Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

7 Feb 2011 : Column 97

Lord Wallace of Tankerness:What I said was that, as I understand it, under Section 127, any broadcast whose purpose or main purpose-there is obviously a difference; a purpose is not necessarily a main purpose-is to promote a particular outcome would fall foul of Section 127.

The point I was trying to develop is that there is a judgment call to be made as to whether we recognise and accept that material that a party might want to broadcast that strays beyond mentioning the referendum in passing in election broadcast and goes into the realms of what then becomes, in terms of the Act, a referendum campaign broadcast. In one view, a statement that briefly refers to the referendum-the fact that it is taking place and sets out whether the party supports a particular outcome-is merely an expression of the party's policy. Such a statement may be necessary to explain the policy platform of the party's election campaign and may not qualify as referendum campaigning in a wider sense. If that is right, this sort of content may have a legitimate and logical place in a party election broadcast. Going further than that-for example, by setting out the arguments in support of its favoured outcome-may cross the line and move towards it being a broadcast that is subject to the limitations in Section 127. Obviously the Government are not the ultimate arbiter here and the views of the broadcasters are critical. However, this amendment would remove any ability for the broadcasters to take a flexible approach to these sorts of issues.

Having spoken with the broadcasters, the Government think that this sort of flexibility can be sensibly administered without causing undue harm to the referendum or election campaigns. Indeed, not providing that sort of flexibility might cause undue harm to effective and fair campaigning. There will be party election broadcasts for the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, the Northern Ireland Assembly and local elections on 5 May.

We have discussed the technicalities of the noble and learned Lord's amendment and how these party election broadcasts would be regulated in practice during a referendum period with colleagues from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, representatives from the BBC and the Broadcasters' Liaison Group, Ofcom and the Electoral Commission. It is clear that in matters of political broadcasting, particularly political advertising, broadcasters are frequently required to make a judgment about what constitutes correct practical interpretation of the legal requirements. The need for broadcasters to make a judgment in interpreting Section 127 of PPERA would not be unusual in this context.

I readily accept that on one view the amendment could be seen as helpful for broadcasters as it draws a black and white line in legislation as to what material can and cannot be included. The Government are concerned, however, that this approach would go against a well established system that is already in place for dealing with matters of party political coverage and would unnecessarily limit the ability of a party to show how its position on the referendum forms part of the wider policy platform on which it wishes to campaign in the elections on 5 May.

7 Feb 2011 : Column 98

Lord Soley: I was trying not to intervene but I have to do so in view of what the Minister has just said. The type of statement that would worry me is if the party political broadcast was majoring on, for example, giving more power to the people-which might be about a range of things, local authorities or whatever- and it said, "If you vote this way or that way on the referendum, that will increase your power". I suppose that we need to go back to the broadcasters on this, but I do not think that that ought to be allowed. The Minister makes a fair point; we want to allow the broadcasters flexibility but they need to be aware that a statement like that would be seen as giving significant support to the referendum one way or the other.

Lord Wallace of Tankerness: I am grateful to the noble Lord for the way in which he presents a very tricky and complex issue. I think I indicated that one of the difficulties was the possibility of limiting the ability of a party to show how its position on the referendum formed part of a wider policy platform. The point I have been trying to make is that broadcasters have experience in this matter. It is probably invidious for Governments to decide what goes too far and what is on the right side of the line. There is also a question of whether legislating to such specificity on the content of party election broadcasts could risk limiting a political party's freedom of expression. I do not think that anyone here would wish that to happen.

Lord Tyler: I have had experience of this matter. Is not the reality that anyone preparing a broadcast will always err on the side of caution as it would be a very expensive scenario if broadcasters were told, "We think you are infringing the requirements of the 2000 Act", and they therefore had to amend dramatically, or even withdraw, the intended broadcast? Therefore, I should have thought that the present flexibility is much safer than the provision which the noble and learned Lord is trying to include in the Bill.

Lord Wallace of Tankerness: My noble friend makes a fair point. The last thing any political party wants is to find that, after having spent money, the broadcast has to be pulled. I shall discuss in a moment approaches that have been made to the political parties by the chair of the Broadcasters' Liaison Group. I suggest that the appropriate place for further rules on the content of party election broadcasts would be under the framework established by the Communications Act 2003, where existing regulation of political broadcasts lies. The chair of the Broadcasters' Liaison Group wrote to the political parties in November 2010, highlighting the existing provisions and opening lines of communication on the subject. It might be useful to read the content of the letter into the record. It states:

"If you are considering including any references to the referendum in your PEB, then we draw your attention to Section 127 of the PPERA. This section prevents broadcasters from transmitting any broadcast where it's purpose, or main purpose, is, or can be assumed to be, to further a referendum campaign for a particular outcome other than by the designated RBCs. Therefore if you intend to include any references to the referendum in your PEB, I'd be grateful if you could contact me well in advance so that the BBC is able to make a judgment about whether the proposed PEB may put it in breach of the statutory provision".

7 Feb 2011 : Column 99

It is the Government's view that this established mechanism of communication between the broadcasters and the political parties will effectively manage the situation and answer queries from the political parties as to what they can and cannot include in their broadcasts. The broadcasters' guidance is the most appropriate place to deal with this matter, as for other aspects of political coverage.

These are important amendments. I again apologise that the noble and learned Lord saw the letter at a late stage, but I hope that, given what I have said, he will recognise that a lot of consideration has been given to this, including engagement with the broadcasters, the DCMS and others. I hope that the House will agree with the Government's conclusion that, after careful consideration with relevant stakeholders, the current provisions, along with the broadcasters' guidance, are the right way to deal with party election broadcasts during a referendum period, rather than amendments to the Bill. Against that background, I ask the noble and learned Lord to withdraw the amendment.

9 pm

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, is here and has recovered. He will remember what I said in Committee. I completely trust him, and I am more than happy to accept his assurances and to discuss the matter in the spirit in which he made the offer. I am absolutely sure that the two of us can reach a solution that is acceptable to both of us.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, and the noble Lord, Lord McNally, will also remember that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, intervened in the same debate and said:

"I think that I am right in saying that at the moment a party-political broadcast in connection with a referendum is allowed, so long as that is not the principal or main purpose, or some such phrase, of the broadcast. It may be that what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, and others have identified is a question of whether or not that general provision is wise or whether it should be modified. The question may go somewhat further than just this referendum and that issue needs to be looked at".-[Official Report, 15/12/10; col. 622.]

That was the issue to which my comments and the comments of the noble Lord, Lord McNally, referred.

I completely exonerate the noble Lord, Lord McNally, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, of any fault on their part, but the consequence of what happened is that I have today been handed a letter, which I am reading while the noble and learned Lord gives what appears to be a wholly unsatisfactory answer. He appears to be saying that in order not to lose flexibility, it is important that political parties should be able to make a casual reference to the referendum in their party political broadcasts. He rejects my Amendment 9, which would mean that there would be certainty about the position and a level playing field. What would that protect? As I understand it, it would protect a political party's right to mention the referendum. Superficially and on the face of it, that would seem to be utter nonsense and something which, if I had had an opportunity to talk to someone of the stature of the noble Lord, Lord McNally, or the noble and

7 Feb 2011 : Column 100

learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, before they gave voice to the note I have here, would perhaps have been modified. That was the impression left by the assurance I was given by the noble Lord, Lord McNally.

I am disappointed at the lateness of the letter from the Leader of the House. I make it clear that I am not remotely blaming the noble Lord, Lord McNally, and the noble and learned Lord, because they are under different sorts of pressure, but it is an unfortunate process, which means that assurances are being given which, because of the speed with which we are operating, are not being delivered on. Although it is unusual to do so, I will bring this matter back at Third Reading. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 8 withdrawn.

Amendments 9 and 10 not moved.

Clause 7 : Interpretation

Amendment 10A not moved.

Clause 8 : Commencement or repeal of amending provisions

Amendment 10B

Moved by Lord Rooker

10B: Clause 8, page 6, line 19, leave out "must" and insert "may"

Lord Rooker: I wish to move the amendment formally because it was connected to the earlier Amendment A1. I beg to move.

Lord Wallace of Tankerness: My Lords, while I note that the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, has moved the amendment formally, we discussed it in context earlier and it is important to recognise that it goes much further-

Lord Rooker: I am happy not to move the amendment.

The Deputy Speaker (Lord Skelmersdale): My Lords, either an amendment is moved or it is not. If it is not moved, the phrase is "not moved". If words have been spoken-as they have been by the noble Lord, Lord Rooker-the amendment has been moved. That is why I called it.

Lord Rooker: In that case, I will move it, but obviously I will not press it. I fully accept that this must be brought into order, which cannot be done by inserting "may" in place of "must". That is what the noble and learned Lord said. The evidence of that related to another issue, which was to do with the date. This may need a couple of hundred words from parliamentary counsel. I fully accept that while the two amendments are linked-I was questioned about this at the time; they should have been linked-this is not the solution. It does not solve the problem for the Government or

7 Feb 2011 : Column 101

parliamentary counsel. At some point, this has to be tidied up. I fully accept that Amendment 10B will not do this.

The Deputy Speaker: Amendment re-moved:

"Page 6, line 19, leave out 'must' and insert 'may'".

Lord Wallace of Tankerness: The amendment is re-moved but not removed-yet. I fully accept the spirit in which the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, re-moved it. As he recognises, this is not entirely consequential. We could get a turnout of 80 per cent and yet, with this change, we would still create a power rather than an obligation. I do not need to elaborate, as the point has been made. The Government cannot accept the amendment. In the spirit in which the noble Lord re-moved it, I ask him to withdraw it.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My understanding when I was a Minister was that, when an amendment was carried, the Government would bring forward amendments to tidy up the Bill to reflect the position in relation to the plain intent of the amendment-in this case, Amendment A1. We always did this and we expect the Government to make the rest of the Bill reflect the effect of the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Rooker.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, perhaps I may assist the House from my memory of our long period in opposition, when the noble and learned Lord was a Minister. There were two occasions on which the Government might have taken action. One was when it was agreed in advance that an amendment was consequential on an amendment that was carried. I believe that that is not the matter to which the noble and learned Lord referred. He may be referring to the second occasion, which was that, when an amendment was carried, the sense of the rest of the Bill had then to be tidied up in order to reflect the spirit of the decision taken by the House.

Perhaps the noble and learned Lord would confirm that it is the second of those occasions to which he refers, because there was no agreement that this amendment was consequential on the first when the Division took place earlier today. That is not to say that the Government refuse to look at the implications of the Division's result. However, the noble and learned Lord will be aware that there was no undertaking to consider this amendment as consequential on the first and he will of course appreciate that there is a difference between the two positions.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I am entirely unclear what the difference is. Amendment A1 states:

"If less than 40% of the electorate vote in the referendum, the result shall not be binding".

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, says that if one puts in "may", one makes it unbinding even if the turnout is more than 40 per cent. Is that consequential or is it tidying up? I have no idea. I would like to know what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, is promising to do. With respect to the Chief Whip, I found the distinction meaningless, unhelpful and ill informed.

7 Feb 2011 : Column 102

Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords-

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: Perhaps I might finish my point.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns: It is customary, when a noble Lord accuses another Member of the House of being ignorant, to give them the opportunity to reply.

The Deputy Speaker: My Lords, it might be helpful to the House if I remind noble Lords that we are on Report.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: I apologise. I was keen to find out the position of the Government in relation to this. What the Chief Whip said was unhelpful. It is important for the Government to state their position.

Lord Wallace of Tankerness: My Lords, the vote took place only a few hours ago and the Government are still to consider how they will respond to it. In answer to the noble and learned Lord's question, this is neither a consequential amendment, as the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, and I have indicated, nor is it a tidying-up one, because it does not tidy up. It goes much further than that. Indeed, it breaks the linkage, because it would make the power permissive rather than a duty. As I indicated, that could therefore mean that the power was there in any circumstance. Even if there was an 80 per cent turnout at the referendum with a 75 per cent vote in favour, the effect would not be to oblige the order to be brought forward to implement a yes vote. That was not what the House voted for and therefore I cannot accept the noble Lord's amendment, which I think he fully understands.

Lord Rooker: I do. I do not want to fall out with my noble and learned friend but I accept the distinction that the Chief Whip gave in respect of this amendment. The position is the same as with Amendments A2 and 7B, where one is consequential on a change in the date. This looks simple and it is simple. The point is that the House knew what the situation was with the date change, just as it does with Amendment A1. In the morning after they have slept on it, the Government may take a view and say, "We're going down the other place. We're going to get this kicked out anyway". That is a tough call when the support of the Cross Benches is taken into account. However, some rewriting of other parts of the Bill is required-it is not just a question of "may" or "must"-and I fully accept that. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 10B withdrawn.

Amendment 10C not moved.

Amendment 11

Moved by Lord Davies of Stamford

11: Clause 8, page 6, line 21, leave out paragraph (a) and insert-

"( ) over one third of those eligible to vote in the referendum have voted in favour of the answer "Yes", and"

7 Feb 2011 : Column 103

Lord Davies of Stamford: My Lords, this amendment has been very happily and felicitously overtaken by the House's decision to adopt Amendment A1 in the name of my noble friend Lord Rooker. I think that it is possible to produce substantive arguments in favour of a threshold before a referendum comes into effect and it is possible to produce another set of arguments in favour of a threshold before a referendum becomes mandatory. However, I suspect that the whole House will be unanimous on this. It would not make any sense whatever to have two thresholds in relation to a referendum. Therefore, I have no intention whatever of asking the House to vote on this or of taking the matter further. I just want to make one comment.

Whatever the substantive arguments for the two types of threshold that I have just outlined, my noble friend Lord Rooker seems to have won the argument in favour of his approach and his amendment. The House of Commons has not yet pronounced on that. It has considered the approach, although not the actual figures, that I suggest for a threshold and it has rejected it. It is right that this House should be very conscious of the views of the elected House on a matter such as this. My noble friend Lord Rooker has come forward with a totally original idea. It was not considered in the other place or by anyone in this place before he ingeniously came forward with it. Therefore, it is with great pleasure that I say that my own amendment ought, in my view, to be eclipsed, overtaken and indeed buried by Amendment A1, and I have no intention of taking it any further.

The Deputy Speaker: My Lords, the Woolsack is confused. Amendment proposed-

Lord Davies of Stamford: Not moved.

The Deputy Speaker: No, my Lords. That is not on. Amendment proposed: in page 6, line 21, leave out paragraph (a) and insert the words printed in the Marshalled List.

9.15 pm

Lord Grocott: My Lords, this amendment is one of a group. Now that the amendment has been moved, I assume that we can speak to the amendments in the group, of which two stand in my name. I have no intention of saying anything about Amendment 12A, which would require a 50 per cent turnout in order for the referendum to be carried. Technically, I could probably push it a little further but I accept that my noble friend's amendment is an improvement on that and that it is probably more acceptable to the House, so I do not intend to say any more on that amendment.

However, I do intend to say a couple of words about Amendment 12B, which is not as printed on the Marshalled List. The gremlins got into that somehow. The way in which it is written in the Marshalled List makes no sense whatever. It basically states that the referendum will not be carried if 25 per cent of those who have voted in the referendum have voted yes. Obviously, by definition, if only 25 per cent of the people who have voted in the referendum have voted yes, the referendum would not be carried. The amendment

7 Feb 2011 : Column 104

as it stands is nonsensical, which is why there is a manuscript amendment that contains what I intended to say-that the referendum would not be carried unless one in four of the electorate voted yes.

I try to take a common-sense approach to legislation in a debate about a major change to our constitution. We have already decided that the electorate are not the real electorate but the people who are on the electoral roll; they do not include the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, who are not on the electoral roll. However, leaving that aside, I simply suggest that 25 per cent-one in four-of the total electorate should vote yes in order for the change in our constitution to take place.

I have done this at the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, in Committee. He is looking startled and I am not surprised. He put forward an objection to my amendment that required a 50 per cent threshold on turnout. He asked what would happen, given the 50 per cent threshold, if 49 per cent voted yes in the referendum and no one or less than 1 per cent voted no. He is looking puzzled. The point that he made is that, in those circumstances, according to my amendment, the referendum would not be carried. I hope that I am carrying the House with me at this stage. I am not even carrying the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, with me, which is particularly worrying.

I shall try again. His objection was to my 50 per cent turnout threshold-in other words, the referendum would be dead if half the electorate did not vote. He asked what would happen if 49 per cent of the electorate -which was wildly optimistic from his perspective-voted yes and no one, or one or two, voted no. He said that in those circumstances my amendment would be grossly unfair to the yes campaign because, despite getting 49 per cent of the electorate's vote, it would not carry. That was his point. Has the penny dropped?

Lord Tyler: The penny dropped a long time ago-many hours ago. The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, is wrong about the arithmetic. I was talking about the circumstances in which 45 per cent voted yes and 4 per cent voted no, so there would be no qualification. However, if 44 per cent voted yes and 6 per cent voted no, then it would carry.

Once you get into this game, the noble Lord's colleague in the other place, Mr Christopher Bryant, was absolutely right to say:

"I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman about thresholds in referendums because, broadly, they are not a good idea".-[Official Report, Commons, 2/11/10; col. 846.]

In fact, with one exception-the Scottish case-thresholds in referendums are a new development in our constitution and I honestly think that we should give them very careful consideration. Mr Bryant was right: this is just as much a change to our constitution as the big changes that we keep being told that this referendum is introducing.

Lord Grocott: I am quite hurt. I have brought forward an amendment that precisely meets the noble Lord's objection, which was-I repeat-that a huge number of people could vote for the yes campaign and it would still not carry if it was less than 50 per cent of the total turnout. So-having established that point, I

7 Feb 2011 : Column 105

hope-I have therefore brought forward this amendment which meets his objection. It states that it would require 25 per cent of the electorate for the yes vote to carry, which obviously completely removes the problem he identified in relation to my 50 per cent turnout threshold.

After my long preamble, far longer than I had intended, perhaps I may point out that all the amendment suggests is a change in our electoral system-which the Liberal Democrats, throughout my adult life and probably before then, have been saying is what the electorate is desperate for. I say simply that it would be a good idea if you could get one in four of the electorate to vote in favour because that would validate the referendum. Apparently, they are resisting that commonsense proposal as well.

We are in a silly position, unless someone wants to intervene from the Liberal Democrat Benches. I cannot believe that even Liberal Democrats would argue that if only three people voted in the referendum-two in favour and one against-that would be a valid basis on which we could change our country's constitution. If any of them thinks that that would be fair, right and sensible, will they please intervene? I am not filibustering; I want to get this over with as much as anyone else does. If they cannot tell me, the only difference between us is the level at which the threshold should be. In the absence of any intervention, I must assume that they are in what is, frankly, a silly position.

That would not matter to me too much, were it not for the fact that this referendum will not necessarily be the last one of this Parliament, because I have to take Nick Clegg at his word, confusing as that seems at times. He has described this as just part of the greatest reform package since 1832-greater than women's suffrage, universal adult suffrage, or anything of that sort. We have two more Bills coming down the line: one to establish fixed-term Parliaments and the other to abolish the House of Lords in its present form and replace it with a fully elected House.

It seems that, under the Bill, if three people in the United Kingdom vote in the referendum-two in favour and one against-we change the constitution. I ask those noble Lords who say that this is not as important a constitutional issue as abolishing the House of Lords in its present form the following question. Would any of them be happy with a referendum, should it come-and my word it ought to; it would surely be indefensible to have a referendum on a change in the voting system but not on one which effectively abolishes one of the two Houses of Parliament-on a two, one vote in the country? Or do they think, as I and other noble Lords do, that there should be a rather more convincing demonstration of the public will on abolishing one of the two Houses of Parliament? The danger of the present situation is that we have no threshold, which means that the precedent will have been set that future referenda on changing the constitution, however big that change may be, could be done on a very small turnout and a very small yes vote.

It is late, I do not intend to press this to a Division, but I am intrigued to discover that there is no one, apart from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Tankerness, who is highly skilful and whom I assume will respond

7 Feb 2011 : Column 106

to the amendment, can explain that. I assume that the noble and learned Lord has a graphic explanation as to why he would be comfortable with a very low turnout and a very low yes vote changing our country's constitution.

Lord Lipsey: I understand why those on the Lib Dem Benches do not rise to their feet to dispute the amendments. But, as one who, on the AV referendum, agrees with them, I shall do and speak for a minute or two. I think that thresholds are a bad idea in referendums. I supported the amendment proposed earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, because it seems to me that, generally, a pre-legislative vote is a good thing, but I do not support a threshold.

If there is a vote on this, if the threshold proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Davies, is to be reached, it will require 264 Peers to vote in the Content Lobby for it to be carried. If that of the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, is to be reached, we will need a total turnout of 316 Peers. And if that of the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, is to be reached-50 per cent, and 25 per cent yes- we need 395 peers to vote with 198 saying yes. I do not see why we should have a different test for the legitimacy of the vote in the country than we have for the legitimacy of the vote in our own House. Thresholds are arbitrary, they introduce bias, they distort debate and they have absurd consequences. I deal very briefly with each of these. As regards them being arbitrary, look at the range of numbers before us. They could be nice round numbers. As Sir Patrick Nairne, chairman of the independent Commission on the Conduct of Referendums, said, the main difficulty in specifying a threshold lies in determining what figure is sufficient to confer legitimacy. There is no answer to that. On the bias aspect, one side has to achieve only one thing-

Lord Davies of Stamford: I find that my amendment inadvertently has provoked a rather interesting discussion on this matter. I am listening to my noble friend with great attention. Of course, there is no scientific way of determining what the particular figure might be, but is my noble friend arguing that even if a major constitutional amendment is, say, passed by 6 per cent voting in favour, out of 10 per cent who vote altogether, that that would be an adequate degree of legitimacy justifying constitutional change?

Lord Lipsey: It is a good point that my noble friend makes. The answer to it is that that is why I want a pre-legislative referendum, so that the judgment can be made in the light of all the facts after the referendum and not be made in advance in what is necessarily an arbitrary way.

On bias, one side has to achieve only one thing: it has to prevent a majority voting against the change it opposes. However, the yes campaign has to do two things: it has to win more votes and to do better it has to make sure that the turnout is up. This also raises questions about legitimacy of the result. Would the side against which this bias exists really regard a result achieved in this biased way as legitimate? In my view,

7 Feb 2011 : Column 107

it would not, although it might rely on a verdict of Parliament after a referendum as a legitimate verdict in the circumstances.

My third point is that the threshold distorts debate. What we want in this referendum is both sides putting their strongest possible case in front of the electorate either for the proposed change or against it-whichever they want. But this case gives the no campaign an incentive to put two different arguments: "Vote no if you must vote, but we'll get just as many votes if you just don't bother to turn out". It is the sit-and-watch-telly no campaign. That does not seem to be a very good idea. The experience of Italy-I will not go into it in great detail-where abstentions are not a vote does not reflect well on this practice. Nor indeed does the consequences of the introduction of the threshold in the first Scottish referendum on devolution, which led to the issue being completely unresolved in fact until the 1997 referendum finally settled it. The referendum did not have the effect that everybody wanted it to have of settling the devolution process.

Finally, my noble friend Lord Grocott has just described one absurd result where two people vote for and one against. I accept that that is an absurd result. But it is no more absurd than the result that would stem-I am sure he was not intending this-from the amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Davies, where 32 per cent vote yes, 1 per cent vote no, and yet the referendum automatically, and without further debate in Parliament, falls. That would be at least as absurd a result as the one my noble friend Lord Grocott predicates.

I have rattled through an argument that deserves more probing and profundity, because the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, came out with a perfectly viable solution to these competing considerations. I was, therefore, very glad to hear that the noble Lord, Lord Davies, was not going to press his views to a vote. However, I think that the House should briefly be exposed to the case against these thresholds as well as the case for them, if only to reinforce itself in its wisdom.

At one stage I thought about abstaining on my noble friend Lord Rooker's amendment because of my dislike of thresholds, which for once in my entire time in the House of Lords would have affected the result. It is a good thing I did not, so phew. The House of Lords might consider the argument that I have briefly developed and decide that, in view of it, we made a wise decision earlier this afternoon, albeit narrowly.

9.30 pm

Lord Howarth of Newport: My Lords, perhaps I may say a word about Amendment 14 in the name of my noble friend Lady Hayter of Kentish Town. Her amendment would provide that if there is not a majority in support of changing the electoral system,

the proposition should fall for the United Kingdom as a whole. I certainly hope that there is common ground around the House that we wish to strengthen the Union and bind the peoples of the four parts of the United Kingdom in one coherent political system and,

7 Feb 2011 : Column 108

as far as possible, in one political culture. It would be singularly unfortunate and divisive, were the referendum to be lost in one of the four parts-let us suppose, for example, that the people of Wales were to vote no but those of England, Scotland and Northern Ireland were to vote yes-if the people of England, Scotland and Northern Ireland were then to impose their preferred version of an electoral system on the people of Wales. I think that that would be divisive, traumatic and very unfortunate.

Lord Tyler: Is the noble Lord really saying that it would be divisive in those circumstances when it is clear that what would be much more divisive is that if one part of the United Kingdom was able to veto the clear majority of the decision of the rest of the United Kingdom? That is a complete nonsense.

Lord Howarth of Newport: The noble Lord sees things in a mirror glass world and he is entitled to look at them from that perspective. However, I invite him to consider what the impact on the sentiment would be in Wales if, having voted against the proposition that, say, the alternative vote system should be used, it was none the less to be imposed by the rest of the United Kingdom on the people of Wales. I think that that would create a grievance and that it would be an unhappy development. The amendment in the name of my noble friend is well worth the House meditating upon.

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, I do not intend to address Amendments 12 or 15. The noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, spoke in the earlier debate on Amendment A1 moved by my noble friend Lord Rooker, and I follow his lead in saying that we do not intend to pursue these amendments.

Lord Wallace of Tankerness: My Lords, we have had another interesting debate on, as the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, indicated, the difference between the amendments we are discussing here and those which were debated earlier. I only wish that the strength of the argument deployed by the noble Lord against thresholds had been sufficient to persuade everyone to abstention, even if I was unable to do that, but that did not happen.

The manuscript amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, which would mean that 25 per cent of the electorate would have to vote yes is a reflection of the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Stamford, which seeks that 33 per cent of the electorate should vote yes. We then have a straightforward 50 per cent eligibility to vote proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, and the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, which the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, spoke to, regarding the individual constituent parts of the United Kingdom. I acknowledge also that the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, did not speak to the amendment in her name and that of the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan.

I think the arguments against thresholds were put very eloquently by the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, and are a cogent argument as to why the threshold-against

7 Feb 2011 : Column 109

turnout, particularly although not exclusively, does not necessarily lead to fairness compared with a straight situation where people are invited to vote and the majority wins. But the proposals that relate to a threshold that the yes vote has to reach are particularly pernicious. Earlier the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, referred to the 40 per cent threshold that was imposed on the Scotland and Wales referendums in 1979. The Welsh referendum did not arise because there was a very strong no vote, but although 64 per cent of the electorate turned out in Scotland and a majority voted in favour of devolution, it was not implemented for another 20 years. It did not settle the question. It left, as the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, said earlier, a bad taste. Of all thresholds, it does not satisfy the electorate and particularly those who campaign and those who would seek a yes vote.

The amendment that the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, spoke to on behalf of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, would seek a requirement of a majority vote in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, rather than a simple majority of all votes taken together. This is a UK-wide referendum on what the electoral system should be to elect the House of Commons in the United Kingdom Parliament. I believe it transcends particular localities or regions. The pros and cons of the system will be debated and considered by people regardless of where they live.

In Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, uttered words of caution against this kind of amendment. He said that,

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, rejected this type of amendment because,

If we were to find, for the sake of argument, that the rest of the United Kingdom-Wales, Northern Ireland and England-had substantially voted in favour of a change yet Scotland had a narrow majority against, it would be unacceptable that that one country with a narrow majority against should effectively exercise a veto over all other parts of the United Kingdom.

Noble Lords who have spoken to their amendments have indicated that they are not going to press them given the vote that was taken earlier. On that basis, I ask the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Stamford, to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Davies of Stamford: I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 11 withdrawn.

Amendment 11A to 12B not moved.

Amendment 13

Moved by Lord Lipsey

13: Clause 8, page 6, line 23, leave out paragraph (b)

7 Feb 2011 : Column 110

Lord Lipsey: My Lords, at an earlier stage on the Bill, I described this as the buckle that linked the AV bit of the Bill with the constituencies bit. It is a slightly peculiar buckle as the constituencies bit goes ahead even if AV does not because the referendum is lost, but AV cannot go ahead if the constituencies bit does not. I suppose that reflects the bargaining strength of the two sides during the coalition negotiations.

I do not see any great point in labouring this issue any more. The Government are not showing any great willingness to split the Bill, as some of us suggested from the first that they would be wise to do. All I would like to hear the Minister say is that this is a political deal and so has to stay. I do not even ask him to say that this is a sordid, low, political deal between two unequal partners which should never have taken place. I do not expect anything like that from the noble and learned Lord. If he would just say that this is a political deal and would the House kindly accept it on that basis, I shall do so and withdraw my amendment.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, my name is on this amendment as well. To slightly increase the excruciation for the noble and learned Lord, it is impossible to understand what the basis of the conditionality is. Assume that 99 per cent of the population were to vote in favour of changing the system to AV, even if something happened to prevent the Boundary Commission changes being introduced, then, as I understand the Government's position, they will not introduce AV. Why is that? What is the logic? The only logic must be some sort of political deal. Honesty would help the noble and learned Lord a lot.

Lord Wallace of Tankerness: My Lords, these amendments, as the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, has indicated, seek to undermine, even remove, the link between the commencement arrangements for the AV and for the constituencies parts of the Bill. Anyone who has ever been a political realist would recognise that in terms of a coalition one part of the Bill-the first part-had greater salience and resonance with the Liberal Democrats, and the same applied to the Conservative Party when it comes to Part 2. I believe in equality of votes across the United Kingdom and I have not had difficulty, therefore, in arguing that case.

The issue of linkage has been one which we have debated from the outset. The noble Baroness, Lady McDonagh, raised an issue about it as we started Committee stage and withdrew her amendment, and the parties and the coalition Government have made it very clear that these two parts are linked. The question has been raised-it was hinted at by the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey-as to why, if the referendum does not produce as successful an outcome as the Liberal Democrats would wish to see, we are tied in, as it were, with the boundary change. Quite apart from the fact that, as I have already indicated, there is something right in principle about trying to seek greater equality among constituencies, as a liberal and a democrat I would find it very difficult to say, if the people had expressed their view in a referendum and said no, that somehow or other we should try and thwart another part of this Bill which is linked.

7 Feb 2011 : Column 111

There is nothing wrong in parties entering into an agreement that they then make their best endeavours to deliver; in fact it is honourable and perfectly proper. I believe both parts of this Bill hang together and are linked. They give the people a say as to whether they want to change the way in which the House of Commons is elected while also ensuring that the House of Commons is elected, be it on first past the post or on the alternative vote, in constituencies that are much nearer to being equal.

On that basis I would invite the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Lipsey: As the Minister was making his remarks the unworthy thought occurred to me that perhaps we should have a referendum on the constituency changes. You would get a jolly good turnout in Cornwall and people in the Isle of Wight would be flocking to the polls with those from Brecon and Radnor and Anglesey, all to say no to this. Then the Minister would be able to say, "As the British people have spoken, I cannot force this down their throats". That perhaps is a little too much. The boundary changes will no doubt, if agreed by this House and by Parliament, go ahead at the end of the day. There seems little point in pushing the matter any further and I therefore beg to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment 13 withdrawn.

Amendments 14 to 16 not moved.

Amendment 16A

Moved by Lord McNally

16A: Clause 8, page 6, line 32, leave out from "that" to end of line 33 and insert "subsection, but

(b) does not affect any election held before the first parliamentary general election following that day."

Lord McNally: My Lords, this amendment removes the power in Clause 8(4) to make a transitional or saving provision when implementing the AV provisions through an order made under Clause 8(1). Instead, it inserts the provision that any order made under Clause 8(1) will not affect any election held before the first parliamentary election following that day.

The Government have brought forward this amendment in response to the recommendation of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee that the power in Clause 8(4) should be subject to the negative procedure. This was on the grounds that,

This Government attach great importance to the views of this and other Select Committees, and we have reflected carefully on the committee's recommendations. As my noble and learned friend Lord Wallace indicated in Committee, we had envisaged that in the event of a yes vote in the referendum, this power might be used to provide that any parliamentary by-elections held

7 Feb 2011 : Column 112

between the commencement of the AV provisions and the subsequent general election would take place under the existing first past the post system. That is because the Government take the view that it would not be appropriate in the intervening period between the commencement of these provisions and the subsequent general election for by-elections to take place under the AV system, since that would have the result that the House of Commons would contain Members elected under two different electoral systems.

The Government are content to accept the committee's conclusion that the issue of the powers in Clause 8(4) should be addressed. However, the effect of applying parliamentary procedure to the powers proposed would run contrary to the Government's stated intention that the referendum on the voting system should be binding. Moreover, this House has already expressed its view on this issue by voting on the first day in Committee against an amendment to make the referendum indicative. In order to meet the Committee's concern, the Government have instead brought forward this amendment, which removes the powers in Clause 8(4) and instead makes the position on by-elections held in the period between the AV provision coming into force and the first parliamentary election on AV clear in the Bill. This provision goes further than the committee's recommendation by making the Government's intentions absolutely clear in the Bill. On reflection, we think this is preferable to leaving the issue to future secondary legislation, which would be the effect of following the committee's recommendation. I beg to move this amendment, and I hope that the House will support it.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: I welcome the noble Lord, Lord McNally, back to front-line service on this exciting Bill. We have missed him a lot in every single respect. He has explained that very-

Lord McNally: Since this is my only opportunity, I thank those on the Labour Benches for sending me a bouquet of cut flowers. After MI5 had dismantled it, it was put in a vase in my room.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: And did they find what we hid in it? We genuinely welcome the noble Lord back. He is very popular on our Benches. He has explained this very clearly. We have no problem with it. We think the critical point that he is making is that by-elections after the passage of the Order in Council that brings the boundary changes into effect, which is the last stage in bringing in AV after a yes vote, will not be conducted under AV until after the first general election is conducted after AV. We have no problem with that.

Amendment 16A agreed.

Amendment 16B

Moved by Lord Howarth of Newport

16B: Clause 9, page 6, line 40, leave out from "preference" to end of line 41

7 Feb 2011 : Column 113

Lord Howarth of Newport: My Lords, Amendments 16B, 16C, 16E and 16F are intended to substitute for the optional preference AV system the obligatory preference AV system. We touched upon this issue in an earlier debate, and on the first day in Committee my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours spoke very powerfully indeed on this topic. I none the less ask your Lordships' indulgence to permit me to say a very few words about this because it is an issue of prime importance in this Bill.

My amendments, if they are technically valid, would replace the Queensland system, which is what the Government are proposing in the Bill, with the Australian federal system, and there is a very important difference. If you are voting in an Australian federal election to the Australian House of Representatives, you are required to vote for all the candidates on the ballot paper in the order of your preference. If you fail to do so, your vote is invalid. In the optional preference version of AV that applies in Queensland, you do not need to vote in order of preference for all the candidates; you may, if you prefer, vote for only one candidate. It is quite instructive to see what has happened in Australia over the years. The system that now operates in Queensland was introduced in 1992. Initially, when that was done, very few voters failed to express all their preferences in rank order, as had been their tradition-only about 20 per cent, initially. However, as time went by, more and more of them realised that they did not need to cast all these preference votes and they stopped doing so in very considerable numbers.

The turning point came in 2001, as my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours told the House in Committee, when the Australian Labor Party ran a "just one vote" campaign, because it had realised that it was more likely to be in the interests of their candidates that they should discourage people from exercising all the preferences that they might. To concentrate all their votes on one candidate is termed "plumping", a term originally coined in 19th century England when elections to school boards were introduced. Under that system, an elector was permitted to exercise perhaps 20 votes-a vote for every member of the school board-but they were allowed to cast all their votes for the same candidate. The object of that provision was to try to ensure that representatives of Christian minorities were represented on school boards. However, what actually happened in practice, very interestingly, was that it was organised that people would plump or concentrate their votes in support of women candidates, because it was felt to be desirable that women should serve on school boards. That plumping was very beneficial to the feminist cause in the 1880s and thereabouts. The term has been borrowed in Queensland.

The result of the practice of plumping in Queensland, as we are told by the academic authority of Messrs Rallings and Thrasher from the University of Plymouth, is that in 2009, 63 per cent of those who turned out at the state elections in Queensland voted for just one candidate-and, in some constituencies, the proportion was as high as 73 per cent. Even when the political parties urged their supporters to use their preference votes in the manner associated with AV, they did so decreasingly. For example, the Greens urged their voters

7 Feb 2011 : Column 114

to exercise all preference votes, and to exercise their second preference in support of Labor, but very large numbers-46 per cent-of those who gave their first preference to the Greens did not do so; they made no other choice. We have seen the same effect in the London mayoral elections, where there is a modified version of AV in the supplementary vote system. A significant percentage-perhaps one in five voters-vote for only one candidate.

I am not a supporter of AV, but if the proponents of AV want to see the benefits that they profess that AV would confer, I suggest that they would do better to have the proper AV system-the obligatory preference system-rather than the one that is being proposed in this Bill. If we have only optional preference voting under AV in this country, it will rapidly turn into a pretty close replica of the first past the post system. People will scratch their heads and ask why on earth they have been through all this palaver, why we have had a referendum, and why-if they did so-they have voted for an alternative vote system that turns out to be remarkably similar to the first past the post system that they have rejected. This needs very careful thought, and it is not too late for the Government to give it that thought. I beg to move.

Lord Wallace of Tankerness: My Lords, the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Howarth of Newport, would provide that, under the alternative vote system, voters would be required to express a preference for every candidate standing at the election. As he indicated in moving his amendment, we had some debate on a related issue earlier in the evening. In the Bill as drafted, by contrast, voters may express a preference for as few or as many candidates as they wish-indeed, as the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, observed, even just for one. We believe that this approach gives maximum choice to voters. We would not support a system where voters were required to express preferences for all the candidates standing at the election.

In Committee, my noble friend the Leader of the House explained that the Government believe that the optional preferential form of the alternative vote system is the right form of AV to be put before the people. There is a genuine issue here and a genuine debate, but we believe that for elections to the other place, if voters are to be able to express preferences, it is only right that they should be able to express as many or as few preferences as they choose; their ability to limit their preferences should not be constrained in the way that the noble Lord suggests.

Furthermore, the optional preferential form of the alternative vote avoids putting voters in the position where they are obliged to vote positively and to give a preference for political parties that may be wholly distasteful to them, such as those on the extremes of politics. Indeed, it is not impossible that people might be dissuaded from casting a vote at all if they felt that they had to go to the ballot box and put a number beside a party that they found extremely abhorrent. That would be the opposite of what those who support the alternative vote would say is the aim of using it as the system for electing Members to the House of Commons.

7 Feb 2011 : Column 115

The noble Lord, Lord Howarth, mentioned Australia. In those elections where a compulsory form of AV is used, voters must indicate an order of preference for every candidate on the ballot paper, as he described, in order for their vote to be valid at all. The noble Lord's amendment does not specify what would happen if a voter did not express a preference for all candidates. Would that vote be declared invalid? It is not clear what would happen in those circumstances. There is a danger, of course, that it could risk disfranchising voters who did not wish to express a preference for all candidates standing at the election. Against that background, I urge the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.

Lord Rooker: I am reluctant, but I cannot resist this, because of what happened in Committee. The noble and learned Lord has just deployed the case against the compulsory system and I agree with him on that, but is it the case that when the AV system in the Bill, the optional system, comes to be deployed, the Deputy Prime Minister will not be able to cite a single other democratic country where it is used to elect the national parliament-not one? Have I got that right? I have missed something in the debate otherwise. In other words, we are saying that it is better than the compulsory preference system, but nobody uses it to elect a national parliament. All the examples given tonight-and the provincial elections in Canada can be used as well-are for state parliaments and state Governments in Australia, not for the national Parliament. The national House in Australia, of course, has the compulsory preference system. This optional AV system is not used anywhere

7 Feb 2011 : Column 116

else in the world, but that is what is going to be offered to the British people. Have I got that right?

Lord Wallace of Tankerness: The simple answer is that I do not know and I would not want to confirm something that I do not know.

Lord Campbell-Savours: The answer is yes.

Lord Wallace of Tankerness: The noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, says from a sedentary position that it is right. Be that as it may, the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, prefaced his remarks by saying that he did not support the compulsory system and preferred the optional preferential system. If we believe that that is a better system than the compulsory system, I think that that is what we should stick with. If it is the case that there is not another national legislature that does it, so be it-we are devising a system for the House of Commons.

Lord Howarth of Newport: My Lords, I think that it is clearly implicit in my amendments that, if people did not use all their preferences, their vote would be invalid, as is the case in federal elections in Australia. The noble and learned Lord rejects what I suggest; be it on his own head. If Ministers in the Government wish to make a botch of their attempt at electoral reform, so be it. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 16B withdrawn.

Amendments 16C to 16H not moved.

Consideration on Report adjourned.

House adjourned at 10 pm.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page