HL Deb 04 February 1980 vol 404 cc1083-7

2.45 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they propose to introduce any amendments to the Representation of the People Acts and whether it is proposed to convene a meeting of the Home Office Electoral Advisory Committee.


My Lords, the Government are conducting a general review of electoral law and procedures on the basis of which we shall consider what changes are needed and how best to proceed. Although the Electoral Advisory Committee, which last met in 1973, has been abolished as part of the Government's review of non-departmental public bodies, we intend to provide ample opportunity for public discussion of any proposals to emerge from the review of electoral law.


My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that Answer. In view of the general agreement—and there seemed to be sympathy in this House when I expressed this view only a few weeks ago—as to the usefulness and value of the Electoral Advisory Committee, is it not unwise to abolish it, particularly as it was only called together as required? Would it not be better to leave it to be called together because it has proved to be a most useful body for the widest possible consultation?


My Lords, I read the noble Lord's speech with interest. Bearing in mind that the committee to which the noble Lord is referring had not met since 1973, it is perfectly reasonable for the Government to say that the Home Office will continue to consult the political parties, the local authority associations and the returning officers who mainly comprise the Electoral Advisory Committee. If I may give a concrete instance of what I mean, to show that the intentions of the Government are genuine in this matter, a Bill recently went through your Lordship's House that was sponsored by the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran, and it was sponsored in another place by my honourable friend Mr. Cranley Onslow. It was called the Representation of the People Bill. It made two important alterations to electoral law. The Government are committed to consulting the political parties and the local authority associations on a draft set of regulations under that particular Act. So we intend to do what I have been saying to the noble Lord; namely, to consult, but on a basis of when needed rather than preserving a standing committee.


My Lords, does not the fact that some consultation process is envisaged by the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, in the answer that he has just given suggest that some machinery is in fact needed to carry out that consultation process? Would he say to the House that if, in the course of these consultations which the Government envisage having, it emerges, as my noble friend Lord Underhill has suggested, that the committee is still needed, the Government will at least keep an open mind about this?


My Lords, I do not think that the Government's mind will be absolutely closed, particularly when the noble Lord from the Opposition Front Bench puts the point to me in such eloquent terms. The state of play is that at the moment the committee has been abolished. It had not met since 1973 and we believe similar consultations can be conducted on an ad hoc basis.


My Lords, may I ask my noble friend whether the introduction of proportional representation is among the amendments being considered at the moment?


My Lords, the review, as I think I said in my reply—or I was going to say—is wide-ranging and thorough. I can assure my noble friend that is is wide-ranging and thorough.


My Lords, as the noble Lord stated that the body had not met since 1973 and had only been called together as required, would it not be best to leave it to be called together as required? Would he not agree that there is a great difference in consulting political parties or local authority representatives and calling together the conference where they can have the most valuable interchange of opinions?


My Lords, we think not. Frankly, the number of nongovernmental or quasi-governmental organisations which had grown up caused a list which was costing a great deal of money. In some cases it appeared to be fulfilling no particular current function. This particular committee was one of those. When it met it did extremely valuable work and had on it people like the noble Lord who had great experience. But it is possible, may I repeat, to conduct those consultations once again, but in an ad hoc manner.

Baroness BACON

My Lords, since the committee last met in 1973, will the noble Lord say whether or not the object of closing it clown was financial? Would he not agree that, if it has not met since 1973, it has not cost much money?


My Lords, that action was in pursuance of good management practices.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that many of us take the view that one of the most unsatisfactory situations at the moment is the disenfranchisement of British subjects resident in the European Community who are not members of the Armed Forces? Is this one of the issues that will be taken into account, and will there be a White or Green Paper?


My Lords, I cannot say whether there will be a Government document. But when I said to my noble friend Lord Alport that we are, as I said in my original reply, conducting a general review of electoral law and procedures, on the basis of which we shall consider what changes are needed and how best to proceed, that was the literal truth.


My Lords, is the Minister aware that, when management has an instrument which does not cost anything and is admitted to be useful, it is bad management practice to throw it away?


My Lords, it was not currently useful even though it had great ornaments sitting upon it.


My Lords, may I put one further question? As in Section 24 of the Report on Non-Departmental Bodies there are four questions about their use, if I put down a Question for Written Answer—because I know the noble Lord cannot answer this afternoon—will he tell us exactly how these four questions do not fall into line with the value of this body in past years?


My Lords, if the noble Lord puts down a Question for Written Answer, of course I shall be replying to him.


My Lords—


My Lords, I wonder whether your Lordships would not think that we have let this particular Question run far enough.