House of Commons
|Session 2007 - 08|
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Public Bill Committee Debates
Draft Greater London Authority Elections (Election Addresses) (Amendment) Order 2008
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Glenn McKee, Richard Ward, Committee Clerks
attended the Committee
First Delegated Legislation Committee
Monday 18 February 2008
[Mr. Edward OHara in the Chair]
Draft Greater London Authority Elections (Election Addresses) (Amendment) Order 2008
That the Committee has considered the draft Greater London Authority Elections (Election Addresses) (Amendment) Order 2008.
I am delighted, Mr. OHara, to be working under your chairmanship.
In the other place, this order took nine minutes, and I hope that we can give it at least the same amount of scrutiny. It makes minor but necessary changes to the Greater London Authority (Election Addresses) Order 2003.
Hon.Members may remember that during the run-up to the first GLA elections in May 2000 there was some controversy about the free mail shot. At that time, the Government listened to the arguments in the House of Lords, and amended the Greater London Authority Act 1999 to provide, at the first GLA elections, for the publication and free delivery of a booklet containing all the election addresses prepared and submitted by the mayoral candidates. Parliament also provided the Secretary of State with the power in secondary legislation to make arrangements for the publication and delivery of candidates election addresses at future GLA elections. The Greater London Authority (Election Addresses) Order 2003 enacted that power, and provided for the free delivery to electors of an election booklet containing candidates addresses at ordinary elections for the Mayor of London. It also included provisions for deciding the order of the election addresses in the booklet and the candidates contribution towards the cost of printing, and for free delivery using a universal service provider.
Those provisions were based on arrangements that had been put in place for the first Greater London authority elections in May 2000, and they remain in place. The draft order makes minor and, I hope, uncontentious but necessary amendments to the 2003 order, in consequence of the enactment of the Electoral Administration Act 2006, and in the light of feedback from the Greater London returning officer on the operation of the 2003 order at the last GLA elections in 2004. It will come into force on the day after it is made, and will give all interested parties, including political parties, candidates, election agents and administrators, certainty about the arrangements that will apply for the content and distribution of election addresses booklets in 2008.
The key changes are that the 2006 Act made provision for people to apply to be registered anonymously, if inclusion of their name on the electoral register might
The 2006 Act also amended the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, which enabled two or more parties to register joint descriptions for use by candidates. The Greater London Authority Elections Rules Order 2007 permitted candidates at those elections to use joint descriptions in their nomination papers and for those descriptions to be included on the ballot papers. Articles 5 and 6 of the draft order allow candidates to include a joint description in their election address.
Articles 7 and 8 of the draft order provide certainty for candidates by providing that their election addresses must be submitted by the close of nominations, and article 9 makes it clear that the Greater London returning officer may, on request, supply the election booklet containing candidates addresses in any electronic format. He may then decide which formats he will offer to electors closer to the time that the election booklet is produced. That will not affect the right of all electors in the London area to be sent a hard copy of the booklet.
Hon. Members may want to note that the London Mayor, the London assembly and the Electoral Commission have been consulted on the contents of the draft order, as has the secretary of the London branch of the Association of Electoral Administrators. As I said, it makes minor but necessary changes to the arrangements put in place by the 2003 order in time for the GLA elections this May. On that basis, I commend the order to the Committee.
Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. OHara. It is a pleasure to take part in the Committee under your chairmanship. I am certain that we can do better than the other place and give more than nine minutes scrutiny to an important piece of electoral reform. Every piece of electoral reform legislation, however small, that we study and scrutinise in this place is important. It is only because we can be certainwe hope that we can be certainabout the integrity and foolproof nature of the workings of our democratic system that we can have confidence in our democracy itself.
Sadly, as the Minister rightly said, we all remember the many pieces of legislation that she mentioned in her opening remarks because so often we have had to consider those matters again and again. Sometimes we have supported the Government because they have done the right thing in modernising the way in which we conduct the democratic process, but sadly all too often during the past 10 years we have had to reconsider such matters because the Government simply got it wrongI recall many such occasions in the Chamber and in Committee. The Government have often been incompetent or too hasty in the way in which they have constructed the legislation. I am not for a moment suggesting that in bringing the order before the Committee the Minister is being in any way
I support the principles of the other matters before us today and note in passing that because election addresses must be submitted by candidates at the close of nominations a lot of printers and election agents will be kept happy throughout the election process. I speak with the knowledge that the chairman of my local association is a printer, so it is not for me to say that printers can be nagging sorts of people. It is now up to me to ensure that the Hansard report of the Committee never reaches my association office.
Mrs. Laing: I am much more worried that I will be looking for a new constituency chairman. However, that is not a matter for the Committee and I will try not to extend the proceedings to nine minutes because of my frivolities. I certainly understand the point of the measure and, of course, we accept that these are practical matters.
When I suggested that we should take more than nine minutes, it was only partially in jest. I am not suggesting that we should take a long time, but we should take more than nine minutes to scrutinise the legislation because matters are often rushed through the House. A measure might appear innocuous, but on further examination it may transpire that the Government have slipped in some matters that, at least in the opinion of the Opposition, should not necessarily have been included. Sometimesthis is worsewe find that when legislation has not been properly scrutinised it is usually because the Government have not given us enough time. Again, I am not criticising the Minister or the Committee for that because we have ample time this afternoon to consider the legislation, but the Government often get it wrong. I recall them having to amend much of the Political Parties (Elections and Referendums) Act 2000, largely because of the incompetence and speed with which it was put together, having been rushed through before the 2001 general election.
Mrs. Laing: Thank you, Mr. OHara. Of course, I accept what you say, but I am explaining why it is important to look carefully at even such a small piece of legislation as this order. I have considered the way in which the legislative basis for the order came into effect, and I am concerned about the matters that are not in the order, as well as those that are. I accept, Mr. OHara, that I cannot widen the debate beyond the matters that are in the order, but given that its point is to improve the democratic process and the infallibility of our registration
The rapporteurs strongly recommend that the checking of personal identifiers on 100 per cent. of the returned postal ballots is made mandatory by law in all of Great Britain before the next elections take place.
That is important, because the elections at the beginning of May in London are very important.
If it is considered that this area of electoral law leaves our system open to fraud, as the Conservatives have many times said it does, the Minister could take the opportunity now to fill in the gap. I appreciate that only on 8 January, in answer to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles), who asked
the Secretary of State for Justice what plans he has to ensure that 100 per cent. of identifiers of postal votes are checked in election counts for the 2008 local and London elections,[Official Report, 8 January 2008; Vol. 470, c. 432W.]
The Chairman: Order. I was generous with the hon. Lady on that point, but we are considering election addresses, not postal ballots. The Minister has probably got the point of the question, so perhaps the hon. Lady will curtail her remarks on that particular point.
Mrs. Laing: Thank you, Mr. OHara. I shall most certainly do as you ask, but it is important, and we must not ignore the fact, that part of our system is affected by the matter under discussion. The Government have said that they wish to deal with it. Indeed, the Minister has said:
The Government are committed to the principle that 100 per cent. of returned postal votes should be checked[Official Report, 8 January 2008; Vol. 470, c. 432W.]
However, they have taken no steps to put that into effect. I accept what you say, Mr. OHara, and I shall of course keep my remarks narrowly to the matters before us, but there is no point in our making legislation such as this to improve the ballot and the system, and ensure that our democracy is watertight, if there is a great big gaping hole that everybody knows exists, and the Government do not take steps to fix it.
The Chairman: Order. I am reluctant to be too strict with the hon. Lady, but we are narrowly discussing election addresses and amendments to regulations concerning them, so I must rule out of order any further debate on postal ballots.
Mrs. Laing: I of course accept your judgment, Mr. OHara, and I shall, therefore, shall draw my remarks to a close.
This narrow piece of legislation is correctly and properly designed to improve the electoral system, and we on the Conservative Benches always want our democracy to be 100 per cent. watertight. As the order will improve the system, we support what the Minister wishes to do.
Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): Perhaps I should declare an interest. I am the chairman of Brian Paddicks mayoral campaign, and I very much see the legislation as necessary for that campaign to progress swiftly to a successful conclusion.
Tony Baldry: I just wanted to ask, for the benefit of the House and the Hansard reporter, who is Brian Paddick?
Tom Brake: I am sure that you will not allow me to stray beyond the draft order by responding to that question, Mr. OHara. However, I suggest that if the hon. Gentleman were to follow the London and national press more closely than he does at present, he would find sufficient to inform him fully who Brian Paddick is.
I do not want to delay the legislation, because it is much more important that we allow the mayoral campaign to continue apace. What the Minister has suggested seems eminently sensible and I have just one question. Article 9 makes it clear that the Greater London returning officer may, on request, supply the election booklet containing candidates addresses in any electronic format and is subsequently allowed to choose the formats in which the booklet will be produced. Will the Minister set out what the decision-making process will be, and how the returning officer will arrive at a decision as to which electronic format people would like him to make the election addresses available in? Apart from seeking that simple clarification, I am happy to allow the order to proceed.
Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. OHara. We have dealings in the Council of Europe, and I am mindful of your strictures on the earlier comment, although I may wish to set one remark in context before I sit down. Indeed, my remarks will be breathtakingly short.
First, I would like the Minister to comment on the consultation process. From my reading of paragraph 7.7 of the explanatory memorandum, which is characteristically helpful, it appears that the Secretary of State has gone through the statutory consultation process. Have formal or informal soundings been taken from the political parties? I make that point advisedly. My retired agent, who, for the record, continues to do a limited amount of political consultancy work for meI have worked with her for many yearshas in her time been a national chairman of Conservative agents. She has always taken the view that in formulating a big corpus of new electoral legislation, Departments have characteristically tended not to take as much advice as they should from agents, who are professionals.
I say that advisedly because about the only thing that I have not been in the Conservative party is a certificated agent, and I admire those who do the job and know it backwards. Departments would be well
Secondly, most of us, whether or not we are registered at a subsidiary residence in London for electoral purposes, as I am, spend our working lives in London by definition and, therefore, have an indirect interest in the matter. It would not take very long for even a country boy such as me coming to London to be aware that the turnover of electors and addresses in London is massive. It is thus a big problem for the democratic system to access people, because of that big churn in the electoral registers. The Government are, commendably, anxious to address that issue.
It would be helpful if the Minister could say a little more about how electronic formats will be usedit would also respond to the point made by the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallingtonbecause that is the way that people are going. The method is not time or space-specific and could improve the salience of London elections, which would be welcome.
I am also concerned about whether the Greater London returning officer will take samples after the event to establish whether the election booklets hit the target, terrestrially as well as electronically. We need to know whether the documents are being delivered and are available for electors to read. I say that with some feeling because my constituency home is at the very edge of my region, within a few metres of the boundary, and I regularly get large quantities of regional literature that are not related to my European elections at all. That is a serious issue and we should try to improve matters.
Tom Brake: Does the hon. Gentleman wonder, like me, whether the electronic format will include audio format, which would be a valuable tool?
Mr. Boswell: That is absolutely right. The hon. Gentleman and I have a common interest in disability issues, as does the Minister, and it is important that the electoral booklets should be as accessible as possible at a reasonable cost, so I echo that point. It would be helpful to have a quality assurance and some indication of the Governments intentions.
My final point is about the implications of what has been considered by the Council of Europe. I am mindful of your strictures, Mr. OHara, and I make this point not to rehearse again the question of electoral registration, although I, too, have views on that. I think that the hon. Member for Islington, North was involved with an early-day motion on the issue; we do not always agree, but I was with him 100 per cent. about the need for movement in that regard. I simply stress to the Minister and her Department that if, because of a failure to comply with Council of Europe recommendations and resolutions on this matter, we find ourselves falling into a monitoring process and are subject to criticism, it will be more than simply an embarrassment to Her Majestys Government or the UK as a seedbed of democracy. If we are criticised, we should take it seriously, but such a situation would also mean that monitors could crawl over the whole electoral process and more widely into our processes of
I have no problem with the order, but it is essential that the Government are seen to be beyond reproach, and that the outcomes of what they propose are as near as possible to the electoral ideal. We may get a little further forward, so I welcome the order, but I enjoin the Minister to carry on with the quest for improvement rather than assume that she has reached the ideal solution.
Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): The order is a thoroughly bad piece of work. I am not surprised that it took only nine minutes to debate in the other place, as none of them have to stand for election so they are not concerned by election addresses at all. This proposal is the thin end of the wedge: we shall have the system in London first, and come the next general election we shall have it for all our election addresses right across the country. All this is clearly because the Labour party has run out of people to stick labels on election addresses or do anything else.
I suspect that I am not the only Member of the House who uses the free post during general elections to put out two addresses: one to the person who appears on the electoral roll at the top of the household and a second to those who appear otherwise. That enables me to ensure that most households in my constituency receive two election addresses from me during the election campaign, because I actually have a lot to say.
Things have changed since the 1832 campaign, when the Conservative candidate for Banbury had a four-word election address: God speed the plough. It was a very effective address, although unfortunately he was not returned on that occasion. Nowadays we have a lot more to say, but under the provisions before us, it would be impossible for anybody to put out more than one election address and, moreover, it will have to follow a standard format.
An election address is one of the few areas in which we are allowed any individuality. Who will determine what format the addresses must comply with? Will candidates be limited to the number of words or photographs that they can use? The proposal seems to be the thin end of the wedge. Moreover, who will pay for it? Are we to understand that the state will bear the cost of funding all election addresses across London? Again, it is the thin end of a wedgethe state is providing more funding for political parties, because the Labour party in London is in such a shambles that it cannot raise sufficient money for its campaign. If that is the case, we ought to be told. It should be explained to the Committee; the measure should not be rushed through in nine minutes at one end of the Corridor and hastily rushed through at the other. This is fundamental.
Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): The hon. Gentlemans Front-Bench colleague looks a little disgruntled by his remarks. However, if we take his advice, can we
Tony Baldry: The hon. Gentleman is very welcome to come to my constituency. I keep trying to persuade Ministers to do so. I have a fantastic team of deliverers who make deliveries around my constituency.
Tony Baldry: Of course I use the free post, as I explained. However, under the provisions before us, we could use it only once, whereas I use it twice, quite legitimately. I use a team of volunteers for the introductory address.
The point is that the process will represent a substantial intrusion on candidates freedom to draw up their election address and to choose what they want to do. Addresses will be fixed to a general format, so I would like the Minister to provide an undertaking that there is no scintilla of a suggestion that the process will be used at a general election and that it is a one-off for London. I think that the whole House would like some clarification of what the measure means in terms of the funding of political parties. If I have got it right, it means that the British National party, the National Front, or any other party that meets a threshold, can have their election addresses included pari passu with everyone else and paid for by the state. If the Minister wants to pay for election addresses by the National Front and the BNP across London, so be it, but I think it is a thoroughly bad idea.
Jeremy Corbyn: It is very hard to follow the hon. Member for Banbury. I was intrigued by all his deliverers running over miles of countryside to deliver to isolated farmhousesI do not think so. I think that he uses the post, just like everybody else[Hon. Members: Free post.] I stand corrected.
As far as I am aware, the proposal is not a new idea. I was in London during the last elections and many othersindeed, I was once a Labour agent for one. We had the booklet last time and it helped. Actually it is a good democratic departure, because it gives every elector the ability to see something from every candidate so that they can compare[Interruption.]
Jeremy Corbyn: I am sorry that Opposition Members cannot contain their excitement over the prospect before them. They will just have to wait.
The point is that the booklets give all voters better access to statements from all candidates so that they can compare them. Surely that is a good thing. As I understand it, the order slightly updates what has already happened, and includes the possibility of delivery to people who, for good reason, do not want their name and address to appear on the electoral register. If the document is delivered to voters in an electronic format because they request it, will their
In response to what the hon. Member for Banbury said, I am sure that he wants to continue delivering to all those remote farmhouses in his constituency, and there is nothing to stop him doing that, or to stop parties delivering their own election address and leaflet in addition to the booklet. The booklet simply provides a fair, level playing field, unlike the undulating hills of Banbury, for all electors to see exactly what all the candidates say.
Tony Baldry: Am I to understand that the booklet, or a proportion of it, will not count towards the election expenses of the candidates concerned? I do not want to be misunderstood. I want to know who will fund it, whether the funding will come from the states pocket, and whether candidates will still be free to distribute whatever election literature they want to deliver in addition.
Jeremy Corbyn : Candidates will obviously be free to distribute any other election literature within the limit on expenditure. I await the Ministers reply about whether the whole bookletor how much of itwill count against the limit on election expenses. My view as a former agent is that as the cost is the same to everyone, it should either count for everyone in the same proportion, or it should count for no one. We shall have to agree on that; either it should reduce everyones limit, or it should leave everyones limit unchanged, but the Minister is better able to answer that question than I can.
I welcome the departure represented by the order. It is a good way of getting in touch with every voter, but I recognise that in London, as in any other big city, there is an enormous problem with access to voters, partly because of the huge population turnover. Parts of my constituency, and other inner-London constituencies, have a 20-25 per cent. turnover in some wards every year, so it is very hard to keep in touch with electors. Any system, whether e-mail or something else, that improves that situation is good, but we may need, on another occasion, to update the voter registration system to reflect that turnover.
My constituency, like the Ministers and many others, is extremely multilingual. Several hundred languages are spoken in London, and probably more than 100 are spoken in any one of our constituencies. I am not expecting translation into 100 languages, but those are the people we want to engage in the democratic process, along with others, so are there facilities for a reasonable level of translation into some of the main minority languages that are spoken in London?
European nationals will be able to vote in the forthcoming elections because they are, in law, local elections, so EU nationals, and particularly the large Polish community, in London have a right to vote just like anyone else. They work in London, they contribute to Londons economy, and I hope they will participate in the elections and understand the issues involved.
Bridget Prentice: I am pleased that it has taken us so much longer than the other place to discuss the order. The debate has been fascinating and lively.
It crossed my mind that the hon. Member for Banbury may want to curtail the size of the booklet because he understands, as do the rest of us, that allowing the gentleman who is standing on behalf of the Conservative party in the mayoral elections to say more than a sentence or two is generally a bad idea, so I sympathise with him for wanting to curtail his comments.
I shall deal first with costs, which are shared between the Greater London authority and the parties. The GLA and each candidate or party contribute £10,000 each. If they do not have that money, they cannot put their election address in the booklet.
My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North made an important and principled point. The measure will give people greater access to information so that they can make an informed decision about which candidate they want to vote for. Enabling people to see the addresses all together, rather than having a variety of mail shots coming through the door at different times during the weeks of the election period, is a much simpler way of dealing with that. It is an important development in giving the electorate the opportunity for more power to decide.
Mrs. Laing: Given that the Minister so eloquently explained the advantages of the booklet, do the Government have plans to introduce similar rules for future general elections?
Bridget Prentice: The short answer is no. The hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Daventry, who made some pertinent points, talked about electoral administration and funding in general. In the course of further discussions on state funding and the like, people may wish to contribute to the debate on that issue. I do not close any doors to finding opportunities to give the electorate more rather than less information about candidates who are standing for election. I am conscious that I am straying away from the narrow remit of the order, but I hope in future that the Conservative party will come into positive discussions about those issues.
The format of the electronic address is up to the Greater London returning officer; he is an independent person and it will be for him to decide how that is done. There is already provision for audibleI am not sure that is the right wordprocesses within the 2003 order. The provision is already available and there is no reason why it should not continue.
Tom Brake: The Minister prompts another question. For clarification, could she confirm whether an electronic format could, for instance, include providing a website on which each of the candidates would have an individual page?
Bridget Prentice: Again, that would be for the returning officer to decide. If he does not read the Hansard report himself, I shall ensure that the ideas advanced by the Committee are relayed to him so that he can consider them.
The hon. Member for Banbury was concerned about the contents of the booklet. They are prescribed by the 2003 order. The booklets are used only for mayoral elections in London; they go no further than that.
The hon. Member for Epping Forest and the hon. Member for Daventry raised the issue of the Council of Europe. It is important to ensure that elections in the UK are free and fair. Although no election can be guaranteed fraud-free, we have introduced a huge number of measures to ensure better access and better security during elections. I think that the Council of Europe said that it recognises the considerable work that we have done in recent years and that it does not think we should be monitored.
The hon. Member for Daventry asked whether we had consulted agents. I do not think that we have consulted agents. I appreciate the point that he makes and I shall ensure that if we have not done so we at least inform agents of what the order entails and that in future they are consulted, because no one knows better how things play out than the people who are out on the streets, knocking on doors and organising the structure of elections.
Jeremy Corbyn: I hope the Minister has not forgotten the point I raised about the possibility of the document being offered in different languages. It would be fairly straightforward to do so, particularly if the document is held in an electronic format in the first place.
Bridget Prentice: My hon. Friend makes an important point. He has already mentioned that boroughs such as his and mine already provide information in various languages.
Martin Linton (Battersea) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend bear in mind that, unlike in general elections, hundreds of thousands of EU nationals in London, such as Portuguese, French and so on, will have the vote? I hope that we will encourage them to take part in the forthcoming election by including at least some translation. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North mentioned Polish, which would be an important addition, but Portuguese and French would certainly help to serve the people of my constituency.
Bridget Prentice: I do not disagree in one iota with my hon. Friend. At present there is no provision for translation, although the reason is not particularly good: there was concern that the burden of translating would fall on the returning officer and that it might be difficult because translations would not represent accurately what candidates wanted to sayor candidates might fear that would be the case. It is an obstacle that we can overcome, however. Many of us translate our election addresses, election leaflets and
Jeremy Corbyn: I wish the Minister success in overcoming the obstacle. Frankly, the argument against translation sounds absurd and ridiculous. Local authorities, health authorities, many companies and lots of people routinely translate into lots of languages every day. It is an absolutely normal part of life in London, and it is not beyond the wit of humankind to do the same with an election booklet.
Bridget Prentice: I entirely endorse what my hon. Friend says. Of course, in our courts, there are translators or interpreters all the time, because nothing is more important than ensuring that ones point of viewones defencecomes across clearly in a court.
Mr. Boswell: At the same time, will the Minister note a reservation? She knows that I have a strong interest in multicultural issues, and I do not suggest that there should be no translation; however, if people are to vote in British elections, it is at least open to argument that they should have a minimal understanding of the English language, or that they should expect most of the debate to take place in English. I shall not dilate on the matter, but issues about the balance between multiculturalism and a uniform society, to which Trevor Phillips has referred, have some validity, and we should at least set some limits to the process.
Bridget Prentice: The hon. Gentleman makes a sensible point; I do not think there would be wholesale translations. He talks about a minimal understanding of English, and I agree, but even that would not mean that one was able to understand some politicians election addresses. However, that is a matter for us, as politicians, rather than for the electorate. I accept his point, but the point that we should be at least cognisant of the issue is fair, too.
I hope that I have answered all the questions as comprehensively as I can. If I have not, I shall go through the Hansard record and ensure that Committee members receive answers to the questions that I have not answered. As I said at the beginning, the order should be uncontentious. It helps to develop our electoral system, and on that basis, I commend it to the Committee.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the draft Greater London Authority Elections (Election Addresses) (Amendment) Order 2008.
Committee rose at fourteen minutes past Five oclock.
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