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Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, my noble friend has great experience of the issues, and I agree with her that all political parties have sought to maximise the opportunities provided by postal voting.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: My Lords, what has happened to the concept of accountability in government? This issue has arisen not because of what happened in 1948 but because the Government chose to change the rules in the teeth of opposition in this House and from the Electoral Commission. How can the Minister say that the Labour Party has no responsibility? The Labour Party is the Government, and the Government did this. I greatly admire the Minister, but I do not understand why the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor is not here to deal with the matter, which is of the utmost seriousness.

While we are on the subject of accountability, I ask why no Minister or no representative of the Electoral Commission was available to speak on the "Today" programme and other programmes this morning, when the whole nation was appalled by what had
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happened in Birmingham. The commission seems to bombard us with paper every day of the week, so why was there silence on this subject? Are the Government hoping to sweep it under the carpet because it is embarrassing? The embarrassment comes from the failure of the Government to listen to advice and their determination to do everything possible to get their vote out in the face of the disillusion among their supporters.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, sometimes I cannot win. Yesterday, it was clear to me that we should make a Statement on the matter, and I felt that it was right and proper to make the Statement to Parliament, rather than on the "Today" programme. I also think that it was important to have the full judgment before us—as I said, I have not had a chance to read the 192-page judgment in detail, although I shall—to make sure that we did not in any way say anything that was not appropriate. I make no apology for coming to the House first; that is right and proper.

The thing that I find difficult about the debate is that much of the opposition to which noble Lords have referred and the famous ping-pong related to the all-postal voting pilots. They are nothing to do with these votes, which were run on traditional lines, as it were. The point that I was making was that it was important to consider the issue in the context of our national voting system and the way in which postal votes are used.

I accept responsibility and accountability in the sense that it is important that the Government act now with the Association of Chief Police Officers, returning officers and the Electoral Commission to deal with the issues properly. When I said that I did not believe that it was a national Labour Party issue, I was referring to the fact that the judge was not suggesting that the national Labour Party was fraudulent or corrupt in any way—quite the opposite. The judge was saying that it was clear that the issue had arisen in the Birmingham Labour Party and therefore the responsibility of the national Labour Party is to deal with that. The party has taken the action that I mentioned.

Lord Roberts of Llandudno: My Lords, my noble friend Lord Garden mentioned the injustice that might be done to military personnel in the coming general election. We know that postal votes will possibly be posted out in the constituencies by, say, 23 or 24 April. How can we be certain that, wherever troops who are eligible to vote by post are, they will receive those votes in time to complete them and return them for inclusion in the count in their constituency? What assurance can the Minister give us on that?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, the noble Lord will be unsurprised to hear that I cannot give him details about voting by military personnel at this stage. It is not in the brief that I have because it is not part of my ministerial responsibility. I commit to responding properly to the noble Lord and to the noble Lord, Lord Garden, and I will put a copy of the letter in the
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Library, so that the noble Lord is fully satisfied. I shall ask my ministerial colleagues to be in touch with him, if he has any further questions in that area.

Lord Naseby: My Lords, is the Minister aware that in another place I had the privilege of having three recounts for 179 and three recounts for 142, but I had the confidence that the postal vote was valid and secure? I recognise that the Minister has said some brave words today which are full of good intent. If we are to have a code of conduct, one thing that could be done is to ensure that the returning officer has the strength and the power to reject any postal vote that he believes to be suspect. At present he does not have that right, but, in the current circumstances, he certainly needs it.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, all those recounts must have been exciting. I agree with the noble Lord. It is very important that in the work now done with returning officers—which is under way, as a letter went out this morning—we ensure that they have the ability to deal with those issues in the right way. As the noble Lord knows from answers that I have already given, there are issues that can be dealt with without primary legislation, which, in this area, for good reason, are very specific. It is our intention to tighten legislation where necessary to ensure that we deal with those issues properly in order to give precisely what the noble Lord wants; namely, confidence in the coming election.

Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill

4.20 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal): My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(Baroness Scotland of Asthal.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The DEPUTY CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES (Lord Ampthill) in the Chair.]

Clause 1 agreed to.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: I hope that the Committee will forgive me for speaking somewhat out of turn, but I know that there has been a great deal of anxiety about two parts of the Bill. I thought that it would be useful to the Committee if I indicated the position of the Government now.

The first matter concerns the provisions relating to incitement of religious hatred. Members of the Committee will know that a great deal of time was spent on that issue at Second Reading and that the Government profoundly believe that an offence of incitement to religious hatred is necessary in order to provide equality of protection for our communities. The protection needed is from extremist activity and the type
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of activity that contributed to the disturbances in Bradford and Burnley in 2001. We believe that it is time that we reject such behaviour wholeheartedly and make a stand about the type of society in which we want to live. From the Second Reading debate, I know that that is a view strongly held by the Members of this House.

That said, we are in an unusual situation. The election has now been called. Other parties have made it clear that they oppose the provision as drafted. Given all the other important measures in the Bill, including those to help defeat organised crime and animal rights extremists, it would be wrong to lose the whole Bill for the sake of that one measure.

None the less, it is with considerable regret that I advise the Committee that the Government will not oppose the Motions in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain; namely, that Clause 124 and Schedule 10 do not stand part of the Bill. However, the Government remain firmly of the view that there should be equality for those of all faiths, and of none, in law. We cannot see why it is right to retain protection in law for Jews and Sikhs, but wrong not to extend it to Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists and other faiths. It remains the firm and clear intention of this Government to give the people of all faiths the same protection against incitement to hatred on the basis of their religion.

The other matter that caused a deal of concern, which it might help the Committee if I deal with at this stage, relates to custody officers. I am aware of concerns about Clauses 116 and 117, which provide for the civilianisation of custody officers. I can assure the Committee that there is no intention to dilute the key role of the custody officer, nor to dilute the ability of the custody officer to act independently of the investigative process.

Dealing with the skills and abilities issue, the chief officer must be satisfied that a person designated as a staff custody officer is suitable, capable and has received adequate training. National occupational standards, developed by Skills for Justice, are already in place and have formed the basis for an integrated competency framework, which sets out the tasks and outcomes to be achieved in the custody officer role.

Centrex, the national police training agency, is developing guidance that, in turn, will set out how the standards are to be achieved. As a result of those initiatives, we will have clearly set out occupational standards for use by both police and police staff employed in that task. The authority and the independence of the role is set out in PACE, which provides the custody officer with recourse to a superintendent in the event that his or her authority is questioned. That will not change.

We fully recognise that it serves the interests of no one to undermine the authority of a custody officer. In rolling out these provisions we will ensure that that message is heard loud and clear by all concerned. We know that this is an issue that has caused anxiety. We hope that the
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clarity with which I have just expressed our intent will greatly assist Members of the Committee, so that this will be a matter with which they may feel able to be content.

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