HL Deb 16 April 1985 vol 462 cc680-9

8.33 p.m.

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now again resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now again resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Glenarthur.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The LORD ABERDARE in the Chair.]

Clause 19 [Timing of elections]:

Lord Glenarthur moved Amendment No. 30:

[Printed earlier: col. 1215.]

The noble Lord said: I spoke to this amendment with Amendment No. 18. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to. Clause 19, as amended, agreed to.

[Amendment No. 31 not moved.]

Lord Sudeley moved Amendment No. 32: Before Clause 20, insert the following new clause:

("Reduction of minimum age requirement for local authority candidates.

. In section 79(1) of the Local Government Act 1972, for the words "twenty-one years" there shall be substituted the words "eighteen years".").

The noble Lord said: The arguments for this amendment are very simple, and I shall produce them quickly. It has been accepted that men and women who reach the age of 18 are fit to vote. However, due to an oversight candidates wishing to stand for public office cannot do so until they have reached the age of 21. If it is accepted that persons of the age of 18 are fit to judge candidates, should it not also be accepted that they are fit to be judged as candidates? Were the Committee to reject this idea it would then, on the same basis, have to reject the idea of the vote for men and women at the age of 18.

Secondly, can the Minister clarify and confirm that a person could stand for election in a local authority election, with which this amendment is concerned, before the age of 18 but could then find that he could not take up his seat? If that is the case, surely the Minister must accept that that is a very odd position. I beg to move.

Lord Glenarthur

I think I can be fairly brief with the amendment proposed by my noble friend. The minimum age both for voting and for standing as a candidate at parliamentary elections (although we are not specifically dealing with them now) and local elections was 21 until 1969, when it was reduced to 18. The minimum age for candidature was unchanged. There does not seem to have been any demand for a reduction in the minimum age for candidature when the 1969 Act went through Parliament, and the position has remained the same to the present day. I think that such demand is an important factor to be considered.

As regards parliamentary elections, we feel that it is primarily for another place to initiate changes in the minimum age of its Members, and I shall not go into that now.

It is important that a person should gain experience eleswhere before taking part in any election, whether for local government or central Government. There are those of your Lordships who might agree that young people, whether they are 18, 19 or 20, have more pressing claims on their time. I know that to some extent I did. As regards my noble friend's specific point, no, one cannot stand for election until one is 21. I hope that clears up any misunderstandings he may have. It is important that people get experience of life. That is something which all of us need before we stand in any capacity to be an elected representative. I hope my noble friend will understand that, and that he will not press the matter on this occasion.

Lord Tordoff

I apologise to your Lordships for being somewhat the subject of slow communications in this building. I support this amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Sudeley. I think that the Minister is being a little patronising to young people. The fact is that a number of people of this age group are deeply interested in politics and are anxious to become involved at an early age. I am sure that they should be encouraged to do so. To be a candidate at 18 might not be acceptable to the electorate, but that is the electorate's choice.

If the question were the other way round and one were arguing about voting ages, perhaps the Minister might have a more logical case. I would not agree with it, but he might have a more logical case. In the circumstances, if you are to have the ability to vote at 18 then the ability to stand as a candidate at 18 seems utterly logical. I hope that the Government will reconsider.

I do not accept the argument that candidatures for either local government or, indeed, the other place are a matter only for another place. I think this is not one of those matters to which the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, referred at earlier stages of this Bill, when we were really bound by arrangements that were made between the two parties. I think we are in a different circumstance on this occasion.

Lord Sudeley

There are two points I should like to make in reply to what the Minister has said. The first is that this is a non-party matter. Therefore, in rejecting the idea of people being able to stand as candidates for local authority elections, or, for that matter, parliamentary elections, I think the Conservative Party is giving some political ground in a rather unnecessary degree to the two other political parties, the Liberal and Labour parties. The other point I should like to make is that the Minister has provided arguments against candidates standing for local authority elections. The arguments are much the same for local authority elections as for parliamentary elections. If the Minister had spoken on the previous amendment on parliamentary elections I think his arguments would have been much the same.

Perhaps I may quote from what my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has said about candidates between the ages of 18 and 21 being able to stand for parliamentary elections. The Home Secretary said on Saturday, 16th February 1980: The last Speaker's conference that looked at electoral law in 1972 to 1974 recommended by a small majority that the minimum age for standing in parliamentary elections in the United Kingdom should be reduced from 21 to 18. The recommendation was not enacted by the last Labour Government who apparently took the view that this was not sufficient support for the introduction of this reform. But I believe that it is now time to reconsider this whole question". The Home Secretary then continued: In my view, the case for changing the law is a strong one. I find it difficult to see why young people who are entitled to vote and who are regarded as full citizens should not be allowed to present themselves to their fellow citizens for election to office". In accordance with the flow of the speech of my right honourable friend the Home Secretary, part of which I have quoted, I should like to press the amendment to a Division.

Lord Glenarthur

Before my noble friend presses this amendment to a Division I should like to say to him three things. First of all, I should like to say to the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, that in no sense was I trying to be patronising. That was not at all the sense of what I was trying to say. What I was merely trying to say was that at the age of 18 one may be interested—this was one of the points the noble Lord raised—but just by being interested one does not necessarily have the experience which is necessary to take part in an assembly of that kind.

The second point, if I may go on to develop it before the noble Lord intervenes, is that although we occasionally receive letters from young people who would like to serve on local councils—I have to stress that it is occasionally—there does not appear to be the kind of demand for change in a downward direction which my noble friend Lord Sudeley seems so convinced that there is. If there is not that demand, I do not really see that it is right to make a change of the kind which he now proposes in this amendment. I think it would be unfortunate if we were to introduce a change like this. I think it would make a major change to the way in which representation on local councils exists. I do not think it would necessarily be for the good of the local council, though I can quite understand that it would be for the good, educatively speaking, of the person who particularly wished to be a member of it.

That is why I feel that it would be a mistake for the noble Lord to press the amendment at this stage. The fact is that primarily there has been no demand for this change. That is where my case rests, but I know that the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, wishes to intervene.

Lord Tordoff

I am grateful to the noble Lord the Minister. I hope he does not feel I am being difficult in saying that it is a slightly patronising argument. I am not saying that he is necessarily being patronising. However, at the end of the day the judgment rests with the electorate. If the electorate says, "This person is too young to represent me", that is entirely up to the electorate. However, there is illogicality in being able to vote and to make the choice.

The real power in the electoral system lies in the power of voting. People then have the right to say, "I am sorry; you are too young to represent me". If people say that, then they are entirely entitled so to do. Quite clearly the noble Lord the Minister would take that view. In his own personal capacity as an elector of local government—which he has the right to be—presumably, from what he says, he would say, "No, this person is too young to represent me".

Perhaps I may say this about the demand. The fact is that the youth movements of all the political parties—the Young Conservatives, the Young Socialists, the Young Social Democrats and the Young Liberals—are all anxious to see this change made. I think that in an age when we wish to encourage responsibility in our youth, when we wish to assist them to become involved in the democratic processes rather than be on the streets demonstrating in other ways, we should move in this direction. Although there are no great demonstrations at the moment calling for candidatures at 18, nevertheless I believe those people who are active in politics and wish to cut their teeth on politics, particularly at a local government level, should have the opportunity so to do. If people can vote at 18, why on earth are we making the distinction between their being able to vote at 18 and not being capable of being members of local government at 18?

8.45 p.m.

Lord Glenarthur

Perhaps I may respond again to that argument. I accept the noble Lord's point that it is for the electorate to decide—or they can decide ultimately when it comes to an election—whether or not they wish to vote for a person of any age. Of course I accept that argument. I have listened to what the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, has said and I have listened to what my noble friend has said. My noble friend quoted from remarks made by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary—remarks of which I was not personally aware but which I should like to study.

I know that my noble friend feels that he wishes to press this. However, my feeling is that it would be better if I could think about this for a minute and then perhaps on reflection, and having studied what has been said by the noble Lord on this occasion, look at it again at a later stage of the Bill. However, as I understand it, from what transpired in another place and notwithstanding the importance of your Lordships in these affairs, I do not believe that there will be the support for it in another place that I suspect my noble friend would like.

I should like to study what my noble friend has said, particularly in regard to his quotation from what my right honourable and learned friend said. Without any commitment whatever—and I stress that to my noble friend Lord Sudeley—I should like to study it. On the basis of that undertaking that I shall study it, I hope he will see fit not to press this amendment at this moment. I give him the undertaking that I shall consider most carefully what he has said. However, at the same time I give him no undertaking that it will be possible to meet his particular wishes.

Lord Sudeley

Perhaps I may ask the Minister if he can assure me that he will write to me before the Report stage of the Bill with his consideration; and, depending on that, I can decide whether or not to re-introduce this amendment on Report stage.

Lord Glenarthur

Yes; I shall certainly give my noble friend the undertaking that I shall look at it and then write to him about it. Perhaps if he studies what I have to say when I have been able to reflect upon the quotes that he has made, that will satisfy him and he will then, as he says, be able to consider whether or not to bring this amendment forward at a later stage.

Lord Sudeley

I thank the Minister very much for that assurance. I hope that his answer will be favourable and that it will not be necessary for me to reintroduce the amendment at Report stage. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 20 [Summoning new Parliament: effect of demise of the Crown]:

Lord Glenarthur moved Amendment No. 33:

[Printed earlier: col. 1215.]

The noble Lord said: This amendment was spoken to with Amendment No. 18. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to. Clause 20, as amended, agreed to. Clauses 21 to 23 agreed to.

Schedule 3 agreed to.

Clause 24 agreed to.

Schedule 4 [Miscellaneous amendments of the principal Act]:

Lord Glenarthur moved Amendment No. 34:

[Printed earlier: col. 1215.]

The noble Lord said: This amendment was spoken to with Amendment No. 18. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Tordoff moved Amendment No. 35:

Page 37, line 29, insert— ("(c) After subsection (1)(c) there shall be inserted— (d) to provide for the supply to a Community Health Council free of charge one copy of the register of electors covering the area of the Council." ").

The noble Lord said: I have already indicated to the Minister in a conversation that we had earlier today that this is very much a probing amendment. There are under the substantive Act, the Representation of the People Act 1983, in Schedule 2, provisions authorising or requiring the registration officer to supply such persons as may be prescribed copies of the electors lists, register and other documents or prescribed parts of them, whether free of charge or on payment of a prescribed fee".

This amendment seeks to ask the Minister whether the Government are prepared to implement that provision in regard to community health councils. Community health councils are charged with carrying out certain surveys of the population for which it is necessary that they have electoral registers. To have to buy electoral registers from the returning officer is a very expensive exercise for them. It is my belief, and it has been suggested to me, that this is perhaps an area in which registers should be provided free of charge to community health councils. I wish through this amendment to ask the Minister whether this has been given consideration and whether the Government are prepared to contemplate giving the registers free. I beg to move.

Lord Glenarthur

I can perhaps most conveniently deal with this amendment by saying that community health councils could already be provided with free copies of the register under my right honourable friend's existing powers. To that extent the noble Lord's amendment is unnecessary. However, the general principle is for only those directly concerned with the electoral process to receive free copies: the political parties, candidates, local councillors, Members of Parliament, and so on. Community health councils would not fit particularly easily into this pattern.

Although I cannot anticipate too far ahead. I have taken note of what the noble Lord has said. We shall be making a new set of Representation of the People regulations once the Bill is enacted. These will deal with, among other things, the supply of copies of the register. Perhaps the most satisfactory course would be for the noble Lord to take the matter up, if he so wishes, when the usual consultations take place on those regulations. I do not think that I can anticipate ahead any further than that, but I hope that what I have said provides the kind of reassurance for which he is looking.

Lord Tordoff

I am most grateful. I hope that the noble Lord understands that so far as the community health councils are concerned this is a tool of the trade which they find difficult to get in any other way. I understand that the basis of free copies relates really to the electoral process. I hope, however, that the fact that we have had this short exchange in the Chamber will be taken on board by his right honourable friend. With the assurances that the noble Lord has given, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Glenarthur moved Amendment No. 36:

[Printed earlier: col. 1215.]

The noble Lord said: I spoke to this amendment with Amendment No. 18. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Mishcon moved Amendment No. 37:

Page 45, line 4, at end insert— (". In section 167 (application for relief), in subsection (1), the words "else, if in respect of a payment made in contravention of section 78(1) or (2) above or of paragraph 1 of Schedule 4 to this Act," shall be omitted.").

The noble Lord said: More and more, county courts have their jurisdiction extended in order that there can be cheaper and, one hopes, speedier justice. When we are considering the provisions of this Bill, there is a great opportunity, in my submission, to keep down the expense of something that is very troublesome to all political parties and hits in particular the minority parties, if I may so call them, or even independent candidates.

The situation, to state it briefly, is that after an election is over and somebody, whether the candidate or the agent, finds that he has inadvertently broken electoral law, there is a procedure by which an application can be made to the court for relief from the penalties involved. There are a few cases where the county court is given jurisdiction; but in the main, the offences that have occurred, many of them purely technical, at present come outside the county court jurisdiction. An application has to be made to the High Court with very considerable expense indeed. The lowest costs involved, I have found, are somewhere in the region of £1,000. Very often, the costs can be much more.

This is a great opportunity to give the county court jurisdiction here. I should make clear that the county court judge, if he found that he was dealing with a serious case, could immediately refuse relief and refer the matter to the Director of Public Prosecutions for consequential proceedings to follow. I hope that the Government will seize this opportunity. I beg to move.

Lord Tordoff

We touched on this matter obliquely at an earlier stage of our Committee proceedings. Although what the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, says does not really bear on the kind of cases that I had in mind at the time, the underlying principle overlaps. The proposal would have our support.

As I said on the earlier matter, there is no way in which people from these Benches or any other Benches in this House would wish to condone serious electoral malpractices. But the law on these matters can become extremely technical. There can be small problems in the electoral process that need to be sorted out after an election. It seems right and proper that there should be a simple and cheap way to put them right. I commend the noble Lord's amendment.

Lord Glenarthur

As perhaps has been indicated by the remarks of the noble Lords, Lord Mishcon and Lord Tordoff, this amendment deals with a somewhat technical issue. It might be convenient if I explain the background before going on to say why, much as we sympathise with the noble Lord's amendment, we do not think it is possible to amend the law in the way he would like.

As I mentioned on an earlier amendment, certain offences under the Representation of the People Acts are described as "illegal practices". They include various voting offences and offences in relation to election expenses, including failure by a candidate or his election agent to have the name and address of the printer and publisher printed on an election publication. One of the consequences of an illegal practice is that if a successful candidate is convicted of one, his election is void and a fresh election must be held.

Of course, illegal practices, particularly failure to observe the imprint requirement, often happen with no evil intent, and that is why the 1983 Act allows a person who has committed an illegal practice to apply to the courts for relief from the consequences if his action arose from inadvertence, accidental miscalculation or from some other reasonable cause of a like nature. In most cases applications have to be made to the High Court which can be very expensive, but some applications in respect of very trivial contraventions of the law may be made to the county courts. Why not then allow more applications to be made to the county courts, as the noble Lord's amendment proposes, so saving the candidate the cost of a High Court action?

I think the answer to that question is this. Although most applications for relief relate to minor oversights of electoral law, illegal practices are potentially serious offences. I am sure that the noble Lord will not dissent from that view. An election can be declared void if a candidate is found to have committed them. Parliamentary election petitions and applications for relief from the consequences of an illegal practice are triable only by those High Court judges currently on the rota for the trial of an election petition. There would be difficulties if a county court was allowed to entertain and perhaps to grant an application for relief while an election court was trying the same issue on the trial of an election petition. The applications which may currently be made to the county courts would not prejudice the trial of an election petition in the same way. I said that I was sympathetic to the noble Lord's amendment. Accidents do, in the course of an election campaign, of course happen. That is why there is a right to make an application for relief.

However, the fact that applications may be made and are often granted should not, I think, blind us to the fact that serious issues may be raised, and that a right of application to the county court would have the effect of short-circuiting the long-standing arrangements for the questioning of an election through the trial of an election petition. As I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, will agree, this is not a party issue and we should like to help if we could, but we do not really see that there is an alternative but to let the arrangements stand as they are.

I started by saying that this was a complex, technical issue. I hope that I have been able to give the noble Lord some reassurance that, by not being able to make the change which he recommends, we are really safeguarding an important principle, and I hope he will not feel it necessary to press this amendment.

9 p.m.

Lord Mishcon

I recognise the principle which the noble Lord the Minister very correctly stated in relation to the remarks that I made in support of the amendment. Of course, there can be serious cases, and as I said, where there are serious cases the county court judge would obviously refuse relief and hand the papers over to the Director of Public Prosecutions. If I may say so—and I say this with the utmost deference—I can only interpret his remarks as being somewhat derogatory to the standing of county court judges, who surely are able to deal with these matters, which are not terribly complex in regard to law, in exactly the same way as a high court judge.

Now, it may very well be felt that this would be unimportant to wealthy parties and wealthy candidates—and I am not scoring any silly points when saying that; some people may indeed deem my own party to be a wealthy party, although I can assure the House that the Treasurer of that party at the moment would not agree with that definition. But, having said that, I would ask the noble Lord, the Minister, since this is an important matter, important, as I said, for all those who belong to political parties, and it may be we shall see again the day of the independent—if I may speak personally, it is a day that I shall welcome myself, but that is a purely personal view.

I would ask the Minister if he will be good enough at least to indicate that he will consider, between now and Report stage, whether at least some more matters cannot be referred to a county court than happens at present, and whether indeed he cannot reconsider the whole principle of what I have tried to deal with in this amendment, because it is a great opportunity to deal with the matter. We shall never be able to deal with it by a special Act of Parliament. Here is an opportunity, and I would hope that he would at least tell me that he is prepared to look at the debate that has occurred today and see whether, by co-operation, something useful cannot turn up at Report stage. If he were to give me that indication, I tell him in advance that I should ask the leave of the Committee to withdraw the amendment.

Lord Glenarthur

I note most carefully what the noble Lord has said. I think I said twice when I spoke before that it was a technical issue and one on which quite clearly I could not give any particular undertaking now. What I can tell the noble Lord is this: I shall certainly read with great care the points that he made when he proposed his amendment, and I shall consult with the experts concerned on whether or not there is any particular give. I am afraid I suspect there is not, but I would not like to prejudge the issue without having read most carefully the points he has raised, and I hope that will satisfy him.

The issue of whether or not there would be more scope for moving towards county courts is something which I am not familiar with myself. Naturally, it was certainly not any intention of my remarks to be derogatory about judges in county courts—of course not—and I am sure the noble Lord really realises that that is the last thing I should want to be. But it is technical; it is something I should like to read about. I shall read his remarks and perhaps I may correspond with him. If I do not satisfy him, of course, it will be up to the noble Lord to take the matter forward in due course. I hope he will be satisfied with that.

Lord Mishcon

The noble Lord has acted with his usual courtesy and kindness and I merely ask him if he will kindly see that the letter reaches me at least before Report stage, so that I can consider my position. I ask the Committee's leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 38 to 40 not moved.]

Schedule 4, as amended, agreed to.

Clauses 25 to 29 agreed to.

Schedule 5 [Repeals]:

Lord Glenarthur moved Amendment No. 41:

[Printed earlier: col. 1215.]

The noble Lord said: I spoke to this amendment with Amendment No. 18. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Schedule 5, as amended. agreed to.

House resumed: Bill reported with amendments.