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Baroness Blatch: It will not be long before we shall need a GCSE in how to vote. Having voted in the last London Assembly election and in the referendum, I know that they are incredibly complex, even to those of us who are close to the centre of the wheel, who know that these matters are couched in legal language and how they work in practice. There is enormous confusion about the idea of coupling up different elections on one day, with complicated systems of voting. We are considering not only first-past-the-post voting, but many different systems. The European elections are conducted in one way, the London government elections in another way and local government elections in yet another way. It seems to me that asking an electorate to go to a polling station and to make sense of the vote has to be thought about carefully.
Lord Rooker: I was struck by the last question posed by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. If the Bill does not receive Royal Assent in Septemberwe need it for the new local government financial structureI doubt we shall be able to conduct the elections. In order for the Bill to receive Royal Assent in September we have to finish the Committee stage today. That is my little homily.
I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, and to all three noble Baronesses, that I am a convert to PR. I was a first-past-the-post man for most of my life. As a convert people must be careful of my zeal. Anyone who is converted carries a health warning. To those who say that the public will never understand the matter and that it is too complicated I say four words: knitting patterns, football pools. I cannot read a knitting pattern but millions of women in this country and some men can and I cannot fill in a football coupon to save my life but millions of people can.
I do not accept the argument that people cannot understand such systems and that they are too complicated for them. People can understand them if proper explanations are given. However, I accept the point, particularly in LondonLondon has a unique situation because of the Mayor, although there may be other mayorsthat there will be three different systems of voting. I accept that point.
Lord Rooker: Yes, I accept that there will be four systems. Perhaps we can be sensible and move to one decent PR system that we can all understand, with variations for different elections. I would be happy, but that is not the view of the Government.
We are proposing to combine them all. The reasons are fairly obvious. One could argue about improving voter turnout. I do not have voter turnout in my notes or in my memory but I can remember that in 1979 the European elections took place about a month after the general election and that has happened in another year
We have had recent consultation. The Electoral Commission has to be involved. The change will not be made on a whim. This is not a case of the Government chopping and changing, although the noble Baroness did not put it like that. This is primary legislation which is going through the parliamentary process. Ministers have not woken up one morning and changed the date of the elections. We want to give as much warning and notice as possible.
The great point about local government elections, the Mayor's election and the European Parliament elections is that the date is known in advance. That is what is wrong with not having fixed-term parliaments, but the Government are not in favour of that either, so I do not put that forward as a proposal.
I shall go through all the issues if need be, such as the parish councils being dealt with separately. The National Association of Local Councils is the voice for the community and town councils and it supports the proposal. There is a massive extra cost involved, not just in money but also in human terms. If the turnout is affected it will be affected only by pushing it up which is a good thing. It is a common sense arrangement. The Euro-sceptics will always say, "You have predicated the whole of this because we have the date from Europe". It is true that we have the date from Europe. The British Parliament cannot control the European elections; we have signed up for them, but it is not a surprise to us. The only surprise is that it is in this Bill and was not in a Bill last year. The matter could have been considered a little earlier.
I take the points raised by the noble Baronesses about different electoral systems. I have to work on the basis that there will be plenty of explanation about the different systems in those areas where the electors are asked to use more than one system. That will be inevitable because of the European elections and national elections. I suspect that the number of spoilt papers will not be knocked out by the turnout. We shall have a net increase of people casting votes who were not involved in the democratic process before. That has to be a good thing, whether for the Mayor's election, local government elections or the European Parliament election.
That may not be a satisfactory explanation, but it is the only one that the Committee will receive because it is the only one that there is. It is based on common sense. It is not purely about money, although money comes into the situation. We are trying to learn from experience, particularly when the European elections
Baroness Hamwee: The words I wrote down were not, "knit one, slip one, pass the slipped stitch over", but I wrote down, "as much warning and notice as possible". I do not want to say to the GLA returning officer, "The Minister said that unless I got on with the Bill you would not get your regulations very soon". Perhaps I can persuade the Minister to be a little clearer about when the regulations will be produced or to acknowledge that there is a serious issue in preparing for the detail of the local elections. I know that working parties are meeting. I would be amazed if the Government were waiting for this legislation to pass before they considered that detail. Perhaps I shall leave that as a serious point.
Lord Rooker: It is a serious point. If the Bill does not receive Royal Assent in September, we shall have real problems. Leaving aside local government finance, which means multibillion pound changes in terms of the capital structure which was debated some time ago, if we do not have Royal Assent in September we shall be in real trouble. We can have all the consultation that we like for people outside, but until they know that the Bill is an Act there will always be a reluctance to set up the machinery and everything else. That is the reality.
Baroness Hamwee: I do not suggest setting up the machinery in a way that is irrevocable, but I suggest talking to those involved on the ground in such a way that the button can be pressed as soon as possible.
Baroness Hanham: I am sure that the Minister would be the first to accept that the Bill needs scrutiny. The kind of scrutiny that it has been receiving from the Committee seems to me to be perfectly proper. It has not been drawn out; all the way through we have raised issues that have been of great importance. Every time we open our mouths for much longer than the Minister thinks we should we have been under the threat from him that the Bill will not go through. The Bill has to be scrutinised to the full extent.
My second point is that I did not mention anything about Euro-sceptics. I simply mentioned the fact that European elections were to be joined with other elections. The European elections could be left in June and the others could be left in May and I do not believe that anyone would argue about that.
I am aware that in recent times elections have been moved for one other reason, the foot and mouth disease outbreak in 2001 when the local elections were delayed. I suggest that they were delayed with cross-party support. It is clear that this provision does not have cross-party support. It is also clear that the decision was made long before the Government were aware whether they had cross-party support because, as far as I am aware, there has been no other consideration of this matter until now.