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Session 2008 - 09
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Public Bill Committee Debates

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Robert Key
Ainger, Nick (Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire) (Lab)
Anderson, Mr. David (Blaydon) (Lab)
Beresford, Sir Paul (Mole Valley) (Con)
Burgon, Colin (Elmet) (Lab)
Carswell, Mr. Douglas (Harwich) (Con)
Fallon, Mr. Michael (Sevenoaks) (Con)
Hemming, John (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD)
Hesford, Stephen (Wirral, West) (Lab)
Howarth, David (Cambridge) (LD)
Laing, Mrs. Eleanor (Epping Forest) (Con)
Linton, Martin (Battersea) (Lab)
Lucas, Ian (Wrexham) (Lab)
Mudie, Mr. George (Leeds, East) (Lab)
Prosser, Gwyn (Dover) (Lab)
Wills, Mr. Michael (Minister of State, Ministry of Justice)
Wilson, Mr. Rob (Reading, East) (Con)
Eliot Wilson, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

First Delegated Legislation Committee

Monday 26 January 2009

[Robert Key in the Chair]

Draft European Parliamentary Elections (Amendment) Regulations 2009
4.30 pm
The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. Michael Wills): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft European Parliamentary Elections (Amendment) Regulations 2009.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to consider the draft European Parliament (Disqualification) (United Kingdom and Gibraltar) Order 2009 and the draft European Parliamentary Elections (Loans and Related Transactions and Miscellaneous Provisions) (United Kingdom and Gibraltar) Order 2009.
Mr. Wills: Mr. Key, may I begin by welcoming you to the Chair? It is the first time that I have had the pleasure of taking part in proceedings under your august chairmanship. I am sure that it will be an enlightening and enjoyable experience, and I hope that it will be an expeditious one, too.
I am grateful that it has been made possible for the Committee to consider the statutory instruments together. The three pieces of legislation relate to the European parliamentary elections to be held in the United Kingdom on 4 June, and form an important part of the Government’s preparations for the elections. All three instruments have been subject to consultation with the Electoral Commission and other stakeholders, and drafts were revised and amended, when appropriate, as a result of responses to that consultation.
Mr. Key, with your permission I shall deal first with the draft European Parliamentary Elections (Amendment) Regulations 2009. The main purpose of the draft regulations is to amend the European Parliamentary Elections Regulations 2004 to take into account the changes that have been made to electoral law since 2004. In general, this means applying to European parliamentary elections the provisions made in the Electoral Administration Act 2006. We have already undertaken the exercise for the various types of local election and the Greater London authority elections. To assist electoral administrators in the practical application of the legislation, we have re-enacted in their entirety schedule 1 “European Parliamentary Elections Rules”, schedule 2 “Absent Voting” and schedule 3, “Modification of European Parliamentary Election Rules for Combined Polls” to the 2004 regulations.
The European parliamentary elections are administered in Great Britain by 11 returning officers, one each for Scotland and Wales and nine for the regions of England, whom we know as regional returning officers. They perform some functions regionally, such as nomination procedures, but most of the mechanics of poll delivery fall to electoral administrators in each region, the so-called local returning officers, with the regional returning officer acting as a co-ordinator. The European parliamentary elections rules confer functions on the returning officers and local returning officers to ensure the smooth running of the poll.
Schedule 2 to the draft regulations replaces the European parliamentary elections rules of schedule 1 to the 2004 regulations and reflects the new security measures that the 2006 Act introduced. These include security markings on ballot papers, new identifying marks and the replacement of counterfoils with corresponding number lists. The measures also reflect the changes made under the 2006 Act to the retention and inspection of election documents after the poll.
The key policy changes that we have made on absent voting at European elections are set out in schedule 3 to the draft regulations, which substitutes new schedule 2 to the 2004 regulations. The changes include new provisions for the collection of personal identifiers from persons applying to vote by post or by proxy at a European parliamentary election; a requirement for postal voters at European parliamentary elections to provide their signature and date of birth on postal voting statements, which they must complete and return with their ballot papers; and a requirement for local returning officers to take steps to verify the signatures and dates of birth on postal voting statements, which involves checking that the identifiers provided on the statement correspond to those previously provided with the postal vote application.
Schedule 4 to the 2004 regulations, which sets out the modifications needed to the European parliamentary elections rules in the event of combined polls, is updated to reflect the changes that were made to the Representation of the People Act (England and Wales) (Combination of Polls) Regulations 2004 as a result of the 2006 Act.
To facilitate the smooth running of the poll in Scotland, we have defined “local counting area” in Scotland to mean a local government area in Scotland. However, a local returning officer for European parliamentary elections in Scotland remains the person responsible for UK parliamentary elections in Scotland, as required by section 6 of the European Parliamentary Elections Act 2002.
In schedule 1 to the draft regulations, which inserts a new schedule A1 to the 2004 regulations, we have been able to provide that the local returning officer for each local counting area is the person who is responsible for a specified parliamentary constituency. To make that work in practice, we have assigned a local returning officer to each local counting area, which means that, on the ground, the checking of postal vote identifiers will be simplified because electoral administrators will not have to use multiple software systems to perform the task. For the long term, we have included measures in the Political Parties and Elections Bill that, subject to Parliament’s approval, will provide that all European parliamentary polls after 2009 will be administered on local authority boundaries.
We have consulted with the Electoral Commission and have incorporated a number of the points that it raised in formal response to the regulations, including provision for the registered name of the party to appear first on the ballot paper, followed by any description used and a recommendation to make it clear on the ballot paper that a voter must mark his or her vote with a cross in the box. After careful consideration, the Government agreed to implement the Electoral Commission’s recommendation to change the rules in relation to the use of party descriptions, on the basis that the change is in line with Ron Gould’s recent findings about the use of descriptors in list-based elections. That means that the registered name of the party must appear first on the ballot paper, followed by any description of the party that has been used on the nomination papers. The Government will work with the Electoral Commission to review whether a similar change to the use of party descriptions would be appropriate and beneficial for electors at local and UK parliamentary elections.
Following the Electoral Commission’s recommendation, we have taken steps to make it clear that a voter should mark his or her vote with a cross in the box to the right of the name of the party or individual candidate for whom he or she is voting by amending the wording at the top of the ballot paper to read:
“Vote once (x) in one blank box.”
The Electoral Commission also recommended that the regulations make provision for the acceptance of valid votes where electors mark them in numbers rather than using an x or other mark to indicate for whom they are voting. However, after informal consultation with regional returning officers and other stakeholders, the Ministry of Justice concluded that, in the light of the current legislation and guidance on the rejection of ballot papers, all decisions on whether a vote is valid where a voter has marked his or her vote with a one, two or three should be left at the discretion of the returning officer’s application of the current rules.
We have worked to complete the regulations as early as possible. We aimed to meet the recommendations made by Ron Gould for electoral legislation to be in place at least six months prior to the European parliamentary elections, but, I am sorry to say, we have narrowly missed that target. Nevertheless, the regulations will, subject to the approval of both Houses, be in force four months before the European parliamentary elections on 4 June, which we hope will be helpful to electors, electoral administrators and other stakeholders.
The draft European Parliament (Disqualification) (United Kingdom and Gibraltar) Order 2009 replaces the provisions in the European Parliament (Disqualification) (United Kingdom and Gibraltar) Order 2004 to take account of the changes that were made by the Gibraltar Constitution Order 2006. The most notable changes are that Gibraltar Ordinances are now known as Acts and that the House of Assembly is renamed the Gibraltar Parliament. The reason for the repeal and re-enactment of the 2004 order is therefore a change of nomenclature rather than one of policy. The 2009 order continues to ensure that a consistent approach is taken in Gibraltar and in the UK on the disqualification of Members of the European Parliament. That is reflected in the content of the order, which I shall summarise briefly.
Currently, certain classes of people in the UK and Gibraltar, including under-18s, are disqualified from being MEPs under section 10 of the European Parliamentary Elections Act 2002. The draft order extends the classes under the 2002 Act so that the provisions for Gibraltarians mirror those in the UK. It provides that
“a person is disqualified for the office of MEP”
if he or she
“has been adjudged or otherwise declared bankrupt under any law in force in Gibraltar and has not been discharged”.
That makes the position in Gibraltar broadly similar to that in the UK for European parliamentary elections.
Article 3(b) disqualifies from the same office a person who “holds or acts in” certain public offices, including judges and members of the police, by virtue of which they would be disqualified from being members of the Gibraltar Parliament under the Parliament Act—Gibraltar Act No. 1950-15. Again, this is similar to the existing UK position, as such people are disqualified from membership of the House of Commons. However, the provision enables people such as teachers and junior administrative staff, who are not disqualified under UK law, to be MEPs.
Article 3(c) disqualifies from office the Clerk of the Parliament of Gibraltar, who is both the electoral registration officer and the local returning officer for the Gibraltar part of the combined region. In addition, any deputy or clerk appointed by him or her in his or her capacity as a local returning officer or as the European electoral registration officer for Gibraltar is also disqualified. Similar persons are disqualified in the United Kingdom.
Article 3(d) disqualifies from office people who are disqualified for election as a Member of the Parliament of Gibraltar by virtue of having committed offences connected with the elections to the Parliament of Gibraltar. In the UK, similar persons are disqualified for electoral offences.
Article 3(e) disqualifies those who have been found guilty of one or more offences—in Gibraltar or elsewhere—and have been sentenced or ordered to be imprisoned either indefinitely or for more than one year, and are detained in Gibraltar or are unlawfully at large. That provision is similar to one of the disqualifications for the Parliament of Gibraltar, and it equates to a measure in the Representation of the People Act 1981 that disqualifies similar persons from the House of Commons.
Following consultation, the Electoral Commission noted that the provisions on bankruptcy differ slightly throughout the UK and Gibraltar, but it confirmed its overall support for the order.
During the four months before a European election, Gibraltar, which, as you know, Mr. Key, is combined with the south-west region of the UK for the purposes of voting in European elections, is subject to a modified form of the statutory provisions that regulate donations to political parties. Those measures are set out in the European Parliamentary Elections (Combined Region and Campaign Expenditure) (United Kingdom and Gibraltar) Order 2004, which allows UK political parties that declare an intention to contest a European parliamentary election in the combined region to accept donations from donors who are based in Gibraltar in the four months before a European Parliament election. It also regulates loans entered into by Gibraltar parties contesting the region during the same period. In addition, it caps the total amount that UK parties may receive from Gibraltar donors at the amount of campaign expenditure that the registered party would be permitted to incur if it were standing for election in the combined region only, which equates to £315,000. That figure is called the permitted maximum.
The European Parliamentary Elections (Loans and Related Transactions and Miscellaneous Provisions) (United Kingdom and Gibraltar) Order 2009 is required to update the 2004 order to take account of changes that were made to the regime for the financial support of parties in the Electoral Administration Act 2006 and, specifically, to apply to Gibraltar new part 4A of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, which deals with regulation of loans and related transactions.
The draft order replicates the current donations provisions for loans, as set out in the 2004 order; in other words, it will permit loans from specified individuals and organisations in Gibraltar to UK political parties contesting the combined region in the four-month period preceding an election and regulate loans to Gibraltar parties contesting the combined region during this period. It also, in effect, alters the matters that count towards calculation of the permitted maximum by ensuring that the value of loans as well as donations must be taken into account by a party when deciding whether the permitted maximum has been reached. In order to reflect the spirit of the provisions in relation to donations from Gibraltar, loans entered into with Gibraltar individuals or bodies during the four-month period may not be subject to actual capitalisation—in other words, an increase in the capital borrowed—after the date of the poll. The intention behind that is to prevent non-Gibraltar parties from using existing loans to borrow more money from Gibraltar individuals or bodies after the end of the permitted period.
The draft order will help fulfil the United Kingdom’s obligation to ensure that the Gibraltar electorate is able to vote at elections to the European Parliament on as similar a basis as possible as the UK electorate. That matter has been the subject of consultation with the Gibraltar Government and the Electoral Commission and I am pleased to say that they are both content.
I appreciate Committee members’ bearing with me patiently and attentively as I have outlined each of the statutory instruments. I hope that they agree that it is important to go through the details: these are complex matters, but they are important. The Electoral Commission and other stakeholders have given us many helpful, useful and practical comments that we have taken into account in the final drafts of the statutory instruments before us today, which will enable the combined elections to go ahead successfully and make sure that they are conducted properly, and I hope that they will make matters easier for electors. That is our objective and on that basis I commend the regulations and draft orders to the Committee.
4.47 pm
Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): Mr. Key, may I welcome you to the Chair and say what a pleasure it is for the few Opposition Members present to serve under your chairmanship?
I am pleased that the Government have introduced these statutory instruments. I thank the Minister sincerely for going through them in detail, so that the Committee is better educated about exactly why they are necessary and why it is important to introduce them at this time. We have been waiting for them for a while, but I forgive the Minister for not tabling them in time for them to be in place six months before the European elections on 4 June. Let us hope that there is, administratively speaking—there ought to be—sufficient time for those concerned with the practicalities of the arrangements for the elections to put the measures in place. As you might have guessed, Mr. Key, we will not oppose any of the measures.
My concern, as always, is the smooth running of elections, and I have great respect for the support of the Electoral Commission in such matters. The Minister told us that the Electoral Commission has been consulted on the statutory instruments, has made suggestions that have been taken into consideration and supports what he has said this afternoon. I am pleased to hear that; it makes perfect sense.
As ever, on behalf of the electorate, I am looking for certainty, continuity and consistency. I believe that the Minister addressed all those points in his remarks, so I will not take the Committee’s time to quiz him on them. However, there is one matter—personal identifiers—on which the Minister will not be surprised that I take issue. The Opposition are very pleased that the draft regulations are properly introducing personal identifiers for absent voters, but we have long argued—and still argue in the context of the Political Parties and Elections Bill, which is only part way through its passage through the House—that personal identifiers in the form of individual voter registration ought to be introduced across the board in all elections. I appreciate that the Minister has listened to the argument in principle and may even be, in principle, in favour of it. We are very pleased that, in this context, the Government have taken further steps to introduce personal identifiers, and I hope that the Minister will take this opportunity to state that he will fulfil all our requests for individual voter registration generally—in all elections throughout the United Kingdom and Gibraltar. That is the way to ensure the consistency and clarity of the ballot. He will not be at all surprised to hear me make the argument again today. I know that we will have an opportunity—next week, I hope—to address these matters again, in connection with the Political Parties and Elections Bill, so I will quite understand if he wants to keep his powder dry until then.
I am particularly pleased by what the Minister has said today about Gibraltar, where the instruments will make quite a substantial difference. The Gibraltar referendum, which, Committee members may know, was held six years ago, was held to consult the people of Gibraltar on whether they wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom. They turned out in their thousands: 98 per cent. of them took part in the referendum and 99 per cent. of those voted to remain British. I was there as an official observer, appointed by the Electoral Reform Society, as were several other Members, so I took part in the electoral process of Gibraltar and saw it work.
In those days in Gibraltar, the ballot box was taken to people who, owing to illness, old age or some infirmity, were not able to get the polling station. I spent a whole day going around with a ballot box, verifying that the right people were voting in the right way. As much as that was an interesting experience, the introduction of personal identifiers will make it a lot easier for such people in Gibraltar to vote.
Most important, however, are the general changes that will take account of the new Gibraltar constitution. That was what we were all working for, and it has been achieved. That is important for the people of Gibraltar and, I believe, for the integrity of the United Kingdom in our relationship with places such as Gibraltar. I know that the people of Gibraltar will welcome the changes that result from these proposals. As the Minister said, they bring the arrangements in Gibraltar into line to mirror closely those in Great Britain, and the Gibraltar constitution is being not only respected but implemented. As they did in the previous European elections, the people of Gibraltar will have a chance to express their views at the ballot box and to send a representative of their own—well, in conjunction with south-west England—to the European Union forum, and that is very important for Gibraltar.
The Minister outlined many other principles relating to, for example, party descriptions and so on. Those are all matters that we have been and are discussing in relation to the Political Parties and Elections Bill, so I will not take up the Committee’s time discussing them today. We support and welcome the measures. We hope that some of what has been done today will be multiplied, particularly in respect of individual voter registration, so that it applies to all elections and all electors around our country.
4.55 pm
John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): Mr. Key, I am pleased and somewhat surprised to serve under your chairmanship, because I was not aware of this until about half an hour ago. I have one slight point of jurisdictional confusion: is Gibraltar a Crown dependency? I suppose I should have asked the Minister that earlier.
Hon. Members might not be aware that I drafted the election petition that proved that vast numbers of election frauds were taking place in Aston. Factories on industrial estates were being used to manufacture postal ballots and postal vote fraud was being carried out on an industrial scale. I also assisted in the Bordesley Green petition. Although we have dealt with some aspects of that by bringing in the identifiers, we have not dealt with the issue of whether people can be bribed to vote in a particular way—the price is—somewhat surprisingly—often quoted as being about a fiver.
Yes, we have moved away from the postman being offered £500 or death as the choice in relation to whether he gives up the box of postal ballots, and we have not had riots in the street involving 200 people in recent elections. Things have improved, but I agree with the hon. Member for Epping Forest that we need to work to improve the electoral processes in relation to the use of personal identifiers at polling stations. We also have to consider the protection of the secret ballot in relation to postal votes—absent voting. We have considered the issue of personation in Birmingham because postal votes basically meant that people who used to do personation found an easier way to fiddle the elections and so they fiddled a lot more votes.
One difficulty is proving fraud in retrospect. On the use of personal identifiers for polling station votes, perhaps the Government need to consider that the personal identifier might not have to be checked there and then. However, when in retrospect it comes to checking whether personation has occurred, unless we have polling agents it is difficult to pick that up. In the 2002 elections in Sparkhill—one of the wards in Birmingham—we identified a number of voters who were in prison on the day of the election. As they were not exercising absent votes, there was obviously some other magic mechanism whereby they had managed to cast their vote.
One of the great difficulties of tackling personation is dealing with it in retrospect. Merely having a record of the personal identifiers would facilitate an election petition being raised after the election, where it was clear that large numbers of personated votes had occurred. There were other wards in which we were well aware such things were going on, but the difficulty on election day is balancing out trying to get honest votes and trying to stop other parties fiddling the elections. Hence, changes still need to be made. Going back to the British Library exhibition, we need to maintain the integrity of the election.
Trying to handle the issue of donations in relation to Gibraltar can be overcomplicated. In saying that there is a limit to how much can be spent in the south-west, the Government’s approach is reasonable. There are massively complicated ways of dealing with the matter, and sometimes we forget that the vast majority of treasurers in political parties are volunteers. We need to make sure that the system has integrity, but that it does not generate so much paperwork that it gets incredibly difficult for a volunteer to handle it. On that basis, we support the statutory instruments, but recognise that there is some work to be done.
5 pm
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Prepared 27 January 2009