Electoral Administration Bill
(Except clauses Nos. 9 to 18; any new clauses or new schedules relating to part 2 or part 3 of the Bill; any new clauses or new schedules relating to the procedure to be followed at an election on the death of a candidate; and any new clauses or new schedules relating to candidates standing in more than one constituency at an election. )

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Mrs. Laing: The hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) makes a good point which I am sure Ministers will heed. But the Opposition would be surprised if the Government accepted the new clause or his arguments because there is currently no level playing field when a Government bring forward a referendum. We appreciate that and perhaps it is asking too much of a Government who want to continue winning to accept a level playing field. It must be said that the use of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money was completely in vain, as the Deputy Prime Minister was overwhelmingly defeated by the sensible people of the north-east.

I can see that the Minister is unwilling to accept new clause 5 but I will not insist on pressing it to a vote. On looking around the Room, and considering the way that hon. Members might vote—[Interruption.] I
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assure the Minister that this is simple arithmetic. There are more people sitting behind him than behind me. I will therefore resist the temptation to press the new clause to a vote. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

New Clause 6
Challenging election results

    ‘The ongoing conduct of a police investigation into an election shall not prevent such election result being capable of being challenged by way of an election petition.’.—[Mrs. Laing.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mrs. Laing: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

We have tabled the new clause because there seems to be no sensible reason why an election petition should have to await the outcome of a police investigation. The two should proceed in parallel.

Ms Harman: The proposed new clause attempts to prevent a police investigation into a particular election from hindering the submission of an electoral petition that challenges the result of that election. We strongly believe that, as part of the security measures to ensure confidence in elections, there must be effective police action whenever there is a suspicion of fraud. Recently, the courts have, rightly, handed down prison sentences for those engaged in election fraud. Even if it concerns just one small election in one ward, election fraud has the potential to undermine everyone’s confidence in the democratic system. We take that matter seriously.

The election petition procedure is extremely ancient and cumbersome. All hon. Members would agree that it could be improved. Recently, Judge Richard Mawrey QC, having handled the election petition in Birmingham, said that the procedures need to be reviewed. We agree with that, and the Electoral Commission is examining those antiquated procedures. However, the proposed new clause is not necessary. The rules governing the presentation of an election petition to the courts are set out in part 3 of the Representation of the People Act 1983, which contains no provisions that prevent any party from presenting a petition due to an ongoing police investigation into an election. Indeed, it is often crucial for the election petition proceedings to be determined first.

The decision or report of the election court is often required before a prosecutor can decide whether it is appropriate to seek to prosecute a criminal offence. Both matters should proceed expeditiously; neither should wait for the other. We believe that the proposed new clause is unnecessary.

Mr. Heath: We would all echo the right hon. Lady’s assertion that we wish to see electoral petition arrangements brought up to date and made more
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accessible and efficient in their operation. But I ask the Minister; what better vehicle can there be to do that than this Electoral Administration Bill? Does she intend to bring forward amendments at a later stage in the progress of this Bill or are we to expect a new Electoral Administration Bill in 2006?

Ms Harman: After hundreds of years, there must be an updated electoral petition procedure. However, we are not yet ready; the Electoral Commission has not yet carried out its work in building a consensus as to what the alternative should be. Far be it from me to suggest that we should be like the Home Office and introduce Bills one year after the other. However, during the progress of this Bill, we have identified a number of issues that we must examine further. I am making something of a pitch because we may need to legislate again in due course. I cannot make any promises on that, but it will not be during the Report stage.

Mrs. Laing: I accept the Minister’s explanation as to proposed new clause 6 being unnecessary due to the current legal position, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the Chairman do report the Bill, as amended, to the House.

Ms Harman: Mr. O’Hara, may I take the opportunity on behalf of all hon. Members to thank you for your expert chairmanship of the Committee? We know that you have in mind not only the proceedings of the Committee, but your Merseyside constituents, on whose behalf you work so hard, and where you understand, as we do, the problems of people not registering and low participation in elections. We know that those issues are dear to your heart.

The Chairman: Order. But not when it comes to knife-edge results, I am afraid.

Ms Harman: We also ask you to thank Mr. Conway for chairing the Committee. In addition, I thank the Clerks and, of course, the officials at the Department for Constitutional Affairs for their excellent work.

As you will have noticed, Mr. O’Hara, we did not have new Labour clones on the Back Benches. We have had a lively debate in which important views have been expressed, and things have been put on the forward agenda.

I thank the hon. Member for Epping Forest. She has been ably supported by the hon. Member for Northampton, South, who has made several helpful contributions. Also, it has been useful to hear the view from Northern Ireland. Often, people do not understand how important it is for Northern Irish Members of Parliament to participate in Committees and add their comments in the way that the hon. Member for Belfast, East has done.

I also thank the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, who has participated disproportionately in our debates and always made useful contributions.

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Mrs. Laing: May my colleagues and I add our thanks to those from the Minister? You and your colleague, Mr. Conway, have chaired our proceedings in a courteous and patient way. I do not know how you have the patience, but we greatly appreciate it.

I thank members of the Committee for the courteous way in which they have listened and responded to our arguments. I particularly thank the Ministers, who have also been patient and courteous. Sometimes, they have also been unusually forthcoming in providing full explanations of the Government’s position.

David Cairns: Oh dear.

Mrs. Laing: Sometimes. This has been a very constructive Committee, and it has been a pleasure to serve under you, Mr. O’Hara.

Mr. Heath: I also thank you, Mr. O’Hara, and Mr. Conway. At the risk of making an entirely disproportionate comment, I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for what I consider to be a compliment. When things are worth saying during the scrutiny of a Bill, I am determined to say them; I have no compunction about so doing. The Bill has been
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improved by the Committee’s proceedings and, in prospect, at least, by the Ministers’ assurances. We look forward to Report.

Finally, I thank the hon. Members for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan) and for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) for their assistance and co-operation, which have allowed the Committee to progress. It shows that without knives and excessive programming and with a degree of sensible co-operation, we can make swift progress on a Bill. I hope that we will learn that lesson.

The Chairman: I, too, express my appreciation to the Committee for the courtesy and good humour with which the proceedings have been conducted. There has been the odd case of exasperation, as well as a slightly heated exchange earlier today. Generally, however, our proceedings have been courteous, good tempered and consensual.

There is an old saying about elections to the effect that if only half the electorate votes, one side or the other will say that it was the wrong half. Let us hope that the Bill has consigned such remarks to the dustbin.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill, as amended, to be reported.

Committee rose at six minutes to One o’clock.

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Prepared 23 November 2005