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Lord Rennard: My Lords, I shall consider the issues of electoral legislation proposed in the gracious Speech, but first I want to consider some wider issues about the principles of fairness and democracy upon which electoral legislation should be based. Issues such as preserving the secrecy of the ballot, encouraging participation, preventing fraud and maintaining the integrity of the whole process are of course very important. But even more important should be the principle of making every vote of equal value and upholding the key democratic principle that voting should be about giving people the representation that they vote for. That principle was clearly something that was not achieved on 5 May, and measures to deal with that issue should have featured in the gracious Speech.

Something is clearly rotten in a system in which it takes 26,858 votes to elect a Labour MP, 44,241 votes to elect a Conservative MP and 98,484 votes to elect a Liberal Democrat MP. People did not vote for Labour to be given 55 per cent of the membership of the House of Commons. I accept that no electoral system may be perfect, and there may be a case for a largest-party bonus to facilitate majority government on occasions. But you cannot consider it properly democratic to give an extra 20 per cent of the seats to a party that can poll only 35 per cent of the vote so that barely a third of those voting are represented by significantly more than half of the MPs.

In the 1930s, Mussolini passed a law that meant that whichever was the largest party in the Italian Parliament was automatically allocated as of right two-thirds of the seats. All over the world, countries that were free and able to choose their representatives democratically condemned Mussolini's travesty of democracy. Yet in effect, that sort of abuse of the democratic principle has now been imposed on this country, because those elected by the present system choose to ignore the fact that it no longer serves to create a representative parliament.

Our political system has moved on from the 19th century, but our electoral system has not, and it is time that it did. Of course, the excuse of those who benefit disproportionately from the present electoral system is that alternatives give too much power to what they describe as minority parties. But what is a minority party? If it is one that represents less than 50 per cent of the voters, then all three major parties in Great Britain are minority parties. The problem is now with the largest minority exercising disproportionate power, not the threat that future legislation may require something nearer to majority support.

For the last three days of the general election campaign, the Prime Minister deployed one single argument above any other. He said that people should vote not for a party that they had chosen to support but for a different party in order to prevent a third party that they were more opposed to from winning seats. Democracy should be about enabling voters to vote for what they believe in and getting a parliament and government that represents them. We must
 
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consider what sort of democracy we have when parties have to spend so much time saying, "Don't vote for what you believe in—vote for your second choice to stop your third choice from getting in".

A simple change to preference voting, allowing voters to rank candidates in order, from one to three and so on, would prevent that happening. Even allowing a second preference, as in the London mayoral elections, would enable more voters to vote for more of what they wanted. Of course, further distortions may then occur and so-called "top-ups" may be required, but multi-member constituencies would be a better long-term solution—the system used in Northern Ireland and, very effectively, in the Republic of Ireland. The debate about how we vote in the United Kingdom will not now go away.

I turn to the issue to which I am very glad that the Government have turned their attention, albeit belatedly—that of potential postal vote fraud. It was the subject of much heated debate in this place in the run-up to the 2004 local and European elections. The imposition of widespread compulsory postal voting against the recommendations of the independent Electoral Commission taught us several things last year. First, confidence in the entire electoral process was significantly undermined. Secondly, there was only a very small additional turnout in regions with compulsory postal voting as opposed to regions with voting principally based on polling stations—a measure of about 4 per cent. Thirdly, there is a very real need to reduce the potential for abuse of postal voting even where voters have to choose to vote by post.

The recent general election has told us that the Government were quite wrong to ignore warnings about postal vote abuse over the past year. The election campaign also highlighted significant problems with large numbers of voters voting in a different way and at a different time to other voters. But once again, there appeared to be very little benefit to overall turnout, despite massive campaigns by all parties to persuade their voters to register for a postal vote. The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor referred to the increase in the number of postal vote applications in this general election—up from 4 per cent last time to 15 per cent this time. But the overall turnout of voters increased by only 2 per cent. If perhaps 80 per cent of those 15 per cent of voters voted immediately, it means that something like one in five of those people who voted in the general election voted a week or 10 days before others who had before them the full weight of all the evidence produced in the last third of the election campaign.

I welcome the fact that the Government appear to be moving in the direction advocated by the Electoral Commission, and by Members on all Benches apart from their own on previous occasions, of individual voter registration. Let me make it plain that I welcome very much the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton. But let me explain explicitly on the subject of individual voter registration that I do not personally have any problem at all with
 
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the idea that there should be a household form—but it should have individual signatures and dates of birth, which would be an effective deterrent against fraud and is very much what I sought more than a year ago when we had our debates about the all-postal voting systems in 2004.

Acknowledging the receipt of an application to vote by post is another measure that I believe would be very welcome. That was a measure that some of us fought for then and which would help significantly in improving the integrity of the process. Tougher penalties for fraud are also welcome. They will act as a measure of deterrent, but further measures to detect and prevent fraud are still required. The acknowledgment of when a postal vote has been received would be an important safeguard for voters who would know that a vote had been lodged in their name.

The issue of parties encouraging postal vote applications is a tricky one. For many decades, skilled canvassers, no doubt many of them here today, have carried applications to vote by post with them, and I do not believe that they should be prevented from doing so. Nor is it practical to suggest that parties should desist from encouraging their supporters to vote by post. The key issue in my view is to ensure that the voter has the best possible opportunity to return the postal vote application themselves, directly, using the Freepost system, to either the relevant local returning officer or to the Electoral Commission nationally.

Above all, however, it is clear that it is necessary to maintain the right of voters to vote at a polling station in the traditional way, in proper conditions of privacy and security. As the Electoral Commission has argued, that should be the default option. There is no other way of guaranteeing proper respect for the secrecy of the ballot: something we have believed in as important in this country since 1832. Any further attempts to impose again compulsory postal voting will meet the strongest possible resistance, which will be tougher since the stance that most of this House and all but one major party took was so thoroughly vindicated in last year's elections.

I mention briefly two other issues: first, the timing of voting by post. More time should be allowed for postal votes to be returned and counted, especially given the unreliability of the Post Office. It would not be a major disservice to democracy if a week after the normal polling day was allowed for postal votes to be returned. That would be a system copied from many other countries and an effective way of making sure that people can vote at the last possible minute in full awareness of all the evidence during the course of the election campaign.

Secondly, on improving voter turnout, which many of us want to see, the time has come to consider voting on a Saturday or Sunday, or preferably both: not disrupting schools and children's education and making things inconvenient for parents, but allowing people to vote at the weekend when many of them are freer to do so and not on a working day. I look forward to debating many of these issues.
 
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6.31 pm

Lord Donaldson of Lymington: My Lords, I want to say a brief word about constitutional matters. It has to be a brief word because the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor has failed to give any indication of the way the Government's mind is moving. I understand that in due course there will be papers on methods of conducting our business and on the composition of the House. That will be the time to discuss in detail various matters that arise.

However, it is possible to make one or two comments at this stage. We are regaled once again with the mantra that the other place is the supreme House of Parliament. I accept that it is in the sense that it controls supply, which must place it in a lead position, but I do not accept it if it is suggested that it is the lead House because it is more in touch with the needs and wishes of the people of this country. Certainly it is more in touch with some aspects; the aspects that come up in constituency surgeries. It does not follow that it is equally au fait with some of the wider issues, for instance, in law, order or industry, where this House has particular expertise.

This House has two functions which it will always have to have: first, as a revising House. Most members of the Government say that it is a revising House and think that that is the end of the matter, but it is not. Secondly, it is also a delaying House, which has the power to cause the government of the day to think again.

The revising function splits into two parts, which are not clearly defined. The Opposition suggest revisions that are clearly unacceptable to the government of the day and are put forward merely to advertise their alternative point of view. However, a number of amendments are put forward that are intended to be and would be helpful if considered on their merits. I have been saddened during the past year in particular to notice how rarely it is that those suggestions are examined on their merits. There is a human nature element: if one served on the Bill team for some months and ended up with a flurry of work just before the debates, one would not be in a frame of mind to take kindly to someone's suggestion even if it happened to be a better idea than one previously thought, because of the prospect of the work involved in studying and giving effect to it.

The delaying power is fundamental. We must have power to cause the Government to think again, otherwise we will have an elective dictatorship. Every government, going back to early Conservative governments with whom I used to talk from time to time—at arm's length, of course—would like to get rid of any form of check or balance on their work. It is a natural reaction for any government, but it has to be resisted at all costs.

The effort in 1945 to reduce the period of delay lacked any validity as a matter of law. It was probably a sensible arrangement because a delay of more than two Sessions in modern conditions is too much, but any suggestion that we take it further should be resisted to the end.
 
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One of the few clear indications given by the noble and learned Lord is that the Government look favourably on having a 60-sitting-day time limit for disposing of Bills. If the Opposition can control the House's business there will be no problem with that, but if the business of the House is to be controlled by the Government, I know from discussions with the usual channels that the bottom line is that the Government are entitled to decide what business should be discussed and when. As long as that is the case there cannot be a time limit, because they can simply say, "Well, you can have a day here and that's the lot". That will not do: it is a complete denial of the powers of this House.

On the delay power I am completely in agreement with the Liberal Democrats that the day of the Salisbury convention has come and gone. We now have a majority of Labour Peers in this House and the rationale of the Salisbury convention was based on the in-built Tory majority. That has disappeared—


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