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Baroness Hanham moved Amendment No. 214:

(6A) In consulting the Electoral Commission under subsection (5) above, the Secretary of State must invite the Commission to report publicly on whether, in their view, the making of an order under this section is likely to—
(a) complicate the conduct of the ballot on the polling day or days;
(b) lead to greater clarity about and public understanding of the issues involved in the campaign for the elections being moved under the order and for the European Parliamentary elections;
(c) lead to greater or lesser risk of confusion among electors about the voting procedures in the elections concerned."

The noble Baroness said: Amendment No. 214 seeks to ensure that the views of the Electoral Commission are sought before the proposals are implemented. It is constructive to know that the Electoral Commission in its response to the consultation pointed out some of the matters to which I have referred: the possibility of causing confusion and the difficulties of running elections on the same day. It would have been helpful if the Minister had recognised or recalled for the Committee that that is what the Electoral Commission said. I have a copy of the consultation response, although not with me, and it is clear that the Electoral Commission was less than enthusiastic about the proposal to push all the elections together. Before we go any further, it would be a good idea for the Electoral Commission's formal view to be taken.

The other matter relates to Wales. I am aware that the Welsh Assembly has the power to deal with the issue, but is not particularly enchanted by the prospect. I beg to move.

5.15 p.m.

Lord Rooker: I take what the noble Baroness says about the Electoral Commission, which was set up by Parliament to do a long overdue job. It is a unique body in this country, and it performs excellently its role in consulting on the changes to the electoral system. It is correct and good that we have a body such as that to do such things, which is in no way sullied by politicians.

We cannot accept the amendments, however. In October 2002, we went out to consultation on our proposal—so the subject has been around for a while

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and is not a surprise to anyone. The proposal was to combine the English local and the Greater London Authority elections with the European Parliamentary elections. We invited comments from the Electoral Commission and other key stakeholders. The Electoral Commission is not the be-all and end-all, in fact—there are other key stakeholders involved in elections. We invited comments on the practical issues that would need to be addressed and suggestions on how they could be addressed.

The Electoral Commission made its response public on 3rd February. It was clear from that response that the commission had considered the complications that combination would create for the running of the elections, public understanding and the potential confusion for the voter. With different electoral systems, there is an inevitability about that, which is why we have to be careful. In setting up the Electoral Commission, Parliament recognised its impartial judgment. We do not see any justification for specifying the Electoral Commission's responses in any way on the issue, in terms of legislation. We considered all the responses received and the range of solutions available for the practical issues raised, and we believe that, if Parliament agrees, we can deliver successful elections in 2004, on the same day throughout the country for different bodies. Of course, an order-making power is to be used.

Amendment No. 215 proposes that the National Assembly for Wales, in fulfilling its duty to consult the Electoral Commission under Clause 105, should also invite the Electoral Commission to report publicly on whether in its view the making of the order, under Clause 105, would complicate the conduct of the ballot and influence the level of public understanding of the issues involved and the potential for voter confusion. It is for the National Assembly for Wales to decide whether to combine local elections with the European parliamentary elections in 2004. It has, to date, said that it does not wish to do so. That is up to the National Assembly for Wales—that is what devolution is about. Devolution means that decisions are made differently in different parts of the UK.

If the Assembly were to decide to do so, it would need to consult the Electoral Commission. However, there is no justification for specifying in legislation what the Electoral Commission should report on. The commission has shown from its response to our consultation exercise in England that we can expect it to address all the issues. At the end of the day, the matter is for the National Assembly for Wales to decide—not for this Parliament—under the devolution arrangements.

Baroness Hanham: Two matters arise from this debate. First, the Electoral Commission seems not to be very important any longer. Its views are not going to sway the Government very much, although some of its views are quite interesting. One comment made by the commission was that moving the elections potentially set a precedent for the future that would allow the Government to initiate a change in election date on grounds that went wider than exceptional circumstances. That is quite a criticism of a proposal.

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The commission drew attention to the confusion that the proposal might cause. The Minister is keen on his knitting analogy, but others of us might use crossword puzzles, or give other sorts of analogies as to the suitability of the elections being moved to the same day.

The matter is very concerning, but for the moment I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 104 agreed to.

Clause 105 [Power to change date of elections in Wales]:

[Amendment No. 215 not moved.]

Clause 105 agreed to.

Clause 106 [The Valuation Tribunal Service]:

Baroness Maddock moved Amendment No. 215A:

    Page 61, line 35, at end insert—

"( ) In the event of any conflict between the Service and a valuation tribunal as to what is a function of the Service within this section and what is a judicial or other matter within the jurisdiction of a tribunal, the Service, a tribunal or its President may request the chairman of the Council on Tribunals to appoint a qualified person to arbitrate between them and he shall do so."

The noble Baroness said: In moving the amendment, I shall also speak to Amendments Nos. 216A to 216C. I am grateful to the National Association of Valuation Tribunals for Amendments Nos. 215A and 216C, and for advice on them.

Amendment No. 215A relates to the conflict that can arise between judicial and administrative matters. Past history has shown the sort of problems that might arise. For example, an officer of the Valuation Tribunal Management Board, which the valuation tribunal service that is established by the clause will replace, purported to advise tribunals in a guidance note of what should or should not be the reasons for their decisions. In another case, the Valuation Office Agency, which is an agency of the Inland Revenue, sometimes considers matters from the point of view of efficiency that are arguably matters to be considered by a tribunal—for example, the treatment of invalid claims.

In another place, the Government did not actually dispute that there might be a need for some dispute resolution procedure. The Minister has said that the Government are considering drafting an agreed dispute resolution procedure in the new valuation tribunal service management statement. The amendment probes a little further and asks the Minister to explain the Government's stance.

Amendment No. 216A would ensure that local authorities' views are taken into account. So far, they have been running valuation services without the proposed parent body. Clause 106(7) specifies that they will consult the valuation tribunal service. Again, we wonder why the distinction is made between local authorities and the service.

Amendment No. 216B, which is another probing amendment, is to Schedule 4. It probes whether members can be appointed to more than one term of office. That is fairly straightforward.

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Amendment No. 216C would insert a new clause, which is almost a copy of a section of the Arbitration Act 1996, which gave arbitrators immunity. We are asking the Government to consider whether the statutory immunity given to arbitrators in the Arbitration Act 1996 should be extended or left unique, while the valuation and other tribunals rely predominantly on the immunity conferred by common law. From Regulation 48 of the Non-Domestic Rating (Alteration of Lists and Appeals) Regulations 1993, it would appear that the 1996 Act sometimes applies to valuation tribunals, though usually it does not. It is difficult to understand why a provision developed for arbitrators should not apply to other tribunals if judges and courts wanted it. It is arguably simpler than the existing common law immunity that has to be used to defend members at present. Government departments have no liability for tribunal errors and finance defences only at their discretion. We would like further clarifications from the Government as to why they do not consider dealing with the matter in such a way. I beg to move.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: Amendment No. 215 proposes to impose a statutory function on the chairman of the Council on Tribunals to appoint a qualified person to act as adjudicator in disputes between the valuation tribunal service and valuation tribunals as to whether a matter is administrative or judicial. We believe that judicial matters remain entirely the preserve of tribunals. As noble Lords can see, Clause 106(2)(b) is perfectly clear that one of the functions of the valuation tribunal service is to give general advice about procedure in relation to proceedings before tribunals. Our view is that disputes as to what is a procedural matter should be few in number and should be resolved through discussion. The imposition of a new statutory obligation on the chairman of the Council on Tribunals to refer on any disputes is an unnecessary burden, out of proportion with the perceived potential problem. We seek to create an administrative vehicle to address any such problems that arise, and have included a dispute resolution procedure in the new body's draft management statement.

Amendment No. 216A is also unnecessary. It would oblige the Secretary of State to consult local authorities as well as the Valuation Tribunal Service before issuing directions to the service about the carrying out of its functions. As Clause 106(2) clearly shows, the Valuation Tribunal Service's functions involve the provision of administrative support and general advice to valuation tribunals. There is no function related to local authorities, so we see no reason to consult them on directions we might issue in that area. I would be interested to know what the local authority interest is in that matter.

We can see no need for Amendment No. 216B, which was tabled to discover whether a person can be appointed if he is still qualified to be appointed. The answer is "Yes".

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