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Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: My Lords, I had not intended to speak to the amendment, although I certainly support it, but I am moved to respond to the speech that we have heard from the Liberal BenchesI say, "Liberal" because people might be amazed to hear such a speech from those Benches. Those people who choose not to vote in elections are often expressing as much of a view as those who do. Recently, in elections for the Scottish Parliament, half the voters did not turn out because they were so disgusted by the performance of the Scottish Parliamentin particular, by the cost of its building, which had risen from £40 million to £400 million.
Perhaps the advocates of constitutional reform on the Liberal Democrat Benches might reflect that many of their innovations have resulted in complete disillusion on the part of voters and fragmentation of
Far from changing the dates of elections so that the manifest dismay on the part of voters is hiddenwhich is what the Government's proposals amount tosurely those who advocated constitutional change and setting up more and more bodies of politicians should reflect on what they have brought about and show some respect for the established traditions and way in which we have carried out our electoral process with considerable success, until the tinkering which came from Charter 88 and its friends got us into this mess.
Baroness Maddock: My Lords, I, too, did not intend to speak to the amendment, but I find it extraordinary that matters that have been decided through electionespecially the Scottish Parliamentare now considered to be tinkering by people on the edges.
We disagree with the amendments because they would remove the Secretary of State's ability, in different combinations, to move the date of elections to district councils, parish council elections and elections for the Lord Mayorsorry, the London mayor; although that is a dream is it not?and the Greater London Assembly. If we accepted Amendment No. 7, we could move only the GLA elections but not parish or local elections; if we accepted Amendment No. 8 we could move only the local and parish elections but not the GLA elections; and if we accepted Amendment No. 9, we could move only the local and GLA elections but not combine parish elections with them on 10th June.
The accusation was made that we were acting willy-nilly. That is just not the case. We consulted on moving the local, GLA and parish elections in order to combine them with the European Parliament elections. We received support for moving all three sets. Most respondents agreed172 out of a total of 310 who expressed a preference. Many of those were local authorities and ordinary members of the public. Also, it must be put on record, two of the three major political parties agreeda position reflected in this debate. The Local Government Association supported our proposal, as did the National Association of Local Councilsa body that supports and encourages parish councils.
We judge that that support is sufficient to justify our view that we should put the needs of voters first and reject the inconvenience of asking the electorate to turn out twice in five weeks. In an age in which we are concerned about participation in the electoral process, it would be absurd to do otherwise than to have those elections on the same day in 2004. The amendments would wreck Clause 104 and run wholly counter to the perfectly logical aim of increasing voter convenience.
I greatly respect the views of the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, on local government, but I cannot support what she proposes. I cannot see how she can justify ignoring the support that we have identified in our consultation exercise. I cannot resist making this point: it is not as though we are abandoning wholesale a set of local authority elections. That is not something that this party has a track record of doing; as I look at those on the Benches opposite, I recall that that is something that they delighted in doing some years ago.
We are trying to encourage electoral participation in what is an important set of local and national elections. All parties should have it within themselves to encourage maximum participation. I heard what the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, said about that: that people were exercising the option of abstention to express their disagreement with a particular Parliament. That is his view; he is entitled to it. We should encourage participation and try to do all we can to undermine what I would argue sometimes happens in politics, that is the "cynicisation" of the proces. As politicians we have nothing to gain by encouraging that.
In the Scottish elections the Electoral Commission spent large sums of public money running advertising campaigns. In the advertisements, the commission said that if you do not vote, it means you do not care about the health service or about public education. As the Labour Party would be disadvantaged if there were a low turnout, I think that is of questionable propriety. Many of the people who did not vote did not do so because they did not care about the services, they were expressing a particular view. The notion that turnout as such is something which should be encouraged is right. However, many people are actually expressing a view by deciding not to vote in particular elections.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, makes a perfectly valid point. Incidentally, I think the Electoral Commission has done good work and its independence is something we should be proud of and value. There were those who questioned whether a commission could ever be independent. I applaud them for encouraging people to vote. As the noble Lord said, turnout is very important and an acid test of effective elective democracy. That is something we should all encourage. However, he is right to say that people have a right to abstain and to express a view in that way. One has to respect that.
There is a point that the Minister did not mention about the Electoral Commission. We may get to it by the next amendment, it depends on how we get on with this one. I have a copy of the Electoral Commission's response to the consultation paper, and the response to the proposals is hardly glowing. It would be fair to say that the Electoral Commission has the greatest possible reservations about what the Government are doing. I have the paper here and if the Minister wishes to take that point from it, he can.
It is very clear from the Electoral Commission's response that it feels that this proposal is fraught with hazard. It is fraught with the hazards which, to some extent, I have already outlined. It is a perfectly reasonable suggestion that there should be a greater voter turnout. However, what about voter confusion? We have a very sophisticated electorate, but why should it have to try to decide between two or threeand in London three or fourforms of voting? Why should it be pestered with different pieces of paper and propaganda for the same day? My view is that the more you try to do on one day, the less likely it is the electorate will turn out. Voters will simply throw their hands up in despair and say, "Why should we even bother?".
The only rationale for this proposal that I have heard from the Minister today is that it will increase voter turnout. I do not agree with that. I do not think the Electoral Commission feels that the proposal will achieve anything. I think there are real problems about having legislative dates for elections and then changing them. I am sure this Government are benign. There could be other governments that are not benign. While I do not suggest any question of governments abandoning elections, I think that tinkering with election dates looks very curious. I wish to test the opinion of the House.
Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.