Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Hanham moved Amendment No. 10:

(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: My Lords, I alluded in my final remarks on the previous amendment to the Electoral Commission—the Government's own creature—the views of which are extremely important in terms of electoral progress and probity. A little while ago I asked the Electoral Commission for its views and received a perfectly public document—that is, its response to the consultation paper.

It is fair to say that the Electoral Commission has considerable reservations in regard to these proposals. Its reservations are important because they relate to the constitutional principle of changing the dates fixed in law

10 Jul 2003 : Column 456

by Parliament; the complexities for the voters of the range of votes and electoral systems; the risk of confusing or obscuring the issues at stake in each of the elections; and the difficulty for returning officers of conducting several elections, particularly with different voting systems.

The Electoral Commission has stated that it sees the potential benefits as the possibility of maximising voter turn-out and removing the inconvenience for electors and party workers of two separate polls within five weeks. But, as far as I can see, those are the only two benefits. The others are overtaken by the concerns it expresses.

The amendment seeks to ensure that the views of the Electoral Commission are taken again—because, I understand, there should be a second consultation—and that those views are made widely known. I beg to move.

Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, I declare an interest as someone who will be contesting the elections next summer.

Cynicism is, unfortunately, part of my personality make-up. I have listened with enormous interest to the contributions made by both the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, just now and, a few minutes ago, by the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, who, I regret to say, is no longer in his place. The noble Baroness displayed an enormous respect for the Electoral Commission, whereas her colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, a few minutes ago said that it was a dreadful organisation which promoted increased turn-out in elections.

I wonder what is the purpose of the amendment. It requires the Electoral Commission to produce a report—a report which, I suspect, will be something of a no-brainer. In London, for example, if elections are combined, electors going to the polls will be asked to mark ballot papers five times; they will be given three separate pieces of paper; and candidates will be elected under four different electoral systems. If you present a detailed report on whether or not that is potentially confusing and require the Electoral Commission to publish it—and, no doubt, spend an enormous amount of money in so doing—you are actually seeking to frighten people from going to the polls. If we end up with a great debate about how complicated voting will be in the elections next summer—because it is all so difficult with the different systems and different ballot papers—we will succeed in putting off people and reducing the overall level of turn-out.

We can have enjoyable debates in the House about the mechanisms of the D'Hondt system for allocating additional members and how the system will work, but that does not matter to the people who are voting. They want to know, quite simply, that they go to the polling station, or vote by post, or whatever it may be, and that they cast their vote for the parties of their choice. It is as simple as that. That is all they have to do. That is the only message that is required. The more that public organisations, politicians and other opinion formers seek to tell people that this process is

10 Jul 2003 : Column 457

very complicated and difficult and that they will find it hard to express their point of view when they get there, the more likely it is that we will have a reduced turnout.

The reality is that this amendment calls for a report to be published—I do not know at what expense—which will tell us something we already know but in a way that will increase the sense that these elections are somehow difficult and to be avoided. The amendment has an underlying strand running underneath it. The noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, let the cat out of the bag earlier when he said, essentially, that it is Conservative Party policy to depress turnout whenever possible, because higher turnouts favour the Labour Party.

If that is the motivation, fine. Let us be explicit about that. The amendment is about confusing the electorate by telling them that voting is difficult. I do not believe it to be worthy of the support of your Lordships' House.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the amendment sets out a range of issues about which the Secretary of State would be obliged to invite the views of the Electoral Commission. Although I reject the need for the amendment, for reasons that I will explain, at least it shows that the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, is thinking a little more constructively.

I listened with interest to what the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, had to say about the matter. I think that he is right. There is a tendency to talk down turnout, which is the danger of this amendment and may explain the politics that lie behind it.

I want to focus on the constructive and make it plain that we as a Government value the view of the Electoral Commission. It is important, otherwise we would not have sought to create a commission in the first instance. The commission's views could be embarrassing to the Government. It could be interpreted as being in disagreement with the Government, but it was established to have independent view. We welcome the commission's comments. That is why we consulted the commission on the principle of this particular combination, why we have regular exchanges and why we will consult it about any orders moving the date or amending the rules necessary for the conduct of the combined elections before putting them before Parliament.

We reject the need for Amendment No. 10. We want the commission to report its views on these issues in its own way reflecting its impartiality. Indeed, the commission has commented on all of the issues raised in the amendment, so requiring it to do so is mysteriously superfluous.

Some important things were said in the Electoral Commission's response. It was recognised that combining elections could be beneficial and would help to maximise the turnout. It would also remove the inconvenience factor for voters, and for party workers and activists in terms of running two separate sets of elections within five weeks—we know how inconvenient that can be. We wholly agree with the commission. I continue to be puzzled about why members of the party opposite are so opposed to having two elections on one

10 Jul 2003 : Column 458

day. It is not as if they were not involved in the great experiment. In 1979, there was a very high turnout for the local elections that were held on same day as the general election.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, is a member of the party that ensured that there was a combination election on that occasion, and I do not remember them trotting off to seek consultation. They were happy with the outcome, as they were with the outcome whenever there have been other combinations of elections during the period that they were in office.

The commission was plain about its concern about the risk of confusing or obscuring the issues at stake in different elections. There is a need to explain the different voting systems to the public as well as the practical difficulties for returning officers and their staff of administering a combined election, especially when different voting systems are used. Those are issues that we and others—including the commission and electoral administrators—are addressing.

We accept that there are areas of concern, but we do not accept that they should prevent us from combining elections. We can address the issues that have been raised and will continue to have a dialogue with the commission on those matters. We have already discussed the benefits of combining elections, so we think that the amendment is superfluous. I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, will feel able to withdraw it.

Baroness Hanham: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. I am not sure whether to thank the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, for his contribution, because it was unusually unworthy. To play down turnout is certainly not something that my party is trying to do. It would be hard to do such a thing, because turnout in local elections keeps going down. To reduce turnout would not be to anyone's benefit.

I refer briefly to the Minister's comment about 1979. We were on a different playing field then. The 1979 general election was held on the date of the local elections, which had already been set. Although the two elections were combined, they were held on the same basis—first past the post. What has happened in the interim is that there is now a great run to adopt proportional representation, but not a proportional representation that has any logic. We have several varieties taking place on the same day.

The purpose of this amendment, and also the purpose of the previous debate, is to try to draw attention to the fact that there is a great deal of incoherence about what is predicated for June 2004. It is unsatisfactory that the Government can set about changing the dates of elections for not terribly good reasons. It will be interesting to see whether voter turnout is affected by the manner in which the elections are conducted. Having said that, I do not intend to pursue the matter further and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 11 not moved.]

10 Jul 2003 : Column 459

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page