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I return to the late timing of the order. Rushing through such changes often leads to unintended consequences. For example, the requirement for electors to sign for their ballot paper is not now being introduced in England before this year's local elections. This is due to the fact, I am told, that someone discovered that there was no legislation to deal with what would happen if an elector refused to sign: the elector could still demand a ballot paper. Is that true? What is the position so far as this order and Wales are concerned? Paragraph 7.34 of the Explanatory Memorandum contains a reference to electors signing for their ballot paper, but I cannot find a reference to it in the SI. That is a mystery. I hope that the Minister can clear it up, but it is probably too much to expect him to do so off the cuff. If he cannot do it now, I hope that he will write to me.
I reiterate my concern that such an important and complex order needs to be closely scrutinised, and our current procedure, which does not allow amendment, is hardly appropriate. The Government of Wales Act brings into effect the formal separation between the executive and the legislative arms of the Assembly, resulting in most of the statutory functions that are currently exercised by the Assembly becoming the responsibility of the Assembly Ministers. Ministers must therefore take on the detailed implementation of this order. It is vital that they do so fairly and impartially to all electors and candidates, whatever political party they support.
Lord Roberts of Llandudno: My Lords, the order cannot be amended, so we hope that any comments that we make tonight are helpful and can be thought about for future legislation. We have consulted the party in Wales, because this applies more to it than to us with the coming Assembly elections. It wants us to raise two points this evening.
First, there is no provision in the order for a structure for counting a Welsh Assembly election. Under the 1998 Act, there were such provisions. This in effect means that the count can now be a free-for-all. Some constituencies may choose to count as soon as the polls close; some may choose to wait until the following morning. It does not really serve Welsh democracy well to have a chaotic count following what will surely be an extremely well run election. Are there any plans to introduce such provisions?
The Minister has almost answered the second point already. Samples of the ballot papers for both
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Finally, if the Liberal Democrat Benches had won all our amendments when the Government of Wales Bill was introduced here, we would have not an Assembly but a Senedd, or senate. That cannot be amended. We would have had 80 members instead of 60, to thoroughly scrutinise any legislation going before them. To avoid the great dispute between regional and constituency candidates, and who should stand where, we tried to introduce proportional representation in the form of the single transferable vote. That would have been the answer to the problem. There would have been no uncertainty at all between constituency and list members: all members would have equal validity.
We would also have given the Welsh Senedd the same powers as the Scottish Parliament. Noble Lords will remember that we had a long discussion on the subject of water. If the Liberal Democrats had had their way, the Welsh Assembly would have had a voice in the quantity, quality and distribution of water in Wales. It is too late. Her Majestys Government decreed otherwise. All we can do is say, If only you had listened to us on these Benches, we would have had a much more powerful and thorough Act now.
Elections to the Assembly are to go ahead as outlined in this order. We wish them well, but see them merely as a first step to electing a full and far more democratic Senedd, with far greater responsibilities. The best could well be yet to come.
Lord Crickhowell: My Lords, I express my gratitude to the Minister for introducing this remarkable document. I add to the concerns already voiced by my noble friend from the Front Bench about the process with which we are engaged. It is not a satisfactory way of dealing with parliamentary business to have a 277-page order for debate, unamendable, for consideration in such a short timescale and timetabled in this way.
It has been said that this is an important document; it is also complex. There are a great number of footnotes and explanations in the order itself, as well as the useful document that we have received that tries to make clarity out of obscurity. To see if the whole thing had been drawn up in a proper way, I tried to cross-check by homing in on something with which I thought I was familiar: election expenses. I quickly discovered that the current definitions of election expenses bear little resemblance to those that applied when I was a candidate, admittedly many years ago.
I inquired of the admirable staff of the Library whether the definitions here were the same as those that had applied in the last two general elections, and if not why not. The Library told me that the definitions are not the same and have been altered because of subsequent legislation. The Minister briefly referred to that point. I emerged satisfied from this exercise that some pretty thorough work has gone into this. I hope that it has gone in so efficiently throughout that there are no errors. Let us face it: it is complex and errors may have occurred. We cannot correct them at this stage and the whole process is advancing at a pretty fast pace.
I have one other observation on electoral expenses: the exclusion of those expenses that have to be put in the candidates return, such as accommodation that is the candidates sole or main residence, or accommodation provided by others that is a sole or main residence. In practice, is this matter examined with any great closeness by those who administer electoral expenses? Do those who fight for large constituencies and sometimes have to stay away a night from their main residence always return every item of expenditure? That may be so, but it is news to me that this was the law.
Then my noble friend referred to this whole worrying matter of postal votes. I, too, have received a communication from my local authority asking me to give a signature and to identify myself. My wife happens to be abroad, and I will have the greatest possible difficulty in getting a signature back. If, as my noble friend was suggesting, the timetable is even shorter in the case of the Welsh Assembly elections, we really have some practical difficulties to consider. I am not sure how we will resolve them.
My noble friend referred to what he called the controversial part of the 2006 Act, under which candidates may not stand for election at the same time in both an Assembly constituency and an electoral region. My description would be rather more critical than his. I thought that it was a pretty nasty piece of electoral gerrymandering.
The most interesting and revealing part of the documentation that we received was the Explanatory Memorandum, which I found fascinating and very useful; I am grateful for it. In it, we are told that the Electoral Administration Act 2006,
The first is improving access and engagement. As my noble friend said, with turnout down to 38 per cent, we have a long way to go on the matter of engagement. The second is improving confidence. In the light of the scandals to which my noble friend referred and the botched attempt by the Government to rush into much wider postal voting, I think that we are a long way yet from confidence. The third is,
My noble friend was right to refer to the article in the Sunday Times and the concerns expressed, not just in
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Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Roberts of Conwy, Lord Roberts of Llandudno and Lord Crickhowell, for their interesting and substantial comments on the order. I shall attempt to answer all the points but, if I fail to do so, I shall write to noble Lords.
The first point that the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Conwy, madea view shared by the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowellconcerned the timing of the order. Like him, I wish that it could have been brought forward earlier. As he pointed out, the Government of Wales Act and the Electoral Administration Act received Royal Assent several months ago, but this order also takes account of substantial changes made to secondary legislation in recent months. The last of these were in the local government election conduct orders made on 12 December. The present order was laid a week later and I hope that the noble Lord will accept that, in the circumstances, that was the earliest practicable date.
The noble Lord also raised specific points on absent votes and personal identifiers. Because this order could not be brought into force before the end of 2006, the timing provisions for collecting personal identifiers from existing absent voters are different from those in the Absent Voting (Transitional Provisions) (England and Wales) Regulations 2006, which relate to parliamentary and local government elections. But, if an elector has already provided identifiers under the transitional provisions regulations, those will be equally valid for Assembly elections, so there is no need to collect a second set.
We do not want people to fall off the list of postal voters. To minimise that risk, electors who do not respond to the first request will receive a reminder after three weeks. However, personal identifiers are a key element in improving security, so, if an elector has failed to provide them after a total of seven weeks, it will be necessary to remove that person from the list of absent voters. The electoral registration officer must notify electors in writing that that has been done and provide details of how, if they wish, they may submit a fresh application with the required personal identifiers. So every effort is being made to encourage people to remain registered as absent voters.
The level of verification prescribed for personal identifiers is consistent with the approach being adopted at present for local government and parliamentary elections. The Government believe that 20 per cent is a statistically robust figure for sample checking and that it will be a good indicator of
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I turn to noble Lords comments about candidates expenses. I should emphasise that the order is concerned with the election expenses only of constituency candidates and individual candidates at regional elections. Apart from a small amount for personal expenses, there are no individual limits for party-list candidates, whose election expenses are treated as part of their partys expenditure, which is regulated under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. The limits for constituency candidates are in line with the recommendations of the Electoral Commission. The figures are the same as those that applied at the 2005 general election. Similarly, the £100,000 limit for an election to fill a casual vacancy is the same as that for a by-election to the other place. It reflects the fact that candidates at such elections do not benefit from a wider national campaign. The limit for an individual candidate at a regional election is the aggregate of all the constituency limits in the region, reflecting the need to communicate with a significantly larger electorate.
The noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, raised three points, the first of which related to the timing of the count and the delaying of it until the next day. The order requires the count to begin as soon as possible after the close of poll. If appropriate, a returning officer can agree with the counting agents to defer the count until 9 am on the Friday morning. But the Government would normally wish the count to be taken forward with a minimum of delay. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Wales has no plans to exercise his power to issue direction that counting be delayed.
The noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Conwy, raised the point about signing the ballot papers. In December, my colleagues at the Department for Constitutional Affairs announced that the Government would not be commencing the requirement for electors to supply a signature before receiving their ballot paper in a polling station. Our general approach is that the conduct of Assembly elections should as nearly as possible be identical to that for elections to the other place, so personal voters will not be required to sign for ballot papers at Assembly elections. The decision not to proceed with the requirement for signatures stemmed from uncertainty over the appropriate sanction if a voter refused to sign. The Government plan to clarify primary legislation at the earliest opportunity to bring a clearer requirement for signatures in polling stations. We shall reflect any changes in future Assembly election orders.
The noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, has a concern about the way in which a party is described
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The noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, asked about the collection of personal identifiersI believe that I have already answered this pointand referred to his wife, who is overseas. I should emphasise that postal voters will have seven weeks to provide personal identifiers. That is the same for parliamentary and local government elections. The noble Lord mentioned the definitions of electoral expenses. Electoral expenses are set out in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 as amended by the Electoral Administration Act 2006. We have identified those definitions. He also asked whether the timetable impacts on the four principles that he mentioned. I thank him for recognising the vital importance of those principles, which the Government are committed to meeting in full. The present order replicates provisions already implemented for other elections.
Lord Crickhowell: My Lords, I appreciate the Ministers explanation and the clarification that he has given on the timing of postal votes. A lot of effort will have to be made by returning officers to make it clear. I have had serious anxiety about whether it is possible to get documents back from parts of the world where the postal services and so on are not very good. I think that there will be much anxiety on this point and, as those documents go out, more will have to be done to make it clear what the timetable is.
Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: My Lords, in the Box we have representatives from the Wales Office and from the Assembly. I am sure that they have taken on board the valuable points made by the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, and will ensure that they are fed to the right sources.
Lord Roberts of Llandudno: My Lords, following the point of the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, about people overseas receiving ballot papers, is there any mechanism to ensure that those in the Armed Forces, perhaps in Iraq or Afghanistan, will be able to receive ballot papers in time to partake in the Assembly elections in May?
Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: My Lords, the Box is indicating that, yes, provisions are in place. I cannot give the noble Lord precise details. I shall write to him and send a copy to everyone else who has taken part in the debate.
Lord Roberts of Conwy: My Lords, I thank the Minister for the replies to the points that we have raised in the discussion. One point that concerns me, to which he has not replied, relates to the requirement
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Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: My Lords, there has been no indication of postal vote fraud in Wales. It is not as live an issue as it may be here in England. The matter is totally at the discretion of the returning officer. Whether the noble Lord thinks that that is a good idea or not, that is the situation. If he sees any sign of postal voting fraud, he has the discretion to take appropriate action.
Lord Thomas of Gresford: The Minister told us that the alternative business structures, as set out in the Bill, are to achieve the regulatory objectives set out in Clause 1(1)(a) to (g). At Second Reading, the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor said:
Companies and firms will now be permitted to have different types of lawyers and non-lawyers working together on an equal footing and will be able to do so with the benefit of external investment.[Official Report, 6/12/06; col. 1165.]
Those are the pros of Part 5. It does nothing to support the constitutional principle of the rule of law. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, said in a pointed intervention, it does nothing to improve access to justice. It certainly does not encourage an independent, strong, diverse and effective legal profession, but the reverse. As for increasing public understanding of citizens legal rights and duties, it does nothing. Promoting and maintaining adherence to the professional principles? Nothing. From what the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor said about the regulatory objectives we can see that the balance is against the proposal.
We considered at length how best to improve Part 5 as a whole and concluded that nothing would do so. Unless you accept the principle of alternative business structures as a good thing in itselfwe do notthe only thing is to have a stand part debate for every
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One must then consider the other side. The Minister said at Second Reading that the Bill provided robust safeguards to protect the consumerbut from what? The answer is a diminution in the service that the legal profession now gives to the consumer. I am glad to see that the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, is back in his place because he will tell us why, in principle, he supports the Bill. How he can do that as the lone voice of the consumer, as I have previously said, when it is clearly contrary to the consumer interest to have the high street devoid of the legal firms that serve it at the moment, I do not know. How he can do that when the reverse of competition will create monopolies and when competition will not produce the lowering of fees that he, no doubt, looks for, I do not understand.
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