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That brings me to the question: what has happened to the Carden Committee? As the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, indicated, it has changed its name as Mr Richard Carden is now retired. Therefore, the committee reverts to its original title, the Official Group on Organophosphates, which produces the appalling initials OGOP, which I

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shall mention once but not refer to again in those terms; rather, I shall refer to it as the committee. It would take me more time than is available to me in this debate to list all the contributors to the committee but representation on it is an example of joined-up government. There is not a single government department relevant to this issue that is not actively represented on the committee and forms part of its composition. The only thing that is missing from there is any direct reference to lawyers. Given that it was suggested that they might be the very contributors to delay, I should hope that the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, will feel reassured by that omission. Not that I am saying that no lawyers are ever present with a government committee of this kind; I am merely indicating that the legal contribution is not important. What is important is the scientific support and the contribution of the government departments that all have an interest in this area; for example, the Health and Safety Executive, the Food Standards Agency, the Health Protection Agency, the Department of Health, my own department and others. I merely summarise the contributors. I would be happy to publish a list.

When will the committee meet again? It will meet shortly. Noble Lords are right to say that we have not made sufficient progress in the past couple of years to justify the committee meeting. I noted the criticisms made by noble Lords that they were not aware of what the committee did at its 2007 meeting. In 2007, the committee did some very important work. It looked at an Australian review of diazinon. The Australians seemed to have made progress with regard to sheep dips. However, when we examined the progress that they had made we found that it fell short of being a conclusive position that we could adopt. It was clear that where the Australians had tackled issues with regard to sheep dips and offered advice on the basis of their experience, they had not conducted the supervision of sheep dipping in quite the way that we do in the United Kingdom and we could not translate their results directly to our own experience. This conclusion was reached on the basis of very clear analysis of the Australian activity.

Since then, the committee has reviewed the research projects to see whether sufficient progress is being made to bring the group together. I heard that what this country needs in this area is a bit of a zip behind it such as President Obama has produced in the United States. I am at one with the House in thinking that most things good in America at present result from the election of President Obama and the work that he does. He certainly has insisted that additional work is done with regard to Gulf War veterans. That work will produce results in February 2010 because you cannot speed up such work. When that United States research and the other pieces of research I mentioned that we have commissioned, and which have received scientific validation, are completed, our committee will meet and address these issues further.

The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, asked about the timescale in the most trenchant terms and asked whether it constituted an exercise in procrastination. That is not the case. This is an exercise in dealing with what we all recognise is a very difficult issue on the basis of making progress and of having a committee which is

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equipped to do this work. Its timescale is clear and fits in with crucial pieces of evidence that will be available to us in the not too distant future.

I appreciate the work that the noble Countess, Lady Mar, has done in this regard. However, until she mentioned it this evening, I had not appreciated that she had suffered illness in this context. I express my concern about that and I am therefore not at all surprised at the anxiety that she expresses on behalf of others who may have come into contact with the problem. I say to her and to my noble friend Lord Rooker, who, as ever, was bold and assertive in his comments and confirmed exactly how he would have acted in government, that we are obliged to work on the basis of the best scientific advice. It is certainly government practice to—

Lord Livsey of Talgarth: My Lords, I am reluctant to say very much although I know quite a bit about this subject. However, can the Minister assure us that as regards the inordinate delay that has occurred—literally thousands of sheep farmers in the UK are medically proven to be affected by this issue—his department and other government departments have not been put upon by the Treasury not to accept any liability or proof whatever that OP has the effect which many medical practitioners accept is the cause of the terrible condition from which many of these people suffer?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I do not think it is anything to do with Treasury pressure; this is to do with a proper, intensely scientific investigation which has to establish cause and effect. I am merely saying to the House that at present we are not in a position to do that.

The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, and the noble Countess, Lady Mar, referred to the HS146 issue and cabin air quality. When that issue was presented to me five years ago, I was shocked by the representations that were made. I did my very best to discover the nature of what we knew about this issue, how much had been substantiated and how dangerous it was to passengers and to cabin crew and pilots. My voice would be but a bleat in the wilderness compared to that of BALPA and airline pilots across the world if an aircraft as popular as the HS146 was capable of producing a persistent and threatening illness. HS146 is not grounded on that basis; crews do not refuse to fly the aircraft. I know that there are anxieties about the issue, which needs full investigation. I am not saying that there are grounds for complacency, far from it; the last impression that I want to give from this debate is any suggestion of complacency.

We have the machinery in place to examine this fully to produce answers to these very difficult questions.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt but the noble Lord’s time is running short. The crux of my question was about the serious health effects that some medicines cause to people who have been exposed to OPs. It can kill people. It very nearly killed me; I know from my own experience. I do not want what happened to me to happen to anyone else. Will he kindly address that?

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Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I understand that point entirely and I value the strength with which the noble Countess presents that position. The committee, and the Department of Health in its contributions to the committee, are in a position to address themselves to exactly those kinds of concerns. But I emphasise again that the committee is bound to be able to act effectively only when the research is sufficiently conclusive to guide how we can act.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt again. My own medical practitioners, when they knew what had happened, found the research. The scientific research is there—even on the internet.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, as far as the committee is concerned, which together with the noble Countess's concern is what this debate is about, the issues which it has had to address, and which have been part of its brief, are within the framework of the research it has commissioned and all the other research which it is evaluating across the world, including the American research which is due fairly shortly. I give the House the assurance that the committee will of course address these issues at that time.

The noble Lord, Lord Taylor, asked me some specific questions, one of which was on the question of alternatives to the use of OPs in farming. There is work on developing alternative sheep dips. That work is continuing with regard to the possibility of vaccine development and we have also been looking at the use of a hormone to disrupt the metamorphosis of the sheep scab mite.

Progress on both projects is going to be reviewed by Defra in the very near future. It is not known whether any of these projects will lead to product development. The research after all has to be translated into a viable product that a company can market for the industry. Work on the biological control of the sheep scab mite has been stopped, because it was shown to have no effect when it was used on sheep. Although in the laboratory encouraging progress was made, when it was applied in the field, I am afraid the results were negative. Alternative treatments to sheep scab are available but are not effective against the same range of external parasites as OP sheep dips. That is why we continue with that position.

I want to assure the House—I have inadequate time to respond to a debate of such significance and such importance and I value very much this opportunity of responding—that the reason why my noble friend, Lord Rooker, with all his persistence, was not able to come up with a straightforward answer in a short period of time, after all his work with the department, is because we are genuinely facing some very difficult issues which relate to essential research. I know the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, tried to suborn me by introducing research and lobbying from Saddleworth Moor, because he knew that I would be instinctively responsive to that, because of its closeness to Oldham. I do have to say to him that the basis of the Government’s position is bound to be scientific research and advance. I want to give this hope and expectation to the House that this committee will be meeting in the not too distant future, with additional research to hand, some of which may be extremely significant in terms of

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producing solutions to these problems, which we all recognise are very acute and very important to the people for whom we have responsibility.

8.26 pm

Sitting suspended.

Political Parties and Elections Bill

Main Bill Page
Copy of the Bill
Explanatory Notes

Report (2nd Day) (Continued)

8.30 pm

Amendment 81

Moved by Lord Henley

81: After Clause 24, insert the following new Clause—

“Absent voting: personal identifiers verification in England and Wales

(1) The Representation of the People (England and Wales) (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 2006 (S.I. 2006/2910) are amended as follows.

(2) In regulation 37 (amendment of regulation 84) leave out “not less than 20%” and insert “not less than 100%”.”

Lord Henley: My Lords, I shall also speak to Amendment 82. We put forward similar amendments in Committee, as a way of probing; it will only be a further bit of probing this evening. As I am sure the Minister will remember, the amendments are designed to make sure that all postal votes are checked. Given the amount of fraud in the system, it seems only sensible that that should happen wherever possible.

When I moved the similar amendment in Grand Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Bach, said in response:

“We agree in principle that all postal votes should be checked, and will wish to require 100 per cent to be checked when it is practicable to do so. A key factor in determining when it will be appropriate to move to 100 per cent checking is when there is deemed to be sufficient capacity within postal voting software systems to support 100 per cent checking”.—[Official Report, 13/5/09; col. GC 435.]

He went on to talk about the then forthcoming elections for the European Parliament on 4 June. As his noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours mentioned earlier, we have had the European elections between Committee and Report. Therefore, while I appreciate that on 17 June it is relatively few days since those elections, it might be useful if the Minister were able to say a little about what the Government learnt from them. I do not mean from a political point of view, as I imagine that they have been feeling fairly sore about them ever since, with a mere 15 per cent of the vote. That is the lowest percentage of the vote that the Labour Party has had in modern history, if we take modern history back to 1919; I see my noble friend Lord Bates nodding.

Even in those couple of weeks, the Government might have learnt something about the need for checking, so I wonder whether the Minister can say what level of checking there was in the different regions. He said that we required at least 20 per cent at the moment; I imagine therefore that 20 per cent were checked, and I look forward to confirmation of that. Can he say

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whether, in any of those areas, any of the returning officers felt it necessary to go beyond that 20 per cent because they began to think that there might be some fraud? That should be known at this relatively early stage. The same would be true of the local elections, which took place on the same day but were counted a couple of days earlier. Postal voting fraud seems more likely to happen in local elections; obviously, a smaller number of votes can make a big difference. In European elections it would be quite difficult, particularly with the d’Hondt system of counting the votes, for it to make much of a difference in the long run.

As I understand it, county council votes would have been counted on a ward-by-ward basis, which might have indicated to individual returning officers that it might have been better to have checked more than 20 per cent in certain wards. I think that the European votes were counted on a local government basis—roughly in constituencies, sometimes a bit bigger, sometimes a bit smaller. Again, I would be interested to know whether there were any areas where the returning officers felt it necessary to make such checks.

I hope that that is sufficient and that the Minister can give us some idea of what happened, and whether that indicates that there is a need to pursue these amendments at a later stage. I beg to move.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Bach): My Lords, the introduction of personal identifiers for postal voters under the Electoral Administration Act 2006 has been a key measure in strengthening the integrity of postal voting. Under amendments made to the Representation of the People (England and Wales) Regulations 2001 following the introduction of the 2006 Act, we specified that at elections returning officers were required to check at least 20 per cent of returned postal votes. That is the minimum requirement, but they have a discretion to check 100 per cent if they wish to do so. If the returning officer considers that there is a real risk of fraud, he may specify from the outset that all postal voting statements will be checked. The current statutory provisions also provide the returning officer with the flexibility to begin with 20 per cent checking but to increase that level at later postal vote-opening sessions if any evidence of fraud emerges.

I repeat what I said in Grand Committee: we agree in principle with the desire for 100 per cent of postal votes to be checked and we will make that a statutory requirement once it is safe and appropriate to do so. The regulations for the recent European parliamentary elections followed the provisions for parliamentary and local elections, and therefore required that at least 20 per cent of returned postal votes were checked. However, at the request of the regional returning officers, we made funding available to local returning officers to cover the costs for administrators in checking all returned postal votes.

While we have been supportive of the 100 per cent checking of all returned postal votes, we continue to believe that it would be premature to mandate 100 per cent checking in law at this stage given, as I said in Grand Committee, that we cannot be certain that the necessary software systems are in place to deliver 100 per cent checking across all regions in Great Britain.

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In order to establish when it will be appropriate to move to mandatory checking of postal votes, it is imperative that we work with the Electoral Commission, electoral administrators and software suppliers to carefully review how the 100 per cent checking of postal votes worked in practice at the European parliamentary elections. For that reason, we do not consider it appropriate today to accept the amendment. It is possible to make the change to mandatory 100 per cent checking of postal votes through amendments to the existing secondary legislation. I want to reassure the noble Lord and other noble Lords that there will be no need to rely on there being a suitable Bill before Parliament for this change to be made. I hope that on that basis the noble Lord will withdraw his amendment.

Lord Henley: My Lords, I am grateful that the noble Lord has confirmed that this matter can be dealt with by secondary legislation in due course, when the appropriate software systems are in place. However, he did not deal with my principal question, which was whether the Government have learnt any lessons, other than the obvious political lessons, from those elections. Were there any areas where a returning officer at a local or a wider level felt it necessary to make a 100 per cent check? The noble Lord must know the answer, because it obviously happened either on 5 June, when the local election votes were counted, or on Sunday 7 June, when the national votes were counted. The noble Lord’s colleague has returned with some advice; perhaps the Minister can intervene with an answer.

Lord Bach: My Lords, I shall respond quickly. The elections happened only a few days ago and we await the Electoral Commission’s report on how the system worked for the European elections. The noble Lord must give us a little longer to come up with the answers. The votes were counted on the Sunday night; I remember it well. That was 10 days ago, which is not very long in the Electoral Commission’s life.

Lord Henley: My Lords, I appreciate that it is possibly too early. I, too, remember watching the results on Sunday night; the noble Lord will probably remember them for longer than I will. For the moment, I must accept what he has said and take that as an answer. I shall not come back to these amendments, but I certainly hope that the noble Lord will make sure that, when the Electoral Commission reports, he notifies me and other noble Lords who have taken an interest in this of its findings. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 81 withdrawn.

Amendment 82 not moved.

Amendment 83

Moved by Lord Bates

83: After Clause 24, insert the following new Clause—

“Service Registration

(1) Section 15 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 (c. 2) (service declaration) is amended as follows.

(2) Omit subsection (2)(a).

(3) Omit subsections (9) to (12).”

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Lord Bates: My Lords, the amendment stands in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Henley. It deals with service registration and would add a new clause to strengthen provision for members of the armed services to be on the electoral register. It might be helpful for the House and for Members who were not present when this matter was discussed in Grand Committee if I offered a few sentences of background before coming to the point that we are concerned about.

Before 2001, service personnel were registered on the electoral register through the Ministry of Defence. This was changed to relieve the administrative burden on the Ministry of Defence and apply a greater focus to local authorities, which were then enabled to remove from the register those who were no longer resident. This period was marked by poor administration, but all service personnel were registered during that time.

The 2001 changes resulted in a number of service personnel not being included in the electoral register and, given the rolling register’s four-week qualification period and a three-week election campaign, many service personnel were disfranchised in the 2005 general election. The number of service voters in Great Britain on 16 February 2001 was 175,475; the figure for 4 December 2006 was 21,000—a reduction of 150,000. That is clearly a cause for concern, particularly given that our Armed Forces are involved in at least two military engagements. They are putting their lives at risk for this country and we certainly feel that they ought to have a say about the policy and the Government who are responsible for dispatching them into those engagements.

Under the terms of the Representation of the People Act 2000, the time limit on the validity of the service declaration for service registration was changed by the Secretary of State from every year to every three years, designed to coincide with the three-year postings which have diminished currency in the current period. Service personnel—and their husbands, wives or civil partners—are currently able to register as an ordinary voter or a service voter. Those based overseas can also register as overseas voters.

Service voters are registered at a fixed address in the United Kingdom, even if they move around. Therefore, if used for those who are moving more frequently, or for those who are likely to be deployed overseas frequently or at short notice, this has a significant impact. That is not to suggest that the Electoral Commission or, indeed, the Government have not been alert to the problems or not taken steps. The Electoral Commission launched an initiative last October specifically aimed at trying to get Armed Forces members to register. There was an attempt to have all 4,000 units hold an electoral registration day in November where attention would be drawn to the issue.

8.45 pm

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