HL Deb 14 February 2000 vol 609 cc989-90

13B. Electoral registration officers shall be accountable to the Electoral Commissior in relation to the compilation, production and accuracy of the electoral register.").

The noble Lord said: This amendment looks forward to the next Bill that will come to your Lordships' House in due course. It is likely that that is the answer I shall receive from the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, and perhaps I shall table the amendment again at that point. The amendment simply states that we should take account of the fact that an electoral commission will be brought forward shortly, which I very much welcome. However, at present all the work of electoral registration officers is governed by primary legislation, Home Office guidance and, indeed, by council and local authority pressures of various kinds.

The electoral commission, once it is established, would provide a focal point for establishing the minimum standards required for electoral registration; standards that would be free from political influences of any kind. It could also provide an authority to which complaints might be addressed. I certainly hope that the commission, once it is set up, will be one whose judgment will command respect and for that reason I feel that that body should be given some of the powers currently held by the Home Office, local authorities and others. I beg to move.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

The noble Lord has anticipated part of my response to his amendment. However, he has done the Committee a favour by raising an important issue.

Although this Bill does not refer to the electoral commission, noble Lords will be aware that soon we shall have a piece of legislation to create just such a body. The question of the relationship between the commission and local electoral officials is important. That is why the matter was specifically addressed in the Government's White Paper, The Funding of Political Parties in the United Kingdom. The Government's view is set out in that document. I believe that it may be helpful if I quote reasonably extensively from it to remind the Committee exactly what we said: In some but not all … countries which have Electoral Commissions, voter registration and the actual administration of elections are in the hands of the Commission. This might be a natural model to adopt if starting from scratch. But the current arrangements command public confidence. A change-over would be a very large legislative and administrative project, at the expense of other priorities, and neither the Neill Committee nor any other authoritative body has suggested that it is necessary. The Government does not, therefore, propose to alter the present arrangement in [any such! far-reaching way … We believe, however, that the Electoral Commission will quickly become the natural focal point for the provision of guidance to electoral administrators and for promoting best practice in how they discharge their statutory duties. The Electoral Commission, for its part, may be expected to look to the cumulative knowledge and expertise of registration and returning officers to inform its reviews of electoral law and practice. By this two-way process the Government anticipates that the Commission will, as the Neill Committee envisaged, develop a close working relationship with the electoral administrators which will enhance the efficiency and effectiveness with which our elections are conducted". That remains our view. It is an important development. It exists in other countries. The relationship will no doubt evolve and lines of accountability will develop over time. However, at the moment we are building on an existing and proven system. We believe that we can place our confidence and trust in that. I hope that the noble Lord will take some comfort from the close relationship which we see developing between the Commission and local electoral officials. In the meantime, given that this matter will be "coming along later", as it were, I invite him to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

I believe that I can tick that off in the box of "a mildly encouraging reply". Perhaps we shall come to the issue again when the next Bill relating to the electoral commission is debated. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Bassam of Brighton moved Amendment No. 62: Page 22, line 42, leave out from ("Where") to ("to") in line 43 and insert ("the entitlement of such a person").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

[Amendment No. 63 not moved.]

Lord Bach moved Amendments Nos. 64 to 69: Page 23, line 29, at end insert— ("( ) Omit subsections (I) and (2)."). Page 23, line 30, at beginning insert ("In subsection (5),"). Page 23, line 32, leave out ("this section") and insert ("subsection (5) above"). Page 23, line 44, leave out ("any such special lists or records,") and insert ("the place and manner of its publication, and

  1. (ii) the procedure to be followed in the preparation of any such special lists or records,").
Page 24, line 9, leave out ("section 13A") and insert ("sections 13A and 13B"). Page 24, line 14, leave out ("or 13A(2)") and insert (", 13A(2) or 13B(3)").

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Lord Bach

I beg to move that the House do now resume. In moving the Motion, I suggest that the Committee stage begin again not before 8.35 p.m.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House resumed.