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23 Oct 2007 : Column 178

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab): I am glad to hear the Secretary of State emphasise that the lessons in the report go beyond Scotland, because we are not considering simply a little local Scottish difficulty. Some of the issues, especially sloganising party names, problems with postal votes and the construction of the ballots, are covered by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. If the Electoral Commission does not have the discretion to deal with those issues, especially ruling some party names and slogans out of order, we need to examine the legislation, which covers the UK and all the elections in it. It is important not to lose sight of that in our discussions.

Des Browne: I agree with my hon. Friend. That is why we have already committed to feeding in to the Green Paper on consultation and constitutional matters some of issues that this valuable report raises. There are lessons for all of us who are involved in politics about getting, in our debates and discussions—which, of necessity, as Ron Gould says, we will approach from a party political point of view— the right mix between such an approach and the voters’ interest. The point at the heart of the report is that the political classes got that balance wrong. That may be a function of the way in which we have dealt with such issues historically. Perhaps we are now at a turning point for the way in which we should tackle them in future.

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): Following what my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Mr. Kennedy) said, may I tell the Secretary of State that the problem for many people with postal ballots was not their complexity or whether the form fitted the envelope, but the fact that they never saw them, because they did not arrive in time?

The right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) referred to electoral systems. The single transferable vote system for local government had far fewer problems than the system for election to the Scottish Parliament. May I therefore recommend to the Secretary of State that the right thing to do is simplify the electoral systems by ensuring that they all use STV?

Des Browne: Let me say two things to the right hon. Gentleman, who I think was making a party political point dressed up in another way. First, the failure to get the ballot papers printed and distributed in time for postal votes was, in my interpretation of the relevant chapter of the report, also a function of the fact that the ballot paper was a combined paper produced using a centralised print scheme, and the fact that the bulk of the numbers could not be processed. It all comes back to the combination of the two papers, in my view. The right hon. Gentleman is an experienced politician and he will have a chance to read the report at his leisure and come to his own conclusions, but that is my view, on two readings of the report. We might even have a chance to ask Mr. Gould whether that interpretation is right.

Secondly, when I looked at the comparative number of spoiled or rejected papers under STV as opposed to those in the Scottish Parliament elections, which uses the first-past-the-post system and the additional
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member system, I came to the same conclusion that the right hon. Gentleman did. However, more careful consideration might suggest that the system of auto-adjudication under STV may have masked the number of people who did not enter their votes properly on the STV ballot paper, because it accepted votes with a cross on them, if there was only one cross. We need to be careful about coming to conclusions from a partial interpretation of the ballot papers, as there may be hidden mistakes made by people that did not come out in the rejection system.

Mr. David Hamilton (Midlothian) (Lab): A sequence of events normally precedes a disaster—I say that from an old miner’s point of view—and we saw a number of sequences of events, which resulted in probably the worst debacle that we have seen for many years. It ill becomes all parties first to argue that they want an independent review—many of them also questioned whether it was really going to be independent—and then, now that that independent review is here, to call for one person’s head. A sequence of events means that everybody has to take some blame for what happened. I look forward to the debate that we will have, because I for one will have my say on what went wrong. I believe that thousands upon thousands of Labour voters were disfranchised in that election. We should have won that election, and I still believe that we would have won it if all the votes had been recounted, as I said at the time.

Des Browne: I commend my hon. Friend for his contribution. He has distinguished himself in the House as a Member who is prepared to lay criticism wherever he thinks it should lie, in debates to which he contributes. His point about the integrity of the report as a whole is an important one, which I have been stressing all afternoon. When Ron Gould specifically says that no one should be singled out for blame, it defeats me why people interpret his words in order to do just that.

Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): When a public opinion research company was commissioned to do research into the Scottish Parliament ballot paper, it found that

Following that report, the Electoral Commission recommended to the Secretary of State’s predecessor that further consideration be given to combining both votes on one ballot paper. Why did the Secretary of State’s predecessor reject that advice? Was it because he had already decided that, for party political advantage, he wanted a ballot paper with that design?

Des Browne: If the hon. Gentleman is going to make that sort of allegation, he at least has the obligation to say what the party political advantage could be for any party in having a combined ballot paper. If he can explain that to me, I will give some credence to his assertion. He will have the opportunity to do that somewhere else, outside the Chamber. He surely has the analysis in his mind and he should be able to tell me what it is. I challenge him to do that, because I cannot
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for the life of me see how any individual party is advantaged by a combined ballot paper. If he could even give me some indication through his body language whether he has any reason, that would help. [ Interruption. ] Right—I suspected that.

Let us deal with the issue of advice. The fact is that the testing was carried out, and that it apparently revealed a certain level of error. Despite that, however, the Electoral Commission, which carried out the work, reported it back to the Secretary of State and strongly recommended the combined ballot paper on the basis of its research. It did the work, and it recommended— [ Interruption. ] Part of the problem for the hon. Gentleman is that the letter containing that recommendation exists. It just so happens that Mr. Gould, although he was offered it, did not come to look at it. That is not necessarily a criticism of him. It is a criticism of those who seek to extend his conclusions beyond what they will sustain, which is exactly what the hon. Gentleman is doing.

Ms Katy Clark (North Ayrshire and Arran) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will be aware of the inconsistency of approach of returning officers throughout Scotland towards recounts in the elections in May. Does he agree that, irrespective of whether an electronic or a manual system is being used, it is appropriate that recounts should be available, particularly when a result is close?

Des Browne: I know that there was great concern about the fact that, on the same night and in pretty similar circumstances, one officer in charge of a poll decided to have a recount while another said that to do so was impossible. That caused a degree of concern, and I believe that all democrats should be concerned about it. Because of the constraints that Ron Gould and his team put on themselves during the review, however, they could not look at any of those constituencies individually. Perhaps it was better that they did not, because they did not want to open up the validity of the outcome of the election, and I think that most of us would want to accept that. However, this does not alter the fact that the whole thread of their recommendations on the professionalisation of returning officers ought to deal with that kind of inconsistency, and it is to be hoped that we can establish a process that professionalises them to the point at which all voters and all these kinds of decisions are treated in the same way across the country.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): May I urge the Secretary of State to give a more thoughtful response to the cogent points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing)? The reality is that this monumental mistake—I nearly said “cock-up”, but that would have been unparliamentary—was made, and was known to have been made, at a time when there was a full-time Secretary of State for Scotland. What sort of message did it send to the people of Scotland subsequently to make Secretary of State for Scotland into a part-time post? For that matter, what message did it send to the armed forces to do the same thing to the post of Secretary of State for Defence? It was a very bad message indeed to send to both constituencies.

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Des Browne: Factually, the hon. Gentleman is incorrect, but it would serve no purpose to point out when there was a full-time Secretary of State and when there was a part-time one. That is irrelevant. The point that he is making is that we should not have a part-time Secretary of State for Scotland. However, the people of Scotland, for whom he purports to speak, are much less exercised by this issue than he is. I suspect that he is making the point for party political purposes, rather than out of any consideration for what is in the best interests of the people of Scotland.

Gordon Banks (Ochil and South Perthshire) (Lab): Returning to the issue of manual and electronic counting, does my right hon. Friend agree that the return to a manual count would be the biggest and most significant way of restoring the electorate’s faith in the system? It would be much more significant than having professional returning officers.

Des Browne: The presentation of ballot papers that voters can clearly understand, and that do not confuse them by the way in which they are combined, will be the single biggest advantage for voters in the future. Making all these comparatively straightforward, simple decisions now will ensure that this never happens again; my hon. Friend is perfectly correct about that.

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): To return to the issue of the postal voting chaos that disfranchised many of my constituents, I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State is keen to extend the time frame for elections, but that is not the only issue that needs to be looked at. What action does he plan to take on the ineffectiveness of some of the private companies involved in running the elections, particularly in regard to the postal ballot? Presumably, those companies were contracted on the basis that they knew when the deadlines were and when they needed to have the postal ballot forms printed in order for them to be delivered in a timely manner. Given that some of those companies have a poor track record on working on elections—not only for Scotland but for the Greater London authority in 2004—what does he intend to do about this?

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Des Browne: The report addresses those issues and brings to the attention of those who need to know it that these contracts were made with penalty clauses. They should have been carried out in a professional manner and if they were not, it is a matter for the contracting parties to take forward the redress to which they are entitled. More importantly, we now have some significant experience of handling postal votes and we should be getting better rather than worse at doing it. I note that the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills) is in his place on the Front Bench and I am sure that he is listening carefully to this discussion. I propose that these important potential lessons relating to postal votes and associated matters be transferred to the Ministry of Justice. If there are lessons to be learned and actions to be taken, voters right across the UK should benefit from them.

Adam Afriyie (Windsor) (Con): This has clearly been an embarrassing, difficult and uncomfortable statement for the Secretary of State for Scotland—and rightly so. The right hon. Gentleman said in his statement:

I would like to give the Secretary of State an opportunity to expand on that apology, which is very narrow. It is conditional and focuses only on the consultation process. Will he take this opportunity to make the situation less uncomfortable for himself by apologising further—beyond the limited and conditional apology that he has so far provided?

Des Browne: I am entirely content with the words in my statement. I am entirely content that they respond in a positive way. When we all reflect on what happened and the criticisms that have been made, we will be able to go far beyond the places where Opposition Members have been trying to focus their questions to me this afternoon. We all have something to learn from this, and that includes the hon. Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie), who I am sure will be receptive.

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Points of Order

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I seek your guidance. It is heartening that, as a result of the business statement last Thursday, the first debate on Burma ever to take place on the Floor of the House is scheduled for Monday 29 October. Pursuant to that fact, have you received an indication that the debate will be opened by the Foreign Secretary? As Chairman of the all-party democracy in Burma group, I am very concerned that if it were opened by anyone other than the Foreign Secretary, it would send a very serious message of weakness and indifference to the butchers of Rangoon.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): The hon. Gentleman will be well aware that the question of who the Government decide will lead for them on any particular debate is not a matter for me.

David Mundell (Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In the light of the seriousness of the issues debated in today’s statement, the content of the Gould report and the previous undertakings given by the right hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, South (Mr. Alexander), will you confirm that it is in order for a Cabinet Member to come before the House to make a personal statement? Can you advise us whether any such request has been received?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: The contents of today’s statement will no doubt be digested by the entire House, but the Government’s reaction is entirely a matter for them.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I seek your guidance, as I fear that I may have inadvertently misled the House. I had not realised that the predecessor of the Secretary of State for Scotland was also a part-time Secretary of State for Scotland, albeit that he was not simultaneously a part-time Secretary of State for Defence. Is there any way that I can set the record straight on that matter?— [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. We have had enough explanations of everyone’s jobs today. Let us move on.

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Packaging (Reduction)

4.39 pm

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): I beg to move,

Packaging is part of our everyday lives. It protects the products we buy, provides information to the consumer and acts as a marketing tool to boost sales. Much packaging is essential: we would have a problem getting a pint of milk or baked beans home without it. Much of it, however, is not. Even in our environmentally conscious times, packaging has recently been growing, not falling. We now send 5 million tonnes of packaging to landfill every year. We need to take a serious look at the packaging that fills our supermarket shelves, and ask how much of it is necessary, and how much is wasteful, needless and excessive.

Both economically and environmentally, packaging comes at a price. Families spend about £470 a year on packaging. We see unnecessary packaging every time we visit the supermarket, in the form of shrink-wrapped cucumbers or individually packaged bananas. Often, consumers do not have the option to buy a product without the excessive packaging. Today, the Local Government Association announced that council tax payers face fines of up to £3 billion if we fail to cut the amount of waste thrown into landfill. Consumers are paying three times over for excess packaging. We pay the cost of the packaging at the checkout, we pay increased council taxes and landfill taxes, and we will all pay the environmental cost of more waste going to landfill for years to come.

The Government have taken some, albeit limited, steps to tackle excess packaging. EU regulations on producer responsibilities and the essential requirements of packaging have been adopted into UK law. WRAP—the Waste and Resources Action Programme—has taken positive steps on research into minimising packaging. However, the waste strategy for England, published in May, was a missed opportunity. It includes a handful of measures on packaging, such as higher recycling targets, but no real ideas on how to get to the heart of the problem; it contains new targets but no fresh thinking. We should go much further.

Supermarkets have taken some steps to cut back on packaging and reduce waste. Sainsbury’s came top in a survey that I carried out this year of Easter egg packaging, for reducing to a minimum the often gross amount of packaging that usually accompanies Easter eggs. Waitrose has taken steps to pilot plastic-bag-free stores, requiring customers to bring their own reusable shopping bags.

Across Government and industry, the movement to curb excessive and wasteful packaging has shown signs of life, but is in serious need of a growth spurt. My Bill sets out steps to be taken in five areas to cut excessive packaging and reduce waste: reform of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ Courtauld commitments; augmenting the power of trading standards officers; creating a new national body on packaging;
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placing responsibilities on supermarkets to tackle the problem; and encouraging the reuse of plastic bags.

The Courtauld commitments are voluntary agreements brokered by DEFRA to reduce packaging levels. Ninety per cent. of the UK grocery sector signed up to them, and agreed to stop the growth in packaging waste by 2008 and achieve an absolute reduction in packaging waste by 2010. That sounds promising, but if we look below the surface, problems start to appear.

In answer to parliamentary questions, I have been told both that each Courtauld signatory “declares” its total packaging use each year, and that information on the annual total packaging use of each signatory is “not routinely collected”. Which is it? How are we benchmarking progress towards the targets? Another parliamentary answer tells me that a draft protocol is being consulted on with a view to it being agreed and implemented “in this reporting year”. If packaging growth is to be stopped as soon as next year, however, surely the means of reporting progress should be well established by now. How will future success be measured if there is not already a clear benchmark?

The Bill proposes that the Courtauld voluntary measures be translated into binding targets. Similar steps have been taken in other EU member states. The Courtauld targets are sensible, but we must reinforce the system so that they are given genuine priority, rather than lip service, by companies.

We already have legislation against excessive packaging. The problem is that it is not working. In theory, trading standards officers can combat excess packaging using the Packaging (Essential Requirements) Regulations 2003, which stipulate that

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