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Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I thank the noble Lord for giving way. We have more than two systems of election in this country, but perhaps I may refer to only two. We have a first-past-the-post system for Westminster and a list system for the Scottish Parliament. Will the electoral commission be able to educate the public outwith Scotland on the merits of the list system in order perhaps to soften them up for a change in the electoral system at Westminster?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: I think that the electoral commission would tread very carefully in that territory. It would reflect that it should be addressing only the education of the section of the community where that piece of legislation applied. I take the narrower view which lies behind the meaning of "pending" in this legislation.
As I said, "pending" means arrangements which are on the statute book or included in subordinate legislation but have yet to come into force. A case in point might be the new arrangements for London government. The Greater London Authority Act received Royal Assent in November 1999. Had the electoral commission been in existence at that time, it would have been entirely appropriate for it to have initiated a campaign after November 1999 to explain the purpose of the authority and the system for the election of the mayor and Assembly.
Lord McNally: I hope that the Minister will not get himself talked too much into a corner by the timidity of the noble Lord, Lord Mackay. How London is governing itself and how the system is working may well be of wider interest to people in other parts of the country. An information and education campaign about how the Scottish system or the London system is working would be of general interest. This is not creating new systems of government; that is for Parliament to do. Ministers should resist the crouched fear that a more informed electorate will somehow escape their grasp.
The Earl of Onslow: It is not a question of fear of the electorate: on this side of the Committee we have nothing to fear from the electorate. Quite rightly, they booted us out last time. They are intelligent enough to know it. They may even put us in next time, but that is a bit more "iffy". I have no fear of the people; I have no fear of their not making the right choice. The cringing is on the other side of the Chamber: "They're
This matter is important. I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord McNally, that we should not be too narrow in our view of these matters, but the commission clearly has to work within the powers as they are set out.
I am not, therefore, clear about the concerns that lie behind Amendments Nos. 42, 45 and 48. If Parliament has legislated for new electoral arrangements or if subordinate legislation has been made for such arrangements but commencement is delayed to just before the start of the election campaign, it seems perfectly reasonable that the electoral commission should nevertheless act to promote public understanding of how those arrangements will work.
Turning to Amendments Nos. 42A, 44, 46 and 47, the Government consider it an essential part of the commission's voter education function that it should be empowered not only to promote understanding of the mechanics of the electoral systems used in this country, but also to promote awareness of the value of voting. One of the reasons why we have poor turn-outs at elections is that people fail to see the relevance of the body being elected. People will be more inclined to vote if they believe that the body they are being asked to elect is relevant to them and will make a difference to the community in which they live. That applies as much to the European Parliament as it does to local councils. Without paragraphs (b) and (c) of subsection (1), which Amendments Nos. 42A, 44 and 46 would remove, the commission's ability to make any meaningful impact on the level of participation in our democratic institutions would be severely constrained. With turn-out at last May's local government elections falling below 30 per cent, this cannot be in the interest of any political party or of local democracy in this country. It will not be for the commission to be apologists for the policies adopted by those institutions; its role will simply be to convey, in a dispassionate and neutral manner--the manner referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth--in an educated, informed, constructive, thoughtful process, the importance of exercising the vote when those bodies are elected.
With regard to Amendment No. 49, the purpose of subsection (4)(b) is to enable the electoral commission, in carrying out its educational role, to harness the efforts of others. We envisage that the commission might wish to make grants available to organisations such as the Citizenship Foundation, which I believe was the body referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, or possibly Operation Black Vote, which campaigns to increase registration and participation among ethnic minorities and to encourage them generally to become involved in voting. We appreciate that there may be a fear that grants may go to politically partisan organisations with their own
A number of other points were raised during the debate. I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Neill, in his analysis of the role and function of the electoral commission. The Government have listened by and large to the fruits of the Neill report; but we do not, as the noble Lord, Lord McNally, said, have to buy into everything that is said in the report; nor do we always have to agree with the noble Lord, Lord Neill, in his analysis.
I cannot agree with the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne. I believe that the Long Title is adequate. Functions are, after all, part and parcel of the establishment of the commission, and the Long Title refers to its establishment.
I believe that I have covered most of the substantive points raised. I hope that having heard what I have said in addressing the points raised and describing the way in which the commission will work, Members of the Committee will find themselves able to withdraw their amendments and thus enable us to have a commission that will be able to get on and do an effective job in raising the standard of knowledge about the institutions of our democracy.
Lord Norton of Louth: Before the noble Lord sits down, perhaps I may ask him to return to this point. I think that there is a sleight of hand in his line of argument that because this has to do with elections and, therefore, people involved in elections need to know more about government, that somehow brings this matter within the scope of the Bill. I do not accept that people who are experts on the subject of elections are necessarily competent in terms of their expertise to broaden the subject to talk about systems of government. It is a major task in its own right and it is necessary to address the very problems that the Minister concedes.
I accept that there is a case for making sure that people are aware that greater participation in politics is necessary. However, I do not believe that this provision by itself is the way to do it. A much wider approach is needed through the education system. We are moving in that direction. That is not at issue. The issue is whether the commission will be qualified in terms of its composition, referred to by the Minister, to carry out this task and, therefore, whether it falls within the Long Title of the Bill.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: The commission will be interested and involved in a whole range of matters. It will examine boundary issues; the auditing and financing of parties; the registration of political parties; and the way in which donations are made and whether they are permissible; and it will carry out research in some of these matters. It seems to me that an electoral commission that is essentially interested and involved in the process of our democracy and our
I am grateful to the noble Lord for his input into this debate. He has confirmed one important point; namely, that these things can be done neutrally. I agree with him. That is what the commission should be doing and I expect that it will conduct itself in that way.
Lord Norton of Louth: I agree, and I am not disputing the "arm's length" aspect. That is not at issue so far as I am concerned. It is the fact that a body is being set up that will develop expertise in elections, political funding and referendums. However, Clause 12 seeks to take its expertise beyond that, to a much broader role which it will not be qualified to undertake.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: Before I sum up the debate on my amendments, perhaps I may make a point which I hope the noble Lord will be able to answer. I hear what he says about the importance of the electoral commission explaining to the public the importance of local government, and so on, so that they will turn out and vote.
I note from subsection (3) that the electoral commission will not have that role in Scotland in relation to Scottish local government. Does that mean that the electorate does not have to be informed about Scottish local government, and that the Government are happy with the turn-out? Who will do the job of the electoral commission so far as concerns local government in Scotland? I wonder whether the noble Lord can help me. Clearly, he cannot, but he may be able to help me later.
This has been an interesting debate. I am sorry that some Members of the Committee have not listened to the point being made by those of us on this side of the Chamber. None of us disagreed with the electoral commission having a role in helping to explain systems of election that were already in place legislatively. That is not our problem. Our concern is that, as matters relating to how the electorate is allowed to vote and the systems used possibly become more controversial--
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