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Lord Rennard: Will the noble and learned Lord tell the Committee whether it is his view and, perhaps, that of his party, that on the completion of a boundary review by the independent boundary commissioners,
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Lord Falconer of Thoroton: I am very disappointed that the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, has responded in an incredibly unconstructive way. The noble Lord, Lord Williamson of Horton, has made it absolutely clear that what he envisages is a vote on the principle in relation to the issue and that is what we should be focusing on.
Lord Newton of Braintree: It is clear that a significant effort is being made, and I would like to pay my own tribute to the leading figures on the Cross Benches, to resolve the impasse or to bring us back from the precipice, to use the phrase that was used by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer. I share the hope that there will be a positive and constructive response to this.
The noble and learned Lord indicated that he recognised this was not necessarily perfect and that there was some more thought to be given to the issues, which I thought was a very helpful way for him to have put his remarks. So I say to my noble friend, who I suspect is in a constructive frame of mind-I share the hope that he is-that there is at least one person behind him who would strongly support such a constructive approach.
Lord Howarth of Newport: Those words spoken by the noble Lord, Lord Newton, himself a former Leader of the House of Commons, who always sought to calm troubled waters in that capacity and did so very successfully, should certainly be heeded. I add my appreciation for the noble Lord, Lord Williamson of Horton, and the Cross Benchers who, in tabling this amendment, as the noble Baroness, Lady D'Souza, did earlier in the day, have sought to steer our proceedings into calmer waters, recognising that in Part 2 there are some intensely controversial and very major constitutional issues that are not best resolved in a spirit of hot and angry political contest.
In any case, even if the mood of the Committee had been as placid and as genial in the previous 14 days as it has been today, it would still have taken time to consider properly and for us to be able to reach agreed conclusions that are in the interests of all our people and in the interest of sensible, constructive reform of the constitution, not animated by party political considerations but by real concern to reform and advance the constitution so that it better serves our people.
I very much welcome, therefore, what the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, has suggested. He offers a way in which we can resolve some of these very
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Lord Lipsey: My Lords, just to make the bait on the hook of the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, even more appetising, there is a point to be made. Earlier on the point was made that the problem with the reduction to 600 is that it increases the size of the Executive relative to the Back Bench. That point was taken on board by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace. He said he did not think the legislation should be altered but he wanted to think about it. The amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, provides an excellent opportunity for a structured way in which we could look at that very important question and come up with a solution without amending the Bill. That should also commend it to the Government who have already endorsed the point that lies behind it.
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, for having introduced this amendment, which he did with characteristic modesty as this was his idea. As he was speaking, I could tell that he had struck a chord in the House and it was no surprise that my noble friend Lord Newton rose to support him. I was going to say that within this amendment there is a germ of an idea, but that belittles it too much. I thought maybe a seed, but really it is a sapling of an idea that we would like to work on.
I must refute the suggestion made by the noble and learned Lord that this part of the Bill is fundamentally partisan. It is not designed to be and I know that he accepts that. I can understand why some Members of another place might think that it is, but it is not. The amendment provides that the new rules for drawing up constituency boundaries would not come into force upon Royal Assent, as the Bill provides, but that a boundary review would still be conducted on the basis of the new rules. The new boundary provisions would be commenced only once the Boundary Commissions had reported and following a debate in both Houses. The intention could be that Parliament could consider how the commissions had applied the new rules in drawing up constituencies and then consider whether the boundary reforms should be made. The existing legislation, the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986, would remain in force in the mean time, and Parliament would then effectively have the choice of commencing the new rules or retaining the 1986 Act rules.
While I understand that the amendment has been brought forward in a creative and helpful spirit, I am going to explain in a moment why the Government cannot accept it as it is, not as a knee-jerk reaction, but for two principal reasons. The first reason is that it would break the linkage in the Bill between the entry into force of the new boundaries following the review and the commencement of the provisions on the alternative vote in the event that there is a yes vote in the referendum. We have debated that linkage at length, and I understand that there are different views across the House. However, the Government have set out their stall on the matter, and we believe that the current position in the Bill is the right one.
The second reason is arguably even more important as we are concerned at the implications of the Boundary Commission conducting a review with the rules for doing so as if it were on probation. This is the point that my noble friend Lord Rennard made. It is one thing to ask this House and the other place to consider objectively the rules to which the commission should work when setting new boundaries; it is quite another for Members of Parliament, many of whom have a party-political interest in the outcome of such changes, to be shown the practical results of the application of a set of rules which would potentially be applied at a forthcoming election and then be asked to evaluate the merits of the proposals and to consider which set of rules they prefer.
The effect of the amendment would be that shortly after October 2013, when we expect the commissioners to report, Parliament and, in particular, the other place would be asked to vote on two alternative maps: one with 650 constituencies and one with 600. For me, that is a serious change in the nature of the scrutiny role that the House as a whole undertakes when the recommendations of the independent Boundary Commissions are put before it, and I have strong reservations about taking such a step. In addition, if the recommendations were rejected, constituencies would remain as they currently are until the next review, by which time, in England at least, they would be 20 years out of date. There is also the question of whether we should provide for considerable time and resource, not least that of the general public who contribute to these reviews, to be expended on a review that would have no guarantee of ever being implemented.
Having said that, I understand the issues that have been raised in debates about whether the size of the House of Commons set by this Bill at 600 MPs is the right one. I can see that this amendment, perhaps in part, is a response to that since it would ask Parliament to let the review proceed and put off the decision on whether to accept the new rules until after it has had a chance to see the resulting constituency map.
I have set out why the Government consider that approach goes too far. The Government have also been clear that the proposed size for the House of Commons set in the Bill is the right one. However, we would be open to bringing forward a provision on Report for a review under independent supervision after implementation of the new constituencies of the impact of 600 seats and requiring that that begins in a timescale determined in the Bill.
I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, finds that a helpful suggestion on going forward, and I am sure that he will reflect on it. Moreover, we would be extremely happy to discuss it with him further. However, for the reasons I have outlined, I would ask him to withdraw his amendment.
Lord Williamson of Horton: My Lords, I would like to comment briefly on the point which the Leader of the House made about the link. I said when I spoke first that I did not actually believe that it broke the link because all the work is going to go forward; and, of course, Parliament controls the result at the end because
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Secondly, on the more important question of the independent review, I note that the Government have gone some way towards accepting that there should be an independent review. That is something, but it is not exactly what would result from my amendment, which would make the independent review available before the coming into force of Section 11, so there is a significant difference. I therefore conclude that, in the words of the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, the Government have not actually clinched anything on this amendment-I think that is the phrase. I am, however, interested in the extent of the commitment to an independent review, what it would be and when it might come into force.
I remain of the view that my amendment has value, and I reserve the right to come back to it on Report, when I hope we will be clearer about an independent review, which a large number of people in the House obviously want. Indeed, I thank all those who have supported my amendment, and this part of the amendment in particular. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw it.
Baroness McDonagh: This amendment is not a criticism of the Government but an opportunity to right a wrong created by my own party. I suppose that successive Governments who did so much good would also occasionally get things wrong, and this is one of them. I shall just explain the current situation for registration both now and historically. We have household registration, which means that a form goes to each household, be it a flat, a house or a bungalow, and one person in the household fills out the form on behalf of all others living there. That person is normally mum, who fills out the form for her children who are aged over 16, and her husband or partner. If we think of our own situations, whatever type of family relationships we have or the people we have shared our homes with in the past, there is always one person in the household who takes responsibility for things such as voter registration, paying bills and so on. The result is that we have a fairly accurate register that is one of the cheapest in the world to administer.
As part of the Political Parties and Elections Act 2009, the previous Government included a section that will change that system so that each individual will be responsible for registering themselves. We need to look no further than Northern Ireland to know what will happen if this change is implemented. In 2002, when the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act was passed, under which individual registration was introduced and each person had to register themselves, 10 per cent of the public were lost overnight from the register, which went from 96 per cent to 85 per cent of the population.
When an investigation was held into the loss from the register, it was found that it consisted mainly of three groups of people. The first group consisted of young people, first-time voters and 18-25 year olds, the second group consisted of people in areas of high social deprivation, and the third group consisted of people with mental health disabilities. Mencap has produced a useful report in Northern Ireland should anyone wish to look at it.
Before implementing such provisions across the rest of the United Kingdom, we should consider the fact that there are sections of the population here that are not similar to that in Northern Ireland. For example, Northern Ireland does not have a very mobile population. There is no high provision of privately rented, insecure tenancies of a year or under; there is very little multiple occupancy; and it has a stable population-people do not move far from their parents and grandparents. The rest of the United Kingdom has a large population of ethnic minorities; a recently arrived, large population of inward migrants; a huge private rented sector of tenancies of a year and under; and many multi-occupancy properties. Many people also move for jobs. We know that something like 20 per cent of the population of Great Britain moves every year.
At the last general election, just over 45 million people were registered. If what happened in Northern Ireland were to happen in the rest of the UK, we would lose 4.5 million people from the register in addition to the 3.5 million that are already missing. This would amount to 8 million. Academics suggest that we would lose another 10 per cent because of the reasons that I have outlined, which would remove another 4 million people from the register. This would mean that almost 12 million people in this country would not have a stake in the democratic election of our Government.
In Northern Ireland in 2005, some 160,000 voters who did not complete registration forms were reinstated on the register. I therefore do not understand why the Government, when looking at their databases to increase registration in this country, could not do something similar to what has been done in Northern Ireland. As I said, there were 160,000 more voters at the 2005 elections.
We have an opportunity to change this situation now because we have not yet moved to individual registration, which was initially envisaged to happen post the 2015 election. I am now confused because I believe the Government might soon introduce these provisions. Perhaps the Leader of the House will come back to me on that if it is envisaged that the new system will be in place by the 2015 elections.
If we retain this as it currently is, it will allow us to have a very cheap form of registration, and it will avoid the dip in registration that was seen in Northern Ireland. Household registration is also a recognition of the big society; it represents the understanding, responsibility and role of adults in the household, and also the importance of the family as a unit.
Lord Campbell-Savours: Is the real danger of individual registration that when it comes to the second boundary review-in so far as there will be a reduction in the number of people who have registered under individual registration-there will be even more distorted constituencies?
Baroness McDonagh: That is absolutely right, and that is why I hope the Government will consider this. I also hope that the Government will consider bringing in an average number to each constituency, rather than a simple limit on 600. If this number of people falls off the register-and we all know the areas that will fall off the register-when you combine the current under-registration and the fall-off in the new register, in certain parts of the country some of these constituencies will have something like 150,000 eligible electors, not registered electors. That is not good for our society, in which we have so many people who do not have a stake in the democratic election of our Government. That creates weak communities and ends up creating bad government. I beg to move.
Lord Rennard: I am sure the noble Baroness will respond to the debate, but I just wanted to raise a couple of questions. It seems to me that since the boundary review will depend on electorates as of 1 December 2010, the only effective change brought about by this amendment would be to change the electoral registration system in Northern Ireland. Did she consult any of the parties in Northern Ireland, or indeed the Northern Ireland Assembly, in suggesting that the basis of electoral registration in Northern Ireland be changed in this amendment? Would it generally be accepted that the only effect of making that change in registration processes in Northern Ireland would be to delay the entire boundary review beyond the date of the next general election in 2015?
Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: At the risk of the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, giving his automatic counter another click so that he can update his blog tomorrow, I just want briefly to support the excellent amendment of my noble friend Lady McDonagh. As always, the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, finds the nit-picking objections and the noble Lord, Lord Tyler agrees. The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, of course, is the constitutional spokesman for the Liberal Democrats. I do not know what that makes the noble Lord, Lord McNally, or indeed Nick Clegg, but the Liberal Democrats obviously need lots and lots of constitutional spokespersons.
My noble friend Lady McDonagh is absolutely right; this is a mistake that the former Labour Government made. It is a pity that the noble Lord, Lord Wills, is not here today to hear this because he was the principal architect of it, but it worries me. My noble friend has great experience of running the Labour Party and understands these things intricately, and I give all credit to my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours. He opposed this individual registration on every opportunity in this House-again and again-vigorously and consistently, and no one paid any attention to him.
This kind of legislation reminds me that a lot of the thinking in some of our legislation comes from middle-class, middle-aged people sitting in drawing rooms in the south-east of England. I do not know whether they have sectarian discussions around their dinner table, but they have certainly come up with some of the craziest legislation.
No account is taken of the fact that some elderly people are confused and find it difficult to deal with that kind of form. Many years ago, I was the chairman of the Scottish adult literacy agency. A large number of people cannot read and write and are unable to fill in this form; they need someone to fill it in. I can go through category after category of people who would need help as they would be reluctant and unable to fill in that form. It is very difficult for students away from home and for people overseas. My son is working out in Bolivia at the moment, but he is still going to come back and will be entitled to vote. We can think of all sorts of examples of how this will make it difficult to vote.
My noble friend Lady McDonagh is absolutely right; it is about time that people in both Houses started to think of ordinary people and of the lives that they live. They do not all sit round the dinner table every night discussing these kinds of things. They lead a hard, difficult life. They might have difficulties with poverty or literacy, or they might be confused, in many cases, and need that kind of help. I hope that more people will come and support this.
Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, I will intervene only briefly and do not really want to go down all the roads that I went down some years ago during the Labour Government's two attempts-the second was successful, in my view quite mistakenly-to reintroduce individual registration. I have never been able to understand why the Liberal Democrats supported that. I understand that the Electoral Commission, in its various reports, kept on promoting the principle. However, the Liberal Democrats must have been aware of the dangers that would arise, even in some of their own seats such as the one that includes Bermondsey. Bermondsey is in a seat that could be gravely damaged through the introduction of individual registration, and I simply cannot understand why they seemingly allowed it all to happen.
My own view was very simple; there was a problem to be resolved, and that was fraud within the electoral system. That, I suspect, was the driving force behind those who argued for it. They chose an extremely expensive way of resolving the problem, whereby the whole of the United Kingdom would be subject to
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On two occasions under two separate Bills, I came up with a recommendation that would have sorted out that problem by giving local authorities the right to opt for a particular status whereby they would be given additional resources to sort out the problems in their areas, but the Labour Government unfortunately turned it down. Indeed, I lobbied almost every member of the Labour Cabinet about it to try to get them to understand the importance of avoiding individual registration, which will do immeasurable harm to our party in the longer term. Now we have it in place at a time when local authorities' budgets in this area are not ring-fenced and when local authorities will not place the money that is necessary to ensure a high level of individual registration.
I welcome my noble friend's amendment, and I hope only that the Government will accept it. They will not, of course, because they too have been convinced by this rubbish recommendation from the Electoral Commission, which should have known better.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: I, too, stand convicted of being convinced by the rubbish recommendation of the Electoral Commission. I believe that the principle of moving to individual registration is right. Apart from anything else, the concept of modern citizenship is that the task of registering to vote should no longer be the preserve of the head of the household. However, if the principle of individual registration is correct, the practicality involved in the best way to get there is more complicated. As the experience of introducing individual registration in Northern Ireland has shown, the consequences can be catastrophic if you get the process wrong. The very swift introduction of individual registration in that part of the United Kingdom in 2002 led to a collapse in the number on the electoral register, with a fall of around 119,000.
Learning the lessons of that experience, the Labour Government legislated to introduce individual voter registration according to a clearly phased timetable based on the twin principles of ensuring the comprehensiveness and accuracy of the electoral register. That process gave the Electoral Commission a central role in determining whether the final move from household to individual registration was safe to proceed with, and the transition was based on a two-stage process-a voluntary phase and a compulsory phase. The legislation made it clear that the voluntary phase would not finish before 2014. In 2014, the Electoral Commission would then be required to assess, based on trends in voter registration, whether the collection of identifying information should be made obligatory. Assuming that a positive recommendation was agreed by Parliament, compulsory individual registration would follow in 2015.
The timetable received explicit backing from the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Front-Benchers in the other place. It is a matter of deep concern that the Government have now abandoned those pledges and that they intend to tear up our carefully formulated
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As I have already noted, the rush to the production of individual registration in Northern Ireland produced a dramatic fall in registered numbers. The Electoral Commission subsequently reported that the new registration process disproportionately impacted on young people and students, people with learning disabilities, people with disabilities generally and those living in areas of high deprivation. We must not repeat that outcome when the system is introduced in Great Britain. That is especially important in view of the Electoral Commission's report of March 2010, which identified who was least represented on the electoral register.
The phased implementation of full individual registration by autumn 2015 was intended to minimise as far as possible the risk of worsening under-registration. The Government already intend to cut seats and redraw boundaries on the basis of an electoral register from which 3.5 million eligible voters are missing. The premature rollout of individual registration would increase that number and, over time, would distort the planned boundary revisions even more. I do not support the policy of reversing the move to individual registration. However, I do support making sure that it is done properly.
Lord Strathclyde: The noble and learned Lord sounded as though he agreed to it in principle but thought that the implementation was wrong, whereas the noble Baroness and the noble Lords, Lord Foulkes and Lord Campbell-Savours, were never in favour of it. I must say that I very much allied myself with them in the past in that I was not convinced by the case for individual registration. However, I am now in government and we support it.
Noble Lords opposite know exactly what I am going to say; this is not the Bill on which to have this debate, so we are not going to accept the amendment, although there is an interesting debate to be had. I do not want to say "We are where we are", although we sort of are where we are. Two or three years ago, I think that I would have allied myself with noble Lords on the Back Benches opposite, but the law was changed by the previous Government with cross-party support. Provision was made for an eventual move to individual registration in the rest of the United Kingdom under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act. The Electoral Commission supports a move to individual registration, and Her Majesty's Government are committed to speeding up the process of registration in Great Britain because, as is widely known, the current system of household registration is vulnerable to fraud. Although the number of cases of electoral fraud is low, the perception created by them undermines confidence in the electoral system as a whole.
The noble Baroness, Lady McDonagh, asked whether we are speeding up the process. The answer is yes. The Government are speeding up the introduction of individual voter registration by making it compulsory from 2014. Under the new plans, the voluntary phase of individual registration will be dropped and, instead, Great Britain will in 2014 move directly to compulsory individual registration. If this amendment were passed, it would delay the commencement of one of the central provisions of the Bill, and this would prevent a boundary review from being carried out in time for the next general election. I am not suggesting that that is the noble Baroness's motive, but it would be the effect if it were to be agreed. As the Committee knows, we must proceed with a boundary review to ensure that when the next general election is held, boundaries in England are not 15 years out of date and do not continue to exacerbate the inequality that is present in the current system.
Returning household registration to Northern Ireland would, we feel in government, be a detrimental step that is likely to lead in time to the widespread perception of fraud that was so prevalent in Northern Ireland before 2002. We want to prevent that from returning, with the consequent undermining of confidence in the political process in Northern Ireland.
It has been an interesting and useful debate, and I urge noble Lords to run a campaign on it, but they should do it outwith the provisions of the Bill, and I hope that the noble Baroness will withdraw her amendment.
Baroness McDonagh: I thank the Committee for its contributions to the debate. I will quickly answer a few questions and come back to a couple of points. This amendment would make no difference whatever in Northern Ireland; the 2002 Act has been superseded by the Electoral Registration (Northern Ireland) Act and we are reinstating and registering people who had not even filled in forms. If the Government were to agree to continue with household registration, I would have no problem in removing Northern Ireland from the provisions of this amendment, but it would not make any difference, as I explained. They have reinstated some 160,000 voters already, and I remind the House that this has not resolved issues of fraud but has disenfranchised adult children, people in areas of social deprivation and people with mental health disabilities.
On the second question that was asked, yes, I do appreciate that it would have an impact on the second boundary and that the current boundaries would be the ones that were drawn up on the register at the end of last year. I am in no way seeking to delay the current Boundary Commission redrawing in my amendment. I particularly want to thank my noble friend Lord Foulkes. I have lived in households that have adults with literacy issues, and it is obvious that one person in the household takes responsibility for registration, bills, paperwork and so on. This is not an old-fashioned concept of the head of the household; it is about understanding families and understanding that everyone has a different responsibility and everyone helps everyone else.
Lord Lipsey: My Lords, towards the end of a long speakers list in a debate in this House, someone stands up and says, "Everything there is to be said on this topic has been said, but not everyone has yet said it". That usually raises a laugh, as it has today; good jokes, like wine, improve with age. Here I have invented a variant on the old saw for Committee stage: "Everything possible has been said on this amendment but it has not been said everywhere. The matter can be raised on the Bill". That is what a harsh critic would say.
I want to say why my amendment is different from earlier amendments which laid down that the referendum should not take place on 5 May. In our earlier debates, the arguments that we concentrated on for not having it on 5 May were that it clashed with the Welsh Assembly elections, the Scottish Parliament elections and the local authority elections, that this would lead to a lot of political noise-particularly as Liberal Democrat and Labour candidates fought each other-and that that would not be an atmosphere in which there could be sensible consideration of this issue. Those arguments are all valid. My amendment is compatible, I admit, with 5 May as a referendum date. It is three months after Royal Assent. We have only to give the Bill Royal Assent on Thursday night. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, will be delighted if we achieve that timetable. Stranger things have happened in these Houses of Parliament, so it would be possible to have it on those days. All that the amendment lays down is that there must be three months between Royal Assent and the referendum to consider the matter. That is three months for information, persuasion and contemplation before decision.
Let us consider the present state of public opinion. I am taking a large poll done by YouGov in September last year. It asked first whether people had heard of AV and knew what it was. Roughly one-third said yes, they had heard of it and knew a bit about what it was. Of that one-third, I bet that half were lying-they did not know what it was, though they may have heard of it. One-third said that they had heard of it but they did not have a clue what it meant, and one-third had neither heard of it nor had a clue what it meant. That is the information backlog that we face as we run up to the referendum on this issue. There is a huge job of
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The suggestion that this can be done in less than three months is not right. Yes, in that time a referendum can be held-the Electoral Commission can do its work, the ballot papers can be printed and so on-but we will not get a properly valid answer. I say that whether it is the answer that I want, a yes, or the one that many noble Lords want, a no. It will not be properly valid because the people will not have had long enough to contemplate the proposition put before them.
If the verdict seems invalid, that will have consequences for legitimacy. The side that loses will be able to stand up almost immediately and say, "It was fixed. It was cooked. This referendum is not the considered view of the British people. It's a referendum held at a time to suit a political timetable". Why on earth the Liberal Democrats want the referendum on 5 May continues to escape me, but they clearly do. That would cast doubt on the legitimacy of the verdict.
It is also true, of course, that had the House made faster progress on the Bill-I do not attribute blame on all this; I am delighted that we are now belatedly making progress-the Bill might by now have been law and the campaigning able to be started, so there would have been time to inform the public. However, the passage of time has meant that the time available for contemplating the actual issue in the referendum has been squeezed. My amendment says that it must be squeezed no further. There should be a three-month period between Royal Assent and the referendum. I hope that this is a common-sense proposition in a common-sense amendment and that therefore it will become a consensual amendment around the House. That just shows that I am a very hopeful sort of a chap. However, it should be understood that the argument is as I have set it out. If the Government reject it, it will be for reasons quite other, and arguably less reputable, than the House and the country have reason to deserve.
Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, I intervene briefly and again address my remarks to the Liberal Democrats. They know from previous debates that I support the referendum and am in favour of electoral reform and a version of AV. Therefore, what happens in the polling booth is of great interest to me, as indeed it should be to them. The question is, in what circumstances is it more likely that the AV referendum will be won? I put to them two distinctly different scenarios: one where a person walks into a polling station, having heard a campaign, and votes for it deliberately, in circumstances where it is highly likely that those who are opposed to it will not bother going to the polls. The advantage of having a referendum day on its own is that it would concentrate the minds of those who were in favour of change to go and vote, whereas those who were against change would, more likely than not, simply stay away. The danger of holding a referendum on the same day
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Lord Rooker: My Lords, the only way in which the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, could correctly say that his amendment is a common-sense proposition is if it suggested a six-month period. The provisions of the amendment are not compatible with a 5 May date: we do not need to look at our diaries to ascertain that. However, I agreed entirely with the rest of his speech. There is not enough time to do the job properly. There never was, in my view. As the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, said, this is a fundamental matter. The Liberal Democrats also know my position. They know that I support electoral reform and I want PR, but this is a dishonest form of AV. In my view, it is a corrupt form of voting. The coalition has chosen the date to match the election date. That is fine; that is the coalition's responsibility. I am quite happy with that. I do not have a view whether it should be held on that or another day, but the Lib Dems will be severely punished for holding the referendum on 5 May for lots of other reasons. I think that it will be lost. However, it is sad to have a referendum on the major constitutional issue of our voting system-we have never had such a referendum-and to lose it due to insufficient time being given to the process.
I do not want to labour the point but one has only to look at what happened in New Zealand and read the information that was published by the New Zealand electoral commission that went out to individuals. I cannot envisage anything remotely like that being provided here in terms of quality and quantity, and then being taken on board by the electorate. Our Electoral Commission might push out a lot of leaflets but pamphlets and booklets are needed rather than leaflets. This matter goes well beyond two sides of A4. The information must be assimilated and debated if it is to be successful. The assessment was that 10 weeks were needed, which is how we have the date that we have, which was debated in this House back in December. We knew that the Bill needed to get Royal Assent before the recess in February. The assessment was that it could be done in 10 weeks. Mechanically, it can be done. Intellectually and educationally, I do not think that it can be done. That is what I think is wrong with my noble friend's amendment. It should have been six months, but that is the Government's responsibility. They have rushed this Bill. There was no need to rush it within a year of the general election. It could still have been done on the election date. I appreciate that the devolved elections come only once every four years, and if that is the key test that more people go out to vote, so be it. However, I just do not think that it can be done in the way that hearts and minds can be won. We will get a poor result. I think it will fail, but it will be for the wrong reasons. I wish it were for the right reasons. I will not support it; I will campaign against it, but I would rather that it failed for the right
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Lord McAvoy: My Lords, three of my noble friends who support proportional representation have spoken, so it is only fair that the first past the post majority viewpoint of the Labour Party is heard. From my noble friends-who are friends as well as noble friends-what we have here is excuse-gathering. It is always "if only" this had happened or that had happened, people would flock to the banner of PR. People are not interested. In the main, people are quite happy with first past the post because of all its benefits, which have been discussed many times before and I do not intend to go into them. There is always an excuse from the people who support PR that people do not understand it and there is also the deception that people have not been educated about it. Pro-PR people really do not take any account of how they sound. They sound arrogant saying, "If only people were educated, they would learn the error of their ways and flock to the banner of proportional representation". It is not true.
I will not spend more time speaking about this, but I intend to clear up something, although sometimes it is like a bingo hall in here when you get the clickety-click of the little clicker of the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, as he counts the number of times people have contributed. That is fair game. However, I would like to point out something to him. In the context of this, he is either completely unaware of or not interested in studying the way in which the other place operates, or he is quite content to spread misconceptions. I understand from my noble friend that a misconception has spread among the Liberal Democrats. The blog of the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, says that Tommy McAvoy-it is quite insulting, actually- "muttered just four words" in the House of Commons in so many years. I do not really mutter. I have never been accused of muttering before. Clearly, either through lack of knowledge or deception-he can tell me which it is-he implies that I could have spoken there; but any politician worth his salt in here who is not intending to deceive people knows full well that Whips do not speak in the other place. I will give way in a moment, once I finish my point, and I will give the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, all the merit it deserves, whatever it is. A side issue is that my good friend Alistair Carmichael-he is a good friend even though he is a Liberal Democrat-is now silent. Does that mean that he is reduced to muttering?
Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: My Lords, I am pleased to follow my noble friend Lord McAvoy and to confirm what he said, namely that it is the custom for government Whips in the House of Commons not to speak. That has been the case with both Conservative and Labour
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I will raise a completely new matter. I make no apology for that, except to the Minister for not alerting him, because I did not know that there would be an opportunity today to raise this. I doubt if officials have cottoned on to this, unless they are really top-notch. The matter was raised yesterday in Scotland on Sunday. The Minister may have picked it up, because he lives in Scotland, as I do, and may have seen the paper. The matter was picked up today by the dailies and I alerted my Front Bench to it earlier. It is a new and genuine worry about having the election and the referendum on the same day. It was raised not by me but by the association of returning officers in Scotland, which said that it would be impossible to do the count for the Scottish Parliament elections on Thursday evening and make the announcement on Friday morning-as was the case in the past-because of the complications arising from having two elections together and the possibility of making mistakes in the middle of the night. We know the difficulties that arise when one has to work through the night.
It is a genuine worry of all parties in Scotland-certainly of the Labour Party and of the SNP Government, and I understand that at least some Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have expressed concern-that this will mean that on Friday morning there will be total confusion about the outcome of the election, because it will take some time to go through the count on Thursday night and Friday, and probably the result of the Scottish election will not be known until Saturday or Sunday. That will create tremendous problems-with the additional member system that we have, when constituencies are counted before additional members-for parties to know which of them will be in power, for there to be discussions between them about possible arrangements or for the largest party to decide to go ahead. It will create tremendous problems.
I will not blame the Minister if he has no immediate response to this, because the matter has just come up recently and I only became aware of it on Sunday. It would be helpful for all of us if he would look at that, take it away and ask officials-particularly officials in Scotland and in the Scotland Office, in discussion with the Scottish Executive-what the problems are and whether there is any way that they might be ameliorated.
Lord Rooker: I have not seen any of the reports that my noble friend quotes. However, it seems that this is a scam by the first past the posters to attack a PR fair voting system. It is inevitable with a PR system that one will not get an instant result. That has never been the case and no one has ever claimed that it was. So what if it takes 48 or 72 hours to count the votes because they have been cast in a fairer system than first past the post? Is my noble friend sure that he is not part of a conspiracy to undermine the successful operation of the PR fairer voting systems of the devolved Administrations of the UK?
Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: I would love to think that I am part of a conspiracy to undermine the so-called fair voting systems that some people want. It
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Aside from that diversion, I ask the Minister-who has been very helpful, as has the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace-to look into this and, if there is a problem, to see whether there is any way to resolve it.
Lord Bach: My Lords, my noble friend's amendment is entirely sensible. Indeed, following on from the previous amendment, I suspect that the Leader of the House may secretly or quietly agree with it. He may not be able to say so, because, as he reminded us, he is now in government. However, the amendment is sensible and I ask the noble Lord at least to take it back and consider it carefully. Also, the point of my noble friend Lord Foulkes about what appeared in the Scottish press yesterday is well worth the Government considering, if not responding to tonight.
This amendment is not contrary to the will of this Committee, due to the second Rooker amendment that is now well known in political history-the one that this Committee passed on 30 November stating that the voting system referendum must be held at some point before 31 October next year, which is clearly within the three months that this amendment mentions. The amendment of my noble friend Lord Rooker was subtle but important. It was hastily dismissed by the Government at the time of its passing, but perhaps they now regret that. It would have eased the pressure under which the Government find themselves.
By recommending a gap of three months between Royal Assent and the holding of the referendum, this amendment facilitates a period of proper preparation, including, most importantly, a proper information and education campaign on the difficult issues that the public are being asked to vote on, which are not that simple. We were reminded about New Zealand, which, when it changed its voting system in the early 1990s, provided a year-long information campaign.
I remind the Committee that Amendment 6 to this Bill, moved a long time ago, advised that a gap of between six and 18 months be inserted into the timetable for the referendum to allow for preparation and an information campaign. This amendment falls far short of that, but is moved with the same motivation. It seeks to facilitate a state of affairs that is an improvement on the 10 weeks or less that the Government's timetabling will provide the Electoral Commission with to disseminate information about the poll. It is less than 10 weeks in which to inform the public about an issue which Electoral Commission research informs us there is perilously little information or knowledge about.
This is not the proper context in which to be asking the public to make such an important decision, whether you are for this form of AV or for first past the post. Officials and interested participants should be given adequate time to provide this information.
Lord Tyler: As I recall, the noble Lord and his colleagues supported the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, which the Committee then passed, on the basis that we could still hold the referendum on 5 May, but it was left open for the referendum to be held at any time thereafter, before October. Is the noble Lord, Lord Bach, now saying that he is precluding the referendum being held on 5 May? That is a change of position, is it not?
Lord Bach: My Lords, we now know that the Bill certainly cannot be passed three months before the referendum due on 5 May. Therefore, we think that my noble friend, in moving this amendment, is being realistic. That does not take away from the effect of the amendment of my noble friend Lord Rooker, which we were glad to support and still do in principle. However, if the Government wanted a kind of middle way, they might be very sensible to pick up what my noble friend Lord Lipsey has suggested. We hope that the Government treat the amendment with some sympathy.
Lord Strathclyde: One of the most interesting facts that I have learnt today is just how many noble Lords opposite read the blog of my noble friend Lord Rennard. He should be immensely pleased and impressed that he has elicited such a reaction from noble Lords. I hope that at some stage he will commercialise it in an appropriate manner.
The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, asked questions about the Scottish association of returning officers. I will certainly look into the questions that he has raised. Earlier in Committee we discussed this and the information we had at that time was that there would be no problem in Scotland. It will be interesting to see whether that has changed.
The view of the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, was that people are not prepared. Interestingly, he said a number of things in support of the amendment. The amendment provides a three-month delay, as though they would not be prepared now but they would be prepared if there were a three-month delay. I am not sure that is right. I think people have a perception about AV and I am not sure that there will be an enormous difference between the 10-week limit that we have at the moment and three months. The Government see no compelling reason to fix the length of the period for this referendum to a minimum of three months.
It is worth reminding noble Lords opposite that the previous Government worked to swift timetables in organising the 1998 devolution referendums. This referendum was announced as far back as June or July. The Bill was introduced in July in the House of Commons. Of course, as has been recognised, I do not know when the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, tabled the amendment but it would mean that a target date of 5 February would have to be set, and that is later this week. If that target were not met, the provision would need to be given retrospective effect so that the referendum period could still begin three months from the date of the poll; for example, on a date before the Bill receives Royal Assent, and neither is desirable or necessary.
Practical arrangements by the Electoral Commission have been well under way for months, ensuring that
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"We have been working with local Counting Officers and Returning Officers to prepare plans on the basis of a referendum on 5 May 2011, alongside the other polls planned for that day, and in our most recent assessment we said that sufficient progress has been made for us to be confident they will be well run. Similarly, those intending to campaign at the referendum will have been developing their plans for the date specified in the Bill as introduced".
So a good deal of work has already been done by the registration officers and those who wish to run the campaigns have been working on their material. For those reasons we do not think that there is a need to extend the referendum period, as everything points to those involved being well prepared.
Lord Davies of Stamford: Can the noble Lord remind the House of the rules governing the ability of the Electoral Commission or any other agency to spend public money on planning implementation of a Bill which has not yet passed through Parliament?
Lord Strathclyde: I think the bodies that will need to spend money as a result of the Bill can do so once Second Reading has taken place in the first House. I will check that for the noble Lord but, under these circumstances, I do not think that there is any problem with the Electoral Commission spending money. For those reasons, we think the campaigns are well prepared. A lot of organisation has continued and I urge the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.
Lord Lipsey: This has been a trip down memory lane to the early days of the debate on the Bill. I thought we might still be here for some hours to come but that is not so. I am afraid that the Minister has not convinced me. First, he said that practical arrangements could be made by 5 May and I said precisely the same thing myself. That was never in question. The question is whether a legitimate debate can take place in so short a period. The only argument which I think I heard him use against that was the argument from Scottish and Welsh devolution. He did not say what the exact timetable on those Bills was but that the referendums were carried out quickly. That is true, but there is no analogy between the two. The issues of Scottish and Welsh devolution had been matters of the most intense debate in Scotland and Wales. There had been a failed attempt with a referendum about 10 years before the critical referendum took place. There was not a moment when this was not in the public eye in Scotland and Wales, with one political party having a change to the Government's arrangements as its central and single objective.
There has been a debate about electoral change too. It has been, let me admit freely, up till now largely confined to the political class. It is only now that we really know that the alternative to be put before the British people is AV and not the supplementary vote,
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Lord Low of Dalston: My Lords, I have been preparing for this moment since well before Christmas and I thought it would never come but my hour has come and I shall also speak to other amendments in the group. They may seem a bit of a comedown from the heady constitutional stuff we have been discussing-I was going to say for the last six weeks but the noble Lord, Lord Bach, referring to 30 November in the last debate suggests to me that it must have been at least eight weeks. In any case, I hope your Lordships would agree that the amendments are of considerable importance none the less and I would hope less apt to be contentious in your Lordships' House.
The purpose of these amendments is to disability-proof this legislation and to ensure that the referendum it establishes is fully inclusive and accessible to disabled people. Noble Lords will remember how the last general election was marred by scenes of voters queuing for hours, a shortage of ballot papers and the electorate being denied access to polling stations. Sadly, this is routinely the experience of millions of disabled voters at every election for every tier of government. There is also a worrying lack of accountability as there is currently no way for people to appeal when they are wrongly denied their right to vote, other than by mounting an expensive, onerous and bureaucratic legal challenge.
Following the report in 1999 of the Disability Rights Task Force-which the last Labour Government set up at the beginning of their administration and on which I had the honour to serve-some attempt has been made to give higher priority to the accessibility of elections for disabled people. Some provision has been made in the Representation of the People Act and the Electoral Commission has produced some helpful guidance. However, local authorities do not always implement it and more still needs to be done at local level to ensure that elections are fully inclusive.
Over the past decade and more the Polls Apart coalition of charities, led by Scope, has produced evidence of the continuing inaccessibility of polling stations and has been working to raise awareness of the need to make elections more accessible. The 2010 Polls Apart survey revealed that in the 2010 general election, 67 per cent of polling stations had poor access for people with mobility difficulties; 47 per cent of postal voters had problems with the accessibility of
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The right to vote is laid down in statute, the European Convention on Human Rights, and, most recently, in Article 29 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, but, in practice, voting is still a right denied to many disabled people. We need to bolster the legislation to guarantee that right. Of course, the Bill can do that only for the referendum, but I would hope that if we can get it right on this occasion, that could set the standard for all future elections.
Amendment 103 would give the chief counting officer a duty, rather than a power, to give regional counting officers and counting officers directions requiring them to take specified steps in preparation for the referendum. Amendment 104 would require that such steps should include ensuring that adequate provision is made for disabled voters. Amendments 105 and 106 lay an analogous duty on regional counting officers, for a region; and on counting officers, for voting areas within that region. Amendment 107 further adds to the matters on which regional counting officers should give direction to counting officers,
Amendment 110 creates a robust duty for the Electoral Commission to ensure that voters are able to access information about the referendum, and strengthens its general duty to give specific guidance on achieving equality of access to the voting process. Amendment 114 and Amendments 116 to 119 would require counting officers to ensure that the polling places used for the referendum were accessible to disabled voters, to notify voters of any polling stations that may not be accessible, and to provide details of alternative voting options.
The Electoral Commission has stated-and I fear that the Government may say-that it does not believe that the amendments are necessary, given the duties and responsibilities already laid on counting officers and the Electoral Commission by existing legislation. Existing legislation is not working, as the Polls Apart surveys have demonstrated, so we clearly need something more.
I have brought forward a reasonable set of amendments designed to address the situation. If they can do it in Northern Ireland, they can do it in the rest of the United Kingdom. I very much hope that the Government will see their way to accepting the amendments, thus helping to expedite the passage of the Bill through your Lordships' House. I beg to move.
Lord Howarth of Newport: I pay tribute to the part played by the noble Lord, Lord Low of Dalston, on the Disability Rights Task Force and to his resourceful,
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The situation that the noble Lord has described to us is a disgrace. It may be that, as the Electoral Commission has suggested, legislation is more or less sufficient, or ought to be, to ensure that the proper requirements of disabled people within our electoral system are accommodated, but evidently it is not working in practice. Whether that is a matter of lack of financial resources or, more likely, that it is a matter of attitudes and culture I do not know. But in all events, we need to take energetic and determined steps to greatly improve the state of affairs to which the noble Lord has alerted us.
It may be that the amendments he has proposed are the kind of practical amendments needed to rectify some of the deficiencies in existing legislation and regulations. Again, I do not know for sure, but it seems to me that the measures that the noble Lord has proposed are modest, practical and reasonable, and it is hard to imagine what objection could be made to them. But whether or not legislative change is the key to improving the state of affairs that he has described, ensuring that disabled people are included as they should be within our electoral and broader political systems, it is evident that there needs to be leadership and drive to ensure that the attitudes and the performance of professional staff in this field, and I daresay also of the political parties, are greatly improved.
I therefore look forward to the response from the Minister. We should all be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Low of Dalston, for calling our attention to a matter of serious concern and on a purely bipartisan basis. There is no party politics in this. I am sure it is universally agreed around the House that the arrangements that govern elections and certainly the holding of this particular referendum will in practice ensure that disabled people are in no way inhibited or debarred from participating.
Lord Bach: My Lords, the Committee should be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Low of Dalston, for moving his amendment and speaking to the other amendments in this group, and for informing the House about the results of the Polls Apart survey. The noble Lord said that this was a reasonable set of amendments and we on the opposition Front Bench agree. We think they are all sensible as well as reasonable and that they should be supported around the House in due course.
Our advice to the Government is that they should go away with these amendments and think very carefully indeed about how they can implement them. If they do not, I suspect the noble Lord will come back on Report and will have very wide support around the House from all sides so that these practical suggestions can be put into effect. As I say, the opposition Front Bench support these amendments.
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, from these Benches we, too, are immensely grateful for the way the noble Lord, Lord Low, moved his amendments and I am
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Similar amendments were debated in the other place and the Government stated their commitment to ensuring that everybody has an equal opportunity to cast their votes in this referendum. It is right and important that every effort is made to ensure that all individuals, with or without disabilities, are able to exercise their democratic rights. The Bill already contains significant provisions to ensure that voting is fair for all. This includes those voters with disabilities. Existing anti-discrimination legislation also already imposes duties on public authorities which are directly targeted at involvement in public life. Specifically, the Disability Discrimination Act 2005 was amended to include a duty on public authorities to promote the equality of individuals with disabilities.
Ensuring that ballot papers and polling stations are accessible to all is already a duty that counting officers will need to take forward. For the purposes of the referendum, the chief counting officer will also be able to give directions to counting officers on how they discharge these functions.
The Government have discussed aspects of the Bill with Scope, which does important work in directly supporting people with disabilities and whose reports are taken very seriously by government. We have already made some changes to the ballot papers to reflect its suggestions and have given the chief counting officer power to modify the voter-facing forms to make them easier to use and understand. However, as has been debated in the other place, the Government are not convinced that the amendments that have been tabled on this issue are the best way of achieving the commendable aims that underlie them.
In many instances, the chief counting officer and regional counting officers will already have the power to do what the amendments propose. Amendments 103 to 106 would turn these powers into obligations, which would not add anything to the commission's available options and may be actively damaging. If we take away the commission's discretion to decide when it needs to issue, for example, directions or guidance on disability issues, the commission may have to do work when its efforts could more usefully be directed elsewhere. That might impinge on the commission's activities in other areas. I know that the commission treats disability issues very seriously and is mindful that it is important to ensure ease of access where possible but, given its other commitments in the referendum, we need to give the commission the room to judge what action is necessary to support the aims of these amendments.
"We take seriously our duties as a public body under equality legislation, including the Disability Discrimination Act and the
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The chief counting officer will issue guidance and directions to RCOs and COs that will cover their duties in relation to accessibility and disabled voters under relevant equality and electoral legislation. These include: ensuring that polling stations meet the accessibility requirements of the DDA; ensuring that information, forms and notices relating to the voting process are available in alternative, accessible formats; making available enlarged sample versions of the ballot paper in polling stations; and providing a tactile voting device in each polling station to enable voters with visual impairments to vote.
The commission points out that, as at other elections in the UK, voters who have a disability may ask polling station staff for assistance with voting or may take someone with them to the polling station to help them cast their vote and that people voting by post may ask someone to help them with the process of completing their ballot paper and postal voting statement.
The commission will continue to work with Mencap, the RNIB, Scope and other representative and advocacy organisations to ensure that the referendum is managed and delivered in a way that ensures that all electors are able to participate effectively.
The way in which the obligations in these amendments will interact with the very important legal obligations that are already imposed by the Disabilities Discrimination Act and the Equality Act is also a cause for concern. Indeed, these amendments may add relatively little in a substantive sense. If the aim is to ensure that the rights of disabled voters are protected, surely that is best served by clarity of understanding about what is required by law. It would be very unfortunate if a multiplicity of obligations and a confused understanding of how they interacted stood in the way of precisely that sort of clarity, but I fear that that is one potentially serious effect of accepting these amendments.
The Government welcome the debate prompted by these amendments and encourage further dialogue, and I offer any further dialogue that the noble Lord would like, so that it may be brought to bear not on this poll alone, but on the current electoral legislative framework to identify whether improvements can be made in the round. The Government will keep under review ways in which the democratic process can be enhanced, and of course we welcome the views of Scope, the Electoral Commission and members of this House in that debate.
The aim of enhancing equal opportunity for all voters is admirable and I strongly support it, but the Government are not persuaded that amending this Bill in this way is the right way to achieve these important aims. I have spoken at some length, as I promised I would, and I hope that the noble Lord will find some encouragement in my words. I hope also that he will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
Lord Low of Dalston: My Lords, I thank the noble Lords who have spoken in this short debate, and particularly I thank the noble Lord, Lord Howarth of Newport. He spelled out the dynamics that underlie
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I thank the Leader of the House, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, for the fullness of his response, which of course I will take away and consider very carefully. I am also grateful to him for the offer of dialogue which I am sure we will want to take up. I would not maintain that these amendments are necessarily and in every respect the best way of seeking to implement the principles that we all share, so if between now and the Report stage we can find a better way of doing it, I am certainly more than open to that. Indeed, I particularly welcome the noble Lord's reference at the end of his remarks to his desire to see if we can a find a way in which not only this Bill on parliamentary constituencies and voting systems but electoral legislation more generally can be disability-proofed so that it is more user-friendly for disabled people. Indeed, that would be a much
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