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Lord Lea of Crondall: I am grateful to my noble friend for saying that he will give the amendment further consideration, albeit not perhaps in its current form of words. I look forward to hearing what form of words the Government might consider tabling on Report in order to meet the point, the case for which the Minister substantially accepted. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 6 agreed to.

Clause 7 [Postal votes for workers absent from ballot at workplace]:

Baroness Miller of Hendon moved Amendment No. 14:

The noble Baroness said: In moving Amendment No. 14, I wish to speak also to Amendment No. 15. They are both drafting amendments that would clarify Clause 7, without altering it in any way. In fact, they would simply remove a drafting ambiguity.

In Clause 7, the Government have decided that there should be the facility for employees to cast their votes by post. As an aside, I can hope only that that facility will work better than the shambles which appears to be happening as regards whether people receive their voting papers for the forthcoming elections. The employee has to decide whether to avail himself of the opportunity,

However, it is not clear whether that means before the ballot is called, or in advance of its closure. It is really not practical—in the words used by the two relevant sub-paragraphs—for the worker to make this decision before the start of the process. He may not even have heard about it until the campaign—if I may call it that—begins. The proper time for the worker to avail himself of the facility for postal voting is before the close of the poll when he knows all about it.

The effect of these amendments is simply to remove any possible ambiguity or doubt. I beg to move.

Lord Davies of Oldham: I am grateful that the noble Baroness spoke to Amendments Nos. 14 and 15 as they embrace exactly the same principle. I shall speak overwhelmingly to Amendment No. 14 while recognising that my arguments apply also to Amendment No. 15.

As the noble Baroness said, the amendments seek to extend the period in which a worker may reasonably request a postal ballot because he or she will be absent from the workplace on the day of a workplace ballot.
 
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As drafted, Clause 7 states that the CAC must make arrangements for a worker who is unable to vote in person at the workplace—because of matters relating to him or her as an individual—to have the opportunity to vote by post if the worker concerned requests it far enough in advance of the ballot for this to be practicable.

These amendments seek to ensure that such arrangements must be made where a worker's request is made far enough in advance of the end of the ballot. I respect, of course, the noble Baroness's intention which is to ensure that as many workers as possible have the opportunity to vote. Of course, we share that objective entirely. Indeed, that is why we introduced the right to vote by post for workers who are absent from the workplace for legitimate reasons, for example being on annual leave or having time off for public duties such as jury service.

However, the amendments will not in the overwhelming majority of cases buy workers much time. A large number of workplace ballots take place on a single day. All the others take place within two days although we found one case of a ballot taking as long as three days. Therefore, we are not talking about a significantly extended period for the worker to exercise his proper right to participate in the ballot.

Of course, these amendments may give workers who are unexpectedly absent on the day of the ballot, perhaps through illness, an opportunity to vote, rather than missing their one chance. However, this would mean that the worker was too ill to go to work but well enough to make his representation to submit a postal ballot before the close of voting, which, as I have indicated, constitutes a very limited period of time in most ballots.

So I am not convinced that the amendment would deliver any significant benefit. It would, of course, pose some practical difficulties for the qualified independent person appointed to conduct the ballot. Under this amendment the QIP could not be sure, even on the morning of the ballot, who would be voting in person and who would be voting by post. This would unnecessarily complicate the QIP's job and inevitably delay the process.

In any ballot or election there must be a cut-off for the sending out of postal ballot papers. Such limits apply in our public elections where we require persons to request a postal vote well in advance of election day. This is essential to ensure that the relevant authorities can keep track of how and when people are entitled to vote. It also ensures fairness so that no voter can gain advantage by voting after the majority have done so when a picture may already be appearing of how the various parties have fared.

Of course, this does mean that some voters who wish to vote are unable to do so. As I say, I recognise the noble Baroness's intention to make it as feasible as possible for people to cast their vote. However, accommodating people who discover on the very day of the ballot that they cannot vote at the last minute is neither practical nor fair to other voters.
 
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I fully understand the noble Baroness's motivations in tabling these amendments. Her intentions are good ones. However, I believe that the gains would be small indeed due to the short period of time within which such ballots are conducted. The amendments would pose significant disadvantages to the efficacy and integrity of the ballot procedure. On that basis I ask the noble Baroness to consider withdrawing her amendment.

Baroness Miller of Hendon: I am extremely disappointed with the Minister's answer to this simple amendment. Line 31 on page 8, Clause 7, states that the worker has,

The Minister commented that often the ballots are done in one day. I did not include the provision that they should request it far enough in advance—it is in the Bill. I was saying merely that if the worker has to decide whether the request is far enough in advance of the ballot, he needs to know when the close of the ballot will be. That is important. If a postal vote is requested, why must it be far in advance? If it happens in one day—one, two, three quick and it is over—it is an extraordinary state of affairs.

However, I shall read carefully what the Minister has said, but I do not agree with it and I am disappointed that he said it so quickly. In fact, he said in his opening remarks that he did not agree with the proposal, so I gleaned that even before I heard the explanation. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 15 not moved.]

Baroness Miller of Hendon moved Amendment No. 16:


"(3) For the avoidance of doubt, it is hereby declared that nothing in Schedule A1 to the 1992 Act (collective bargaining: recognition) shall imply that a failure to vote by any worker for whatever reason shall be interpreted as if the worker is voting either for or against the proposal in any recognition or derecognition ballot."

The noble Baroness said: I would have thought that it was axiomatic that the only conclusion that could be drawn from the fact that someone did not vote in any ballot was simply that he did not vote. That is all it means. That applies to ballots under this Bill or in any other ballot or election.

However, I want to draw the Committee's attention to an exchange that occurred in the other place during its Second Reading debate. The honourable Member for Warrington North asked the Secretary of State:

I have to assume that the honourable lady would like them to count as "yes" votes because she went on to ask:


 
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Instead of shooting this bizarre concept down in flames, the Secretary of State replied:

To be fair to the Secretary of State—despite what one Member of the Committee said, I always try to be helpful and fair—I freely acknowledge that the Bill does not contain any provision to alter the implications of the abstention.

I am also prepared to recognise the fact that in the heat and pressure of a debate one can say something that goes further than one really intended. However, the fact is that these days, in a change to the rules of interpretation of Acts of Parliament, the judges are prepared to look at what Ministers have said during the passage of the Bill.

It is therefore important that there should be a clear statement from the Government on the parliamentary record that, as I said in my opening remarks, the only interpretation that can be placed on an abstention is that the person did not vote.

I look forward to the Minister's confirmation of what I believe is a self-evident truth and to give him that opportunity of saying so, I beg to move.


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