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Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish moved, as an amendment to Amendment No. 50, Amendment No. 51:

Leave out lines 94 to 96.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I decided that it would be easier on the Minister if I highlighted the three or four issues that I wish to mention in this schedule by tabling probing amendments rather than making a speech of which the Minister has no notice and to which he may not be able to give a substantive reply. There is a huge amount of detail in Amendment No. 50. To follow that detail your Lordships would have to sit in the Library with a copy of the Representation of the People Act.

At the risk of repeating myself, I believe that once that exercise is done the reason for my suggesting a referendums Act becomes even more apparent. But I shall not go over that again.

Amendment No. 51 takes out the paragraph which states that,

Normally in parliamentary and local government elections, names are suggested by the candidates for the people who will go to the count and verify that the procedure has been undertaken properly. They verify the ballot papers and that the counting has been done properly. The procedures are well rehearsed.

There is a limitation on the numbers. The returning officer can take into account the size of the premises available, how many people can reasonably be accommodated, and how many candidates are to be accommodated. It is clear that at general and local elections it is the candidates who nominate or suggest those who can go to the count on their behalf.

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I merely probe this point. From where does the counting officer get his names? We come back to the campaigning organisations. I do not wish to go over all those difficulties. Is that where the counting officer looks for them? Alternatively, does he look to the political parties? Does he require balance between the "Yes" and the "No", given the referendum questions? The issue is more complicated with the two questions, but I shall leave the matter on the principal question, the "Yes" and the "No". Does he require a balance of persons to observe the counting of votes? Those are my points, I hope that the Minister will be able to respond.

Lord Sewel: My Lords, in effect there is little between us in what we wish to achieve. The difficulty is the amendment. If it were accepted, it would make it impossible for anyone to observe the count. I hope that it will therefore be withdrawn.

It is important that the count is observed: that it is open and seen to be fair. On the point about where the chief counting officer and counting officers look for people whom they can approve to attend the count, I am happy to fall back on their judgment. I am sure that there will be people who will seek to attend the count. I am happy to rely on the judgment of the professionals in deciding who will be there.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, as the Minister says, I do not propose to put the amendment to a Division because if I were to win that would result in no observers being present at the count.

I had rather hoped that he would go a little further. I understand that the counting officer may look to Members of Parliament for that area and councillors. But I believe that the counting officer should look for a balance. While I understand that it might be difficult to frame in law, given Pepper v. Hart and other matters, it would have been nice to have received an assurance from the Minister on the record that he would expect the counting officer to look for a balance between the two sides of the proposition when he decides who should be observers at the count.

Lord Sewel: My Lords, it would be quite proper for a counting officer to have in mind the attempt to achieve balance.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for clarifying that. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment No. 51, as an amendment to Amendment No. 50, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish moved, as an amendment to Amendment No. 50, Amendment No. 52:

Leave out lines 420 to 422.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the amendment draws attention to the provisions of Rule 20 in the Representation of the People Act 1983. It involves the official mark. As noble Lords who voted recently in local government elections--it is all that we are allowed

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to do--will recall, a perforated mark is stamped on the ballot paper when it is handed over. If the ballot paper is not perforated when it turns up eventually at the count, it is not allowed. Indeed, the issue is a matter of dispute in the case of one parliamentary seat at the last election.

On the occasion of the referendum in Scotland, although not in Wales, the people presiding over the polling stations will have to stamp two ballot papers. I believe that that will add to the time taken to vote. It may not seem much, but if every person who votes at a busy time has to have his or her ballot paper stamped not once but twice, inevitably it will increase the time taken. It increases the danger of one or both papers being missed at that busy time. Is it wise to continue with that rule?

That brings me to my more general point. Why do we keep this rule? It may be an issue for wider debate, but I find it hard to understand what the perforation prevents. It may stop someone stealing a wad of ballot papers, filling them in, and popping them secretly into a ballot box somewhere, or somehow putting them on the table at the count when everyone's back is turned. I think that very unlikely. I do not think that anyone would try to steal the ballot papers, as I suggested. If they did, it does not seem to be a much further step to steal the franking machine. Therefore, the proposition appears even more ridiculous. I wonder why we carry on with the process. Have the Government given some consideration to the time taken; and the increased danger that some papers will not be franked?

As noble Lords who have attended counts will know, either because they are involved personally or because they are overlooking someone else's, there is always a small number of papers which for some mysterious reason have not been franked. I have never been able to understand why that happens.

A Noble Lord: Winchester.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, a noble Lord from a seated position has called out "Winchester". I was trying not to refer to that. But there were a considerable number there which were not franked. It has caused a problem. I do not wish to talk about that. I wish to talk about franking in general and the referendum in particular.

My recollection is that few papers are unfranked. I was always puzzled as to why they are unfranked. However, if there is a suspicion that something really naughty has happened, it is possible to count the number of votes that were scored off in the polling station and run a check. I accept that that might delay the count, but, frankly, one of these days I believe that we shall have to start using electronic means to deal with balloting. We undertake it in a pretty old fashioned way in this modern technological age. If we did so, we should not need the official mark.

As regards the referendum, I should like to hear the Minister's view on the need in Scotland to make the mark on two separate ballot papers, and whether he

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shares my slight concern that it may increase the danger of one or other ballot paper being missed at a busy time. I beg to move.

Lord Ewing of Kirkford: My Lords, before my noble friend replies, perhaps I may draw his attention to an incident that took place in the elections to the present all-purpose councils in Scotland. In the elections to the Falkirk Council and in the Borders, there were a number of unfranked ballot papers. The defeated candidates petitioned the sheriff court. The sheriff principals in both areas ruled that those elections were null and void because of the number of unfranked ballot papers. That is only two years ago. They ruled that the elections should be held again.

I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, has a serious point about the franking of ballot papers. We all know that if we go into polling stations at 8.30, and the close of the poll is 9 o'clock, there is usually a rush. The polling clerks are inclined to be under some pressure and fail to frank the ballot papers. Therefore we should examine this matter more closely.

I remember from my time as a parliamentary candidate that spoilt ballot papers could throw up some quite hilarious issues. When I was MP for Falkirk and Stirling Boroughs in 1974 a number of papers were spoiled by electors who wrote in referring to my previous occupation as a postman--"that postman from Fife"! The returning officer decided that in cases where the electors had indicated a specific preference for one of the candidates, namely, "that postman from Fife", those should be my votes. My majority was increased by that given number of votes.

To return to the serious point, there have been two recent cases in Scotland, one in Falkirk and one in the Borders, where the sheriff court has been petitioned on the question of unfranked ballot papers. Such cases should be much more closely examined. I suspect that the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, does not wish to press his amendment. However, it is a matter for discussion across the Floor of the House and a matter for much closer examination.

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