some default text...

Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord McNally: I appreciate the Minister's constructive response. I make one point. For Liberal Democrats it is no longer a matter of pleading poverty. In many local authorities we are the beneficiaries of a distorting electoral system. It is not simply that we are a third party. In many local authorities we are now the first party and benefit considerably from the winner-takes-all nature of politics.

However, the Minister responded in a constructive fashion, for which I thank him. The noble Lord, Lord Mackay, remained silent, for which I thank him. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 101 not moved.]

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish moved Amendment No. 102:

("( ) No more than one such new scheme, at any one time, shall be approved in a given electoral area.").

The noble Lord said: The amendment provides that, where experimentation takes place, no more than one experiment at a time should occur so that one can assess the result of one change without the distortion of other changes. I referred earlier to the Written Answer to the Question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Hardy of Wath. Some local authorities propose two or three experiments. In some cases they are doing so ward by ward and that will probably meet my concern. However, in others the position is not entirely obvious. For example, the North Hertfordshire District Council would have Saturday voting, early voting and change to absent vote arrangements. If all three were allowed, and let us assume that there is an increase in the turn-out, these questions would then have to be asked. Was the position evenly balanced? Were all factors involved? Was only one factor involved and did not the others come into play?

If we are to learn from these experiments we have to be careful that they are conducted in a scientific way. One would not conduct a scientific experiment by including a number of variables in the experiment, but with only one variable at a time.

This is a probing amendment to see whether the Government have given some thought to the matter. If not, they should do so before deciding to agree on the experiments put forward to them by the local authorities. I beg to move.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: I have some sympathy with the noble Lord's comments. However, I invite the noble Lord to consider this point. He is right that a number of authorities have come up with multiple

15 Feb 2000 : Column 1084

options for encouraging people to vote through the pilot schemes. My notes tell me that some 11 authorities seek to carry out more than one pilot. There are some 60 different schemes. Therefore we have the opportunity to see how they play in multiple schemes and in a single instance. So we have opportunities to understand how the multiple effect might affect turn-out; or the effect of a pilot scheme conducted in a discrete area. We can compare and contrast. That may well provide us with some clues as to the best way to encourage the electorate generally to participate in local democracy, or, at some future stage, in national elections. While I understand the noble Lord's concern, I believe that it is misplaced. What we are attempting to do here is to get the best out of having many flowers blooming at one instance and comparing that situation with isolated and discrete pilots. I trust that if the noble Lord takes on board those comments, he will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I am grateful to the noble Lord the Minister for his response and I am pleased to hear that he appreciates my point. Although I understand what he is trying to say, I have my doubts about whether one could legitimately come to hard and fast conclusions if a number of variables had been introduced in the same area. One would then have to look to other areas where there was only one variable in order to appreciate the impact. I hope that the Government will not favour multiple variables over the whole field. When they agree these proposals, I hope that they will make sure that they have enough single variables so that they and we can come to a proper conclusion about the results of these different variables in the voting system. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 103 to 106 not moved.]

Lord Jopling moved Amendment No. 107:

    Page 12, line 15, leave out ("the authority concerned shall prepare a report on") and insert ("an independent assessment shall be made of").

The noble Lord said: I beg to move Amendment No. 107. We come now to consider what will happen once these pilot schemes have been tried out. A local authority will clearly wish to make a report. My amendment removes the duty to do so, but I do not believe that, in practice, any authority that has applied to carry out a pilot scheme would not wish to make a report. I do not see any point in saying that they must do it. If they do not want to do it, so be it.

The key point is that, once a pilot scheme has been carried out, there must be an independent assessment of it. Those of us who have had experience of local government know that a report would have to be approved by a local council, and no doubt at the end of the day the content of that report by a local council would be biased in favour of what the majority party on that council wanted to see, for electoral reasons, coming out of the pilot. For that reason, a report by

15 Feb 2000 : Column 1085

a local authority alone would be utterly inadequate in assessing the benefit of these pilot schemes. It is essential, therefore, that there should be an independent assessment of each pilot scheme, which can then be submitted.

My noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish has tabled another amendment in relation to what should happen to a report by independent assessors, to which he will no doubt speak in a moment or two. However, the point that I wish to make as strongly as I can is that all these schemes must have independent assessments, which must start at the planning stage of the pilot scheme. The independent assessments must examine the conduct of the pilot scheme as it is carried out, monitor it, and then monitor the results at the end of the day. Simply to have a report by a local authority would be totally inadequate. We must have it done by an independent body.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My noble friend Lord Jopling has made a very valid point. He has mentioned my amendment, which is grouped with his. My amendment simply proposes that the Secretary of State should lay a copy of any report on any experiment before each of the Houses of Parliament together with a statement of his assessment of the experiment. Frankly, I am less worried about getting the Secretary of State's assessment. I am much more concerned with obtaining some form of independent assessment. I would like to see a local authority submitting its proposals for the assessment as well as its proposals for the experiment.

I shall not take up too much time, but I draw the Minister's attention to a briefing that we have received from the Local Government Association on this Bill, in which, at paragraph 5, it states:

    "We understand some of the potential concerns around the roll out provision. For this reason, we have been keen to ensure that there is a proper independent evaluation of the pilots before a decision to roll them out is made".

There is currently no provision for that. I doubt that I would accept an assessment from the local authority whose pilot it was, nor, dare I say with all due respect to the Home Office, from Home Office Ministers. Rather, I would want an assessment from some form of independent body. There are many universities that would, I have no doubt, be more than happy to conduct independent assessments of the various systems with which we shall be experimenting. It is therefore important that we should have some independent assessment before we ever consider rolling out any local experiment more widely to elections throughout the country.

4.15 p.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: I have quite a lot of sympathy with the thought behind both of these amendments. However, I do not believe that at this stage either of them is necessary, and I shall now attempt to argue why that may be the case.

15 Feb 2000 : Column 1086

The noble Lord, Lord Jopling, is understandably anxious to ensure that pilot schemes are properly evaluated and has suggested that reports on the pilots should be prepared not by the local authorities that are running them but by independent assessors. As I understand it, he is concerned that a local authority may take too subjective a view of its experiment and may not produce a report which gives the Secretary of State enough information on which to take a view of the success or otherwise of the innovation which has been piloted.

I do not, however, believe that this needs to be a real worry. Local authorities will carry out their evaluations in line with guidance issued by the Home Office, and that is very important indeed. If we have clear guidance in place, people will be able to understand exactly what we are seeking. There should not be too many problems, and we should therefore be satisfied with the way in which it will work.

The reports will have to provide factual information on turn-out and they will have to consider the take up of particular measures and the cost. The reviews will also involve structured interviews; they will seek the views of voters and, as importantly, non-voters, electoral staff, candidates and parties on the effects of the change being piloted and sampled. I do not believe that there is a risk that a report of this sort will be unduly coloured by the subjective views of local authorities. After all, they will be compiled by professional officers, and there will be a limited scope, in a sense, for members to become directly involved, which might add that extra element of subjectivity, important though that can be in some of these piloting arrangements. The local authorities will be in the best position to collect and collate all the material that is required. There is no real reason why they should be required to buy in outside help if they do not wish to do so. The local authorities have a duty and an obligation to operate quite properly and correctly within the guidance that will be issued by the Home Office.

I entirely understand the concerns of the Local Government Association. It is very enthusiastic for this legislation. It is very enthusiastic for pilot schemes, and I can understand why it may wish to bring in an independent element. In the future, of course, we shall only be able to roll out the pilots on a recommendation of the electoral commission, in legislation which comes later. That may well help us in this regard, and we can say more about that when we discuss Clause 11.

I hope that what I have said about the form in which the assessments are to be made will offer the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, some reassurance. I also repeat the assurances that have been given by my colleagues in another place about the publication of the evaluation reports. All the reports--not only those on schemes which we consider have been a success--will be placed in the Libraries of both Houses of Parliament and will be made available, without restriction, to anyone who wishes to see them, either at local level or centrally. To that extent, the noble Lord's amendment will, of course, be superfluous.

15 Feb 2000 : Column 1087

So, too, would be a further assessment by the Secretary of State. The evaluation reports produced by local authorities should provide all the information needed to reach a view on the success or otherwise of the various pilots. There is no need for the Secretary of State to put a further gloss on the material. Indeed, I do not believe that that would be right or desirable.

I hope that with those reassurances, my comments about the electoral commission and the way in which we would expect professional officers within the local authority to operate, the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page