, but countries that suffer from what might be called a significant democratic deficit. Such countries may not pay any attention to the election observers’ reports, but they allow election observers in to wander round, to talk to people and to interfere politely in the way in which the count is conducted.

Mr. Heath: I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will agree that at a time when the principle of independent parliamentary monitoring of elections is being undermined by some who would like to see the back of Members of this Parliament and others giving an objective view in their countries, for the United Kingdom not to allow for observers under international rules is insupportable.

Mr. George: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman who, like me, has observed elections. I have headed short-term observation missions to 18 elections, most of which have been pretty awful, but we have never been denied access. We walk into a polling station and the officials there either welcome us or look like animals facing the headlights and cringe, but they do not say, “You can’t come in here.”

It was hard to believe that clause 33 stated that before international or domestic observers were allowed into a polling station, they had to get the approval of the returning officer. If anyone had tried to stop me going into a polling station in Ukraine, Georgia, the Balkans or Russia, it would have been item No. 1 in the report that I read out the following day. I would have asked, “How on earth can we verify that elections meet international standards if we were not allowed into the polling station?”

That is what would have happened as a result of clause 33. Not only would international and domestic observers have been subject to the whim of the returning officer, but even the Electoral Commission, which plays an enormous role in elections, as I am sure the Department was aware, would have had to bow its head, go down on its knees and say, “Please allow us in to observe this election.”

Well, the Department came up trumps. As a result, the six and a half pages were almost completely rewritten, to my satisfaction and to the satisfaction of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. So now we are on a par with Kazakhstan— something of which we should be immensely proud— and even with Belarus, which conducts appalling elections but still allows in observers. They may have to
13 Jun 2006 : Column 737
stand 10 ft away and not be able to see the counting, but at least they are allowed in.

The changes are welcome. They mean that observers can gain access to all stages of the election process. If there is to be a limit on numbers, let us be clear that it will not in any way inhibit the right of observers, international or domestic, to attend. People say that the hall might get too full.

In Ukraine, the first and second elections two years ago were totally crooked. One of the methods used to limit the opposition in those areas in which they were strong was to hold the election in a constricted place, because people simply leave if there is a crowd—although that is better than the situation in Iraq, where bombs were dropped on queues in order to deter people. If a returning officer says, “I am sorry, but we cannot let in five or 10 observers,” they have arranged for the election to take place in a polling station that is not fit for purpose.

One of my best amendments, which I was quite pleased with, was rejected. It stated that the Electoral Commission should have regard to particular documents—I listed 10 of them—in determining a code of conduct. However, the Electoral Commission has said that that point will be covered in subordinate legislation. Two weeks ago, I took part in a conference on the UN declaration of principles for international election observation, and I hope—indeed, I have some confidence—that the code of conduct for international observers will be in the subordinate legislation.

It is amazing how many people were oblivious to the fact that domestic and international observers were prohibited. In a bizarre exchange, the then Foreign Secretary, who is now Leader of the House, roundly castigated Zimbabwe for running fraudulent elections and criticised it, quite correctly, for refusing to allow certain election observers to observe that fraudulent election. I felt compelled to point out to him the fact, of which he was oblivious, that while he rightly condemned Zimbabwe, he should appreciate that it generally allows in international observers, while we do not. Thankfully, that situation is history, so when I criticise the Russians or anybody else on how they conduct their elections, I will not have the point thrown into my face that I have no right to criticise because we do not allow in international observers.

In conclusion, I am delighted that clause 33 has been almost completely rewritten, and I am sure that the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights will be happy. When the time comes, I am sure that one of the first countries to test our new procedures on election observers will be that great democracy adjacent to Russia, Belarus, which will be delighted to see whether we have genuinely allowed in observers, and will press whatever legislation we have to the full to prove that it is bad legislation. However, with the amendments, which I have now seen and almost totally approve of, we can tell Belarus, “We know that you allow international observers in your undemocratic political system, but the United Kingdom—one of the birthplaces of democracy—after 150 to 200 years of struggling to be more democratic, now allows in international observers too”
13 Jun 2006 : Column 738
That will allow the whole process of transparency to come at long last to this country.

I am grateful to the Minister and my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs for listening to reason. That shows that the Government occasionally listen, and I am prepared to stand up and applaud them.

Simon Hughes: My hon. Friends and I support all the amendments in this group. I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) and my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) for, at the very beginning of the debates about this Bill, picking up the point that the right hon. Member for Walsall, South has just addressed. It is very important that the OSCE recognises us as having the same standards as others, because it has always struck me that some of the countries that go around the world selling democracy—the United States is an obvious example—are not so good at it at home, and we need to be open to the same scrutiny as everywhere else.

We particularly welcome the modernising amendments to do with mental patients, giving them, not before time, a civilised ability to take part in elections. We welcome the more flexible and adaptable arrangements for different formats to cater for people with disabilities, as promoted by the Disability Rights Commission, and for people with a different first language.

We welcome the amusing and interesting idea that pilots will allow for photographs on ballot papers. My hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome said—I am not sure whether this is politically correct—that that may be a hidden way of trying to improve gender balance in our Parliaments and councils. Indeed it may. He also suggested that they should be subject to the Advertising Standards Authority—as in “decent, honest and truthful” Having just look at “Dod’s”—I will not embarrass anybody—I noticed that some of the photographs were clearly not recent. If we are to have photographs, they should at least be from the past 12 months, not those taken 25 years before, which we have all seen on election leaflets.

Next Section Index Home Page