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Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, perhaps I may intervene briefly to support my noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord McNally. I want to make this point in as unpartisan a way as possible. Governments of both complexions increasingly have been guilty of the type of outrage that my noble friend described. It is

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true that, as any form of existing business manager can testify, that is due largely to the avalanche of legislation and the inordinate hurry of all governments to introduce it as swiftly as possible in one legislative Session. This has become a disease which is undermining the standing and respect of Parliament.

I have perhaps bored your Lordships a number of times during the course of debates on reform of your Lordships' House. However, I believe that the time has come for noble Lords to consider seriously whether this type of behaviour is beginning to undermine the central purpose of your Lordships' House. I have always believed that that purpose is to ensure, with the greatest respect to another place, that the other place, under the control of the government of the day as it is, has a chance to do its job properly.

This is not the only example of such behaviour. As I say, governments of both complexions have been guilty of it. However, I am concerned that another place will find itself dragooned into looking at what is, in a number of parts, virtually a rewritten Bill at the fag end of the Session without the time to consider properly a subject which, as my noble friend pointed out, is fundamental to the health of our parliamentary and representative system.

I hope that the Minister, who is always most courteous to your Lordships, will be able to give some reassurance that, if we are to proceed with the Bill, adequate time will be given to another place, which is most directly affected by the provisions of the Bill, to examine the large parts of it which have been largely rewritten at the Government's instance because of the hurry in which their business managers had to introduce it.

Lord Renton: My Lords, having fought and won 10 general elections, naturally I am interested in the subject matter of this Bill. I have been in Parliament altogether for 55 years but I cannot recollect any occasion, as described by my noble friend on the Front Bench, when a Bill before your Lordships' House is being virtually rewritten by a mass of rather obscure amendments.

Surely the right course is for the Government to withdraw the Bill and reintroduce it, if necessary, for the first time in your Lordships' House so that Members of both Houses can see without an absurd amount of detailed scrutiny what the Bill attempts to do. I hope that what my noble friend has suggested will be observed by the Government because I believe that, as part of our parliamentary democracy, he is right.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am grateful for noble Lords' contributions in this stimulating opening to our afternoon's deliberations. I was going to pay tribute to the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, for what I felt was friendly fire, or at least constructive criticism. I have to take that on the chin. I accept that we, in government, have in some ways been culpable in creating the difficulties that have surrounded this Bill.

But that said, there are a number of points which should be fairly considered. The noble Lord, Lord Mackay, said that the Bill had been largely rewritten.

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I accept that there are a large number of amendments. There is no doubt about that. But that is due to a number of factors. One of those is that as we said throughout the course of this Bill, in another place and here too, we are trying to get it right. Getting it right comes at a price. As Members of the Opposition will appreciate, getting it right means that sometimes you have to consult. That word was used extensively yesterday on the airwaves. It happens to be true about this Bill. We want to get it right because, as the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, said, this goes to the heart of our constitution. If we are to do that, then it is down to us to ensure that when we do, we reach the right conclusions.

This is a complex Bill. The noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, made a very important point. This Bill is about the other place. It is about regulating the way in which elections are conducted, donations to parties are made and sponsorship is organised. There has not been much regulation of those activities in the past. This Bill, in one leap, attempts to set that right so that we can demonstrate publicly that we are cleaning up our act.

Simplicity is what we should like to achieve. This Bill is complex to achieve some simple ends. Regulation is necessary. That is what we have tried to do in seeking to bring forward amendments. We have consulted and listened carefully to all parties. We shall continue to do that throughout the course of this legislation.

I make one final point on government amendments. Yes, there are a number of government amendments. Noble Lords will no doubt have noticed that there are some amendments to amendments. Many of those amendments are triggered by earlier amendments discussed throughout the passage of the legislation. We shall bring forward many amendments during the course of our debates and deliberations. They are stimulated also by reasonable points made by members of opposition parties who have co-operated in making sure that we try to get it right.

Therefore, we have had an unfortunate break in the thread of continuity--a useful expression, I thought. But that has enabled us to have time to pause for reflection. We have a busy agenda. We want to see that agenda through. It is true that this Bill has had to take its place in a longer queue. But now we are here, I suggest to your Lordships that it is only right that we should give it due consideration.

Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, I wonder whether the Minister can assure us that the Government will use their best endeavours to ensure that when the Bill returns to another place it will not be rushed through and another place will have a proper opportunity to discuss the massive changes which have been made since it left that House.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, obviously, I cannot speak for another place but it will no doubt wish to consider carefully that very helpful consideration. I believe that it should.

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On Question, Motion agreed to.

House again in Committee accordingly.

[The DEPUTY CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES (Lord Murton of Lindisfarne) in the Chair.]

4.45 p.m.

Clause 12 [Education about electoral and democratic systems]:

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish moved Amendment No. 42:

    Page 8, line 30, leave out ("and any pending such systems,").

The noble Lord said: In moving this amendment, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 45, 46, 48 and 49 which stand in my name. I shall also, of course, address the same issues as does my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth in his Amendment No. 42A and as my noble friend Lady Fookes does in her Amendment No. 47.

These amendments taken together could have been narrowed down to one amendment; namely, that Clause 12 should not stand part of the Bill. Indeed, if the Minister really wants to simplify the Bill, he could move to strike out Clause 12 because nothing in that clause is really relevant to what many of us believe an electoral commission should be about.

I take the view that the electoral commission is the referee on elections and electoral matters. It is not in the business of being a propagandist for anything in the system. It is there to be a referee; to see that there is fair play; to see that the rules on donations are obeyed; to see that the reporting of expenditure during elections is properly obeyed, and so on; and, although it is dealt with extremely inadequately indeed, as I hope we shall be able to persuade the Committee later, to see that referendums are properly and fairly conducted in this country--if we have to have referendums, that is.

This series of amendments addresses a role to be given to the commission in Clause 12. The particular words on which I wish to focus are "current electoral systems in the United Kingdom", "promote public awareness of" and "any pending such systems". Further on there is reference to:

    "current systems of local government and national government",

and "any pending such systems" and it then goes on to refer to,

    "the institutions of the European Union".

When one goes back to what I might call the source document for all this legislation--namely, the Neill report--Members of the Committee will look in vain for any suggestion in that report that the commission should have any of those responsibilities. Indeed, although not directly but indirectly referring to other tasks to be given to the commission, the Neill committee says very clearly at paragraph 11.4,

    "We agree that a new body is needed not only on the above grounds",

and it has gone into all the arguments that we rehearsed on Second Reading,

    "but also in order to implement many of the specific recommendations in this report".

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As I have said, none of the roles in Clause 12 is recommended in the Neill report. It goes on to say:

    "We would only make the obvious point that the Election Commission cannot, as some of our witnesses seemed to believe, solve all problems and be a panacea for all ills. It is tempting, but not sensible, to say whenever in difficulty, 'Leave it to the Commission'. That is an approach we have sought to avoid in this report. Government, Parliament and others have to accept their responsibilities".

It seems to me that on all the issues involved in this group of amendments are issues for governments, political parties and for Parliament. They are not issues for the elctoral commission. We all know, because we all read the press, that there are some talks going on between the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats about changing our electoral system. I do not quite know where we are on that, but the talks are going on.

Would it be the electoral commission's responsibility to mount a campaign explaining what the different electoral systems are? For example, the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead--surprise, surprise--came to the conclusion that we should have PR and it should be the alternative vote system. Parliament has not decided anything about that yet; it has not been asked. I suspect that the Government have decided; they do not want to make any changes, but they want to string their Liberal friends along for a little longer.

But leave that aside. The fact is that on the table, there is an alternative vote proposal from the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead. I ask a specific question. Would it be within the powers and responsibility of the commission, as laid out in this clause, to explain to the electorate what an AV system is?

Let us go a little further. In Scotland, when we were discussing what kind of electoral system the new Parliament should have, there was some argument about what kind of PR system we should have. At the stage that it was still being argued, would it have been within the powers of the electoral commission to go out and do a propaganda exercise in favour of one or other system?

Would it be a reasonable responsibility of the electoral commission to explain the new system to the electorate once Parliament had decided that the Scottish Parliament would be elected by the top-up list system? If that is what the Government mean by "pending system", I am less concerned. However, I would be greatly concerned if it meant any kind of system floating about in the ether, or even any system still being discussed in Parliament but not yet agreed.

I therefore see no need for this funny wording; that is, "pending systems". My noble friend Lord Norton may have given the Government a way out of this dilemma by making clear exactly what would be within the responsibility of the electoral commission.

That is the first of my series of questions: what exactly does the Minister mean by "pending systems"? I certainly hope that it does not mean that the electoral commission will be asked to do the kind of job that I freely accept that the Liberal Democrat Party should

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be doing; that is, to advocate changes in our electoral system. As Members of the Committee know, I do not greatly approve of such changes. However, that is their decision. They can get on with it. I would have no problem with that job being done by the Electoral Reform Society. However, I certainly do not think that it should be done by the electoral commission, which is supposed to be the neutral referee on electoral matters.

I turn to the second interesting point. Clause 12 (1)(c) provides that the commission shall promote public awareness of the institutions of the European Union. I am not one of those who get too upset about the European Union. I am reasonably content with membership of it. However, I suspect that, like this Government, it has a terrific desire to regulate, interfere and control. I tend to agree with those members of the present Government who think that we should not adopt the euro; at least not for a long time and not until it proves to be a good deal more successful than at present. We have got out of the position of being a member of a currency that requires to be sustained on the foreign exchange markets. I believe that we should stay in that happy position.

I do not understand the meaning of subsection (1)(c):

    "the institutions of the European Union".

Does that mean that in the current situation, for example, the electoral commission would explain the advantages of the euro to the people of Britain? Would it explain how the European Central Bank works? What will it explain to the people of Britain? What do those words mean? What has that to do with the electoral commission as set out in the Neill report and that which we all agreed needs to be a referee? It cannot be a referee if it is being a propagandist for a politically controversial issue. Whether Members of the Committee like it or not, the issue is politically controversial. The electoral commission would be brought into disrepute if it was seen to be taking one side or the other in the arguments for or against the euro. That must be the last thing we want.

Amendment No. 49 would remove subsection (4)(b), which states:

    "making grants to other persons or bodies for the purpose of enabling them to carry out such programmes".

That refers to programmes of education or information. What are we talking of here? We come back to pending systems, European institutions, changes that may be coming over the horizon or those that the Government may wish. What kind of bodies will be funded by the electoral commission? What kind of work will they do?

My right honourable friend Sir George Young asked similar questions in the other place. He stated:

    "That is part of the Government's citizenship education proposals, but it is wholly inappropriate to place that duty with the commission. As drafted, the Bill brings the electoral commission--a fully independent body, free of any suspicion of political partisanship, to use the Government's own words--right into issues of the fiercest political controversy".--[Official Report, Commons, 14/2/00; col. 709.]

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That is what is wrong with the whole clause. However, it would be equally wrong if the electoral commission were to fund bodies which were to take part in partisan arguments and discussions. That would be a great pity.

The only suggestion which Mr Mike O'Brien could make as to a body which might be given money by the electoral commission was a body called the Citizenship Foundation. I am not sure whether that body is entirely neutral. I believe that it campaigns on certain aspects that are not universally agreed within this country. It is perfectly free to do so; I do not complain of that. However, it should not be funded by an electoral commission, which is supposed to be the referee.

Mr Mike O'Brien made that statement on 14th February. In all the many months since then, I wonder whether any other example has occurred to Ministers of bodies which might be funded by the electoral commission under subsection (4)(b). Frankly, if the Government cannot come up with better answers, I suggest that we remove subsection 4(b). In fact, I suggest that we remove the whole of this clause, thus simplifying the Bill. That would make things a good deal easier and would free the electoral commission of the suspicion that the Government may want to use it in future as a vehicle for putting across propaganda, either about European institutions or--in my opinion, this is even worse--about changing electoral systems. I beg to move.

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