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I am pleased about something that is contained in the Electoral Commission draft, which I have only just seen. It will not wash in terms of explanation, but it will stop the Deputy Prime Minister telling fibs any more. The draft says:
Let us have an end to that. I know that the Leader said that; he is not going to point out the errors of the Deputy Prime Minister, who started peddling this view. I could peddle the issue about how it ends tactical voting. It does not-it moves tactical voting to the second vote.
We have had an interesting debate. My noble friend talked about leaflets. It will be booklets, not leaflets. I do not see why the Royal Mail cannot do it. It can deliver to every household quite quickly. The difficulty is in the timing. Nothing can be printed until after Royal Assent. One assumes that something will be ready to go, if the Plain English Campaign has looked at it. However, it is going to go through letter boxes in the UK at exactly the same time as other election literature. Will it get the justice that it deserves? Clearly, we are embarking on a big project. As I have said, I have no view about the referendum on 5 May. I only offered a lifeboat if a lifeboat was needed. I do not campaign one way or the other. I simply think that, as I said last night, time is running short to get the message across in a way that will result in a meaningful vote.
Some practical problems may come up in terms of the mechanism that will be involved. One assumes that contracts have been looked at. You cannot just go to Royal Mail and say, "By the way, you know there are local elections in which there is no free post, but there are poll cards; and, by the way, we are having a referendum. Can you knock an extra one out for every household in the country?" Royal Mail will say, "No one has asked us about that. We have not got the capacity for that. We need more warning". Has anybody done that? I presume we can ask that when we debate further amendments. However, in view of the need to make progress, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
"subject to the approval of the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission"
Lord Bach: Following the previous debate, I can move this amendment from the opposition Front Bench comparatively shortly. We believe that it is absolutely appropriate that the Electoral Commission has the lead role in providing the public with educational materials in regard to the alternative vote referendum. That was the position adopted by the previous Labour Government in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act, which originally contained clauses to provide for an AV referendum, supported by noble Lords from the Liberal Democrat Party but absolutely torpedoed and killed off by the Conservative Front Bench in the wash-up before the election.
We remain of the view that the Electoral Commission is best placed to provide the public with the neutral, factual background information that they will need to make an informed decision in the referendum. There is also no question that there is, as we have debated, a serious need for such background information. As we discussed a few minutes ago, noble Lords may well have read the report of the Electoral Commission on the intelligibility of the referendum question as then posed, which was published last September, following the original proposition put forward in the Bill. Following extensive public consultation, the commission found that the vast majority of UK citizens had only a slim grasp, if any grasp at all, of the choice which is being put to them in the AV referendum which, as my noble friend Lord Grocott quite rightly said in the previous debate-I hate to embarrass him-changes our constitution and may change it for a long time to come. Who knows? On the previous amendment, I quoted various short passages from that report and I shall not repeat them.
There is clearly a need for public education about the concepts and issues at stake in the referendum on electoral reform. Given the current low level of knowledge, it seems clear that the education people receive will shape the way in which they think and have a very great influence on how they then act. I shall not repeat my Irish cautionary tale about the trouble that a referendum commission, or in this case the Electoral Commission, can find itself in, but many such difficulties were outlined in the contributions made on the previous group of amendments. There is no doubt that it is a very difficult line for the Electoral Commission to follow without finding itself in very serious hot water from one side or the other or perhaps both.
The purpose of the amendment is to provide the Electoral Commission with some sort of cover which would insulate it against unwarranted accusations of showing favouritism, for example, to one argument over another. It would provide for a Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, a body which already exists, as noble Lords will know, and it would have a role in signing off materials which the commission intends, under its broad provisions, to disseminate about the AV referendum. That Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission would include, of course, senior Members of Parliament from all the main parties and would be chaired by the Speaker, who has no party affiliation.
That seems to us a sensible proposal which would strengthen the legitimacy of the referendum process and help to ensure that the Electoral Commission
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Lord Soley: I referred to this matter in my earlier comments and I am encouraged to make a further comment partly by the speech made by my noble friend Lord Davies of Stamford but also by that made by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick. The problem here is paragraph 9(2) of Schedule 1. Paragraph 9(1) is very clear. It does not put the Electoral Commission in the firing line at all. If the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, who I assume will answer this debate, heard anything of the previous debate he will have heard anxiety expressed in all speeches about the dangers of putting the Electoral Commission in a position where it takes the blame for not getting a balanced view of the two systems. As I have said on a number of occasions, it is very difficult to write a pamphlet describing the two systems without, in some way, being biased. My noble friend Lord Rooker has already touched on this.
There seem to be two ways of dealing with this problem. One is the way put forward by my noble friend on the Front Bench, which is to allow a political committee, the Speaker's Committee, to be the lightning conductor. That committee would oversee the work that was done and would sign it off and if there were any flak from it, it would not go straight to the Electoral Commission. That is one way of dealing with it.
Perhaps I may suggest another way which came to me when I heard my noble friend Lord Davies speak-I noticed that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, gave a fairly positive response to it-and that is the idea of the two campaigning groups being able to send out a leaflet, at public charge, so that it would be done rather like an election address. Looking back to paragraph 9, sub-paragraph (2) is problematic because that is where the Electoral Commission is required to make judgments about the wording used to describe the system. If we took out sub-paragraph (2)-I do not expect the Minister to respond to this straightaway but he might want to think about it-and simply left in sub-paragraph (1), then the Government could, in this Bill-I suspect that it would not need to go into the Bill-allow for the two campaigning groups to produce the leaflet as described by my noble friend Lord Davies with some sympathetic support from the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. That could be sent round, either with the Electoral Commission's pamphlet or separately-I should have thought it would go with it-and in that way you take the responsibility of describing the two systems other than in a very basic sense which is required in paragraph 9(1), and put the requirement in paragraph 9(2) onto the two campaigning organisations.
I hope I am making myself clear. It is slightly complicated, but I am arguing that the two campaigns will know what they want to say for and against the two systems. If they produce their own leaflets and they are circulated with the pamphlet put out by the Electoral Commission, which they will do under
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Lord Wallace of Tankerness: I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bach, for moving the amendment. This important amendment follows on from the previous debate and I welcome the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Soley. As the noble Lord, Lord Bach, said in introducing his amendment, it is appreciated that the Electoral Commission should take the lead role in providing useful factual information. We believe it plays an important role in providing information to the public and there is a governance framework for the Electoral Commission, under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act, which we believe has operated effectively for 10 years. It is also important to recall in the context of this amendment that latterly the Electoral Commission has had the benefit of advice and involvement of representatives from the political parties: the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, for the Labour Party, the noble Baroness, Lady Browning, for the Conservative Party and Mr David Howarth, the former Member of Parliament for Cambridge who represents the Liberal Democrats.
The Speaker's Committee is an important part of that framework. It produces an annual report to Parliament on the commission's performance, but the nature of the role of the Speaker's Committee is different from that proposed in the amendment. The Speaker's Committee is currently not given any say in how the commission should exercise its powers. It is there to report on the performance of the commission rather than to have a say in the exercise of its powers.
The purpose of paragraph 9(2) of Schedule 1 is to provide legal clarity so that the Electoral Commission can issue information about both the first-past-the-post and the alternative vote systems which it identifies as being necessary to help public understanding of the referendum question. I hope that that goes some way to answering the point of the noble Lord, Lord Soley, which was whether we could delete paragraph 9(2) and leave it to the respective campaigns. Although the respective campaigns will have facility under the free post to put out their argument-no doubt a positive argument for why they wish to retain first past the post or to move to the alternative vote and an argument against the other system-that is clearly not a role that would be appropriate for the Electoral Commission.
Paragraph 9(2) provides a clear legal basis for the Electoral Commission, having identified a need for factual information, to provide it. In his response to
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Lord Anderson of Swansea: If a leaflet is to be produced by campaigning organisations, the noble and learned Lord will understand that, normally, when making an argument, you put the argument you want to make second. It is assumed that in a "on the one hand, on the other hand" argument, you put the argument that you favour second. Cannot that be got around in a leaflet by having one side of one page for and the other against?
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: The answer to that, as the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, pointed out, is that it takes a bit longer and more pages to describe the alternative vote than it does to describe the first-past-the-post system. Although that is an innovative and ingenious way to try to overcome the problem, I think that a practical issue is associated with it.
As my noble friend the Leader of the House said, the Electoral Commission has already published the proposed content of its information leaflets on its website. It is keen to have comments on the draft. If noble Lords wish to make representations about that information, they can of course send their comments to the Electoral Commission before the leaflets are published.
Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: Can the Minister help me on one issue? He knows as well as I do that before elections, party election broadcasts replace party political broadcasts. Will there be referendum broadcasts for the yes and no campaigns? Will that be part of the arrangements for the referendum?
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: Off the top of my head-I think I know the answer but I cannot be certain-I think that the answer is yes. I know that parties cannot use their election broadcasts for the referendum campaign. I think that that was decided in a case prior to the Scottish referendum in 1979. I think that there will be broadcasts, but perhaps I can confirm that in the course of my remarks.
I am mindful that all public bodies need to be held properly accountable for what they do, but we need to strike a sensible balance. It seems to me that there are dangers in introducing a role for a parliamentary committee in approving the operational work of the commission, as is envisaged under the amendment, rather than monitoring and commenting on its performance, as is the case established under the PPERA. It must also be remembered that the Speaker's Committee, however august, comprises politicians. Irrespective of how carefully we might think that the committee would use its power-I have no reason to think that it would do other than that-perception can be important
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Furthermore, building in an extra procedural hurdle before the commission could issue the clarifying information to help voters could be difficult if confusion about the systems was allowed to take root and hares were allowed to run which could not be corrected promptly because of the need to refer. We must also bear in mind that the commission already issues a lot of useful guidance to voters, parties, candidates and electoral administrators about the working of our system. That has worked well. I am not aware of any significant concerns about it.
It is the commission's responsibility to decide how, and whether, to provide that information. As I said, I think it is widely accepted across the Committee that the commission is well established as a neutral, independent body. I am confident that it does not need the extra provision which the amendment would impose. There is a further opportunity for noble Lords to comment on the draft. I therefore ask the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.
Lord Bach: I thank the noble and learned Lord for his full answer and my noble friend Lord Soley for his contribution in support of my amendment. I am slightly disappointed by the noble and learned Lord's response. As I said in opening, this is a modest proposal-and a practical one, I think. Without doubt, the Electoral Commission will come under a lot of pressure, to put it mildly, in the lead-up to and during the campaign for the referendum. No doubt, much of that criticism will be ill judged and unfair, but the Electoral Commission will have to face it.
This modest amendment is an attempt to give some cover, some protection to the Electoral Commission. The Speaker's Committee already exists. For the life of me, I cannot understand what are the dangers of extending its role to this issue. I understand that the Government do not want to adopt the amendment. I should like them to go away to think about it again because, as a practical measure to try to stop the difficulties that will undoubtedly arise in future, it seems to us to be sensible.
Of course I will withdraw the amendment today. We want to consider in more detail what the noble and learned Lord said, but I tell the Committee that we may well return to this issue at Report. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Lord Phillips of Sudbury: My Lords, I move this amendment in a probing frame of mind. It refers to paragraph 10 of Schedule 1, which provides the nuts and bolts of the referendum arrangements. I sometimes think that they can be skimped in our deliberations. Paragraph 10 is headed, "Encouraging participation". As I said earlier, I am sure that everybody wants that. Therefore, it is a very important part of the mechanics of the referendum.
My concern is that in paragraph 10, five individuals and tiers of officer are referred to: the Electoral Commission, the chief counting officer, regional counting officers, counting officers and registration officers. The last four-the chief counting officer and everybody down to registration officers-are under a duty and must,
My concern, especially in view of the tight time scale in which the referendum is likely to be conducted, is that there will be a lack of co-ordination between all these different officers about what they do. You could get a right mess with each of them carrying out their duty to encourage participation, some in this way, some in that, some here, some there, often overlapping and often leaving gaps of encouragement. I therefore thought it fit to propose this amendment which will cast upon the chief counting officer a duty to, in effect, facilitate co-operation between all those bodies, not forgetting that in the same paragraph 10, all four sets of officers,
It is as simple as that. We surely need somebody who has a primary role to facilitate co-operation between all these various people and organisations. Lastly, I point out that under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, the chief counting officer is chair of the Electoral Commission. That is all I need to say. I beg to move.
Lord Lipsey: My Lords, I am not entirely sure why my Amendment 110ZB is grouped with the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, but it gives me a particular pleasure to follow him in the debate. We have heard only too little from his Benches in the course of this debate, and therefore I wish him well in his speech. I should perhaps add that he should mind how he goes on the way home. A vow of omerta has bound the Lib Dems together over this Bill, and he has, I am sure inadvertently, broken it by intervening for a whole two minutes this evening. So mind how you go.
My Amendment 110ZB is not terribly well related to Amendment 110ZA, but is about a quite different matter. It harks back to the stain that still hangs over our democracy from the May general election. Memories in politics are, alas, short, but not in this House, of course. Therefore, I hardly need remind noble Lords of what happened. In a number of constituencies-16 in all-people turned up at the polling station before the 10 o'clock deadline wishing to cast a vote in those constituencies. They were not allowed to vote. According to the Electoral Commission's 20 May interim report on the matter, 1,200 voters were excluded from voting as a result of that cock-up.
For each of the 1,200 voters, the ban was absolute. It may not be a large percentage of the national total, but for a few days, our papers, no doubt exaggerating a little bit, were comparing us to a third world democracy. We could not even organise a vote, and when you see the way voters queue up in South Africa for hours and hours under a hot sun to exercise their right, and you find that in our own country people who have turned up on time are denied it, it leads to a shiver of shame going down one's spine. The Electoral Commission's interim report blamed poor planning, unsuitable buildings, contingency arrangements that were not triggered in time or proved ineffective and, incidentally, restrictive legislation that stopped those queuing getting ballot papers, even though they were in the polling station on time.
Planning for the referendum is in one sense at least perhaps more difficult than planning for a general election. Yes, we should all love to see a turnout for the referendum at least as great as that in the general election, but I do not think that many psephological experts think that is terribly likely. It really is terribly difficult to predict what turnout will be. You can imagine that the campaign starts with a poll showing a great gap between the various sides, and therefore fewer and fewer people plan to vote because they do not think their vote will make a difference. As it gets closer to polling day, it may be that polls start to narrow, and a whole load of people decide that they will after all go to the polls. By then, electoral officers will have made their dispositions and decided how many staff to have, how many polling stations and so on. In this case, the Leader of the House's technique for deciding what the turnout will be-the same technique that he used for the number of seats-by choosing a nice round number out of the air is not that much worse than any other technique. There is a danger that the accommodation will not be sufficient for the number of people who turn out to vote on the day.
The Library tells me that we are still awaiting the final report from the Electoral Commission on last May's debacle, but bits of it have leaked out. The Government's response has left a nasty sniff in the air. The Times reported, even before the report came out on 11 November, that Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, had turned down the proposal in the commission's interim report for a change in the legislation so that those who turn up before 10 o'clock can vote, even if they have not cast their vote by 10 o'clock. He said that the answer to poor organisation was not to reach for the statute book. Of course it is not, but it seems sensible to have two barrels to your shotgun: to try to deal with the poor organisation and to change the legislation that inadvertently caused this problem. I am therefore a little sorry and a little surprised that this legislation-absent the amendment I am now proposing-does not seem to do anything about that shortcoming.
Whenever I propose an amendment of this kind, somebody stands up and asks whether I have consulted the Electoral Commission about it, and I always retort no, because we are in Committee and it is not the duty of a Member of this House to consult the Electoral Commission on every proposal he puts forward at this stage in a Bill. I am, and should be, slightly surprised that the Government have not consulted it. I am
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I should have said earlier that there is one other reason why there could be a repetition. If the referendum goes ahead on 5 May, and it remains to be seen whether that will be possible, it will be quite a complicated election. At the polling station, they will be dishing out one set of papers for the election of Governments in Scotland and Wales and another set of papers for the referendum, and people will be coming up saying "Please sir, what do I do with that?"; "I don't know that"; "I didn't know I was going to get that"; and all that sort of thing. It would be quite easy to imagine circumstances in which the staff at the polling stations became overwhelmed by the sheer volume of queries.
Lord Rennard: The noble Lord might be reassured that I am not going to ask him the question that he feared about whether he had consulted the Electoral Commission on this issue. Rather, does he not think, in view of the potential problems he was just outlining, that his amendment could add to those problems? His amendment would apply to the issue of ballot papers for the referendum only. The effect of his amendment will be that different laws would apply for the issue of ballot papers for the referendum from those that would apply for the issue of ballot papers for the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and local elections. That would further add to the confusion. For those of us who agree that there is a problem with this matter and that it might be better dealt with by legislation, the legislation should be comprehensive for all elections and referendums and not just the referendum on 5 May.
Lord Lipsey: My Lords, there is a great deal in what the noble Lord says. The trouble is that we have got before us the parliamentary voting Bill and I cannot change the whole of electoral law in a clause within it. If the noble Lord can prevail on Ministers to change the electoral law more generally as soon as possible, then that would be great. I would rather that on 5 May people were able to vote in the referendum, even if a cock-up occurred that stopped them voting in the local elections, than that they went all the way to the polling station and could not cast a ballot on anything. That would be much worse. While the anomaly that the noble Lord points to does exist, I think it preferable to the disaster that could occur if my amendment, or something like it, is not adopted.
As I say, I am not going to force a vote, partly because the Government may know more about the final report of the Electoral Commission than I do. I hope, however, that the Minister will be very responsive to the points made in this House and will see some merit in what I am saying. I hope I can look forward to him coming forward with proposals to deal with the matter on Report. If he does not-and I am not
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Lord Mackay of Clashfern: My Lords, first, I support the principle behind the amendment that the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, has moved. The arrangements as set out in the schedule are somewhat ambiguous. His amendment is one way, at least, of clarifying that. There may be other, better ways, for all I know, but certainly these arrangements need to be clarified. I strongly support the view behind the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey-that the situation in the last election, where people who came and were there before 10 pm could not, because of the law, be given ballot papers, was absolutely disgraceful. Whatever the reason, on the night the lady from the Electoral Commission who spoke did not appear to me to have grasped exactly what the situation was. She said that it had given clear instructions that the ballot papers were not to be handed out after 10 pm. It suggests to me-and I do not know what the right answer to it is-that some flexibility is required to deal with special circumstances. The people who are running the different polling stations may not necessarily be the top brass of the arrangements, but some kind of discretion must be given, because that kind of thing can happen. I do not expect for a minute that anybody realised exactly what was happening until it was really too late, and then they had this terrific sledgehammer of "You cannot issue a ballot paper after 10 pm"; witness what the Electoral Commission had said. In a sense it made the matter worse. I do not say that the people in the polling booth could have given them out after 10 pm, although I think if I was in a polling booth and in charge as a clerk I would have had a shot at that.
It is important that this matter should be sorted out one way or another. If the Government do not think that the Electoral Commission solution is the best, then let us have one. We need a solution. I agree, of course, that it needs to be a solution that applies to all elections-not just the referendum-although, unfortunately, I do not think that that could be done in this Bill. We are trying to do enough already. We cannot sort the whole thing out, but it is certainly important to sort it out. A very short Bill that would not take the time that this one has taken could go through both Houses and sort this out in good time for 5 May.
Lord Anderson of Swansea: My Lords, I follow the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, when he says that he agrees with the intention of both these amendments. It may well be that the wording can be improved-and it probably can-but there will be general approval for the intention. I also begin by welcoming the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, and indeed that of the noble Lord, Lord Rennard. Someone mentioned the vow of omerta. When we had a Liberal Democrat intervention in an area of policy which in many ways they have taken as their own, I was reminded rather more of the brave Horatius at the bridge:
The noble Lord, Lord Phillips, mentioned the question of facilitation. This is clearly a possible problem because there will be a number of right hands and a number of left hands. It is important that this be a key role-even if the actual wording is not wholly appropriate.
On the face of it, this gives an unlimited expenditure for the worthy objects of this paragraph and goes against all the normal government policies of being frightened and hesitant about open-ended commitments. It is wholly unlimited. One's mind boggles at what, in following up this worthy objective, a very zealous officer may wish to do. So I simply commend to the Government-
Lord Anderson of Swansea: That is one way of seeking to limit the zeal of any particular officer. It may well be that there should be written into the clause some test of reasonableness or otherwise, but we have to have some limit.
The final comment I would like to make on the amendment is on the point made by my noble friend Lord Lipsey, which was supported by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern. I had the privilege of being an observer, or monitor, at both the South African election in 1994 and the first free election in Namibia in 1989. What amazed me at the time was that many people who had not had the opportunity before-those who were non-white-had such enthusiasm to get to the ballot box. I recall seeing young men carrying their aged mothers on their shoulders to get to that ballot box. I recall the long queues of people waiting to vote. All of those, in fact, who were in the tent at the relevant time, were allowed to vote. For any democrat it was a wonderfully emotional and uplifting moment.
As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, has just said, it was very different when we saw the people who had been excluded from voting at the time of the last election. As a democrat, I was extremely happy to see the display of real anger on the part of those who were excluded. We wait with interest to see how the Electoral Commission will respond, but surely it is not beyond the wit of man, or woman either, to give out cards to those waiting in the queue at 10 pm to enable those who have made the effort to vote on time to do so. Indeed, everything must be done to encourage people to vote. Someone who is turned away at the last moment because there is a queue may, in the future, join the ranks of those who do not vote. Let us look very carefully at this in order to encourage democracy.
Lord Maxton: My Lords, as someone who takes an interest in the field of IT and new technologies, I have to say that the idea that we still vote by putting a cross
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This real point is this. My noble friend is right at one level to say that in Scotland we are going to have two ballot papers presented to us-but we are not because we are going to have three of them. There will be one using the first past the post system to elect the Member for the constituency, and a second paper giving a list of parties to elect. That, by the way, raises the point made earlier by my noble friend Lord Rooker about where you stand on the ballot paper. In my view, it is almost certain that Alex Salmond is the First Minister of Scotland because he made sure, when using the list system, that he was listed as "Alex Salmond for First Minister" rather than "SNP". He was at the top of the list and probably got just about enough votes to make sure he won the election.
We are now to have the AV paper to contend with as well, and some people will find it difficult. The referendum is very important, but a problem that may arise is that some people in Scotland will decide that the Scottish elections are considerably more important than the referendum for AV. After all, the Scottish Parliament deals with the education system, housing and all the social issues that affect people's lives. They may say, "I can't be bothered with the referendum paper. I will deal with the Scottish Parliament ones". If the turnout for the AV referendum is smaller than it is for the Scottish Parliament, that will begin to cast doubts on the referendum itself.
Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: Does my noble friend recognise that the position is even more complicated, as I explained in a debate we had before Christmas? There are also two franchises, so although the vast majority of people will get three ballot papers, some will be entitled to only one and others to two. The returning officer has to keep two registers, so it is going to be very complicated, and the likelihood of queues to vote is even greater.
Lord Maxton: My noble friend makes a good point because the chance of a reduced turnout is even further increased by that. Moreover, if we have to have this sort of electoral system and way of voting, maybe there is a case for switching the polling day from a Thursday to a Sunday because at least that would give people the whole day to cast their vote, whereas those who are at work on a Thursday have to do it after they get home.
I turn to the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Phillips. He is quite right to say that there should be somebody to do this. But whoever is in charge of the election, what he will have to decide-certainly in Scotland-is the order for counting the different sets
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Lord Phillips of Sudbury: I hesitate to ask the noble Lord to give way again, but I think I can help him on that. Paragraph 5 of Schedule 1 gives the chief counting officer the power to direct regional counting officers and so on, and gives regional counting officers the power to direct counting officers within their region about the discharge of their functions. That will probably include directions about the sort of issues the noble Lord has raised. But of course that does not go across to paragraph 10, which is all about encouraging participation.
Lord Maxton: I gather that some returning officers in Scotland have already begun to complain that they do not know which votes they will have to count first, and that this is causing some confusion in their ranks. Maybe it is for the Government or the Electoral Commission to take a decision on this. However, I think that there will be some anger in Scotland if the results for who is to form the next Government in Scotland and who is to be the next First Minister in Scotland are delayed by the result of the decision on the AV referendum, if that is done first and the other results are delayed. For some of us, the idea of Alex Salmond being First Minister for even one more hour let alone one, two or three more days is more than we want, but the fact is that I would accept that decision if it is made. The power in the Bill may allow the officer to make that decision, but it would be a very important decision for him to make.
Lord Bach: My Lords, in our view these are two excellent amendments, although it is rather surprising that they have been put together in the same group. What links them is their excellence, and I hope that the Minister will be encouraging to both noble Lords who tabled them. I do not fear for the health of the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, on his way home. We all know him as a brave and independent-minded Peer who has already shown, in the course of the eight or nine months of the coalition's existence-it seems a long time already-that he can act independently. Looking at him from where I stand now, he seems to be the same man he was before he voted a few months ago against the coalition on an important amendment on a different issue, so good luck to him in his amendment. Of course, if he had been concerned, he need not be any longer because he has the protection and support of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, and there cannot be any better protection and support than that around the House.
The noble Lord, Lord Phillips, pointed out the ambiguity and ambivalence of paragraph 10 and the need for it to be simplified. For those on the Front Bench on this side, that is clear, and I think it is the only point I need to make about his amendment. We hope that his noble and learned friend Lord Wallace of Tankerness will take note.
My noble friend Lord Lipsey's amendment also seems to hit the mark for us. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, was right to say that what happened at the end of the last general election night-thankfully in a comparatively small number of venues, although even one was one too many-was absolutely disgraceful. Indeed, if it had happened in any other country, whether it was a sophisticated democracy or a new democracy, I venture to think that it would have been reported in the British media as being proof that that country had not really grown up democratically and lacked certain vital factors in elections. We must make sure that it does not happen again, and indeed I think that that is what my noble friend is suggesting in his amendment.
The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, was quite right to say that this would only affect the referendum, but it needs to affect all elections. However, the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, is perhaps best placed of anybody in the House to use his influence to make sure that government views can be changed so that this can become general practice rather than just for the referendum.
The Advocate-General for Scotland (Lord Wallace of Tankerness): My Lords, in addressing the amendment tabled by my noble friend Lord Phillips, I can assure him that he need not be concerned about proposing it.
Amendment 110ZA would impose a duty on the chief counting officer to facilitate co-operation between the officer, the Electoral Commission, the regional counting officers, counting officers and registration officers. In common with other noble Lords who have spoken in the debate, the Government agree with the intention of the amendment, which is to ensure that there is a strong relationship and good communication among those involved in running the referendum. However, we do not believe the amendment is necessary because there is nothing in the Bill which would inhibit this kind of activity from taking place.
That, of course, includes precisely the kind of co-operation suggested in the amendment. Moreover, I can assure my noble friend and the Committee that this kind of co-operation is already happening in practice. The chief counting officer has established a working group, which includes regional counting officers, to co-ordinate activity ahead of the planned polls; and the commission's plans for public awareness have been shared with this group, as well as with counting officers and electoral
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On a slightly more technical point, the amendment does not sit well with the current wording and spirit of paragraph 10 of Schedule 1, where the onus is on the chief counting officer being responsible for deciding what steps she thinks are appropriate to encourage participation. It should be noted that when undertaking this responsibility the chief counting officer can also use her power of direction under paragraph 5(5) of the schedule to require regional counting officers and counting officers to take a particular course of action to encourage participation. In contrast, the amendment would mandate the chief counting officer to undertake specific steps, which is not the intention of this provision.
In addition, one effect of requiring co-operation among certain named bodies is that such a requirement could raise a question about whether it was also permissible for the chief counting officer to consult other bodies that are not mentioned there. That problem does not arise in the original drafting.
Lord Campbell-Savours: Will the Minister respond to the question of my noble friend Lord Anderson about the conflict between the requirement on the chief counting officer to encourage participation as he thinks fit and the fact that the Minister may not necessarily reimburse the local authority? If a registration officer believed that it was appropriate to encourage participation by, let us say, running a rapid registration campaign prior to the referendum and got on with it, and then it was decided that because the money was not available he could not proceed, would not that have legal implications for the officer's failure to act?
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: My Lords, I think the noble Lord is asking whether, if a person is frustrated in his activities-I take a technical approach to this-the post hoc situation would be reimbursement. I take the point and do not wish to diminish it, but perhaps I could have some time to reflect on what he is saying. It is agreed on all sides of the Committee that there should be encouragement, which we do not wish to have cut off.
Lord Campbell-Savours: A local authority registration officer might write a report to the democratic services committee or a department in the local authority saying, "I wish to proceed on this basis because I believe it is an appropriate way for me to encourage participation", and the local authority might say, "We are sorry but the money is not available and the Government are not going to reimburse us in the event the expenditure takes place". Surely that must have legal implications for the position of the officer concerned.
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: I do not think that is how it would work. Reasonable expenditure will be reimbursed by the Government. If the expenditure was unreasonable and extravagant and went beyond
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On the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, the Scottish parliamentary elections will be counted first, ahead of the referendum. The selection of the First Minister does not normally follow the election anyway. I recall that in 2003 we did not get down to negotiations about establishing a coalition until the Monday after the election. Nevertheless, the point remains that the Scottish election count will take precedence over the referendum count.
There is a link between this amendment and the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, which relates to the role of the chief counting officer and the powers available to her. Sentiments have been expressed in the debate, as on other occasions, that democratic people were profoundly perturbed by the scenes they saw on the night of the last general election when people were not allowed to exercise their democratic rights. Paragraph 10(1) of the schedule states:
I can assure the Committee that we take very seriously the problems that arose at certain polling stations. The Government have been considering the Electoral Commission's report on the issue and, in particular, the recommendation that the law be changed to allow people who have not been issued with a ballot paper but are in the queues at 10 pm to vote. We are not convinced or satisfied that the amendment would enable the chief counting officer to direct that ballot papers are issued after 10 pm-if, indeed, that is the intention of the amendment. As the noble Lord indicated in his speech when he spoke to the amendment, the Electoral Commission report noted that that was not possible because it would not comply with the law. Clearly, the chief counting officer cannot issue a direction that contravenes the existing law. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, indicated, that is possibly not something that could be done in the context of this legislation for a referendum alone.
I will try to deal with the other point in a bit more detail. It is important to note that in most cases where the problems occurred in May last year, the Electoral
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The noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, quoted my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister. He quoted him accurately, but perhaps I should just quote a little more of what he said. At Question Time in the other place on 10 November, the Deputy Prime Minister said:
Officials have met the Electoral Commission, and indeed electoral administrators, to discuss the issue of managing queues at polling stations. It is clear that there are divergent views on the effectiveness of any legislative change, and a significant number of administrators are not in favour of it. Again, that is a reflection of the fact that the problems in that particular case in May last year were because of planning failures and the lack of effective contingency planning.
Given the divergence of views that exist on the specific recommendation of the Electoral Commission and given that there is the general consensus that the problems largely arose from poor planning, we believe there is a need for significant additional discussion before any change to legislation should be proposed, if indeed that is eventually deemed appropriate. There needs to be buy-in from all those who would be involved in administering elections.
Under the Bill, we consider that the chief counting officer already has the necessary powers to provide appropriate guidance, training and support to the regional counting officers, as well as to counting officers themselves, to help address the issues that arose in May 2010. I am aware that some of the contingency arrangements have already changed the ratio of polling clerks to the number of voters at each polling place. We think there is certainly a need for more discussion as to all the potential consequences of any legislative amendment before a change to the principles underlying the existing electoral rules is considered. In these circumstances there is some benefit to having the certainty of the present rules, admittedly with the back-up role that the chief counting officer has the authority to play in giving the necessary guidance, training and support.
Lord Lipsey: Perhaps two things are getting confused here. My amendment would not deal with the strict legislative problem that the Electoral Commission originally identified. That is still under discussion and I agree this is not the appropriate time to put that right. However, my amendment would convey to returning officers the extreme importance that Parliament attaches to tackling these problems. Yes, it would be a declaratory piece of legislation, but that is not without force in this world. The noble and learned Lord might like to reflect on the point that, if he rejects this proposal, it will seem as if the Government are not really taking
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Lord Wallace of Tankerness: I cannot accept the second part of what the noble Lord has said, because the Government accept that what happened in May last year was serious. There is no doubt about that. Anyone reading this debate would realise that the view on all sides of the Committee is that the situation was serious. I hope to reassure the noble Lord-who accepts that his amendment would not change the legislative basis for that-that there is a distinction to be made, given that it was accepted that in the cases last year the common factor was one of poor planning. In this case, there will be a chief counting officer, who will have a responsibility and already be aware-not least because of the dual role with the Electoral Commission-about the importance of this issue. I am sure the chief counting officer will be well aware of the sentiments expressed and the important and serious points made in this debate. If the noble Lord's aim was to get a message across, his amendment has provided a very helpful forum and opportunity to get that message across. She has the powers, we believe, to provide the appropriate guidance, the appropriate training and the appropriate support so that these issues will be addressed and the kind of situation that we saw in May 2010 will not arise again.
Lord Phillips of Sudbury: My Lords, I really did not want to make heavy weather of this amendment, but I have to say that my noble friend the Minister's response gave a series of legal interpretations with which I have to disagree. It is unfortunate that I have to disagree, but I do, even though I know that he is advised in these matters and one normally accepts such advice to be beyond question.
He said that such a provision allows the chief counting officer to direct the other officers-regional counting officers and so on-as to what to do and how to do it. I think that is simply wrong. There is no implication of a power of direction in that sub-paragraph. His second argument-
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: I think that I noted that, when undertaking the responsibility, the chief counting officer can use her power of direction under paragraph 5(5) of Schedule 1 to require action. I think that I emphasised the importance of co-operation-which is both permissible and happening in practice-but I referred to paragraph 5(5) in relation to powers of direction.
Paragraph 5(5) of Schedule 1 explicitly gives the chief counting officer powers to direct counting officers in the discharge of their functions. I thought long and hard about this and consulted-if he will not mind my saying so-with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, who knows a thing or two about interpretation. We agreed that the reference there to the power to direct is with regard to the conduct of a referendum. If the Minister looks back on paragraph 5, he will see that it is about the conduct of the poll, the printing of ballot papers, the issue and receipt of postal ballot papers, verification and counting of votes cast-that is, solely and exclusively a power of direction on technical and practical matters.
Lastly, the Minister said that he thought that the situation would be endangered by my amendment because he said that, if there was a right of "knocking heads together" among these five categories of officer, it might involve consultation with outside bodies. However, there is no mandate whatever for that in my amendment. If the Minister says that I have got it wrong-
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: I apologise if I did not express the matter clearly. What I said was that one effect of requiring co-operation among certain named bodies is that it might raise a question about whether it is also permissible to consult other bodies that are not mentioned there. In other words, if you are mandated to consult A, B, C and D, it may raise a question if you wish actually to consult F.
Lord Phillips of Sudbury: There is no reference in my amendment to consultation. This is a power of facilitation and of co-operation among the five sets of officers mentioned. There is no question of consultation, implied or otherwise. This is solely and exclusively among these five sets of people.
I am not a happy mover, I might say, and I would be grateful before I withdraw the amendment if the Minister would agree that this needs further consultation between us. If indeed his arguments prove to be fallacious-he started by sympathising with the sentiment of my amendment-at least there will be the consideration that a further amendment could be brought back at the next stage.
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: I am more than happy to do that. Just looking at it briefly, I think that there is a difference of opinion-not as to intention, but as to our interpretation-and I am more than happy to try to resolve that with my noble friend.
(a) the expenses are of a kind that would otherwise have been incurred by counting officers or Regional Counting Officers, and
(b) the Chief Counting Officer considered that it would be more economical for the expenses to be incurred by that officer instead."
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: My Lords, this group contains Amendments 110B, 110C, 110C, 110D and 110E. The amendment would give the chief counting officer, who is chair of the Electoral Commission, the power to incur expenses for the effective conduct of the referendum and in certain limited circumstances, make payments in respect of those expenses out of moneys to be provided from the Consolidated Fund. I can assure the Committee that the chief counting officer will be able to spend conduct moneys only where doing so provides a clear financial benefit. The Royal Mail, for example, has indicated that it may be able to provide a cheaper service for the sweeps of mail centres-a service that ensures that any votes still in the mail centres towards the end of polling day are identified, extracted and provided to returning and counting officers before the close of poll that evening-if it can contract for this on a national basis with one individual rather than having to negotiate and contract with more than 350 officers who will be conducting the poll at local level.
The amendment would help to make the administration of the referendum easier for the chief counting officer and for counting officers, and provides an opportunity for savings to be made on the conduct of the poll. I beg to move.
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: My Lords, when this issue arose, the view was taken that it was uncertain that that power existed and hence there was the need to put it beyond peradventure that it did. The issue was flagged up by the example of the Royal Mail that I gave, and there was concern that that power did not exist. As the noble and learned Lord says, it is a sensible power and one which I hope will commend itself to the Committee.
"( ) with the addition at the end of paragraph (b) of-
"(c) the petitioner's interest alone shall be sufficient to enable a petition to be lodged""
Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: My Lords, I am pleased to move this amendment. It was suggested to me last year by the Law Society of Scotland and I tabled it last November-it seems like quite a long time ago. The amendment clarifies the basis on which a judicial review of the certification by the chief or regional counting officers of the ballot papers counted or votes cast in the referendum may be taken. As the Minister will know better than anyone present, now that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, has left the Chamber, judicial review is different in Scotland from other parts of the United Kingdom. In Scotland, a petitioner must have both title and interest to sue. In England, only interest is required. We submitted as inequitable in the context of a referendum on United Kingdom voting that the challenges to the count are based on separate legal rights north and south of the border. In order to have title to sue, a person,
In his Report of the Scottish Civil Courts Review, Lord Gill, the Lord Justice Clerk, has recommended in paragraph 25 that the current Scots law on standing is too restrictive and that the separate tests of title and interest should be replaced by a single test: whether the petitioner has demonstrated a sufficient interest in the subject matter of the proceedings. This would make the position the same in Scotland as it is in England for anyone who wanted to challenge the result of the referendum, as recommended by Lord Gill. The amendment seeks to give effect to that recommendation.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: This is an important point which my noble friend Lord Foulkes has put so accurately. The position should not be different in England and Scotland. In England, interest is sufficient, which means a general interest-almost in a layman's sense-in the subject matter, whereas in Scotland, interest and title are needed, title meaning, as my noble friend Lord Foulkes said, some legal relationship which gives them a right to sue. The amendment would make Scotland and England the same in relation to whether you are entitled to challenge an electoral process which is identical on both sides of the border. That seems sensible. I would be interested to hear what the Minister has to say.
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, for bringing this amendment forward. He and I well know that the matter has been raised by the Law Society of Scotland. Indeed, I tabled a similar amendment in the previous Parliament.
The amendment would amend the provisions so that a challenge brought through judicial review in Scotland can be launched if its purposes are on the same basis as proceedings elsewhere. In Scotland, there are two separate tests for bringing judicial review, in that a petitioner has to demonstrate both title and interest, whereas in England, Wales and Northern Ireland there is a single test of interest alone.
The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, also mentioned the recommendation made by Lord Gill, the Lord Justice Clerk, in his Report of the Scottish Civil Courts Review. However, I am concerned that because of the way in which this amendment is drafted, it will not have the desired effect. By stating that,
it has almost gone too far and would effectively disapply the need to establish all other matters when considering a case for judicial review-including, indeed, whether there is sufficient legal grounds for a challenge.
The other, perhaps more practical, point is that it is difficult to see what the practical effect would be, as we think it is likely that the Scottish courts would entertain a judicial review from any elector entitled to vote at the referendum or at parliamentary elections and any permitted participant. By their very nature, they have an interest-they were taking part in the election.
We should be mindful of the fact that this issue goes wider than the referendum alone. It raises important issues about the nature of judicial review in Scotland, not least those flowing from Lord Gill's report, and the circumstances in which they should be permitted to raise petitions for judicial review. That is an important issue. It is one that undoubtedly is receiving detailed consideration, not least by the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament. It would not be helpful if this Bill somehow tried to pre-empt it on an ad hoc basis, particularly, as I have indicated, we believe that an elector in Scotland would be able to raise a petition.
Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: On the key point, is the Minister saying that because of the recommendation of Lord Gill, he believes that a petitioner in Scotland could raise it on interest alone, without any title, so it would in effect be the same as in England? I am not quite clear.
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: My Lords, if the noble Lord will bear with me, the Lord Justice Clerk, Lord Gill, recommends in his report that the separate test of title and interest be replaced by a single test, that test being where the petitioner has demonstrated a sufficient interest in the subject matter of the proceedings. That is not specific to this referendum. We have a quite important change in the law of judicial review in Scotland anyway and it goes along with numerous other recommendations on civil procedure in the Scottish courts. These matters are, I am aware, under consideration, but it would not be appropriate in this Bill to do it on a one-off basis, particularly in circumstances where we believe that being a participant in the referendum, one would qualify to challenge, if indeed that situation should ever arise.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: That is very helpful. I read the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, as saying that the current requirement in Scotland for judicial review is title and interest. He is expressing the view from the Dispatch Box that if you were an elector in the relevant election that you wished to challenge-the referendum-that would give you title and interest for the purpose of Scottish judicial review. That being so, the difficulties and dangers of trying to do an ad hoc change here do not arise and we should be reassured that any elector would be able to bring a judicial review challenge in Scotland, just as they would in England.
Lord Neill of Bladen: Before the noble and learned Lord finishes on that point, I feel some concern that he is not prepared to put on to the statute book the view which he has just expressed: that title and interest would necessarily be found by a court to exist here. The worry would be that there could, theoretically, be people advising in Scotland who will be unaware of the discussion now taking place and of the deliberate abstention from following up Lord Gill's advice on a one-off basis on this very point, where there is potentially a conflict between the practice in Scotland and that in England. Would it not be possible to think of some way of putting on to the statute book information so that anyone advising would see that title and interest were thought to be, by the Minister or by the Government, both present in this case?
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: That is an important point, one which I wish to reflect on. I think it is satisfactory as it stands, but I understand what the noble Lord is saying: that there may be circumstances where, in the absence of any reference, someone may not appreciate that fact. Without making any commitment, I will look at that and see whether there is a way. As I have indicated, as the amendment stands there is a problem, too. In fact on interest alone, regardless of anything else, it would qualify and I am sure that is not what the noble Lord intended.
Lord Campbell-Savours: I want to go back to my earlier intervention. As I understood the noble and learned Lord's reply, under paragraph 10(5), the Minister may reimburse reasonable expenses incurred by a registration officer for a local authority. Now, if the Government are in a position to reimburse such reasonable expenditure prior to the referendum, should that information not be communicated to local authorities?
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Lord Wallace of Tankerness: I am certainly more than happy to write to the noble Lord on that point. I do not think that I need to elaborate on what I said to him before. I want to indicate briefly that Schedule 1 makes provision about the key aspects of the conduct of the referendum and the regulation of the referendum campaign. The approach of the Government in doing this has really been to replicate the provisions that are made for parliamentary elections, where they are appropriate. However, there are some areas where we need to make specific provision to tailor-make the provisions for this referendum. On the campaign spending and funding framework already in place for referendums, what there is under the PPERA will generally apply. I commend this schedule to the Committee inasmuch as it tries to replicate, wherever appropriate, the rules which are now well tried and tested.
Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: I am grateful to the Minister and, particularly, to my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer for their exchange, which helped to clarify the situation. I was surprised because this amendment was in fact drafted by our mutual friend Michael Clancy, who has done a lot of these before and understands parliamentary drafting very well. However, I was particularly grateful for the intervention from the noble Lord, Lord Neill, on the Cross Benches, and for the Minister's response: that he will look at this again to see whether there is a way to achieve it so that Scots and English people will have the same rights guaranteed on both sides of the border, without any court having to make a decision and without creating a precedent which might cause any difficulties for other aspects of judicial review. On the basis that the Minister has been very helpful in giving me that assurance, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Is the Treasury going to give such a direction? It seems extraordinary that we would not know what the expenditure of the Electoral Commission was on the referendum unless a direction had been given by
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Lord Wallace of Tankerness: My Lords, I probably share the noble and learned Lord's view. It is almost counterintuitive to think that the Treasury might in some way not wish that-well, it may be, I do not know. Freedom of information requests might well flow fast and furiously if that did not happen. Perhaps if I talk long enough, I may get a definitive answer on whether this is indeed something that generally appears in such legislation or whether there is some reason unbeknown to us.
The answer is that it is part of the Electoral Commission's accounting framework that it normally accounts to the Speaker's office. I suspect that the paragraph makes provision that the accounts in relation to the referendum could be extracted. If that is incorrect, I will ensure that a proper clarification is intimated to the noble and learned Lord and duly circulated.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: As the noble Lord the Leader of the House said, I am getting a sapling of an idea of what the reason is and I think I understand. This is not a major point, but perhaps the noble and learned Lord could write. He should not bother to write if the sapling of the idea is, as I think was said, that we have to do it slightly differently because of this and that there will be accounts. If there will not be accounts available, perhaps he should write; otherwise, we can forget it.
Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: My Lords, I am grateful to be able to move Amendment 112A, which is grouped with Amendments 112B and 112C. Amendments 112A and 112B are to some extent probing amendments, while Amendment 112C goes a bit further than that. The first two refer to the publication of the notice of the referendum and the notice of poll. They would change the publication of the notice of the referendum from not later than the 25th day before the day of the referendum to not later than the 30th day and the notice of poll from not later than the 15th day to not later than the 20th day. The idea of this is that in a number of elections recently the elbow room between the publication of the notice and the notice of call and the actual referendum itself has not given enough time for the issue of postal ballots or the return of postal ballots and all the other procedures in between that need to take place.
Part of this is caused by the postal service being no longer quite as fast as it used to be, when we used to get guaranteed delivery of first-class letters the next day, and partly because the administration is becoming much more complicated. The administration in this case, particularly Scotland and Wales, will be even more complicated because for postal ballots there will be three ballot papers sent to some, two to others and one to others. It is a very complicated exercise which has to be carried out in a limited period of time.
Before the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, jumps up and says that this only deals with the referendum and that there are elections as well, let me say that I fully understand that consequential amendments will be required in relation to that if we agree Amendments 112A and 112B. But more elbow room needs to be given. I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, having been involved in so many elections, my noble friend Lord Collins, who masterminded elections for a number of years, and others who have been involved in elections will know that that timetable has created some problems for those involved in the practical operation of elections and referenda.
Amendment 112C would change the polling hours, currently 7 am to 10 pm, to 6 am to 11 pm. I think that we should do everything possible to make it easier for people to vote. Extending the arrangements for postal voting has been particularly helpful. The fact that you no longer have to prove that you are incapacitated to get a postal vote and that people on holidays can get postal votes has made it easier for such people to vote.
I would like to see us move towards a situation where voting took place at weekends so that you did not have to rush to do so on a working day between 7 am and 10 pm. If you could vote on either a Saturday or a Sunday, that would take account of religious objections to voting only on a Sunday and would make it much easier for people to cast their vote. As I said to the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, if that were agreed for the referendum, there would be consequential amendments in relation to the election.
I have accepted that I cannot change the dates to Saturday and Sunday. However, I have been more modest and suggested an hour earlier in the morning and an hour later at night. We were talking earlier about people in Sheffield and elsewhere turning up at 10 pm and not being able to vote at the last election, and this proposal is one way of resolving that. It gives a bit more time for people to vote in the complicated election and referendum situation that we are going to have. It also takes into account different working patterns.
Some people find it difficult to vote between 7 am and 10 pm, and anything that makes it easier for them to do so will be helpful. There are people who start work at 7 am and, for their own reasons, may not be able to get to the polling station by 10 pm. There are people whose life patterns and activities have changed. There are some people who are doing two jobs who will find it difficult. This just makes it that little bit easier for people to get to vote and anything that helps in that direction should be encouraged.
Lord McAvoy: My Lords, I will speak briefly in support of my noble friend's Amendment 112C. There are two types of people in particular that this amendment would help. There is still what is called a three-shift pattern in factories and elsewhere of 6 am to 2 pm, 2 pm to 10 pm, which is known as a back shift, and 10 pm to 6 am on a night shift. I worked that pattern myself for many years. The 6-to-2 shift sounds great-you get into work at 6 am, finish at 2 pm and have the rest of the day to yourself. Unfortunately, most people who have worked that shift will tell you that they spend most of the afternoon lying asleep on the couch, trying to catch up with the disruption to the normal sleep pattern and normal shift pattern. You can wake up feeling disorientated at times. It may sound a bit silly but I can assure people that the disruption to your normal pattern, in working that three-shift pattern, can have that effect on you.
There is also the back shift between 2 pm and 10 pm. It sounds great-you can get up in the morning and have time to do plenty of things before you start work at two o'clock. But you can have quite an extended travel time to get to work for 2 pm and, with other things to do in the morning, you may find that by the time you finish work at 10 pm the polling station is closed. As for the people who do the night shift, again it sounds great, as you have plenty of time during the day, but ask anyone who works the night shift and they will tell you that their day is disrupted. If there is a constantly changing shift pattern, working a different shift each week following the 6-to-2, 2-to-10 and 10-to-6 three-shift pattern, I can assure your Lordships that there is a disruption to the patterns of sleep and behaviour.
The second category is a new and developing pattern to which my noble friend Lord Foulkes of Cumnock has referred. This is the growing number of people who manage two jobs, particularly women. It always seems to be women who get landed with the part-time jobs, though they are not quite cheap labour thanks to the Labour Government's national minimum wage law that was opposed by the Liberals and Tories at the time. Nevertheless, these people are trying to keep two jobs going and are rushing between them. An extra hour's voting time at the end of the day will give people an extended opportunity to vote.
I believe that that category of part-time workers is growing. Again, I do not like it but they are mostly women workers because they have got to snatch a job of two or three hours to cope with child care and all the rest of it. They have to dive back, run a house, and probably get their man fed and out to work. There are some areas in the world where women still do not have a proper place in life. Keeping family together falls harder on women than on men, and I regret to say that a sexist society still operates like that. I would certainly support anything that can help women and part-time workers in that category. I would indicate my strong support particularly for Amendment 112C.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My noble friend Lord Rooker has Amendment 113 in this group, but he has had to leave. It is effectively the same as the amendment tabled by my noble friend Lord Foulkes in that it proposes that the polls should shut at 11 pm. The
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The next group of amendments, which would have been moved by my noble friend Lord Rooker, but which I will move because he cannot be here, seek to deal with the overcrowded polling stations issue, which we have already discussed and in which there was an impressive intervention by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern. There was quite broad support for the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Phillips. The amendment that proposes that the polls should shut at 11 pm, as opposed to 10 pm, might, subject to the information that the Minister has, be of assistance in relation to that. If the number of people who would vote between 10 pm and 11 pm was quite low-even though there might be a late surge-it would reduce the likelihood of what happened in the previous general election happening again. It might, for that additional reason, be worth contemplating.
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: I thank the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, for raising these issues with his amendments, which would provide electors with earlier notice of the referendum and give voters extra hours to cast their ballots. As noble Lords are aware, it is the Government's intention that the referendum should be held on 5 May. Therefore, any alterations to the timetable and the hours of polling proposed for the referendum would inevitably create inconsistencies between the rules governing the referendum on the one hand and those governing the elections scheduled to take place on 5 May, with which the referendum will be combined, on the other. Fundamentally, this would be confusing and unhelpful for voters. Noble Lords may already have noted that that view is supported by the Electoral Commission. The amendment would also be inconsistent with the combination of rules in Schedules 5 to 8 to the Bill.
I turn to the first part of the amendment, which deals with the referendum timetable and the issuing of the notice of poll. With the exception of the Scottish parliamentary election, the 25-day timetable will be used for all other polls that are scheduled to take place on 5 May 2011. During the Bill's passage through Parliament, we specifically amended the deadline for issuing the notice of poll from 16 to 15 days before the date of the poll. The noble Lord's amendment would take that up to 20 days before the date of the poll. The purpose of the amendment was to ensure that a consistent deadline for the publication of the notice of poll applied for most of the polls that will be combined across the United Kingdom.
Only in Scotland will the deadlines for publication of the notice of the two combined polls be different from each other, due to a slightly different timetable that applies to Scottish parliamentary elections. However, moving the deadline to 20 days before the poll would lead to inconsistency right across the United Kingdom and potential confusion for voters and electoral administrators. The Electoral Commission will take steps, however, to ensure that electors are aware of the referendum before the statutory timetable commences, and electors will not have to wait until notice of poll is
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I turn now to the amendment on polling hours. It is an important amendment and important arguments have been adduced in its favour. It would extend the polling hours for the referendum, which could be difficult for polling staff and polling agents. It may even be difficult for people who rely on public transport to get to a polling station for 6 am for the opening of the poll. At the end of the day, extending the close of poll by one hour could have implications for the staff at the time of verification, not least in those cases where two polls will be combined on one day. However, perhaps more importantly, it could be confusing to voters to have polls taking place on the same day but closing at different times. Under this proposal, voters would turn up before 7 am or after 10 pm to vote in the referendum, but would perhaps be told that they were unable to vote in the Scottish parliamentary election, the Welsh National Assembly election or some of the local government elections in England. I suspect that would increase, rather than reduce, the possibility of voters missing their opportunity to vote, which could cause some dissension.
The important point, which I think the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, mentioned, is that the opportunities for postal voting and voting by proxy are now such that if the current polling hours are unsuitable for electors, they still have the opportunity to vote. I readily accept that in many cases work patterns and family patterns may make it difficult, but it is now possible to vote either by proxy or by post. As we all know from taking a keen interest in elections, the number of postal votes has increased considerably; obviously a good number of people take that opportunity. It may be that the message about opportunities for postal and proxy voting can be reinforced in the context of information relating to the polls.
It is also important that the issue regarding the timetable for the polls goes wider than the referendum alone. It should perhaps be reviewed in the longer term for future national elections and referendums. With these words and assurances, I hope the noble Lord will withdraw his amendment.
Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: I find that a very helpful reply. The Minister has explained and answered the points raised very well. We could have altered the hours for all the elections as well as the referendum if we had had more time but we are rushed in this and must do everything by 5 May. That is part of the problem. However, given that we cannot change the time for elections, it would be right-
Lord McAvoy: I accept what my noble friend says about the Minister's reply, but is there some way, through the amendment, the schedule or elsewhere, to initiate a pilot project somewhere, or at some point in another election? That would test those hours. I am particularly interested in Amendment 112C. Could we look at the possibility of some kind of pilot in an election in a selected area to see if it made any difference?
Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: That is a very interesting suggestion. Although we are rushed in this, I hope that, for future elections, the Electoral Commission could look at longer hours and, perhaps, different days. I think the Minister said towards the end of his reply that he wanted this. Pilots have been done. As my noble friend Lord Collins would remind me, we had an all-postal-vote pilot in the north of England, which had a very interesting result. I should perhaps have declared my interest as a postal voter. I accept what the Minister has said but I hope we will look at ways in which we can make it easier for people to vote, such as voting at weekends and longer voting hours. If it can be done with one or two pilots, as my noble friend Lord McAvoy said, that would be very useful. In view of the Minister's very helpful reply, I will withdraw the amendment.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I will move and speak to the amendments in this group on behalf of my noble friend Lord Rooker. There are three of them, two of which seek to deal with the chaos at the end of the general election. On page 32, paragraph 13(1) of Schedule 2 to the Bill, "Rules for the Conduct of the Referendum", provides that:
"The counting officer must provide a sufficient number of polling stations and, subject to the following provisions of this rule, must allot the electors to the polling stations in whatever manner the officer thinks most convenient".
My noble friend Lord Rooker proposes amending that to ensure that the counting officer in every ballot station has as many ballot papers as there are electors allocated to that polling station. That is sensible because it means that they cannot run out of ballot papers. Again, it is a way of reducing chaos.
The final amendment in this group is Amendment 121. On page 35-I know all noble Lords are following this in their own copies of the Bill because it is so completely fascinating-sub-paragraph (7) says:
because that is the phrase used everywhere else. It is difficult to imagine-though I am quite sure that the noble and learned Lord will have some clever answer for this-why different phrases were used.
The first two amendments avoid the chaos. The third amendment-I am not sure why it is in this group, but it is easy to deal with in this group-is to ensure consistency in the instructions given to electors. I beg to move.
Lord Grocott: My Lords, one rarely sees an amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Rooker that does not have a huge amount of common sense within it. We all remember what happened at the general election, where people were queueing at polling stations because the flow of people simply could not be accommodated, and we can all agree that at this referendum election there is certainly going to be more confusion than there is at a normal parliamentary election, where everyone understands what is required of them. It is the simplest possible thing to have to do-put a cross by their favoured candidate-and we all accept the result; at least, the vast majority of us accept the result.
What the noble Lord proposes here would be desirable in any event, if we were just going through the same system as we did at the last general election, but given that we are going to have polling stations where there is more than one decision being made and where electors will confront, for the first time, the option of the alternative vote and have to understand what is involved, there is bound to be confusion. I predict with complete certainty that, should we go down the road to AV, there will be far more spoiled ballot papers than there normally are-that has been the case with every move away from first past the post. Staying with the referendum, there will be people who will seek the advice of polling clerks. I do not know what the law is if they seek that advice. Are the polling clerks expected
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I hope that the Committee will accept my proposition that this is going to be more complicated than a general election. I hope that the Committee will accept the evidence of their own television sets that, at the last general election there were polling stations that simply could not cope with the number of electors coming at a particular time. It must therefore follow, surely, that we need to make special provisions for this very unusual election where there is bound to be more confusion. I cannot be confident that there will be large numbers of people voting, but we need to allow for that and we clearly were not allowing for that effectively at the last general election. Amendment 115 is presented with characteristic simplicity and common sense in the name of my noble friend Lord Rooker and I strongly support it.
Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, I want, very briefly, to remind civil servants, when they are drawing up the wording as currently set out in the Bill, of what happened with the ballot paper in the first mayoral elections in London. We had made recommendations as to what should be on the ballot paper; the civil servants basically took over the agenda and wrote the question; I objected very strongly, but of course as usual, I was overruled on the detail; and the result was that a lot of ballot papers in the first mayoral elections in London were wasted because of the framing of the question.
Wording is crucial and I think it has to be politicians who decide on that wording, because it is only we who understand how electorates respond to certain language. Therefore, I hope that a debate takes place within the department about whether the current wording in these areas of instruction is right and whether the wording that my noble friend wishes to introduce for the benefit of people voting in the referendum might be better. The Minister should take this as a very serious amendment: it might not be the final wording, but let there be a further debate, because if it does not take place, the danger is that the events of the first mayoral elections in London may well be repeated.
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, for tabling these amendments; he indicated to me that he had to leave and that they would be spoken to by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer. They raise important issues which it is very helpful for the Committee to have the opportunity to address. Amendment 115 obliges by law that counting officers should not allocate more than 1,050 electors to any polling station within their voting areas. This is a very worthy and laudable attempt to address the problems, referred to by the noble and learned Lord in moving this amendment, which arose at some polling stations in the May 2010 election, when a number of electors were unable to cast their votes due to queues forming at certain polling stations. Although these incidents were isolated, they are certainly not taken lightly-I emphasise that again.
It is the responsibility of electoral administrators to provide for the smooth running of the voting process in elections, and that includes contingency plans to cater for events such as when there is a higher than expected turnout at one or more polling stations for which they are responsible for allocating voters and for staffing. The chief counting officer for the referendum is, of course, the chair of the Electoral Commission and she has the power to direct all other counting officers across the United Kingdom who administer the referendum. The Electoral Commission has indicated that the chief counting officer intends to issue directions to counting officers as to the maximum number of electors to be allocated to any polling station and the associated minimum number of staff to be present at each polling station. As I indicated in response to an amendment moved earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, the Electoral Commission has already started to issue guidance to counting officers on the number of polling staff who will be required.
I am therefore concerned that the amendment would remove any discretion, both of the chief counting officer and of all other counting officers, to decide how many electors should be allocated to each polling station and the number of staff who should be present at each polling station. To give an example, it does not seem sensible to require that a village of, say, 1,200 electors should have two polling stations when there is no suggestion that previous arrangements for that village have proved inadequate. Indeed, it might even mean that fewer staff were available at each polling station to assist voters. It is that kind of flexibility which we would not like to remove from the chief counting officer.
We know that queues arose in the elections of May last year primarily because of planning failures and the lack of effective contingency planning. However, we believe that at the polls being held in May this year, better guidance, better staff training and support and better planning procedures in the run-up to the polls would be more appropriate and more effective in addressing the issues that have been raised, as opposed to placing statutory limits on the number of voters who can be allocated. I hope that the chief counting officer's stated intention to issue directions to counting officers on this issue will reassure noble Lords and that the House will recognise that the amendment would reduce flexibility, and that that in turn could increase risks and not necessarily prove good value for money.
On the second amendment, which would oblige all counting officers to print 100 per cent of ballot papers, I must say that until last year I always thought that that was the case anyway. The purpose is that they should print the same number of ballot papers as there are voters on the electoral register in their area of responsibility. Currently, they must print only the number of ballot papers that they feel is necessary.
"We are also aware of some isolated reports that voters at a small number of polling stations may also have experienced other problems. These included ... polling stations where supplies of ballot papers ran out during polling day before being replenished".
Even though these incidents were isolated and do not appear to have stopped anyone casting their votes, we certainly do not take that situation lightly. It is the responsibility of electoral administrators to provide for the smooth running of the voting process. That includes contingency plans to cater for events such as a higher than expected turnout.
However, I hope to reassure the Committee that the intention of the amendment can be achieved without the need for its inclusion in primary legislation. The chief counting officer for the referendum-as I have already indicated, she is also chair of the Electoral Commission-has the power to direct all other counting officers who administer the referendum. Further discussions with the Electoral Commission have identified that the chief counting officer intends to direct all counting officers to print 100 per cent of their ballot papers. The Electoral Commission believes that the power of direction allows the chief counting officer to require counting officers to print ballot papers according to her direction. This allows her suitable flexibility to be able to decide what is right in particular circumstances, should this be necessary. I hope that the chief counting officer's stated intention to direct that 100 per cent of ballot papers be printed will reassure the Committee, but equally we believe that the Electoral Commission's preference for the chief counting officer to have flexibility in this area should also be respected.
Finally with regard to Amendment 121, I take the point that wording is important. However, I do not accept the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, that holding the local elections and the referendum together will cause huge difficulty given that last year a general election and local elections were held together, and that is not unprecedented. The amendment seeks to modify the wording of the notice which must be exhibited in polling stations across the country on the date of the poll. This is a helpful and sensible amendment and would ensure consistency with the formulation of words used in a number of forms in the Bill, to which the noble and learned Lord drew our attention, such as the postal voting statement, declaration of identity and proxy poll cards. The noble and learned Lord asked me to explain the measure. I draw the Committee's attention to rule 10 of this schedule on page 31 of the Bill, which grants the chief counting officer responsible for administering the poll the discretion to amend the voter-facing materials prescribed by the Bill for the purposes of making these materials easier for voters to use or understand. This encompasses the notice prescribed by rule 17(7), which is the subject matter of this amendment.
I do not think that it would be helpful at this stage for the Committee to amend aspects of the Bill which are the subject of future modification by the chief counting officer. We know that she is considering the modifications that she may wish to make to these voter-facing materials, and the Government do not wish at this time to pre-empt any decisions which she may take to amend them. However, I assure the Committee that the Government have discussed this
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Lord Grocott: I am not asking the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, to respond further; I just want to put the record straight. I am not sure that I made it clear that my concern was not about holding local elections and a referendum on the same day but about the fact that the referendum itself was something entirely new. The question voters are going to be asked is whether they support the first past the post system or the alternative vote system. However, a lot of people will be confronted with that question for the first time in their lives and it would not be surprising if they found filling in their ballot paper rather more confusing than normal.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: I am extremely grateful to the noble and learned Lord for his detailed response. However, unfortunately, it did not quite hit the mark on any of the three amendments. I completely take his point that it would be ridiculous to have two stations in certain places because you might have a village with 1,051 electors. However, I wonder whether that would not be best dealt with by saying that the norm should be 1,050 electors, save where there are exceptional circumstances, because generally you are trying to get to a figure of 1,050.
Secondly, I was confused by the noble and learned Lord's answer in relation to what the chair of the Electoral Commission intends to do. I understood him to say that she intends to direct that 100 per cent of ballot papers be printed, but that she wants flexibility. But what does she want flexibility for if she intends to instruct that 100 per cent of ballot papers be printed? Why not put in the Bill what I understood the first part of the noble and learned Lord's answer to indicate what she intended to do? That would give certainty.
Thirdly, in relation to the difference between the notice and the form, the noble and learned Lord took a good shot at this but I do not think that he said that there was any particular reason why they were different. As my noble friend Lord Grocott says, this will be a completely novel experience for voters to vote on whether there should be first past the post or an alternative vote system. There needs to be clarity. Yes, he is right that the chief counting officer has the power to change the forms but the wording of the Bill is mandatory. For example, paragraph 17(7) states:
If I were the chair of the Electoral Commission, although I had a power to make changes, in the context of mandatory language I would feel safest, legally, in not making a change. We agree that it is much better if the wording is the same right across all the material. One of the purposes of scrutinising this
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I absolutely respect the effort that the noble and learned Lord has made but my noble friend Lord Rooker may bring all three of these amendments back, with a slightly different amendment in one case and broadly the same amendment in the other two. In the case of the third amendment, it would help greatly if he were willing to go through the Bill and ensure that the wording is consistent, as his officials can do that much more quickly and much more consistently than we can. On that note, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: My Lords, this is a minor and technical amendment to correct a cross-reference under rule 13(6)(a) of the referendum rules. The effect of this minor amendment is that the number of ballot papers counted or votes cast may not be questioned by reason of any non-compliance with the provisions under rule 13(3) for England and rule 13(4) for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland relating to the provision of polling stations. Noble Lords will note that, as it stands, the reference is not to rule 13(3) and rule 13(4) but rather to paragraph 13(5)(a) and (b). The purpose of this amendment is to get the cross-reference correct. I beg to move.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: Just for clarity, the reason why sub-paragraph (5) is not now included as an exception in sub-paragraph (6)(a) is because it is included in sub-paragraph (4). Is that right? Looking at it to start with you want it to apply to sub-paragraph (5) as well, but sub-paragraph (5) appears to go in the drafting because the deletion in the amendment goes up to the second "or" in the second line. You would not want a vote not to be counted if the polling station happened to be in the wrong district. I assume that sub-paragraph (5) is deleted because it is included in sub-paragraph (4), or am I wrong about that? I cannot see any reason why a technical failure of the position of the polling station in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland should vitiate the vote. I assume it is because the polling stations in sub-paragraph (5) are included in sub-paragraph (4). Officials are nodding. It might be better if the noble and learned Lord says yes.
Lord Bach: My Lords, I speak on behalf of my noble friend Lord Rooker. This small amendment refers to the sealing of ballot boxes before the commencement of the poll, as provided for in the rules for conduct of the referendum given in Schedule 2 to the Bill. The schedule currently advises that the presiding officer must show "anyone present" in the polling station immediately before the commencement of the poll that the ballot box is empty. My noble friend's argument-we do not make too much of this or say that it is a major issue-is that this should be changed to require the presiding officer to show "the first elector" who comes to vote in that polling station that the ballot box is empty.
We believe that the amendment would add a degree of precision to the requirement on the presiding officer and add to confidence in the legitimacy and validity of the poll and its result. Being more specific about who is to see and verify that the ballot box is empty is a small but important symbol that the poll is to be carried out properly. It is too vague to say "anyone present". That could be the cleaner or the person who is with the presiding officer to help with the running of the poll. Why not require that the first elector who comes through the door should see that the ballot box is empty before casting their vote, which would be the first one in the box? As I said, this is not a major amendment, but I think that it deserves an answer. I beg to move.
Lord McAvoy: My Lords, I rise briefly to support the amendment, on which I will enlarge just a bit. We have good traditions and symbolism in British democracy. I have been an election agent and a candidate. I thought that it was the law that either the agent or candidate could see inside each ballot box before it was locked. That happened regularly. Perhaps it was only in council elections-I am not sure, but I used to see it quite often. I agree very strongly with entrenching the symbolism so that it is not just anyone who sees that part of the procedure. Perhaps we could embellish our democracy a bit by making a bit of a tradition and a bit of a show, to get people there and show that the box is indeed empty. While folk may scorn that type of thing, nevertheless it would show clearly the symbolism that our democracy is vibrant and seen to be so.
Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, this amendment takes us back to the debates two years ago on the Political Parties and Elections Bill, for which we took Committee stage in the Moses Room. There were long debates on the whole issue of fraud in elections. From the discussions that everyone had been having with the
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No major change is being asked in this amendment. This minor change would check that the first elector was the first elector, so that people would know whether there were ballot papers already in the ballot box, to put it bluntly. Even though fraud at this point in the process might not be prevalent, the proposed change would help reassure the wider public that everything possible is being done to ensure that the electoral system in this country has integrity.
Lord Myners: My Lords, I speak in support of Amendment 122. I think that it is a small but important step; in fact, I would like to see us go further. It is absolutely critical that we take every action within reasonable grasp to protect and enhance the integrity of the voting system, which has been brought into disrepute in recent years.
I think particularly of the comments by the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, about ballots that she believed had been in contravention of correct process. I acknowledge that at times it is difficult to tell whether the noble Baroness is speaking on behalf of the Government, the coalition, the Conservative Party or a faction within the Conservative Party. For example, I think of her comments immediately after the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election about the right wing of the Conservative Party. I also think of her comments the previous night on BBC2's "Newsnight" programme in connection with the Royal Bank of Scotland-I regret I was unable to be in the House this afternoon when this matter was handled in Questions-when the noble Baroness said that the Government were renegotiating contracts with executives of RBS. Since then, the Treasury has been very keen to suggest that it is not doing anything of the sort. However, the comments made by the noble Baroness on electoral issues were ones that we should take careful note of when considering this amendment.
I would actually prefer a change in the design of the ballot box. I would like to see ballot boxes that are transparent, so that it is possible for people to see their vote going into the box. The amendment deals with the authenticity and the integrity of the ballot process only at the time when the first decision is made on a vote, but I think that my proposal would bring huge confidence.
Lord McAvoy: My first reaction is that a transparent ballot box could add to democracy and could be useful. On the other hand, when thinking of the mechanics of polling day, one has to consider that sometimes people do not fold the ballot paper properly and if that happened in a transparent box it would show who the person had voted for, or did not vote for, which would render the vote invalid because someone was able to identify it.
Lord Myners: My noble friend is as sharp as ever on these issues. I had already given thought to that matter. I suggest to my noble friend that a ballot box could be transparent at the top, so that you could see your vote going in, but not transparent at the bottom where the vote rested. That would perhaps address the issue. I encourage the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, when he engages with his colleagues in the Cabinet Office on further constitutional reviews, to give this some consideration.
However, it seems to me that my noble friend Lord Rooker has made an entirely reasonable proposal that in no way seeks to obstruct the intention of government policy. It would be commendable to the House and to the country as it would endorse the integrity of the balloting process and the confidence that we can have in the outcome of elections conducted through such a mechanism.
Lord Maxton: I support the amendment as well. I support my noble friend Lord Myners in his idea of a transparent box, whether or not the bottom is transparent. I would rather we did not have ballot boxes at all and voted electronically, but that is a personal campaign which I have been running for a long time. I include in that this place as well. I notice that we will be able to bring electronic devices into the Chamber-but perhaps not yet-and then we can start to vote through them as well.
I have one question for my noble friend who moved the amendment. Who exactly is the first elector? In certain circumstances, those who work at the polling station can be electors in that seat. They could be given the right to vote prior to the polls actually opening. That is a bending of the rules but I think it happens. It is an easy way to ensure that someone who is working all day has the opportunity to vote first. How would my noble friend respond to such circumstances? I think there is some case for saying that the rules must be absolute and that the polling station must not open until 7 or 8 am, whichever election it is, and that no one can vote before then. I have a suspicion that in the past people have been allowed to vote just before the polling station opens.
Lord Maxton: Yes. Being an elderly gentleman, I have to accept that my experience of campaigning on a personal level precedes most of the changes in the rules as regards postal voting. My noble friend may very well have a point. I accept it is a minor point but I hope it will be considered.
Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town: I support the amendment. This election has the potential for some interest among a new group of voters, which is a particular interest of mine, as I have said before. I know this probably was not the rationale behind this situation, and that it was about the accuracy of and confidence in the vote, but there could be a certain jostling for position to be the first elector, which could be quite exciting on an issue like this.
I have, I promise, a very short anecdote to tell. At one time, the Labour Party was doing extremely badly in the polls and in November 1983 a friend of mine took his young son with him to the polling station. I will not name my friend as I am not sure this is legal, but his young son actually made the cross on the ballot paper and put it in the big black box. Thinking of the ballot as a lottery, the lovely little boy, who is now very grown-up, said, "Which one wins, Dad? Is it the first one out?". In 1983, many Labour Party members would have said, "If only".
What is interesting about that story, which has kept with me, is the excitement of a young person going to vote and the idea that the first elector would have a role in the endorsement of the process. I am sure that any of us who are involved politically would make sure that it was one of ours who was there, a young person or someone who had just got the voting right because they had become a British citizen. We would make something of that to give the citizen a particular tick to that process. I hope that that may be given serious consideration.
Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: In the unavoidable absence of the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, I will be nitpicking. Surely, if this changes the regulations for the referendum, it will create problems if the old system will be continued for the local government and Scottish Parliament elections. The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, raised that point several times in previous debates. It is a valid point and something that my noble friend Lord Bach should address. I am not against that in principle but if we have a different system for checking the ballot box for the referendum from that in the Scottish, Welsh and local government elections, that might create problems.
Lord Maxton: My noble friend raises an interesting point. If in the Scottish election on 5 May, the first person in decides that they do not want to vote in the referendum at all and they only want to vote in the Scottish election, my noble friend's point would be very apposite.
Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: It would be even stronger. It is not just a question of whether they do not want to; they may not be eligible because, as I pointed out on a number of occasions, some may be eligible to vote in the Scottish Parliament elections; others will be able to vote in the referendum only; most of us-including, at last, Peers-will be able to vote in all three. That creates some confusion as to who the first elector will be.
Lord Campbell-Savours: Is not the answer to the Rennard question, on which my noble friend commented, to find out when we can expect further legislation in these areas? We know that a Bill is coming in on the funding of political parties. If the Long Title of that Bill was sufficiently wide, we might introduce a whole series of amendments governing elections and political parties. That might well be the peg, and we should be prevailing on the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, to push his luck with Ministers to secure an early introduction of legislation.
Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: My noble friend is right in principle, but because we have this artificial deadline of having to agree everything before the referendum on 5 May, I do not think that there would be the time to do that. Now I know why the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, enjoys being such a nitpicker. It is quite fun challenging the amendments put forward by Labour Peers.
However, I think that the intention behind what my noble friend suggests is absolutely right. In a number of elections overseas, ballot boxes have been stuffed in advance by supporters of one candidate or another and elections have been challenged. That could happen in a referendum. The principle is very important, notwithstanding the technical problem that I have raised in the unavoidable absence of the noble Lord, Lord Rennard.
Lord Strathclyde: The noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, is right: it would be far better to deal with and debate these issues in another forum or on another Bill. We resist the amendment, which, apart from anything else, we believe to be defective. The amendment requires the presiding officer immediately before the commencement of a poll to show the first elector, rather than anyone present in the polling station, that the ballot box is empty.
However, as the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, pointed out, no elector would be allowed into the polling station prior to the poll commencing at 7 am, which means that the presiding officer would be unable to show the first elector that the ballot box was empty before the start of the poll. In addition to the timing difficulties associated with the amendment, it can be argued that it is not necessary, as referendum agents will be able to appoint polling agents who may observe the presiding officer showing the empty ballot boxes before they are sealed prior to the start of the poll. Therefore, the question does not arise.
I should perhaps have made this point in moving the amendment, but what happens-and I do not suppose that this is normal-if the presiding officer is the only person? The poll commences at a certain time. It must begin at the time set by statute or by statutory instrument. If he happens to be the only one who has turned up, the presiding officer would presumably have to show anyone present and the only person present is himself. I am sure that is not what is intended. The current language is not satisfactory.
I think my noble friend Lord Maxton is wrong on this occasion. In almost every case that I know of, those who work on elections do a great job as polling clerks and have postal votes. As my noble friend Lady Golding told the committee, they are obliged to have postal votes because they do not know where they are
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Because of the extraordinary support I had for this amendment, I am very tempted indeed to seek the opinion of the Committee, but in spite of pleas from behind me, what has held me back is that I think the clinching point was made by my noble friend Lord Foulkes. If we were to do it for the referendum only, it would leave a difference between practices in other elections and practices in the referendum. As my noble friend said, the answer is that there should be government legislation to amend electoral rules, but I cannot see that legislation coming through in a great hurry, so with enormous reluctance I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
"(a) in relation to a voting area in England or a voting area in Wales that is not within sub-paragraph (b), the registration officer of the local authority in whose area that voting area is situated;
(b) in relation to a voting area in Wales that comprises any part of the area of more than one local authority, the registration officer appointed under section 44(3)(b) of the Electoral Administration Act 2006 in respect of the Assembly constituency that corresponds to that voting area.
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, Amendment 122ZA is a minor and technical amendment to the definition of "relevant registration officer" under rule 53 of the referendum rules. This amendment will ensure that in Wales, as is already the case in other parts of the United Kingdom, the relevant registration officer will be the same individual for both the combined polls. I beg to move.
Lord Campbell-Savours: Before I speak on Schedule 2, I shall comment on the arrangements for the dinner hour to place on record that I object. I understand that there may have been agreement, but I am speaking
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Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, I hear, of course, what the noble Lord says. This was an agreement with usual channels with his own Opposition Whips' Office this morning. No representation was made to the contrary. It was an agreement made and, therefore, we stuck to our side of that agreement.
Lord Campbell-Savours: All I am saying is that, as an individual Member of the House, I object. Whether it was agreed by the usual channels or not is of no particular interest to me. All I am saying is that I think it is fair and more civilised that we can dine for a full hour.
I would like now to move to Schedule 2. A particular part of the schedule that is of interest to me is the question of the provision of polling stations, which is a matter of considerable controversy in constituencies throughout the country. Rule 13(1) in Schedule 2 states:
"The counting officer must provide a sufficient number of polling stations and, subject to the following provisions of this rule, must allot the electors to the polling stations in whatever manner the officer thinks most convenient".
"In England, the polling station allotted to electors from any parliamentary polling district wholly or partly within a particular voting area must, in the absence of special circumstances, be in the parliamentary polling place for that district unless the parliamentary polling place is outside the voting area".
Now, the location of polling stations in individual constituencies-not only in elections, but particularly in this referendum-has a major effect on turnout. We cannot rely on a postal vote system, which some of us have great reservations about anyhow although it was part of the package introduced by the previous Government. Of course, the Government themselves obviously had reservations about what they were doing on postal voting, but it was felt that those changes would bring greater integrity into the electoral system. The question is, if turnout is affected by polling station location, to what extent can the public indicate where they believe polling stations should be situated?
We know that parish authorities very often make representations to local authorities to secure the location. Also, other organisations within individual communities -schools, church groups, women's institutes and all kinds of voluntary organisations-sometimes make representations. I have found over the years that very often there is indifference within local authorities to the protests of people who object to the location of polling stations, particularly to where they are inconvenient. I remember that, in my then constituency in the county of Cumbria, on occasions I would go to the local authority and say, "Look, provision here isn't satisfactory". Very often the local authority was very sensitive, and changes would be made.
I now live in Maidenhead and when I voted on the last occasion I had to drive a tremendous distance, even within the town, to go and vote. When I got there, I found the polling station split into various sections, all of which received electors coming in from various parts of Maidenhead. I believe that is wrong. The question is: what chance does an individual elector have to influence decisions on the location of polling stations?
My view is that there should be some mechanism that is much more substantial than current arrangements for allowing individual electors and organisations to influence the location of these stations, particularly as their location affects turnout, which is now one of the major issues in Britain's elections. We are seeing progressive reductions in turnout in both general and council elections, so we must find ways of addressing that problem. One way is to increase the number of polling stations. I hope that, in replying to this debate, the noble Lord might comment on this problem which I think arises in many communities.
The noble Lord will see that the form for a postal vote-form 2-is prescribed on pages 60 and 61 of the Bill. I should say that he might need some advice from his civil servants because I have never had a clear answer to this question. The form requires the person who wants to use a postal vote to fill in the boxes set out in the form. After the individual has filled in their date of birth in one place, a box is provided for the voter's signature. Next to that box, it says:
In a sense this is not a minor point because I wonder whether that means that the vote may not be counted, which is what happens if you make other mistakes or put wrong entries on the form, or whether it simply means that the signature may not be able to be read by electronic means. I have always assumed that the reason for keeping the signature within the box is so that it can be read electronically. That might not be right, so if it is not, I am not sure why it is so important for the signature to be kept within the border.
I emphasise the point because I am thinking of the comments made earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Low. I know that you can get a dispensation for this and you
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Again, I know that the Minister may have to take advice on this, but what happens if a voter filling in a form for a postal vote does not keep the signature within the parameters of the box? Is the problem simply that the signature cannot be read electronically but the vote will still be counted because someone will read it manually, or does it mean that the vote will not be counted? Obviously this question does not just apply to this form, but to others as well.
Lord Kennedy of Southwark: My Lords, I agree strongly with the comments made by my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours. While it may not be appropriate to deal with the issue in this Bill, the provision of an adequate number of polling stations ought to be of great concern to the Government. I am lucky because the polling station is in the street where I live, but that is not the case for a lot of people, who have to travel many miles to get to their polling station. The Government ought to look at that problem. At some point in the future-obviously not now-there is a case for a proper revision of electoral law in this country so that it can be brought together for the production of some sort of consolidated Bill.
Baroness Liddell of Coatdyke: My Lords, I speak in the debate on whether Schedule 2 should stand part of the Bill not from a passionate objection to anything in the schedule but as a means of impressing on the Leader of the House the importance of these paragraphs. This is the bit where we should be able to transcend party politics. This has been a closely fought part of our legislative process, but at the end of the day the reality is that, for the referendum to have real value and merit in the development of our constitution, people need to feel confident that it has been conducted in such a manner, and the rules of the legislation have been applied in such a way, that they can relax not only from a partisan point of view but from a citizen's point of view. I urge the Leader of the House, who is a reasonable man, to look at these issues as someone who just wants a proper result for the referendum.
There is a strong case for all the parties represented in this House to get together to discuss these nuts-and-bolts issues. I remember with some pain Scotland's 1979 referendum, which is an experience that I would not wish to repeat. Earlier I spoke to the noble Lord, Lord McCluskey-who, sadly, is not in his place at the moment-who was talking about some of the pressures that he experienced as a Minister in the Government at that time when looking at how the referendum should be run. There are no two ways about it: there will be huge divisions in every party. That means that the parties must be confident in the structures that exist.
One of the big problems we will face is that the people who are best equipped to run the organisational part of the referendum-the part that is not run by the returning officers-are party apparatchiks. Thank God,
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In opposing the question that Schedule 2 stand part of the Bill, I am asking the Leader of the House to convene a gathering of the major parties that will form part of the process. The worse thing that could happen is for us all to get up on 6 May or whenever it may be-we are beginning to learn that it may be somewhere around 10 May before we find out the result in Scotland-and feel unhappy and uncomfortable about the nature of the processes.
At an early stage of the Bill my noble friend Lord Boateng made a powerful speech about how this Parliament, the mother of Parliaments, is looked to by Parliaments around the world for its procedures and its respect for the processes of democracy that transcend all that is party political. I urge the Leader of the House to reflect on what my noble friend said on that occasion. At the other end of the world, in Egypt, there are people crying out for the kind of democracy that we take for granted. Here we have an opportunity, at the fag end of a Bill that has been difficult for both sides of the House, to say that our democracy is bigger than the partisan divides.
Lord Myners: My Lords, I have sympathy with some of the sentiments expressed by my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours about where electoral stations should be located. There is clearly sense in using school-houses for this purpose, not least because, in the past, each village and town would have its own school. I speak with the experience of coming from a rural constituency in Cornwall, where the schools are getting bigger; local village schools are being closed and our children have to travel longer distances to school. This probably makes sense because we are able to give them a better education and ensure that the schools are better resourced with technology.
However, it means that people in rural communities who tend to use schools as voting centres will now have to travel a greater distance to the school. This has always been a problem in rural constituencies. My mother never voted until quite late in the day. At about nine o'clock in the evening people would knock on the door and say that she had not voted, and the Conservatives and Liberals would offer cars to take her to the voting station. She always went with the Conservatives because they tended to have rather big cars and she quite liked that. She always voted Labour but she felt that it was a part of the joy of the constitutional process to go in the kind of large car in which, no doubt, the Leader of the House is accustomed to travelling, both in his ministerial office and in his private life.
A school is not the obvious place to hold an election and there is an opportunity here which resonates with the big society. Like many people, I have been wrestling to understand the big society. It is like trying to put
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