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Lord Renton: My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Lord has borne in mind that among this mass of legislation, which he asks your Lordships to complete this week, will be the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill, which we have not yet started and which runs to 240 pages with amendments running to 45 pages. The Bill is very controversial in places. Would it not be better to carry that Bill over into another Parliament?
Lord Boston of Faversham: My Lords, can the noble Lord the Captain of the Gentlemen-at-Arms say whether his Statement, and in particular the various dates which he has announced to your Lordships this afternoonespecially the date of the State Openinghas any effect on the planned Recess dates, which he helpfully announced last November? In particular, does it have any effect on the planned date for the Whitsun Recess, which I believe was scheduled to start with the House rising on 26 May and reassembling on Monday, 6 June?
Lord Renton: My Lords, when I mentioned that the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill should carry on into another Parliament, I really meant that it would be better if we abandoned it in this Parliament and started it entirely afresh in another Parliament.
Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, I support that because the Bill contains 174 clauses and 18 schedules. There are a lot of words in the Bill and much opposition to it. That includes a good deal of opposition from the Police Federation, which is extremely concerned at some of the measures contained in it, especially where it hands over police powers to civilian people in, for example, looking after prisoners in police stations. The Bill also contains questions relating to assembly. That is certainly of concern to people who are worried about the erosion of individual rights of assembly. One could go on: the Bill contains a huge list of problems.
Bearing in mind that we have not even reached the Committee stageit is not a question of resuming it; we have not even started itwould it not be in the interests of democracy for the Bill, which has been through the Commons, to be stood down for the time being? It could be introduced back into the Commons, where it would perhaps pass quickly and formally, and then come to this House for its proper Committee and Report stages and Third Reading so that the whole context of the Bill could be considered properly. The fact that government amendments have been tabled shows that some things are wrong with the Bill.
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I implore the Government and, indeed, the Opposition, not to let this very serious, contentious and important Bill go through. It has implications for the individual rights of people in this country and the way we are policed. I ask them to reconsider their decision.
Lord Grocott: My Lords, when I respond to the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, I always reflect on the time when he was quite a tough-minded Whip in the other place. I was not exactly in fear and trembling of him but I recognised then that he understood, as I am sure he does now, that decisions on business always involve compromises about what time can be spent on different aspects. He mentions the interests of democracy, but I would have thought that the interests of democracy would be served by the Commons passing the Bill after scrutiny. Clearly, all sides agree that it is a Bill that will benefit the people of this country.
Lord Grocott: My Lords, on the contributions from the two Front Benches, from the noble Lords, Lord Cope and Lord Roper, I appreciate the co-operation and the manner in which it has taken place. As is always the case, it has involved all of us making compromises and none of us achieving precisely and exactly what he or she would like.
I recognise the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Roper, on the Charities Bill. I know it is a Bill that many people want. It was included in the Queen's Speech. My view of the Queen's Speech was that it included pretty well everything that anyone could reasonably hope for. Who knows, a future Queen's Speech may include something similar to the Charities Bill.
On the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Renton, I acknowledge that many of these Bills are long and complicated, but from his very long experience in this House and in the other place he will recognise that there are always accelerated procedures at this time in every Parliament. The discussions that have taken place between the various Front Benches, which I hope reflect the views of many Back-Benchers as well, will mean that, while no one achieves everything that he wants in the Bill, there will be an acceptable compromise that will enable the Bill to pass on to the statute book as quickly as possible.
In response to the noble Lord, Lord Boston, it has always been an ambition of mine to protect Recess dates. I am strongly in favour of that. I fear that I cannot give any guarantees about the next Parliament as we do not know what we shall be doing in the next Parliament. My strong commitment to protect Recess dates may be an added reason to vote Labour.
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Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, I noted what he said about the House of Commons having discussed and passed the police Bill, but this is supposed to be a bicameral, not a unicameral, Parliament. A Bill should not become an Act until it has received due process and discussion in both Houses, but will not receive that in this House. I believe that that undermines our parliamentary system. Once again, I implore the Government and the Opposition to reconsider their position on this very contentious and important Bill.
Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, on the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill, to which we shall turn soon today, it will become apparent in the course of the discussions that there has been considerable agreement for changes to be made to it; for example, the dropping of the clauses concerned with religious hatred and other aspects. At the beginning of the discussions on that Bill it may be helpful if the Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland of Asthal, makes clear the changes being made so as to reassure people that it is not the full Bill as originally envisaged up to this point.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend Mr Nick Raynsford. The Statement is as follows:
"With permission Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement on postal voting fraud, in the Birmingham wards of Bordesley Green and Aston. The judgment was announced yesterday. The judge declared both elections void.
"We unreservedly condemn the abuses of postal voting in Birmingham. With a general election having been announced today, we are taking further steps to reinforce the safeguards against any potential fraud and we are determined that the fraud in these cases in Birmingham does not undermine public confidence in the electoral system.
"Honourable Members may be aware that there are tough penalties already in place for electoral fraud: on conviction, those found guilty are liable to two years in prison and an unlimited fine, as well as disqualification from voting and standing for office.
"In general the system in the UK has been secure and commanded public confidence. We have no history of widespread electoral fraud and there is no reason to believe that electoral fraud has become widespread. In fact, evidence suggests that it is very rare. Since 1998 there have been only four recorded prosecutions for electoral fraud.
"Contrary to suggestions that have been made, the Government are not complacent. Our top priority is to safeguard the integrity of the ballot. To ensure that the system stays safe and secure we have put in place the following. The Electoral Commission has already published on 29 March 2005 a code of conduct for political parties, candidates and canvassers on the handling of postal vote applications and postal ballot papers. We expect all political parties and candidates to confirm their commitment to this code.
"We will pursue new initiatives with the police to ensure that offenders are brought to justice. I have spoken this morning to my right honourable friend the Home Secretary who has confirmed he will be discussing this with the Association of Chief Police Officers tomorrow.
"Following the judgment, we have now written to all returning officers, stressing the importance of taking counter measures against electoral fraud. The Electoral Commission, together with the Association of Chief Police Officers, will shortly publish guidance specifically for returning officers and local police forces on fraud prevention and investigation. It is vital that all organisations work together to protect the integrity of the electoral process.
"To back these renewed efforts we have provided additional funding for the forthcoming general election above that given in 2001. Around £10 million
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of that extra money is to support the administration of the elections. This will help support returning officers dealing with additional requests for postal votes and put in place measures that maintain the integrity of the electoral process.
"As the Birmingham cases have related very specifically to postal voting, I believe that it is important to put in context the full implication of postal voting opportunities in the UK. Postal voting has been available in one form or another since 1918, initially for service personnel and subsequently extended to cover those physically incapable of going in person to the poll, or absent because of their occupation, change of address, or holiday. Five years ago, the Representation of the People Act extended the option of postal voting, following the recommendation of an all-party working party on electoral procedures.
"The system whereby anyone can apply for a postal vote has now been in place since that date. The proportion of people taking advantage has increased substantially. At the 2001 general election, the number of postal votes almost doubled from the 1997 election level to approximately 4 per cent. In the 2002 local elections, 7.7 per cent of the electorate had postal votes. At the 2004 European elections outside the four all-postal regions, approximately 8.3 per cent of the electorate had postal votes. This trend reflects the popularity and convenience of voting by post, something which has also been evidenced in the series of all-postal voting pilots conducted in local authority elections since 2000. Postal voting provides an easy and accessible way for many people to participate in the democratic process. People should have the right to a postal vote if that is what they want.
"Having said that, it is essential to maintain the integrity of the electoral process and we are taking the measures that I have outlined to ensure this. The Electoral Commission, which has rejected any question of withdrawing postal ballots, has also recommended, in its report Voting for change, a number of measures to improve security. The Government published their response to this report in December 2004, accepting the large majority of the recommendations. We will put these measures into statute when parliamentary time allows.
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