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I wonder if I could also just delay the House for a brief moment to pick up a point made by my noble friend Lord Soley: why the application for a postal vote requires the date of birth at all. Can the Leader of the House explain this? We now operate in a society where it is increasingly regarded as inappropriate to ask people their dates of birth. Indeed, when you interview somebody you are no longer allowed to ask their date of birth; you have to deduce it from their education and their appearance. It seems quite extraordinary that this is a requirement of the postal voting form. There must be a suspicion that, perhaps if one misrepresents one's age-one perhaps becomes accustomed to taking a couple of years off in polite conversation-you might complete the form incorrectly and in so doing prejudice your vote and conceivably the outcome of the whole election. I ask the Leader of the House if he can tell us why it is necessary that people should still be embarrassed by having to disclose their date of birth.
Lord Tyler: I will respond briefly to the noble Baroness, Lady Liddell, because she has a good point about the way in which the whole of these arrangements should be looked at on a non-partisan basis. However, I am frankly mystified as to why this debate is taking place at 9 pm in your Lordships' House. That does not seem to be the appropriate place. The discussion that she is seeking would be much more appropriately done within a different context. I cannot understand from any of the contributions-
Baroness Liddell of Coatdyke: What context is more appropriate than your Lordships' House? This is supposed to be the place where we scrutinise and give our-bearing in mind what the noble Lord, Lord Myners, has just said-greying hairs and our experience to how legislation should be conducted.
Lord Tyler: This is precisely what the noble Baroness was obviously trying to obviate just now. There has not been a single amendment making any changes to Schedule 2, precisely because Schedule 2 as it stands is a distillation of the experience that we have all had.
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Lord McAvoy: My Lords, I normally like to say that it gives me great pleasure to follow a noble Lord, but I am afraid I cannot in these circumstances. It always seems to happen in these deliberations of ours. There is not much toing and froing but there is certainly plenty of toing on our side to try and subject this Bill to scrutiny; and time after time the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, injects a note of acrimony into the proceedings. It really is quite unfortunate that should happen, because we are having a reasonable approach here, fully in line with the commitments.
I find these people very good, on top of their job and they know what they are doing, but occasionally something happens which is not clear. I am seeking clarification from the noble Lord the Leader of the House, if he is able to give that clarification; if not, perhaps he could point me in the direction where I can get it.
I am trying to find out the power of presiding officers and the extent of their power. Is it confined entirely within the polling station, or does it extend outside? The example I am going to give is relevant to polling stations and I will explain briefly the point on which I seek clarification. In a local election in 2007 in my former constituency, there was a bit of local rivalry-acrimony, even. An independent candidate was standing. Voting was by the PR system, which guaranteed chaos anyway, and there was further chaos because in an area about 50 feet from the polling station entrance the independent candidate had arrayed about six people in a sort of semi-circle. They were stopping people at that distance from the polling station and inquiring as to how they were going to vote and putting pressure on them.
Folk who are going to the polling station do not like being stopped and questioned. It is bad enough trying to shove a leaflet into their hands-we have all tried that, I think-when you have spent six weeks pushing the candidate's name through the letterboxes everyday. People were being approached and they did not like it. Intimidation is the wrong word to describe what was happening, but nevertheless there was pressure. I spoke to the police on the door. Come election time, people have such respect for our democratic process here in Britain that they are very reluctant to get involved in anything that they have not had experience of before, or they do not have written guidance on.
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I am looking for guidance from the noble Lord the Leader of the House, if he can give it, as to what geographical area a presiding officer has control over outside the polling station. Is it entirely a matter for the police? How should it be handled? I find that contention at polling stations is getting more intense. Sometimes, unfortunately, it is between the political parties, especially in certain hard fought areas. Who exactly, or what procedure, is written in the Bill that would cover the ceasing of such behaviour, and if so what would be the proper channels to put a stop to it?
Lord Maxton: My Lords, it was not my intention to speak. Members opposite will know I have not spoken that often during these long debates. However, the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, rather than trying to calm things down, actually provokes people into speaking and that is the case in this instance. I just say to my noble friend Lord Myners that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, may travel in a big limousine, but I travelled on a No. 3 bus with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, this morning. He does not travel in a big limo.
At the start of this debate, my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours made a point about the position and number of polling stations, not just in rural areas-which my noble friend Lord Myners raised-but also in urban areas. I remember particularly at one point during my career as a Member of Parliament in Glasgow Cathcart, the local government boundaries were redrawn. One of them went down the middle of Mount Florida, so one side of the road was one local government seat, and on the other side was the other. On one side of the road in that new local government seat, there were two multi-storey blocks of flats. On the other side was the polling station for the road, in the school where those people had gone to vote for all the time that they had been in those flats. Now they were being told to go and vote half a mile or a mile away.
Many of the people who lived in those flats were elderly. I accept that I am of the age where the bulk of my major campaigning, certainly as a Member of Parliament, was done before that big introduction of postal voting for the elderly. In my day, in order to get a postal vote you had to have a tame doctor who would go along and sign a form. I accept that I am therefore of the elderly. Indeed, I will get a free TV licence on 5 May, the date of the elections and of the referendum, when I will reach the great age of 75. However, the fact is that, while people can now of course use postal voting, many elderly people want to use their vote personally. They want to go out and, if they are fit and able, go to the polling station and cast their vote. My noble friend is quite right to say that the turnout is affected in some cases by where the polling station is situated.
I finish by making the point, yet again, that we would not need polling stations at all as such, and that people would be able to vote anywhere, if we had electronic voting by using ID cards. Indeed, although the Government got rid of ID cards because they said that those were so expensive, if we look at the uses that could be made of an ID card we would actually save money in the long run by having them for everybody.
Lord Kennedy of Southwark: My Lords, I am a bit surprised by the comments from the noble Lord, Lord Tyler. I have a list here that I got from the Printed Paper Office. Even by my calculations, we have actually got through a majority of the groups for today. I understand that we will finish this Committee stage tomorrow and I cannot see any problem with that whatever. Secondly, on the question of schools, although I heard the comments from my noble friend Lord Myners, we should be looking to get out of using schools as polling stations completely, if we possibly can. That would avoid children losing a day in school.
Lord Grocott: My Lords, there is one problem with this schedule, which I want to refer to briefly. I am sure that it will make us wonder, in the light of us looking at it in some detail, whether there perhaps should have been one or two amendments, as the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, said, I think wrongly, that there had been no discussions on this schedule at all.
The real problem with this schedule is that we can sense in it that the parliamentary draftsmen-whom I do not blame, as it is a very difficult job-think that it is about the procedure relating to any election. The whole point is that this is not any election. It is fundamentally different, so far as the voter going into the polling booth is concerned, from all the elections that he or she is familiar with, where they know that there will be names there and have, obviously, put their cross by the favoured candidate. However, this is about asking a question and it will not do, for a number of reasons, simply to lift huge chunks that are clearly from existing legislation-I do not blame the draftsmen, as I have said-about the conduct of elections, thinking, "Well, we can just lift this and stick it in and this will be okay for a referendum to change the constitution".
We all know the job of a clerk in a polling station, but I submit to the Committee that in a referendum on changing the voting system, that clerk is likely to be presented with difficulties that clerks in polling stations simply do not face. The elector will go in, thinking that he or she is voting principally for a local government candidate. Certainly, in the areas that I am familiar with, it is on who should be their local councillor. They will then be presented with a second ballot paper which will ask the question:
I put it to the Committee that many people will be going into a polling station for the first time. I am not patronising people or saying the electorate do not
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I asked the question-I do not know the answer-whether it is within the law for the clerk to give advice to the would-be voter about what the alternative vote system is. I assume it probably cannot be because presumably I could be a clerk if I applied to be one and I know what I would tell them about the alternative vote system. So presumably it would be completely out of order for clerks to give advice in that way. If that is the case and a confused elector goes to the clerk on desk and says, "I am puzzled about this second ballot paper, I understand the first one", at the very least I would suggest that in the appointment of clerks and counting officers on page 33 a script should be offered to them out of courtesy. They would need to know what to say to someone who came to them with that question.
I doubt whether the Leader of the House when he sums up will have given any thought to this as it is only a small part of the Bill but it illustrates the point that you simply cannot lift the rules that apply to every other kind of election and apply them to this most fundamentally important election of changing the way we vote and thereby changing our constitution. So please can we be told whether there is any law relating to what clerks can do when faced with this question? If there is not, should there be or, at the very least, should there be guidance as to what should happen in the polling station when this kind of eventuality arises?
Lord Campbell-Savours: As my noble friend was speaking, something dawned on me which has not been referred to in any of our previous debates, and I cannot see it marked under Schedule 2 in the list of referendum rules under Part 1.
What happens in the circumstances where in the referendum campaign the "no" vote and the "yes" vote decide to put huge hoardings up outside polling booths, saying vote "yes" or vote "no" or whatever? It might well be that some rather keen, over-eager young turks who think that they can push their case might erect rather aggressive advertising material outside polling stations in the referendum to push their case. One would have thought that under Schedule 2 there would be some restriction on the kind of material that could be used in the vicinity of a polling booth.
On advice from the clerks, I wonder if the Minister might care to comment on what the position is and, in the event that it is not covered, perhaps he could say so and perhaps on Report we could return to that matter. There are circumstances in which precisely that could happen. There are some very strange people out there who do very strange things and they may well turn up during the referendum campaign.
Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: My Lords, I am completely mystified because last week the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, admonished us for the number of amendments that we tabled. This week he chides us because we have not tabled any amendments. It seems rather strange.
I want to raise one or two points on Schedule 2. I had better raise this point rather than have a long discussion on an amendment. I strongly agree with what my noble friend Lady Liddell said. I think it would be useful, and I hope the Minister will consider this, to get together a group of MPs and Peers from all parties to look at some of these schedules in more detail to identify whether there are any problems that might arise and make some suggestions to the Government. That seems a very good idea.
There is one theme running through the whole series of schedules as far as I am concerned: full account has not been taken of the problems arising from the combination of polls. We can deal with this under later schedules. However, there are specific points that I want to raise in relation to Schedule 2. I agree with what my noble friends have said about minimising the use of schools and trying to find community centres and other public buildings-or, indeed, private buildings if we can find them-that can be used so that we do not disrupt the education of children.
I find paragraph 9(3) of the schedule strange. It refers to "schools within this paragraph" but goes on to exclude private schools. Why are private schools not going to be used? Why does it apply only to local authority schools? Some noble Lords opposite might say, "Local authority schools are paid for with public money", but private schools also, because of their charitable status, get substantial support from public funds. They all have charitable status. I see the looks on the faces of some lovely ladies opposite. I do not know whether I am allowed to say that. Perhaps it is sexist and I will be thrown out of Sky Sports for saying it. However, if you think that this is envy on my part, or some kind of horrible class snobbery, have a wee look at my curriculum vitae and you will find something of interest about which you can come back to me.
People who have been active-there will be a lot of them-in the "Yes to AV" and "No to AV" campaigns should not be appointed as counting officers and should not be at polling stations. Could the Minister tell us how the counting officer will know whether people have been involved in such campaigns? Will there be a form for them to fill in? Will there be an oath to take? Will they have to sign a document saying that they have not been involved? It would be useful to know that.
The last point that I want to raise-there are many more that I could raise but I do not want to take up too much time-concerns agents. We heard earlier about agents from the two campaigns. In Scotland, the local election areas, Wales and Northern Ireland, there will also be election agents for the parties. There will party agents and agents for the "Yes to AV" and "No to AV" campaigns. Presumably the party agents dealing
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Lord Maxton: My noble friend raises a very interesting point. However, in a sense the problem is even greater than he perhaps realises. I cannot see that most of the people who will be campaigning for the yes vote or the no vote will not be political activists anyway.
There are not large numbers of us around, so it may very well be that, at the school, some people will be asked to take on a dual role, both as an agent for a party and an agent for one of the campaigns. The problem with that, of course, is that at one school the Conservative agent may be against AV and at another school the Conservative agent may be acting as agent for the yes vote. It is all going to get very complicated.
Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: My noble friend has made the point. What I was trying to say and I have been trying to say it in a number of contributions earlier, is that these polls will be far more complicated than we are led to believe by the Government and will cause lots of problems. I have no wish to exacerbate the problems; that is why I strongly support the suggestion of my noble friend Lady Liddell of Coatdyke that an all-party group should be set up to look at these schedules and identify any problems that might arise. That, surely, is us on this side being a wee bit helpful.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, Schedule 2 is important. The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, is right that it reflects experience from other elections. Looking at the 15th Marshalled List, Amendments 112A to 122A are specific amendments to Schedule 2, so I am not sure whether the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, was right when he said that there were no amendments to Schedule 2. I am interested in a number of specific issues that relate to the interaction between the referendum and other polls. First, in paragraph 13 (3), it is said that in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland,
Why is the parliamentary polling area being chosen for a referendum and for the other votes when Parliament is not the district for the count, nor the place for which people are voting? I am surprised that that has been chosen.
That makes the presiding officer the person responsible. Is it envisaged that the same presiding officer will be appointed for the local elections and the parliamentary elections? I assume that it is. If not, who is in charge of the polling station? Issues might arise in relation to the conduct of a polling station of the sort, for example, that arose at the end of the general election as to when to close the doors, or what to do about the queues. There needs to be some degree of certainty as to who is in charge. I assume that that will be achieved by the same person being appointed as the polling officer.
Thirdly, the schedule envisages a polling agent being appointed and a referendum agent being appointed. The purpose, as I understand it, of a referendum agent and a polling agent being appointed is that those two "agents" are responsible for seeking to prevent personation in the polling station. Is it envisaged that this would be two people, or is it envisaged that it would be one person for the same polling station? Do the same rules apply both in relation to electoral law on referendum voting and the polling voting? Can there be a conflict? Again, we would be looking for the same person to be appointed to deal with both.
The thing that I cannot find in the rules, though I am sure that it is here somewhere, is what prohibitions there are on material relating to the referendum within the polling station. For example, will it be permissible to have within the polling station the "neutral documentation" provided by the Electoral Commission describing the two sorts of system, or will that be prohibited? This relates to the question legitimately raised by my noble friend Lord Grocott regarding the extent to which help on the issues will be provided to individual voters. It is obvious that partisan material should not be provided but what, if any, material will be allowed in the polling station which is genuinely intended to assist voters? If the answer is nil, I would accept that and understand it, but equally I would not regard it as objectionable if neutral material prepared by a neutral body were allowed. It would be useful for the Committee to be given answers to those questions.
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I am glad that the noble and learned Lord agreed with my noble friend Lord Tyler and said that he was right, as he is in so many things. The noble Baroness, Lady Liddell, asked whether I was impressed with the depth of her passion on this subject. I confirm that I am. I understand exactly what she was saying. I say to those who echoed her remark about cross-party talks that I am sure that if the Labour Party were to write in and ask for those cross-party talks, that would be accepted, if they have not already taken place. The noble Baroness is right that this matter should be conducted in a non-partisan manner.
The debate naturally strayed far and wide across the gamut of electoral law and I will follow up some of the more detailed points in writing. The noble Baroness, Lady Liddell, said that she was frantic, unhappy or depressed-I cannot remember which word she used-about the 1979 referendum. My memory of it is that it went rather well. It had a good result and was excellent in many respects. Therefore, I do not share the noble Baroness's unhappiness, which perhaps shows the width of the gulf between us on these great issues.
Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: Was the noble Lord happy that, although there was a majority in favour of a Parliament for Scotland, it did not meet the threshold required? Is that why he was happy about it?
Lord Strathclyde: That is an interesting point. I should be more specific. What was so good about it was that it brought in the vote of confidence and the end of that Labour Government. The noble Lord will remember that well.
Lord Strathclyde: I thank my noble friend Lord Crickhowell for bringing that to the Committee's attention. He obviously felt strongly enough about it to raise it. The noble Lord has no doubt slipped away in his stretch limousine waiting outside your Lordships' House. I can confirm to the Committee, if there was any doubt, that the Leader of the House of Lords no longer has a limousine, at a substantial saving to the Exchequer-a saving which the noble Lord, Lord Myners, when he was a Minister at the Treasury, said would be quite impossible.
The noble Lord, Lord Soley, asked whether the vote of an elector who signed outside the box in a postal voting statement or other statement would be considered. Counting officers should have a process in place to determine such cases. Their system should be able to pick up signatures which are valid but stray slightly outside the box. The noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, asked whether the public can make representations on polling station locations. They can do so.
Lord Soley: The Minister slid over that rather quickly. This is an important point and it is what scrutiny is for. He seems to be saying that in certain circumstances a signature outside the box would invalidate the vote. If that is the case, frankly it ought to be stated on the form that if a person strays outside the box, the vote is invalidated. I know that this applies in other situations but it is an important point. If people, particularly the infirm, stray outside the box and it is within the remit of the returning officer to make a judgment on that, if he decides against the person, that person's vote is invalidated.
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I said that I would write on some of the more technical points but, as far as I understand it, some discretion must be left to the local officer to decide whether the signature is valid. I am very happy to follow that up in a letter.
Lord Mackay of Clashfern: My Lords, I have been a returning officer on two occasions. The returning officer has the authority to decide whether the paper is in order. The precise rules are rather particular and they are certainly not all on the ballot paper. If they were, the ballot paper would not have much else on it. As a returning officer, I have seen a quite remarkable number of peculiar ballot papers, with all kinds of communications
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Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble and learned friend. The fundamental point is that there is nothing really different about these rules and regulations. They are modelled on existing provisions which govern the conduct of elections. That is why I refer the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, to the Representation of the People Act 1983. If he looks up Sections 18B to 18D, I think that he will find the answer to his question. Likewise, the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, who asked about poll clerks advising people on the subject matter of the referendum. We would not expect clerks to advise on that but there will be guidance in the polling station on how to complete the voting paper and, as we have already debated several times, the Electoral Commission and the campaigns will be educating the public.
There is another point. The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, has got it into his head that there is something very strange and very new being done here. If you live in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland or London, you have already voted in referendums and PR elections. I think we had more local referendums in the 13 years of Labour Government than this nation ever had. I think people are quite used to the idea of going into a polling booth and being asked a question other than who they wish to vote for: on whether they want local mayors, for instance, or whether they want regional government-that was a great question the Labour Party asked. I also think that he has underestimated the degree of interest that will be generated, and is being generated, by the campaigns in the run-up to the referendum.
Lord Maxton: I accept the point the Minister is making. I may be wrong here but I do not remember a referendum held on the same day as other elections. This is what is going to confuse many electors, rather than the fact that they are being asked to vote yea or nay in a referendum.
Lord Grocott: The Leader of the House quotes previous referenda, but I think he is making a fundamental mistake in terms of public awareness of what is happening. In the European referendum in 1975, there was not the slightest doubt in anyone's mind about what was at stake. It was a choice about whether we stayed in or not. Neither was there any serious doubt about what was at stake in the referenda on Scottish and Welsh devolution. I am simply reflecting, I am sure, what is the truth-that large numbers of people will not know any detail about how the alternative vote system works.
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Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I am sorry to say that there may be a generational issue here. My children, who are at school, are taught different electoral systems. This has been done for the past 25 years. I do not think that it is very complicated. I was rather impressed by the Electoral Commission's work. The noble Lord asserts that nobody will be interested. I say that they will be. At least they are being given a choice, which is important. To be fair, the Labour Party believed a year ago that this was important enough to put in its manifesto. It was the only party to do so.
The underlying legislation for this is of course Schedule 1 to the Representation of the People Act 1983, with which many noble Lords will be familiar. I hope that noble Lords opposite will find that this is a useful subject that they may wish to debate on one of their Thursdays, or in a Question for Short Debate, because there are important issues that they will want to discuss. Under this schedule, appropriate modifications have been made to reflect the features and language specific to referendums. For example, references to "returning officers" have been substituted by "counting officers", and references to "election agents" have been replaced with "referendum agents".
Two aspects of the rules merit special mention. They govern the count and recount procedures, and a power enabling the chief counting officer to modify some forms contained in the Bill. Counting officers will be responsible for the conduct of counts in their respective areas, which will be conducted on a regional basis. Like local returning officers in the European parliamentary elections, referendum agents will be permitted to attend the count, much like election agents. Rule 42(2) specifies that a referendum agent and certain designated counting agents may require a counting officer to recount votes for that area. As with UK and European parliamentary elections, a counting officer will have the discretion to refuse any such request if he deems it to be unreasonable. Rule 43 gives power to both regional counting officers and the chief counting officer to issue a direction for a recount of the votes only in one specified circumstance: where the officer requesting the recount has reason to doubt the accuracy of the count under rule 43(4).
The whole schedule takes account of the views of the Electoral Commission and the electoral administrators, with whom we have worked particularly closely in developing this part of the legislation, given that it sets out the rules on how the poll will be run on the ground. I go back to the suggestion made by the noble Baroness, Lady Liddell. It may well be a good idea for party officials to get together to discuss this, and I hope that the offer will be taken up.
Lord McAvoy: My Lords, I have a brief question for the Leader of the House. I am sorry that he did not respond to the point that I made in an earlier debate. I know that perhaps he did not have the information to hand, but I thought that he might be able to offer me some guidance. My question is about paragraph 4(1), which states:
"Where a person applies to the registration officer to vote by post in the referendum, the registration officer must grant the application if ... the officer is satisfied that the applicant is or will be registered in a relevant register".
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, we are now moving so fast. The Committee will be relieved to know that this is a minor and technical amendment to the modification that Schedule 4 to the Bill will make to Regulation 61 of the Representation of the People (England and Wales) Regulations 2001 as it applies for the purposes of a referendum. It is necessary to ensure that the counting officer is provided with any revisions which are made to any of the absent voter lists used for the referendum, and it provides further clarity to the absent voting provisions in the Bill. I beg to move.
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