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Chris Bryant: On a point of order, Mr Evans. This is a large group of amendments, schedules and a new clause; indeed, it constitutes some 120 pages of the amendment paper. I need a little clarity about when we come to vote on amendments and about whether, if we were to agree to the new clause, it would then be possible to vote on amendments to the schedule later.
The First Deputy Chairman: It is all dependent on how long this particular set of new clauses and schedules are talked to. Clearly, if we get to them before the knife is reached at 11 o'clock, they will be taken with the amendments, but that changes if we go beyond 11 o'clock.
Chris Bryant: It will get a semi-serious response; I do not want the hon. Gentleman to worry about this. I merely wish to remind him that the Deputy Leader of the House, who is sitting next to him, has said:
"I am saying that every Member of this House has the right to express their opinion before this House in whatever way they feel is appropriate and to be listened to."-[ Official Report, 19 January 2010; Vol. 504, c. 173.]
Mr Harper: I agree, and indeed we did listen to the hon. Gentleman at length-I am just not sure that what he said would not have been improved had it been a little more brief. [Interruption.] It is a jest; do not take it so seriously.
As the hon. Gentleman said, the new clause and the new schedules are fairly sizeable. I am not going to labour the discussion on them, but they are important and so I shall go through them in some detail-I hope not to detain the House for longer than is absolutely necessary. They are required to provide that the referendum on the voting system can be combined with the eight different elections or local referendums across the UK that could take place on 5 May 2011. The "combination amendments"-I use a collective noun for them-consist of one new clause and four schedules. There is a schedule to deal with the combination with elections or local government referendums for each of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Each schedule is divided into three parts: part 1 deals with general provisions; part 2 deals with postal voting provisions; and part 3 deals with forms.
I think it is helpful to state that we decided not to include the combination provisions in the Bill when it was introduced on 22 July in order, as we said then, to allow us time to work with the Electoral Commission, the Association of Electoral Administrators and others in government, particularly those in the territorial offices, to make sure that if we did hold the referendum on the same day as elections, notwithstanding the arguments that Members of the Committee have made about whether or not we should do so, those polls would be well conducted and well run.
Our general approach has been to adopt a consistent approach for the referendum across the UK, but we have recognised that in some areas there is a need for variation to reflect local circumstances. For example, following consultation with the Scotland Office, the Wales Office and the chair of the interim Scottish electoral management board it became apparent that it
would make the conduct of the referendum and elections easier for administrators if, in Wales and Scotland, the referendums were run on the same respective boundaries as the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish parliamentary elections. Appropriate provisions were consequently added to the Bill following a successful Government amendment last Monday and further provisions to support this are included in new schedules 3 and 4.
I am conscious that this is a sizeable set of amendments and it is only right and proper that we should go through them in some detail, so let me set them out for the benefit of the Committee. At the end of my remarks I shall say something about the territorial orders, so if the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) feels the urge to intervene on me about that point, I want him to know that I will get to it and, if he will hold his horses, I will set it out.
New clause 20 provides that the referendum on the voting system will be combined with the following polls, which are scheduled to take place on 5 May next year: elections to the Welsh Assembly, elections to the Scottish Parliament, elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly, local elections in England, local elections in Northern Ireland, mayoral elections in five local authorities in England and parish elections in England. There is also a strong likelihood that there might be some local mayoral referendums in England on 5 May and we have included provisions to allow those polls to be combined with the referendum.
New clause 20 includes provisions on parish elections, which reflect the commitment that I made to my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) on Second Reading. In England, parish council elections will be combined with the local elections and the referendum on the voting system and not postponed for three weeks. The Government's decision takes into account the positive impact on turnout and the savings that can be made by combining these polls. Before making that decision, I was reassured by the Electoral Commission and the Association of Electoral Administrators that it would be possible in practice to combine the referendum, local elections and parish council elections on 5 May. I understand that that position is also supported by the National Association of Local Councils.
Subsection (6) of new clause 20 provides that, with the exception of the polls I have mentioned, no further polls will be combined with the referendum if they are arranged for 5 May. If there are any other unscheduled polls, such as a UK parliamentary by-election or a local government by-election in Wales, that run on separate boundaries, they will be run as separate elections, which will be easier and more straightforward for electoral administrators.
New schedule 2 sets out the provisions for the combination of the referendum with local parish and mayoral elections and local government referendums in England. I can advise the Committee that the majority of these provisions mirror those that already exist for combining polls under the various combination rules included under relevant pieces of legislation, such as the "Mayoral Elections (Combination of Polls) Rules" set out in schedule 3 to the Local Authorities (Mayoral Elections) (England and Wales) Regulations 2007. I fear that I might refer to similarly exciting-sounding parts of the legislative book during this debate.
Part 1 of new schedule 2 contains the following provisions, which I am sure that the Committee will be interested to note. Paragraph 3 provides that at a combined poll, a counting officer will be able discharge a number of the functions for which a returning officer would usually be responsible at an election. In short, it means that those functions that are discharged by referendum counting officers, such as the provision of polling stations, appointment of poll clerks and issuing of combined poll cards, will automatically determine practice at both polls. We have allowed for decisions on most core functions that relate to the conduct of a combined poll to be made at the discretion of the counting officer. That follows the approach taken in existing combination legislation that when polls are combined, certain functions in relation to the conduct of both polls are carried out by one officer.
There are two key exceptions. The printing of the ballot paper for the election polls will remain under the control of returning officers. Decisions about whether or not to combine postal ballot packs will be made through the counting officer agreeing a position with the relevant returning officer. The latter position ensures that decisions will be made in accordance with local needs. There are situations in which combining those postal ballot packs would simply not be practical and legislating for counting officers and returning officers to do things that are simply not practically possible does not seem to be very sensible.
Paragraph 5 provides that the cost of the combined polls will be equally apportioned between them. For example, in the case of a combined referendum on the voting system and local government elections in England, the cost would be split 50:50 between the Consolidated Fund and the local authority concerned.
Paragraph 9 permits the counting officer to decide whether combined corresponding number lists should be used for the combined polls. Paragraph 11 provides that the notice of poll for the combined elections should be published
"not later than the 15th day before the date of the poll."
Paragraph 15 provides that the ballot papers used for the referendum must be a different colour from the ballot papers used for any combined poll, thereby preventing any risk that voters might confuse the ballot papers. Paragraph 16 provides clarity that the polling stations that the counting officer chooses for the referendum will be used for all combined polls taking place in the voting area.
Paragraph 17 permits the counting officer, if he thinks fit, to combine the official poll cards for the referendum and all other polls, with the exception of parish elections. It is not possible to combine a parish election poll card with other poll cards, because in a parish election it is not known until the close of nominations whether it will be contested. As the majority of parish elections are uncontested, we have concluded, with advice from the Electoral Commission, that it would not make sense
to delay issuing the poll card for all the other polls until after the nominations had closed for the parish elections. The rules for the other combined polls provide that poll cards can be issued as soon as practicable after the notice of referendum or notice of election has been issued. We have also included provisions that allow the counting officer, where the poll cards are combined, to adapt them in whatever manner seems necessary for the purposes of the combined poll.
Paragraph 18 permits the counting officer to decide whether the same or separate ballot boxes should be used for combined polls. Where separate ballot boxes are used, they are each to be clearly marked to show which ballot papers should be put in them.
Mr MacNeil: On the use of separate ballot boxes, if a voter happens to put both papers in one or other of the ballot boxes, will that be cleared up at the polling station simply by transferring the relevant paper to the right pile?
Mr Harper: Clearly, as is common with combined polls, the verification procedure, which I shall discuss later, will make sure that verification is complete for all polls before any election results are declared, so that there will not be problems if a whole load of ballot papers are suddenly found in the wrong box. That provision is fairly consistent with what happens now in combined elections.
Mr MacNeil: Will the Minister clarify that point? When he says "verification", does he mean "counting", with a declaration of the result after both polls have been counted, or does he mean that the papers will be separated to ensure that they are in the right place and that, in Scotland, votes for the Scottish Parliament will be counted and declared before people get around to counting and declaring the result of the referendum?
Mr Harper: Yes. The verification of both the referendum and election ballot papers will take place first; it will not be necessary to count the referendum papers at that point, but they will have to be verified to make sure that no election ballot papers have inadvertently been put in the wrong box. That is what happens with combined general and local elections now: local election votes do not have to be counted before general election votes can be counted and the result declared, but both sets of papers have to be verified to ensure that all the general election papers are in one place and that the result is accurate. That does not hold up the declaration of results, which, quite importantly for all the devolved Assemblies, will be wanted as soon as possible. When I come to that issue, the hon. Gentleman can jump straight in if he thinks I have not been clear.
Following our debate in Committee on 18 October, I confirm that a large-print version of the ballot papers for each of the relevant polls, including the referendum, must be displayed at all polling stations. Paragraph 20 provides that at a combined poll:
"The large version of the ballot paper displayed...must be of the same colour as the ballot papers to be used for the referendum."
Paragraphs 27 to 34 permit the counting officer to use the same copy of the register for each poll to combine the various lists that are produced for proxy voters, the votes marked by the presiding officer, the list of voters with disabilities assisted by companions and the tendered votes list.
Paragraph 36 sets out the procedure that presiding officers must follow at the close of poll. That includes rules on the packets that need to be made up and sent to the counting officer after the poll has closed. Provision is included to ensure that certain documents relating to each poll are not combined with documents relating to any other poll. That applies to unused or spoilt ballot papers, tendered ballot papers and certificates as to employment on the day of the poll.
Paragraphs 38 to 45 set out the Government's policy for the verification and count procedure at a combined poll. The combination amendment does not specify the timing of the count for any of the polls, to ensure that there is flexibility for votes on the ballot papers for the elections to be counted before those for the referendum. The combination rules for the verification and count process make it clear that once ballot papers have been received from polling stations, they have to be taken out of the ballot boxes and separated into piles for each poll. Before the votes on ballot papers for any poll can be counted, the counting officer or relevant returning officer must ensure that the ballot papers from a ballot box are mixed with the ballot papers for that poll from a different ballot box, and that postal ballot papers are mixed with ballot papers for that poll from a ballot box. If the counting of votes for any poll has not commenced by the time the verification process has been concluded, the ballot papers for that poll must be sealed up and retained by the counting officer in the case of referendum ballot papers, or delivered to the relevant returning officer, who will be responsible for storing the ballot papers securely until the count takes place.
Paragraph 46 provides that the verification process for all combined polls must have been completed before the declaration of any counts. Although we are aware that that may delay the declaration of a count, we believe that given the number of polls taking place the requirement is essential to ensure that all the ballot papers have been correctly accounted for, thereby ensuring the integrity of the count. Clearly, as with combined elections, having to do all the verification may mean that the result is a little delayed, but it will not mean that we have to wait for the referendum to be counted before the election count.
Paragraphs 48 and 49 set out the arrangements for ensuring that the counting officer and returning officer seal up all relevant papers in appropriate packets after the poll, and deliver them to the relevant registration officer. All documents that have been combined will be sealed together and sent by the counting officer to the relevant registration officer. Where it has been decided to use separate lists for each poll, the documents will be sealed in separate packets and delivered to the relevant registration officer by either the counting officer for the referendum or the returning officer for the relevant election.
We have specifically provided that in the event of legal proceedings arising on the referendum and/or relevant election, the court can make an order for the production of combined documents relating to the poll or polls.
Chris Bryant: I am grateful to the Minister for going through in some detail the large number of pages containing the amendments, new clauses and new schedules. The register for local elections in England will be different from the register used for the referendum, and from the register in Wales. The Government's provisions suggest that there should be just one register in each polling station and that some kind of mark will be made somewhere to suggest who has had, and who has not had, each of the ballot papers. Is he confident that that will meet the requirement to make sure that nobody has a ballot paper to which they are not entitled? How will the returning officer make sure that the list of voters who have voted, or who have been given ballot papers, is accurately provided to the regional counting officer and then the counting officer, as well as to the local authority?
Mr Harper: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. We are confident that the provisions will work appropriately. Combining the referendum with the elections may be controversial-although more for issues relating to the mechanics of the election-but it is not as though we never hold combined elections. We hold combined general elections and local elections, which have different franchises. There may be the odd problem, but in the main they work well, so this is not a new departure for those who run elections. We are confident about the rules, which we reached after close working with the Electoral Commission, which is responsible for running the referendum, and the Association of Electoral Administrators, which is responsible for delivering elections. They are confident that we have come up with a set of rules that maximise the ability of all individuals on the ground to run a smooth set of combined polls on 5 May 2011.
Part 2 of new schedule 2 includes provisions for the issue and receipt of postal ballot packs. The provisions apply existing legislation and make the necessary modifications. When read together, they set out the Government's policy that the proceedings on the issue and receipt of postal ballot papers can be combined if returning and counting officers think fit. They also set out how the procedure works when papers are combined and when they are issued separately; the procedure and timing for the issue and receipt of postal ballot papers; the persons who are entitled to be present at proceedings on receipt of postal ballot papers for both the referendum and the relevant election; and the procedure for forwarding and retaining documents relating to the postal voting process-for example, postal voting statements, the proxy voters log and the postal voters list.
Part 3 of new schedule 2 sets out the combined forms that can be used for the purposes of the combined polls. The forms include corresponding number lists, postal voting statements, guidance for voters and a certificate of employment. As is the case for forms contained in the referendum rules, the Electoral Commission will be able to modify the forms for the purpose of making them easier for voters to understand or use.
I can confirm to the Committee that equivalent provisions with necessary modifications to take into account local needs have been provided for the combination of polls in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland under new schedules 3, 4 and 5.
Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab): Before we move off the subject, a person applying for a postal ballot might automatically assume that by doing so they will get one for all elections. Is that so, or must they apply separately for a postal ballot for each poll?
Mr Harper: I do not want to anticipate the debate that we will have on the proposals of the hon. Member for Rhondda, but we have said that someone's standing postal vote application for parliamentary elections will trigger their postal vote for the referendum. It is the same franchise, and we thought that that was a better way around the problem than insisting that all those with a standing postal vote application for a parliamentary election apply for a new postal vote specifically for the referendum. We wanted to maximise the opportunities for people to take part rather than have people who miss out because they did not realise that they needed to apply for a new postal vote. We have ensured that if people already have a standing postal vote for a parliamentary election, they will get one for the referendum.
Mr Michael McCann (East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow) (Lab): In response to my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami), the Minister specifically mentioned people who have a postal ballot for parliamentary elections. My recollection of the paperwork that is issued in Scotland is that electors tick boxes to say that they want a postal ballot for all elections. That might seem like a nit-picking point, but will the Minister confirm that by ticking a box marked, "All elections," people will be entitled to receive a postal ballot for the referendum?
Mr Harper: My understanding is that if people are entitled to, or have applied for, a postal vote for a parliamentary election and tick the box marked "All elections"-that is a common way of asking that question in England as well as in Scotland-and if they are on the list for parliamentary elections, they will get a postal vote for the referendum. I am sure that if I have got that wrong, inspiration will strike me and I can correct my answer.
Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): Of course, in England on 5 May, we will have not parliamentary elections, but local elections. What assessment has the Minister or the Cabinet Office made of the number of people who are registered only for council election postal votes?
Mr Harper: Clearly, we do not need to have a parliamentary election-registration for a permanent postal vote for a parliamentary election will automatically trigger the postal vote for the referendum. What happens if a person is registered for a postal vote only for local elections depends on whether the postal ballot packs are combined.
Mr Tom Harris (Glasgow South) (Lab): Can the Minister clarify the situation for next May? Is it conceivable that large numbers of voters in England-this probably will not happen in Scotland-will be sent automatically the referendum ballot paper but not a council ballot paper? People might have to go to the polling station to vote for their councillor, and yet be able to vote only by post in the referendum. Has the Cabinet Office made any calculation of how many people that will affect?
Mr Harper: If we were not having a referendum and were having only local council elections in England-I shall refer to England, as that is what the hon. Gentleman's question was about-people would not get a postal vote if they had not asked for one, or if they were not registered for a permanent one. If they were registered for a postal vote for a parliamentary election, that would come automatically, but that would not in any way reduce their ability to participate in local elections, as they had not asked for a postal vote.
Mr Harris: There is a corollary to what the Minister says, then. If people are registered to vote by post for a parliamentary election, and they then receive the ballot paper for the AV referendum, is it not likely that they will fill in that ballot paper without going to the polling station in order to cast a vote in the local council elections, thereby deflating turnout in the local council elections, which are extremely important?
Mr Harper: I am not sure I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I am not sure that voting in the referendum by post would make someone less likely to go and vote in their local council elections, as long as they were clear about what was going on. We have been clear, and the Electoral Commission has been clear-
Mr Harper: Let me finish responding to the intervention before I take another one. It is important that people are clear about what is going on. The Electoral Commission has said that one of its key responsibilities, as well as running the referendums, is to make sure that clear guidance is issued to those conducting elections and that there are clear communications to electors. The commission will send a booklet to every household to explain to people the elections and referendum that are taking place, so that people are clear about what is happening. The point raised by the hon. Member for Glasgow South is well made.
Andrew Gwynne: My concern is the opposite to that of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South (Mr Harris). Plenty of people in England will be registered for a local election postal vote, but not necessarily for a parliamentary election postal vote. They will get a ballot paper for the 5 May council elections, but not for the referendum. How is that right?
Mr Harper: If resignations were based on that level of accuracy, there would not have been any members of the previous Government in post for longer than about a week, so we will have no more of that.
Chris Ruane: I thank the Minister for giving way. Right, here we go: what would happen in Wales if an elector were registered for a postal vote at European elections, not for a postal vote at parliamentary elections, for a postal vote at Welsh Assembly Government elections, and for a postal vote at local government elections? Whatever the Minister says, will the public understand it?
Mr Harper: If such a voter had elected to register for a permanent postal vote for every possible election except a Westminster parliamentary one, they would clearly have had a good reason for doing that, so our proposal that the UK parliamentary franchise be used makes sense. I do not think the hon. Gentleman makes a sensible point.
Ms Louise Bagshawe (Corby) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that there is deliberate obfuscation going on, given that some citizens eligible to vote in local elections are not necessarily eligible to vote in Westminster elections-for example, European nationals, whom we would not wish to vote in the referendum anyway? Contrary to the intervention by the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Mr Harris), is not one of the biggest predictors of voting whether someone has voted before? Is not the existence of the referendum therefore more likely to increase, rather than depress, turnout in local elections?
Mr Harper: My hon. Friend is spot-on. To be frank, I think that voters are perfectly capable of working out what elections or referendums are taking place. Voters in Wales will have had some warm-up practice in March, because they will have had an important referendum on the powers that the Welsh Assembly Government should have. They will therefore have had the opportunity to think about whether they want an absent vote. That will mean, I am sure, that at the front of their minds, as they approach the elections and referendum on 5 May, they will be thinking hard about whether they will be around and able to vote in person, or whether they should apply for an absent vote. At least in Wales, therefore, what the hon. Member for Glasgow South suggests might happen is unlikely to do so.
Now, where did I get to? [Laughter.] There have been so many interventions. I suspect that it was nice for everyone to break up the monotony of my voice reading out these exciting provisions, so I am happy to have taken those criticisms from the Committee.
Given that the provisions in schedules 3 to 5 are largely consistent with those I have outlined for England, I am sure that the Committee will be relieved to hear that I do not intend to go through their contents in the same detail. However, I will go through some of the key provisions we have made for Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. As I confirmed earlier, we have amended the
definition of a voting area for the referendum as it applies in Scotland and Wales to provide that the referendum is to be run on the same respective boundaries as Scottish parliamentary and National Assembly for Wales elections. That will help with the administration of the elections, as the officials involved in delivering them have said.
We have kept the provisions on the timing of the count silent in the legislation to allow sufficient flexibility for the counts for the devolved elections to take place prior to the referendum count. We have based the postal voting provisions in part 2 of schedules 3 and 4 on those that apply for Welsh Assembly and Scottish parliamentary elections, making modifications where necessary to take account of the referendum. That will ensure that small differences in regional practice on postal voting will carry through to the referendum.
Mr Harper: It is because we are combining it with elections that are different in different parts of the UK. Picking up on points that hon. Members were making earlier, I can say that the poll cards issued will confirm the voting arrangements that will apply to a particular elector for each poll. They will explain to electors the arrangements in place, and people will be able to apply to the registration office to vary their postal voting arrangements up until 11 days before the poll, or six days before the poll where a proxy vote takes place. That will be helpful.
The Committee will want to be aware-certainly the hon. Member for Rhondda will-that I can confirm that all the new orders have been laid by the territorial offices today to update the rules for the elections to the Scottish Parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the National Assembly for Wales. Given that the combination amendments just discussed are based on existing legislation, as is usual practice, any consequential amendments reflecting those new territorial orders will be tabled for debate on Report next week, as I said last week.
Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): Will the Minister detail to the Committee what discussions and consultation he has held with the Scottish Government, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly prior to the orders being laid?
Mr Harper: I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman was here when we had a slight rehearsal of this discussion at the beginning of our sitting, but the hon. Member for Rhondda asked me what discussions I had had about the conduct of the referendum in the devolved nations and about the arrangements for the combined polls, and I made the point to him that arrangements for elections in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are the responsibility not of Ministers in the devolved nations, but of the territorial Secretaries of State.
I also pointed out to the hon. Gentleman that I had written to explain how we would lay and handle the combination amendments. I wrote not just to Opposition Front Benchers and Members who had expressed an interest, but out of courtesy to the leaders of every party represented in the devolved Parliament and Assemblies in order to keep them confirmed.
I said also that my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Scotland, for Wales and for Northern Ireland have had discussions with representatives of the Administrations in each country about the combined elections, although it is fair to say that they all said to me-I shall not go through the issue in detail, because we had this debate at length on day one of Committee-that they were not happy with the combined poll.
Mr Harper: No. The conduct of elections is currently the responsibility of the territorial Secretaries of State. I also made the point to the hon. Gentleman's colleague, the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil), who was here at the beginning of our sitting, that with the Calman recommendations, the administration of elections in Scotland is proposed to be devolved to the Scottish Government. Clearly, if such elections were to take place in future, the Scottish Government would be very involved, but at the moment the responsibility for the administration of each election is that of the Secretary of State, not of the devolved Administrations.
Mr Howarth: Given the procedure that the Minister has just described, can he assure me that under the orders to which he has referred, the process in Scotland, for example, cannot differ from that in England, Northern Ireland or Wales? If it can, it might change the terms on which people in each part of the United Kingdom are able to engage in a referendum.
Mr Harper: I am not sure that I follow the right hon. Gentleman. Clearly, there will be some differences. One difference I outlined is that, because the referendum is being combined in Scotland with Scottish parliamentary elections, the voting areas and conduct of the elections will be based on Scottish parliamentary constituencies. That will clearly be different in Wales, where they will be based on Welsh parliamentary constituencies, and in England the referendum will be conducted according to local government boundaries, all so that we can combine the elections in the most sensible way, which is what the administrators wanted us to do.
No. The franchise-those who can take part in the referendum on the voting system-are those people entitled to vote in Westminster parliamentary
elections and, before the hon. Member for Rhondda jumps up, the small amendment that we have made, the addition of peers. The franchise is the same throughout the United Kingdom, so those entitled to vote in Westminster elections will be able to vote; the issue is simply to do with the mechanics of administering the polls to ensure that the elections are conducted using the most administratively sensible process.
Margaret Curran: The Minister may not be aware, but I am still a Member of the Scottish Parliament, and I feel obliged to point out to him that throughout the Parliament there are concerns about the coalition Government's decision to hold the referendum on the same date as Scottish Parliament elections. People across the political spectrum in Scotland profoundly feel that that is a great disrespect to the Scottish Parliament, and I say that with great authority.
Margaret Curran: This is not a nationalist point, and I hope that the coalition does not dismiss the feelings to which I have referred as the marginal voice of nationalism in Scotland. The view is widespread throughout Scotland, and mainstream parties such as mine also hold it. However, I am concerned that in response to the question from the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), the Minister seemed to imply that, because the Scottish Parliament does not have responsibility for the elections at the moment, it is not a key stakeholder in the ongoing discussions-
Mr Harper: I am grateful, Mr Evans: I had got the hon. Lady's point. I am not trying to minimise her concern, but I note that none of the devolved Parliaments or Assemblies has passed any formal motions or resolutions expressing that view to this House.
The hon. Lady raises two issues, one of which is about the combination of the referendum with the elections next year. We know about some of the views on that, because they were expressed when my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister made his statement on 5 July, in the Second Reading debate, and in the lengthy debate that we had about the coincidence of the dates on the first day of Committee. The Government take the view that voters are perfectly capable of making the distinction between referendums and elections, and this should not affect the ability of the election campaigns to take place. We have recognised, though-
We recognise that there is a different qualitative issue raised by the combination of the general election and these elections. As I have said in previous debates, we
are thinking about how that issue may be dealt with, and we will come back to the House and the devolved Administrations in due course.
Chris Bryant: It seems extraordinary that the Government are taking this attitude in relation to consulting the devolved Administrations about their own elections. I fully understand that they do not have legislative competence for that matter-it is a competence reserved to Westminster-but it would be common human decency to be able to consult them. In the past, the Minister has tried to argue that he wanted to tell this House before he told anybody else. However, he knows perfectly well that through the Joint Ministerial Committee there are provisions for the Government to speak to the Welsh Assembly Government, the Executive in Scotland and so on. There is no reason why he could not have used those processes perfectly well.
My understanding-I am sure that this is the case-is that this issue has been raised at the JMC; I am sure that I will be corrected if it has not. Moreover, one would be having these conversations not only with the Administrations but with the Parliaments and Assemblies themselves. I know that some of those conversations have taken place. For example, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales has had a communication from the Presiding Officer of the Welsh Assembly making it clear that its Members did not want the date of the Assembly election changed.
Cathy Jamieson: I think that the Minister said that the Scottish Parliament and the other devolved Assemblies had not taken a formal position by means of passing a resolution. Is he therefore suggesting that should, say, the Scottish Parliament pass such a resolution, he would change his mind?
Mr Harper: No, I was not suggesting that at all; I was simply making the point that they have not done so. However, let me save them time and trouble by saying that if they do, it will not make us change our minds, so they can focus on the important issues that voters will be concerned about.
Does the Minister find it a bit rich-I know I do-that Labour Members, particularly those who are still Members of the Scottish Parliament, argue day in, day out against more powers for the Scottish Parliament, yet suddenly, when party politics are involved, try to score points by saying that they want more powers for the Scottish Parliament? They should stick
to their principles and not play party politics with the issue when they are here. We should give power to the Scottish Parliament similar to that for the Isle of Man, at the very least.
Mr Harper: I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I will not add to his point, but I am now slightly envious that I am not a Member of the Scottish Parliament too, and so cannot indulge in such debates on a daily basis. I now know what I am missing out on by not participating in Scottish politics.
Chris Bryant: To be honest, I do not want the Minister to write to me, I want him to consult the respective Executives in- [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) should calm down. The Government are ensuring that he has his own rotten borough, so he does not have to worry about the Bill.
I want to ensure that consultation happens properly. We rightly insist that before any European Union legislation is brought in we should have 10 weeks to do our proper parliamentary duty, and the same should apply to the Welsh Assembly, the Scottish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Minister is deliberately eliding two concepts. Raising the matter at the JMC is one thing, but consulting expressly on written documents, which has not happened in relation to any of these issues, is something else altogether.
Mr Harper: The hon. Gentleman said that he wanted to ensure that these issues had been discussed, and they have been raised and discussed at the JMC. The devolved Administrations probably still disagree with the Westminster Government's decision, but the matter has been discussed. He is not making a very sensible point.
Mr Harper: It certainly does have that experience, which is why we looked closely at the conclusions in the Gould report. In an earlier debate I made it clear that although Ron Gould-he of the said report-said that combination would not have been his first choice, he was clear that combining a simple yes/no referendum and the Scottish parliamentary elections was likely to be a much more straightforward proposition than what happened in the elections to which the hon. Gentleman refers. Ron Gould did not believe that the same problems would occur.
Jim McGovern (Dundee West) (Lab):
I can assure the Minister that I am not going to rant and rave like the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil). The Minister says that a referendum and a parliamentary election on the same day are acceptable, but that seems to imply that only two votes will take place on the same day. However, there will be a first-past-the-post vote for the Scottish Parliament, a list vote for the Scottish
Parliament and a referendum. He is possibly misleading Parliament-not intentionally-by implying that there will be only two votes.
Mr Harper: No, we have added one extra vote to what would otherwise have taken place, and it will have a simple yes or no question rather than a complex electoral system. Like the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar in an earlier debate, the hon. Member for Dundee West (Jim McGovern) is doing his fellow Scots a disservice by suggesting, albeit obliquely, that they are not capable of making a decision in the referendum as well as voting in the very important Scottish parliamentary elections.
Mark Tami: Does the Minister not recognise that candidates standing in the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament elections could take various lines about whether they are pro-AV or anti-AV? There is still a lot of scope for a very confusing situation.
Mr Harper: No, I do not think there is, actually. People are perfectly capable of laying out the prospectus on which they stand and the important issues on which they are campaigning in the elections to the Welsh Assembly, Northern Ireland Assembly and Scottish Parliament, and also joining the yes or no campaign on a voting system for this Parliament. That is not very complicated at all, and our voters will show us that we are underrating them if we take that view. Incidentally, next week, Americans will vote in an extraordinary number of elections-I shall pursue that thought only briefly, Mr Evans, for fear that you will rule me out of order-and they are perfectly capable of doing that, in the same way as voters here are perfectly capable of voting in two or three sets of elections next year.
Chris Bryant: The Parliamentary Secretary knows that the system that evolved in the United States because they have so many elections at the same time means simply pulling a Democrat or a Republican switch. Surely he does not intend to move to that system.
Mr Harper: Not at all. Many voters give much thought to whom they will support in different elections. There are many examples of people voting differently in different sorts of elections, doing what they call splitting the ticket.
Mr McCann: Will the Parliamentary Secretary focus on the pertinent point about the 2007 elections in Scotland? Many elderly voters are extremely confused. I have many elderly constituents who are proud of having voted in every election since they were given the opportunity to do so. The introduction of new voting systems in 2007 made the ballot papers confusing for them, and they were disturbed by that. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that holding another vote on the same day as the Scottish elections will provide scope for confusion, and many people will therefore be disfranchised in the referendum?
The hon. Gentleman would have a stronger point if we were talking about another set of elections with a new voting system, and putting everything on one ballot paper. However, we have examined the lessons
in the Gould report and want to ensure that we combine the elections in such a way as to minimise the opportunity for confusion. Ron Gould said that combining elections would not be his preference-I am quoting him fairly-but he is confident that the scope for confusion is nothing like the situation in 2007. He is fairly confident that the elections and the referendum will be organised sensibly and competently. I think that our combination provisions achieve that.
Mr McCann: I am very grateful to the Parliamentary Secretary for giving way again. Does not he accept that in Scotland we will have a first-past-the-post election for the Scottish Parliament, the alternative vote system, and then we must explain to people that there is also a yes/no vote? It would be fine if we had only the yes/no vote-that is straightforward-but there are additional complications. Does not the point that he has just made concede my point? That is the point that he must grasp.
Mr Harper: No, because no new electoral systems will be invented next year. People will vote in the Scottish Parliament elections in the same way as they did previously, with the addition of a relatively simple yes or no question on the voting system for this House. Voters may prove us wrong, but I think that they are perfectly capable of making such decisions at the same time as voting in Welsh Assembly, Scottish Parliament or English council elections, and of differentiating the polls. Clearly, that requires good organisation on the ground and good communication. The Electoral Commission is aware of that; that is why it will write to every household to set out clearly in each of the devolved parts of the UK details of the elections that are taking place, the referendum and the procedures, so that people are clear about it. The yes and no campaigns obviously bear part of that responsibility too.
Mr Harper: I have dealt with the point that the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr McCann) made, perhaps not to his satisfaction, but at length. I have a few more sentences and I am done. Hon. Members can make their own speeches then. I have been reasonably generous in giving way.
The territorial orders were tabled today. When the Committee stage is complete we will table the amendments, as I promised hon. Members last week, so that the House can debate them to reflect the new territorial orders-
Mr Harper: The territorial orders have been laid before the House, and are therefore available to Members. They are not amendable, but it is possible for the House to vote them down, in which case we would simply revert to the combination provisions that we are discussing. If the House votes for them, and for our amendments next week, we will have been able to debate all the rules that will be in place next year, and will not have left it to their lordships.
Chris Bryant: However, neither the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments nor the Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee in the House of Lords has yet considered the orders. I presume that the House will not consider the three territorial orders in Committee this week, nor will the House have disposed of them among the remaining Orders of the Day before next Monday. It surely cannot be possible to table amendments to legislation regarding other legislation that has not yet come into existence.
Mr Harper: As I set out earlier in this debate, clearly it would not have been sensible for us to table changes to the Bill to reflect orders that had not yet been laid before the House, but they have been laid before the House today, so- [ Interruption. ] The hon. Gentleman says that they have not been agreed. I have said that they have not been agreed, but they have been laid before the House-both of them under the affirmative procedure, so they have to be voted for. If this House or the other place were to vote them down, we would revert to the rules that exist already. We would then be able to go back to the provisions that I am explaining today, which will have been debated in this Committee. Either way, this House will have had the opportunity, on this Bill, to debate the provisions that will be in place for elections next year. That is what I committed to arrange, and that is important.
Mr Harper: I know that the hon. Gentleman is going to find whatever convoluted way he can to try to pretend that that is not the case, but on any reasonable reading of the situation, we have ensured that before the Bill leaves this place, this House will have had the opportunity to debate the provisions, rather than leaving that to the other place.
Chris Bryant: It does not need to be convoluted; it is pretty straightforward. I presume that the Minister will agree with me that the law on combination of polls in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales next Monday will be precisely the same as it is today, so we will not be able to debate amendments to anything other than speculative legislation that will not have been carried by then and will therefore not be the law.
Mr Harper: It is correct that that legislation will not have been carried by the House, but it will be available for Members to debate. There are two scenarios: either the House will approve the orders that my right hon. Friends have laid before the House today-in which case the amendments that we will table once the Committee stage is finished, which we will debate on Report next week, will come into force-or the House will vote those orders down, in which case we will revert to what we are talking about today. In either situation, this House will have had the opportunity to debate those provisions-I suspect at length-and they will therefore not be left to the upper House.
We have tried hard to ensure that the elected House has been able to debate both the provisions on the referendum and those on boundaries. If I remember
rightly, in the previous Parliament, in which I served, the Government of whom the hon. Gentleman was a member were not so fastidious about ensuring that this House was able to debate provisions. Significant pieces of legislation went to the other place without any debate at all on enormous portions of it. To the extent that it has been within the power of the Government, we have taken great care to ensure that by the time this legislation leaves this House next Tuesday, all the key issues will have been debated and voted on by this House. We may not have achieved perfection, but we have made a pretty good stab at it, and I have to say-honestly-that what we have done is a considerable improvement on much of what the previous Government did. I would ask Members to bear that in mind.
The provisions on postal voting in local elections in Northern Ireland are changed substantially by one of the orders laid today, so it would not have been sensible to deal with that in the current group of amendments. However, to finish on a point that I hope will bring the hon. Gentleman great cheer, I can confirm that no amendments will be necessary in relation to the combination provisions for Wales, as the changes to be made to the rules governing the conduct of the Welsh Assembly elections do not affect any rules relevant to combination with the referendum. On that note, which I am sure will gladden his heart, let me conclude by saying that the combination provisions that we have provided are necessary for the smooth running of all the polls that are scheduled to take place next May.
Chris Bryant: I am grateful to the Minister for giving us some of the detail on the amendments, although he has not given all of it, which is significant. I would like to start by picking up where he finished-on the due process that needs to be followed in relation to anything when it reflects the representation of the people, constitutional matters, or the constitutional relationship between Westminster and the devolved Administrations, but which has not, I believe, been followed in this case.
Of course, there should first be pre-legislative scrutiny, but, as we have heard, the Bill has had absolutely none. It is true that the Government published the Bill, but it exists not because of some grand constitutional principle but because of some naked partisan gerrymandering of a Bill. I am sure that if it had been published in pre-legislative form, so that a Committee of this House or a Joint Committee of both Houses had been able to consider it, that Committee would have said, right at the beginning, "You shouldn't be spatchcocking together these two elements of the Bill"- [ Interruption. ] Or, "You shouldn't be kebabbing the legislation in this way." The Parliamentary Secretary helps me. It is not really spatchcocking; it is more kebabbing. It requires more of an inner-city image than a rural image; he is quite right.
This is entirely speculative, but it might be something to do with the Bill acting as the Araldite that holds the coalition together. The fact is, however, that the Deputy Prime Minister-or Sandie Shaw, as we
normally know her, or him, now-is so Araldited to the Prime Minister that there is probably no need for the Bill to be introduced in precisely this way.
There should have been pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill. I am sure that a Joint Committee would have said that it should not have been constituted in this way, and that it was inappropriate to try to foist combined polls on Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland when they had expressly said that they did not want a combination of a referendum and their own elections, especially in Northern Ireland, where on the same day there will be local elections as well as Assembly elections. I am pretty certain that such a Committee would have found that inappropriate.
Indeed, we can be pretty confident of that because the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, which is chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), made it absolutely clear that it believed that it had not had enough time to consider the Bill before it suddenly had its Second Reading. The Select Committee had only five days in which to read the Bill and to get constitutional experts to talk to its members and provide evidence. Those witnesses themselves thought that it was inappropriate that such haste was being adopted.
Owen Smith (Pontypridd) (Lab): May I draw my hon. Friend's attention to the report from the Welsh Affairs Committee that came out today? No doubt he will already have read it in detail. It reaches precisely the same conclusion as he has drawn. The Committee has a Government majority, but it nevertheless concluded that the Bill was being railroaded through with undue haste, and with completely insufficient scrutiny by this House. It also believed that it would have a significant constitutional impact on Wales. Does my hon. Friend agree that this is a disgrace?
Chris Bryant: I do not agree with my hon. Friend if he is suggesting that the Committee's report is a disgrace, because it is excellent in highlighting the implications for Wales of the Government's proposals on constitutional reform. But my neighbourly Friend makes a good point: the Committee is not comprised of rabid left-wingers-or, for that matter, entirely of members of the Labour party-and those who voted on this matter, those who turned up, were predominantly Conservatives. In fact, one of them is now a Parliamentary Private Secretary. Many of us deprecate the fact that there are PPSs sitting on Select Committees, but I note that the PPS who sits on this one chose to absent himself from the vote. I can presume only that that was because he agreed with the findings of the Committee. My hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) is absolutely right to say that the Committee makes it clear that there has not been adequate scrutiny of the Bill, particularly in regard to Wales. It also makes the wider point about the amount of time that has been allowed in general.
Mr David: My hon. Friend has many neighbourly friends. He puts his finger on a crucial point about the speed with which this Bill is being introduced. Does he agree that not only that a number of Conservative Members sit on the Welsh Affairs Committee but that, significantly, its Chairman is a Conservative?
Chris Bryant: Yes, and I not think anybody could call the Committee's Chair a patsy. He is a man of fierce independence-sometimes overly fierce, and sometimes overly independent-and the Select Committee's findings were extremely clear. It reported:
"The Government is determined to pass this legislation quickly in order that the referendum on the Parliamentary electoral system can take place in May 2011. However, we agree with the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee",
"that the Bill has been given insufficient time for proper scrutiny. "
"The Welsh Grand Committee gives all Welsh Members the opportunity fully to debate issues relating to Wales. That the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill impacts significantly on Wales is clear. In the light of this, we consider the Secretary of State for Wales's decision not to convene a meeting of the Welsh Grand Committee in this instance to be very disappointing."
Conservative Members are attacking a Conservative Secretary of State for Wales. It seems extraordinary that the Committee has not had an adequate opportunity to consider the Welsh element of the Bill, particularly the Welsh elements that are before us this afternoon, which are extensive.
Let me make another point about the proper process that should have been observed. We believe in pre-legislative scrutiny and consultation on any constitutional Bill, but this Bill additionally affects elections in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. The previous elections for the Scottish Parliament led to significant problems, which my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr McCann) mentioned. This shows how important it is to have proper consultation with each of the devolved Administrations. By that, I mean, first and foremost, consultation "from Government to Government" as it were-that is, the Westminster Government speaking to the Scottish Executive, to Ministers in Northern Ireland and to the Welsh Assembly Government. That could have happened confidentially on a "Government to Government" basis; there is absolutely no reason why that should not have happened.
As I understand it, prior to the comprehensive spending review, extensive confidential discussions took place between relevant Ministers so that Ministers in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland knew more than this House did about what elements would affect their budgets. I have no complaint about that happening with the comprehensive spending review; my argument is that it should apply to the devolved Administrations in respect of this Bill.
As I have said in response to interventions from other Members, the devolved Administrations-and even the devolved Parliaments and Assemblies-do not have a role in delivering elections. Although, as I have said, the position will change for Scotland, the Secretary of State is responsible for administering elections. The
hon. Gentleman may not like that, but it is the position and we have worked closely with the territorial offices to ensure that procedures for the referendum work closely with the procedures for elections. That is the position.
Chris Bryant: Of course I understand the legal position. Local elections may or may not be happening at the same time in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales-they will happen across Northern Ireland but perhaps only because of a by-election in Scotland or Wales-but the Assemblies have a degree of responsibility for the conduct of the elections to the Welsh Assembly, the Scottish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Bill decouples the Welsh Assembly constituencies from the parliamentary constituencies so that the Government are able to reduce the number of seats in Wales by 25%. I would have thought that that creates an additional need to consult.
I think that there should have been consultation at two levels. There should have been a degree of consultation at ministerial level, but, because these issues affect the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly in their entirety, it would have been common courtesy to consult the Assemblies and the Parliament as Assemblies and a Parliament. In respect of European legislation, we now have a standard and proper process of consultation between the relevant European Committees in the House of Commons and in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In respect of the Bill, however, there has been no adequate consultation either with the Parliament and Assemblies or with Ministers.
Mark Tami: The point, surely, is not who has the legal responsibility, but who has the experience. There should have been plenty of consultation-certainly in Scotland-enabling Ministers to learn from that experience, and to decide on the basis of it whether it would be appropriate to hold the referendum and elections on the same day.
Chris Bryant: Obviously that is the case. I should have thought that, given that none of the Ministers in either of the teams affected represents a Welsh, Scottish or Northern Ireland seat, it would have been more important for them to consult the relevant devolved Administrations just to be able to get the position right.
Cathy Jamieson: Was it not worrying to hear the Minister say that even if the Scottish Parliament passed a resolution that made clear that it did not support the Bill, he would not take account of that and would not change his mind in any way?
Chris Bryant: The Government came to power arguing that coalition politics were somehow better for Britain. Whatever we may think of that proposition, if they are then not prepared to extend the courtesy beyond the internal dynamics of the coalition to others who are engaged in the political endeavour, they have let down their own basic first principles.
Of course the wish to foist a referendum on the same day as elections elsewhere is extraordinary, especially given that the people who now sit on the Government Benches are the people who criticised the Labour party most for the way in which the last combination of elections took place in Scotland.
I think it extraordinary that there has not been proper consultation, and I do not understand why the referendum has to be held in May next year. It is pretty clear that in the respective Governments, Assemblies and Parliaments there is a firm view that it should not take place at the same time as the elections. Although most people in Wales do not view a Welsh Assembly election in quite the same way as a general election for the whole United Kingdom, many will refer to it as a Welsh general election. That is why it is so extraordinary that the people of Wales and Scotland and Northern Ireland have not been shown the same degree of respect as would have been extended to anyone else. That, I think, slightly betrays the rather London-centric view of the Government. I suspect that if there were a free vote on the Bill, many fewer Conservatives and Liberal Democrats would vote for it than will go through the Lobby later today. In particular, I should be surprised if a single Welsh Member voted for it.
Jim McGovern: I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. He mentioned that some of his constituency neighbours are also his political friends. I hope I will be able to stand up and say that one day, because at present not many of my political neighbours are political friends.
As I am sure my hon. Friend will be aware, the local government elections in Scotland have been moved back a year to ensure that they do not conflict with the Scottish general election. Government Members claim it is offensive to the intelligence of the Scottish people to say that holding polls on the same day would be confusing, but it is offensive to the author of the Gould report for them to say they will not accept his recommendations.
Chris Bryant: I completely agree with my hon. Friend, and I hope that one day he will have more friends in neighbouring constituencies, which I think means that we will have to win some more Labour seats in Scotland. The key point is that, on the whole, it is better not to combine polls. I fully accept that the Minister has referred today-as have several other Members in previous debates-to the situation in the United States of America. It has an election day and the vast majority of elections are held on one single day. We have not gone down that route, and thus far it has been thought to be inappropriate to combine them on the same day, especially where a variety of different electoral systems are involved. I hope to come on to some of the specific problems of that.
Angela Smith: I thank my hon. Friend for giving way to an English woman on this point. Does he agree that in this instance it is not just that two different polls are to be held on the same day, but that one of them is an election and the other is a referendum, and as referendums have completely different processes from those for elections, that will complicate things and could well cause confusion?
Chris Bryant: Indeed, and I will come on to some of the specific problems that could arise. My hon. Friend did not add, however, that they are on completely different franchises as well. The Minister seems to think that the franchise for the next general election will be the same as the franchise for the referendum. They will not be, however, because of the inclusion of peers in the referendum. It has to be said that we do not have many peers in the Rhondda, however. We have one: Baroness Gale of Blaenrhondda who, unfortunately, is in hospital at the moment-she is across the road at St Thomas'-and I wish her well. There will be confusion in respect of the different franchises and issues such as whether we have the same register or two registers, and I will talk about those specific issues a little later.
The Minister referred to all the schedules before us and how we will address them, and he said that the territorial Departments for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have today-I presume that means since the beginning of the debate this afternoon-tabled the statutory instruments that are required fully to combine the polls in each of the areas. There is no provision in statute for the combination of polls in Northern Ireland, whether for local government and Assembly elections or any other kind of elections. In Scotland, there is provision by virtue of an order, which I think was introduced in 2007, hanging off the Scotland Act 1998. That order
makes it clear that local elections and parliamentary elections can be combined, but in fact it has now been decided not to combine them. In Wales, the situation is different again, because a 2007 order on the representation of the people and the Welsh Assembly makes provision to combine local elections and Welsh Assembly elections, but until now there has been no provision to enable the combining of referendums and elections.
The dangers of combining referendums are completely different from the dangers of combining elections. That is why the Government have had to introduce these statutory instruments to make provision for the referendums to be combined in each of the three territorial areas. Unfortunately, that is not the legislation that exists today, so these instruments have been tabled without, as far as I know, having been sent in advance to anybody involved in this Committee or anybody in the shadow offices in relation to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and without the Welsh Assembly, Scottish Parliament and Northern Ireland Assembly having been consulted on them; they have simply been published. I presume the Minister will be tabling things tomorrow, once we have finished in Committee, and he will then table a series of new amendments, which we will be able to debate on Report. I simply say that such an approach puts the horse before the cart.
Mark Tami: My hon. Friend finished on the point that I was going to make. Does he agree that the Government are clearly just making this up as they go along? At last Thursday's business questions, even the Leader of the House was unable to confirm whether the affirmative procedure would be used or whether the instruments would be taken on the Floor of the House. Perhaps my hon. Friend could update us on whether he has been given more information.
Chris Bryant: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The proper process for a statutory instrument is that, first, consideration is given to whether it should be taken on the Floor of the House or in Committee. Given that all three of these statutory instruments relate to elections and are of a constitutional nature, my preference, and that of Labour Members, is for them to be taken on the Floor of the House and not in some Committee without general public scrutiny. Secondly, statutory instruments have to be considered by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, which has a limited remit but can examine whether the affirmative or the negative resolution process should be used. Last week, as my hon. Friend rightly says, Ministers, including the Leader of the House, did not seem to have the faintest idea whether or not these would be subject to the affirmative procedure. I am glad to say that the Minister has now made it clear today-
Chris Bryant: He has now made it clear, and we are deeply grateful to him, that these instruments will be dealt with by the affirmative procedure. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) received a letter to that effect-I was copied into it-on Friday.
We also need to consider what their lordships should do. I contend that we should proceed steadily, rather than at a gallop, on constitutional reform. That means,
first, that the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments and the Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee in the House of Lords should go through their processes. We should then decide on the Floor of this House whether we agree the order, as should the House of Lords. That process is particularly important because these orders are not amendable and so we ought to ensure that we have a proper process in place before we reach the Report stage-I do not see how we can consider matters on Report until that has been done.
Angela Smith: My hon. Friend is making an excellent case about the lack of proper consultation and process on these proposals. If we had had such a thorough consultation and procedure in this place it would have allowed us to consider not only the principles but the various costs of holding the referendum, whether or not it be on the same day as the other polls. That is a very important principle in the context of last week's spending review.
Chris Bryant: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One sadness about the way in which the business ends up having to be transacted today is that because the Government have constructed this in the form of a new clause with four new schedules attendant upon it, the votes on the schedules will be separated from the votes on the new clause-unless, Ms Primarolo, you are going to allow us to proceed in a slightly different way from how these matters are normally conducted. I understand that we will end up having a debate on new clause 7 before we proceed to votes on the new schedules, rather than having a separate debate on the new schedules. That is precisely because of how the Government have constructed their approach to the amendments.
It is also worth pointing out that the Government have not put minor amendments before us today. New schedule 2, which refers to England, is 35 pages long, as is new schedule 3, which relates to Wales. New schedule 4 is 37 pages long-Scotland gets rather more than Wales or England-and new schedule 5, on Northern Ireland, is just 19 pages long. I presume that the Minister's final throwaway comments on postal voting in Northern Ireland, which he made swiftly at the end of his speech, are why the number of pages on Northern Ireland is substantially smaller than the number on Scotland and Wales, and that he intends to introduce significant amendments at a later stage. Obviously, I do not believe that that should be next week-I think it should be once the statutory instruments have been considered and, if necessary, approved. However, that is all the more reason for us to ensure that the Northern Ireland statutory instrument is debated on the Floor of the House before Report.
Ian Lucas: One particular aspect of the franchise relating to the alternative vote referendum and the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament elections concerns me. Is the referendum franchise made up of the same franchise as the general election or as the Assembly election? As my hon. Friend will know, those two franchises are different.
It is neither A nor B-in fact, it is C. It is a new creation. The franchise for the AV referendum will be, broadly speaking, the same as that for a general
election-that is, it will not include EU citizens-but will include, rather exceptionally, peers, including a peer who is able to have that vote only by virtue of their having a business interest in the City of London. A particularly bizarre franchise has been invented, which is why we tried to amend some of the elements of it in a previous discussion.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) makes a good point. In many polling districts, the register will be substantially different. In Newport, for instance, 1,000 voters will be able to vote in the Assembly elections but not in the referendum. I am not sure how many voters will be able to vote in the referendum but not in the Assembly elections by virtue of their being peers.
Mark Tami: Does my hon. Friend envisage people turning up expecting to be able to vote, because they can vote in the other election, only to be told that they can vote in that election but cannot take part in the referendum?
Chris Bryant: Indeed. There is a series of complications that I shall come on to, if my hon. Friend will bear with me for a while. Amendments specifically refer to that point, but they amend the Government's new schedules rather than the new clause, and I want first to deal with the amendments to new clause 20 tabled by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, other colleagues and me.
The first amendment is amendment (a) to new clause 20. I realise that some hon. Members might be slightly confused that there are lots of amendments (a) in this group, because some refer to the new clause and some to each of the new schedules. Amendment (a) to Government new clause 20 states:
"Where the date of the poll for a local authority election in England is the same as the date of the poll for the referendum, the polls are to be taken together."
That is narrower than that which the Government have provided. The Government are suggesting that the polls can happen together when there is the referendum, and a local authority election in England, and a local referendum in England, and a mayoral election in England. In other words, it is theoretically possible that, if we stick with the Government's proposal, one voter might come in to vote on the referendum on AV, a local authority election, a local referendum and a mayoral election all at the same time. It is one thing to consider all this in relation to someone coming into a polling station, and people might conclude that it is perfectly legitimate-that there is the franchise for the AV referendum, which we have already discussed, and the franchise for all three other issues, which would be the same-but what happens with postal votes for all those polls? If there are four postal votes and four polling cards, that provides a right old tagliatelle of a constitutional settlement for ordinary voters to try to sort out. That is why our amendment, instead of allowing all four polls at the same time, would allow only a local authority election in England to happen at the same time as the referendum. We do not think that is ideal, but at least it would tidy things up a little. I very much hope that the Minister will accede to that amendment.
"Where the date of the poll for one or more of the following is the same as the date of the poll for the referendum, the polls are to be taken together-
In other words, they are providing for all three to happen at the same time. Up to now, there has been no legal provision enabling that to happen in Northern Ireland, which is why the Government are bringing forward relevant statutory instruments. We do not believe it is right to have all three elections at the same time, so we suggest, in a consensual way, that the Government might at least limit the combinations to a degree by taking one of the polls out of the measure.
Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): A few minutes ago, my hon. Friend was very critical of the Government's lack of consultation with the devolved interests, but who in Northern Ireland has he consulted regarding his amendment, which would prevent local elections from taking place on the same day as the referendum and Assembly elections? People in Northern Ireland have said that they do not want the referendum on the same day, and that they want the two elections together, but his amendment would mean that the elections could not take place on the same day.
Chris Bryant: The difficulty that we have as Her Majesty's loyal Opposition is that if I had tabled an amendment to that effect, it would have been ruled out of order and would not have been considered because we have already debated, in relation to clause 1, amendments on separating the referendum from those elections. I fully understand my hon. Friend's point and there have been extensive conversations on the amendment over the weekend with a wide variety of his friends and others in Northern Ireland. The point that we are trying to make is fairly simple: combining everything on the same day brings not clarity for voters but more obscurity.
Mr Nigel Dodds (Belfast North) (DUP): Let me endorse the point made by the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) and make it clear that we have no difficulty with the date of the referendum being moved but that we certainly do not agree with the date of the Assembly and council elections being moved from their current scheduled date next May.
Chris Bryant: For the most part, we agree that what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Broadly speaking, we agree that where it has been determined that elections should take place on a four-yearly or other basis, and advance notice of their date has been given, it would be inappropriate to move them. Our point is that the referendum should not be on the same day as all those elections. I hope that he understands our reasoning; I think we are moving in the same direction.
Chris Bryant: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Unfortunately, this is one issue on which, notwithstanding the changes that have taken place in relation to the Backbench Business Committee, there has not been much change of heart in the way that business is brought before the House. Government Members say that Labour was appalling when it was in government because it took things through at too great a speed and sometimes did not allow enough time for consultation, but they have been preaching to us since May about the new politics. I should have thought, in the context of the new politics, that major, significant constitutional reform that will affect different parts of the Union in different ways and that will change in myriad ways the way in which the House is elected should be given proper time. That means proceeding more like a stately galleon than a coyote.
Ian Lucas: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Does he agree that the consultation is even more important because the proposal for the alternative vote referendum was in neither the Liberal Democrat nor the Conservative manifesto and because there is no electoral mandate for it?
Chris Bryant: Again, I agree with my hon. Friend: the Bill was in nobody's manifesto and that is why it seems like a piece of kebab legislation. It has been bunged together to provide the Araldite that the coalition otherwise would not have.
Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it would have been difficult to have pre-legislative scrutiny of whatever legislation was brought forward at this time? Is he suggesting that we should have a period at the beginning of a Parliament in which there is no legislation at all?
Chris Bryant: If we are talking about this legislation, then, yes, probably. The hon. Gentleman makes a serious point: there is a difficult period at the beginning of a Parliament in which a Government have to go from standing still to providing legislation. I fully understand that, but it is ill-advised to introduce major constitutional legislation at that time. I do not understand the rush with this legislation. I presume he hopes that it will not be needed until 2015, if AV is agreed to and the constituencies are all redrawn, because I am sure that he supports the five-year terms in the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill. There is no particular rush and this could all have been done at a slightly more leisurely pace. That would have improved the general feel of the way in which the Government are conducting this constitutional reform. Let us be clear: the party that would like to help, in some regards, those who want to reform the way in which we do politics in this country is sitting on the Opposition side of the House. The hon. Gentleman and I could be allies on many issues of constitutional reform, but the way in which the Government, particularly the Deputy Prime Minister, have approached many of these issues has made that far more difficult for us.
John Mann: I do not agree with my hon. Friend's use of the adjective "ill-advised". A more appropriate description might be "anti-democratic and gerrymandering in order to hold together this fragile and useless coalition." I point out that in a by-election last Thursday, the Liberals' share of the vote fell to 2% in my area.
Chris Bryant: My hon. Friend is almost getting into Rhondda territory. I think there is only one parliamentary constituency in which both the Conservatives and the Liberals have lost their deposits in the past 10 years-the Rhondda. [ Interruption. ] That was not at this general election, but the last one. I am sure that we will return to that situation at the next general election.
Returning to the Northern Ireland issue, the Government want everything to happen on the same day next May, but we think that is inappropriate and that is why we have tabled these amendments. We have tabled two other amendments to new clause 20: amendments (c) and (d). Amendment (c) would leave out lines 35 to 39, concerning a local referendum and a mayoral election in England. The Minister might enlighten us later on why the Government felt it necessary to include those measures. Are they expecting mayoral elections or local referendums on that date? If there are to be local referendums in England on the same day as an AV referendum, there will be a right old muddle. Most voters do not spend their waking hours, let alone their sleeping hours, worrying about the constitutional settlement in Britain. For the most part, they are more interested in other aspects of their lives than in the political machinations of Westminster or any other part of the constitution. That is why they often choose not to focus on the specifics until a late stage in the process. I am sure we have all had people come up to us two days before an election, saying, "I'm not registered to vote but I really want to vote in the election." I am glad that one of the changes we introduced during the past 13 years was to make it easier for people to register after an election had been called. Far more people now register.
I am also glad that we made it easier for people to obtain postal votes. In the past, if someone wanted to vote by post, they had to have the application signed off by a medical practitioner of some kind, and in many parts of the country doctors and nurses charged £6 to sign the form. That meant that large numbers of poorer voters did not apply for a postal vote and were disfranchised, which is why it is all the more important to make sure there is clarity and consistency in the Bill.
I hope the Minister will be able to enlighten us on precisely why he thinks so many different elections, which might be for a county council, a district council, a local council or a parish council, as well as a local referendum, a mayoral contest and the referendum, could all be held at the same time.
Andrew Gwynne: My hon. Friend missed something from his list-the possibility of a council tax referendum. The Government have removed their capping powers, and are making provision for local referendums when local authorities want to increase council tax above a certain level.
Chris Bryant: My hon. Friend knows more about local elections in England than I do, so he will correct me if I am wrong, but I presumed that such referendums would be included in the local referendums in England category. However, he is right: a series of different propositions may be put to people. Following the comprehensive spending review last week, which included a drastic attack on local government funding, many local authorities will be worrying about whether they should spend £10,000 on a registration campaign, to make sure that as many people as possible are on the register, or whether they should spend the money on keeping a swimming pool open or on some other element of their services. They may decide that the only way to protect the public services they believe local people want will be to ensure that they hold a referendum on whether they should increase the amount of money that comes in from council tax.
I used to be a local government development officer for the Labour party, so I understand the argument that because between 75% and 80% of the local government budget is provided by the Government, it does not easily allow local democracy to flourish. However, if local referendums on those powers were held in May next year, it would add even greater complexity, as I think my hon. Friend was suggesting.
We have tabled several amendments to new schedule 2, and I shall go through them in order. However, because of the way in which the Government have structured the amendments, it is quite complicated for most ordinary Members to understand precisely where they are. When we consider amendments to clauses, new clauses or schedules, there are line numbers on the page, but not for new schedules. Consequently, in a lengthy new schedule of 35 pages, it is sometimes difficult to find the specific provisions to which the amendments refer.
Our first amendment is (a), on the notice for combined polls in England. It relates to paragraph 11, which Members can find on page 757 of the amendment paper. We suggest that there is no reason why the Government should insist that notice of poll be provided on the 15th day before the poll, when the 28th day before would perfectly easily give substantially more notice, so our amendment would replace "15th" with "28th".
Our second amendment-(b)-relates to absent voter applications. Several Members have referred to postal and proxy voters, who constitute absent voters. A key issue is that someone might believe they had applied for a postal vote in respect of all elections and polls-anything on which they can vote. They might not draw a distinction between an election and a referendum; they have decided never to go to a polling station, and they prefer to vote by post. However, that is not actually what the provision is. Although some people might explicitly choose an all-elections postal vote, but not want a postal vote for referendums, such a situation is pretty unlikely, which is why our amendment states:
"An application under regulation 51(4)b of the Representation of the People (England and Wales) Regulations 2001, SI 2001/341, for an absent vote must state whether it is made for parliamentary elections, local government elections, referendums or all of them."
People should be able to sign up to all of them, otherwise they will encounter terrible complexity not just when they ask for a postal vote, but also on polling day. As we know, some people lose their postal vote, some cannot
send it on time and others may leave it until fairly late because they are uncertain how to vote and end up bringing the postal vote to the polling station. If someone has a postal vote for one poll but not for another, there may be considerable complexity about precisely what they are allowed to do.
Andrew Gwynne: In my constituency, a not insubstantial number of people are registered for a postal vote only for local elections, and not necessarily because they are EU residents who are unable to vote in a general election. Although they opted to register for a postal vote only for the local elections, they will expect a postal vote both for those elections and for the referendum and will be disappointed when they receive a ballot paper only for the council elections. Does my hon. Friend think there ought to be more publicity to make such people aware that they will not be able to vote by post in the referendum?
Chris Bryant: Yes, I agree. In addition, someone could have applied for a postal vote for one or other of the elections-the referendum, or the Assembly or Scottish Parliament elections. When their postal vote arrives for one of the elections, they might presume that it is the only election happening that day-most people do not obsess about whether there will be more than one election on a given date. They might feel they had been told that was their only chance to vote, so they would vote only in one or other of the elections. That is another complexity that could arise, which is why later on I shall refer to some of the amendments we have tabled on polling cards. We have to follow through the whole process. At the moment, I am referring to new schedule 2 as it relates to England, but later I shall discuss Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, where some of the same issues could arise, albeit in a slightly different format.
John Mann: I congratulate my hon. Friend on his proposed amendments to new schedule 2. I am attempting to follow his logic. Is he saying that amendment (b), which is on postal voting, could save on bureaucracy and red tape compared with the Government's proposal?
Chris Bryant: Undoubtedly so, and that is one reason for my proposal. However, we sometimes overstate our concerns about the cost of elections. It is sometimes more important to say that we need the right regulations to provide clarity to voters. Holding several polls at the same time in the same polling station or by postal ballot adds complexity, which is not in the interests of good democracy. Incidentally, I am sure that if any of the hon. Members who act as observers of elections in other countries saw that situation, they would say, "The provision of postal votes was a complete and utter mess."
John Mann: I accept my hon. Friend's point that cost is not everything, but that is not what we have heard from those on both sides of the House in recent times. Does he agree that there is also an opportunity cost, because the returning officer and his or her staff will lose time on additional bureaucracy in the important run-up period to an election when they should be engaging properly with the electorate if the Government, with their ongoing lack of common sense, fail to accept amendment (b)?
Chris Bryant: My hon. Friend is right. Indeed, I was recently subjected to the complexity into which returning officers sometimes go. Westminster council has now sent me eight missives in relation to the postal vote in Westminster. I never exercise my vote in London because my vote is in the Rhondda, which is my home. However, I had to register in my property in London, which I rent. People have to return the form to say whether- [ Interruption .] If the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) wants to intervene, I am quite happy to give way to him.
My point is that quite often, voters must go through an unnecessarily onerous process to register for a postal vote. Likewise, the returning officer goes through far too many hoops. Sometimes it makes sense to make administrative savings when one can.
Amendment (c) to new schedule 2 is on the colour of ballot papers. Hon. Members might think that that is a recondite subject for a Bill, but notwithstanding the Minister's remarks last week-he said that he did not want to tell returning officers precisely what to do at any point-the law already makes provisions on it, including in new schedule 2.
"The ballot papers used for the referendum must be of a different colour from the ballot papers used for any relevant election."
That is sensible, because people might get two ballot papers when they arrive to vote-one for the referendum and one for the local election-and we want to ensure that the papers go into their respective ballot boxes. Different colours of ballot paper would make it easier for people to do that. However, in amendment (c), we are suggesting that it would be sensible for the same colour ballot paper to be used for the referendum throughout the United Kingdom. I suspect that the Electoral Commission will produce publicity on the referendum and encourage people to vote-not how to vote-and it would be helpful if it could refer to the colour of the ballot paper. The only way for that to happen is for the chief counting officer to decide the colour of the referendum ballot paper. The Government could then follow that up by providing that other ballot papers must be a different colour.
"The Chief Counting Officer shall select the colour of the ballot paper used for the referendum...The other ballot papers used for any relevant election shall be of a different colour from that selected by the Chief Counting Officer."
Cathy Jamieson: I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. Will he invite the Minister to ensure that the colour selected for the referendum ballot paper is not a colour that is traditionally used in Scottish Parliament elections?
That makes sense. If we had had enough time to go through this process at a slightly more leisurely pace, it would have been possible to consult on
and agree to all such things. If the proposals were generally accepted, there would be a rather better feeling about the Bill.
We toyed with tabling an amendment to seek to determine the colour of the ballot paper, but we decided against that bearing in mind what the Minister said last week about leaving some decisions to officers. I have received representations from people who say that it would be inappropriate to use on the ballot paper a colour that is normally used by a political party, because we would then get into the complexities of defining which is a major political party and which is not, and what colours relate to them, which is a problem not least because I am not sure whether the Liberal Democrats are yellow or orange these days. I note that the Minister is wearing a Liberal Democrat tie today-it is mostly yellow but with little bits of blue.
"If the counting officer thinks fit, the official poll cards used for the referendum and for the relevant elections may be combined."
The problem is this: how is the counting officer to determine whether he or she "thinks fit"? Why ought we to allow that degree of freedom locally when it might make a material difference to the conduct of the ballot or referendum? We propose that:
"The official poll cards used for the referendum and for the relevant elections must be combined for all electors qualified to vote in all the polls."
We all get a lot of junk mail these days. The danger is that voters will be confused if they receive two or three-or potentially four, five or six-polling cards for the different elections that are happening at the same time. They will not see how one affects the other. It would be far more sensible, wherever there is a combined poll, for the official poll cards to make it absolutely clear how many votes must be cast, how many elections there are, whether the voter has a postal vote, how they go about registering for a postal vote and so on. Our proposal would mean that there is clarity on a single piece of paper for the ordinary voter rather than a series of polling cards. The Government should make clear the nature of the franchise for each election and poll. As a proposed amendment to new schedule 2, amendment (d) relates exclusively to England.
Mr Tom Harris: I seek to be helpful. Will my hon. Friend explain why it is so important that someone who receives a polling card is made aware of the extent of the franchise for that election? If they are aware that they can vote, does it matter if they are aware of the extent of the franchise in a particular referendum or election?
Chris Bryant: My hon. Friend is right. I did not mean to say that there should be a treatise on the polling card about the nature of the franchise, how it applies to peers and so on. I was making the point that the card should state clearly that the elector is entitled to vote in all the elections, one of them, two or whatever. It should make it clear that there is more than one ballot taking place at the same time.
Jake Berry (Rossendale and Darwen) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the clearest thing of all would be a separate polling card for each election, to enable people to use that polling card to vote in a specific election?
Chris Bryant: I do not understand why the hon. Gentleman is supporting the Government's position. The Government say that where the counting officer thinks fit, he or she should be allowed to combine the polling cards. Logically, if the hon. Gentleman is to follow his own argument, he should have tabled an amendment that deleted that element and stated that there should always be separate polling cards.
The difficulty is that many people think they must have a polling card to be able to vote, which is not the case. If people have lost one of their polling cards-for instance, their referendum or their local election polling card-the danger is that they will think they are able to vote in one, rather than both. That is why it would be better to combine.
John Mann: I am following my hon. Friend's logic, though he is beginning to lose me. Surely if there were more than one polling card per election, the chance of losing the polling card would be reduced, and more of our voters would turn out and vote because they have a polling card. Is he not proposing an anti-Labour amendment?
Chris Bryant: It is not those of us on the Opposition Benches who table partisan amendments. Only those on the Government Benches table partisan legislation. It is not my intention to benefit or disbenefit anybody, other than benefiting the ordinary voter who wants to be able to cast their vote in as many elections as they choose.
Mr Dodds: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that whether there are combined or separate polling cards, there is a need for the chief electoral officer in all areas, particularly in Northern Ireland, to do more to protect the integrity of all such official documents? We had examples in the last parliamentary election of one party in particular producing its own official polling cards, which caused utter confusion and deceived people. Can we ensure that when the polling cards are produced, proper policing takes place to prevent people from abusing those official cards?
Chris Bryant: If multiple polling cards go to each individual elector, in a household where there are five people living and two elections taking place, that would be 10 polling cards turning up. Apart from anything else, there is quite a strong likelihood that they will all get binned. The other difficulty is that political parties will step into the breach and produce leaflets which say, "You may not want to vote in the AV referendum, or you may want to vote in a particular way, but don't forget, you've also got the Assembly elections." Different political parties may want to step into the breach in various ways.
Mark Durkan: Surely if we have separate polling cards for each of the polls taking place, whether those are elections or referendums, we will get more of the problem of some cards being delivered and some not, which has been a constant problem in recent elections in Northern Ireland. In my constituency in particular, there has been an ongoing issue concerning postal workers, who feel that they are not getting paid the same for delivering election-related material, whether it is from parties or from the electoral officer. We will only add to those difficulties, which have meant that party material is not delivered.
Chris Bryant: Schedule 2 relates only to England, and the Post Office does not make such deliveries. Most local authorities use council staff to deliver polling cards. That is certainly true in some parts of England. I have a concern that with many fewer council staff, following the cuts that are likely to come, it will be more difficult for them to do so.
My basic point is that the returning officer should make it clear to each voter that they can vote in X election, Y election and the referendum, and that they can take their pick whether they want to take part in all of them, and whether they want to vote by post or turn up. Providing one piece of paper would make more sense than providing two, three, four or whatever to each voter. That might also save paper and administrative costs.
Incidentally, since each polling card must show the voter's name, address and polling number and the address of the polling station, there is no reason why it should not state clearly which ballots that voter can take part in. That would meet what I think will be quite a complex issue-the fact that the franchise for the referendum is different from that for any of the other elections taking place on the same day.
"(1) If the counting officer thinks fit"-
"the same ballot box may be used at the polls for the referendum and the relevant elections.
(2) Where separate ballot boxes are used, each must be clearly marked to show-
(a) the poll to which it relates, and
(b) the colour of the ballot papers that should be placed in it."
That is wholly inappropriate. It would make far more sense to have separate ballot boxes for the referendum and for the relevant elections. The Government already say that the colour of the ballot papers should be different, so it would mean greater simplicity for voters to be able to turn up to a polling station, get, let us say, a light green ballot paper for the referendum and a white ballot paper for the local election in England, and see a little sign saying that green ballot papers go into one box and white ballot papers into another. I should have thought that that would make the process of verification of votes simpler for the vast majority of returning officers and counting officers.
John Mann: Aside from the problems that would be caused to those, including Members of the House, who are colour blind, why is my hon. Friend putting such additional complexities on voters, including elderly voters who may well have eyesight problems? Some voters in their 80s or 90s choose to go to the polling station. Why put complications in the system of voting? Where is the logic?
I do not think I am making the system more complex. It makes the system more complex if there is just one ballot box for two completely different sets of propositions. There will be two different electoral registers-we will come to the issue of electoral registers later-and those who can vote in one ballot will not be the same as those who can vote in another. To make
sure that the ballot is correct, and that people are not given ballot papers when they are not entitled to them, and to make sure that the administration of the counting of the votes can take place properly, it would be better to have separate ballot boxes.
Gordon Birtwistle (Burnley) (LD): I dread dragging the debate on any longer than is necessary, but in Burnley at the election in May we had one ballot box for both the local election ballot papers and the general election ballot papers. It caused no trouble whatever. If we had two boxes, the reconciliation of the ballot papers in either box would require them all to be emptied out, because people will make mistakes. I can see no sense in having various ballot boxes. The present system has worked for years. Why change it now?
Chris Bryant: I just think it is simpler to be able to separate them before starting. Of course, if somebody puts the wrong ballot paper in the wrong box, that is not a problem. Some other countries use what the Labour party used for its elections-of the leader of the Labour party, the national executive committee and so on-earlier this year: a single ballot paper covering a multitude of different elections. The voting system used in each of those elections was different, which confused some voters. Instead of a single ballot paper with lots of different elements on it, it is better to have separate ballot papers, and therefore separate ballot boxes.
Mr Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): Does the hon. Gentleman think that the system used in Wales for the National Assembly elections needs reforming on that basis, because we have two ballot papers-one for the list and one for the constituency contest? They all go in the same ballot box and are sorted out later.
Chris Bryant: We will come later to the question of which ballots is counted first. The Minister has said that he would like the elections counted first, but it will be difficult to do that until all the ballot boxes have been emptied and all the verification done. It would be swifter if we had a ballot box that, in 99% of cases, contained no mistakes and was for one set of ballot papers and not more.
Andrew Gwynne: May I advise my hon. Friend that the experience in Denton and Reddish on 6 May this year was quite different from that of the hon. Member for Burnley (Gordon Birtwistle)? In some of the polling stations, particularly in the Stockport part of my constituency, the ballot boxes were full before the end of the day, leading to the polling clerk having to shove rulers into the ballot boxes to try to make space for extra ballot papers.
Chris Bryant: I have seen the same myself in by-elections in Hackney and council elections elsewhere. That can happen in just one election, so it is far more likely to happen in combined elections, which is why it would be simpler to be able to separate the ballot papers.
Amendment (f) to new schedule 2, entitled "Combination of polls: England", relates to the publicity provided in polling stations. Polling stations contain some information about how people are to vote, mark their vote and all the rest of it. Our simple point is that there should be similar information on the referendum. Our amendment reads:
"The Electoral Commission are to supply posters to be displayed in every polling station used for the referendum, which give neutral information on first past the post and alternative vote systems that are the subject of the referendum, subject to agreement by the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission."
The only additional element that need concern us is our suggestion that the matter be referred to the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission. We suggest that simply because what might not look to one person like a partisan presentation of the case for the alternative vote or first past the post might do so to the weathered eye of a politician. That is why information should be provided in the polling station. However, anything trying to explain the two voting systems should have been agreed by those here who represent different sides of the argument on the referendum.
Amendment (g) relates to registers. The Government's measures allow for a single electoral register in the polling station. A voter will come in, provide their name and address-in Northern Ireland, they have to provide more information-or their polling or identifying number, and then be given the relevant number of ballot papers. The problem is, however, that the franchises are different. In Newport, for instance, 1,000 voters will be able to vote in the Welsh Assembly elections who will not be able to vote in the referendum. The Government's provisions allow for that by suggesting that one mark be made against the names of those voting in all of the elections, and another against those of anyone who chooses not to vote, or who cannot vote, in one or more of them. That will lead to instances in which people are given ballot papers inappropriately. We have all heard of instances when that has happened because there has been a shared register. I therefore urge the Government to accept separate registers for the separate franchises. That is the best way to ensure that there is no inappropriate giving of ballot papers to people who cannot vote in one or other of the polls.
John Mann: On this occasion, my hon. Friend has not lost me with his amendment, although I am astonished at where it has originated. Will he explain exactly how it will be more effective and quicker for staff at a polling station to have two separate registers, given that they will not know which elections people are eligible to vote in, and especially given that, under another of his amendments, voters would have only one polling card to present? Would his amendment (g) not lead to the possibility of queues not just at 10 o'clock but throughout the day, with people trying to find out whether they were eligible to vote, because staff would have to check two registers rather than one?
No, what should be happening is this: a voter eligible for one election presents themselves at a polling station and goes to the electoral registration
officer, who marks them off on the list and gives them a ballot paper for just one election. If the voter is eligible for the second election, the officer marks them off on the other list and gives them the relevant ballot paper. That is not vastly different. It simply means separate marked registers for each election, which will lead to fewer confusions about who is entitled to vote in each election.
Roger Williams: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that in the vicinity of the polling station there might be a helpful Liberal Democrat, who could help the voters and point out to them in which elections they could take part?
Chris Bryant: It depends which kind of Liberal Democrat it is. If they are from one side of the street, they will say one thing, and if they are from the other side, they will say exactly the opposite. Anyway, people with rosettes will not be in the polling stations advising people. It is not a good idea for people with partisan affiliations to be telling people whether they can vote when they turn up at a polling station. However, I note that that is the partisan direction in which the Liberal Democrats are going. I had thought better of the hon. Gentleman.
John Mann: I remain mystified, because my hon. Friend is now saying that there is an issue with the marked register. Does the issue with the marked register not relate to how postal votes, particularly late postal votes, are added to the marked register, not to whether a European vote can be identified on the register?
Chris Bryant: I think my hon. Friend misunderstands the situation. The Government want a single register with the officer deciding how many elections a person may vote in. I am suggesting two registers, one for the referendum and one for all the other elections, because the franchise for the elections would be the same. That would provide greater clarity when people are voting. [Interruption.] It would be the same in England. We are discussing new schedule 2, as I am sure the Minister, who is quietly chuntering in his charming way, will acknowledge.
Jake Berry: I should be interested to know how many elections the hon. Gentleman has run, or how many returning officers he has spoken to about the amendments, because they all seem to imply that what he thinks should happen in the election trumps what a returning officer believes should happen in his own election in his own division.
Chris Bryant: No. In relation to some of the measures, we think it important to look at whether there should be uniformity throughout the country for a referendum that applies to the whole country, such as in the colour of ballot papers. Broadly speaking, I think that there should be such uniformity, as does my party. Some of the other amendments are probing, because the aim of legislative scrutiny, especially when the Government have at a late stage tabled 110 pages or so of amendments, is to go through them and ensure that we have made the right decision. The hon. Gentleman is upset because he did not manage to table an amendment to the Government's proposed changes. He had not spotted that he disagreed with them, but perhaps next time, when another piece of legislation comes forward, he will table one.
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