HL Deb 15 February 2000 vol 609 cc1069-97

3.14 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Bassam of Brighton)

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 Bassam of Brighton.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The DEPUTY CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES (Lord Ampthill) in the Chair.]

[Amendment No. 93 not moved.].

Clause 10 [Pilot schemes]:

[Amendments Nos. 94 and 95 not moved.]

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish moved Amendment No. 96. Page 11. line 45, leave out ("when.").

The noble Lord said: I should not like to think that the Committee is getting itself into bad habits by not moving amendments.

Amendment No. 96 is a probing amendment which seeks to discuss the question of when people vote. We will discuss—I hope in short debates—"when", "where" and "how", but this amendment seeks to debate "when". Amendment No. 103 is linked with this amendment and addresses specifically the issue of voting on Saturdays and Sundays.

It is interesting that the Bill gives local authorities the power to run experiments. One of the experiments they can run is to change the polling day from a Thursday to another day in the week or, indeed, to a number of days in the week. So we could be voting on a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. I believe that some of the experiments concern that issue.

My amendment seeks to give the Minister an opportunity to explain to the Committee the Government's thinking in regard to "when"; what kind of proposals he has received from local authorities; and what he thinks are the advantages of voting over two or three days in a week.

As I said at Second Reading, I am hard pressed to see any advantages. I certainly do not see any advantages for the foot soldiers of democracy—in other words, the people in the political parties who man the polling stations and who get out the vote. They have a busy enough day on a Thursday, from dawn until dusk in the summertime; and from dawn until long after dusk if the election is held in the wintertime. They have a busy enough day manning the polling stations, checking who has voted and pulling out their people.

After all, the motivation behind the Bill is to try to increase the number of people voting. One of the ways in which people are encouraged to vote is by way of the "knocking up" carried out by the foot soldiers of the political parties. I suggest that if polling were held over two or three days, it may be extremely difficult for the political parties to cope because of the amount of effort required. Rather than an increase in the number of people going to the polls, we might see a decrease. So we have to think very carefully about the people who do that work.

It may also be a problem for the people who man the polling stations for the returning officer. It will increase the number of people needed. While at the moment people carry out a very long, one-day shift, from seven in the morning until nine or ten at night, they cannot be expected to do that over two or three days. So serious issues need to be addressed when we discuss the question of whether we should vote over a number of days.

The other amendment I have tabled deals with the question of voting on Saturdays and Sundays. In the part of western Scotland that I come from, and further north into Lewis and Harris—as in Wales and in England—many people still consider Sunday a special day. Some consider that it is a family day, but they believe it is even more special than that; they believe that it is a day on which work should be done only in extreme circumstances. They would find it very disturbing if they were invited to use their vote on a Sunday, and only on a Sunday.

I accept that continental countries do so, but we have just heard from the noble Baroness from the Foreign Office that all the countries in Europe do not have the same voting systems. We should not interfere with, nor indeed copy, other people's voting systems.

It would not be a good idea to have voting on a Sunday. There are many people, perhaps not a majority, but this Government are supposed to look after minorities—although not all, because the minority of the population which hunts foxes is not looked after and does not have its opinions heard—who believe that we should keep the sabbath and that there should be no compulsion to vote on a Sunday. The same could be said about Saturday when members of the Jewish community may find it difficult to reconcile voting with keeping that day as a holy day. Their numbers may be lower than the size of the population who keep the Christian Sunday, but they are still a minority who will feel strongly about the issue.

My Amendment No. 103 suggests that if any movement is made to the weekend, it should be to both days. I shall have to be convinced by some fairly rigorous experimental work that there is any point in moving from a single day to more than one day. I shall certainly need to be convinced that a move to voting at the weekend is worthwhile. I believe that the number who find it difficult to vote at the weekend, because they may he away from home, may be greater than those who currently experience problems on a Thursday. I propose the amendments in the hope that the Minister will explain government thinking on the issue of "when", and also to lay down a marker to indicate that I for one would be resolutely opposed to picking either a Saturday or a Sunday as the single day of voting in this country. I beg to move.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

I am grateful to the noble Lord for his interesting comments. I am particularly grateful for his sympathy towards the foot soldiers, as he put it. Many of my noble friends behind me would be impressed by the salutations in that direction as, no doubt, would many noble Lords in his own and other parties.

I shall speak first to the second of the noble Lord's amendments, Amendment No. 103. I applaud him for having tabled it. It would be very wrong if any changes to our electoral procedures were to result in a particular group being put at a disadvantage. I hope that I can set the noble Lord's mind at rest, and, for that matter, anyone else's.

Perhaps I may begin by quoting from the guidance which the Home Office issued to local authorities about how to apply to run a pilot scheme. It stipulated that among the material that a local authority is required to include in its application is, An assurance that no voter will be put at a disadvantage by the proposed innovation". That is obviously important. It is quite unambiguous. A local authority which is unable to provide that assurance will not be successful in its application. A scheme that makes it easier for the majority but significantly more difficult for the minority to vote evidently does not meet the test.

Those are not merely words from the Home Office. They have been translated into action. A number of local authorities which have applied to run pilot schemes at the coming May's local elections have had their applications turned down simply on the grounds that a particular religious group might have been put at a disadvantage. Indeed, we have gone even further than the amendment. A number of schemes involving both Saturday and Sunday voting have been turned down because the polling hours were longer on the Saturday than the Sunday—or vice versa—and the Home Secretary rightly took the view that that could have a discriminatory effect.

I should mention that those decisions were taken in consultation with representatives of the opposition parties who are happy with the approach that my right honourable friend adopted. There is widespread support for it. More generally, perhaps I may usefully quote what the Home Secretary said during Second Reading in another place: If weekend voting ever became part of the national arrangements, we would have to ensure that it took place on both days. There are members of the Jewish community who would not wish to vote on a Saturday and there are members of other communities … who have strong feelings about the observance of [Sundays]".—[Official Report, Commons, 30/1 1/99; col. 172.] I hope therefore that I have been able to reassure the Committee that the Government are fully alert to the needs of those of strong religious persuasion and that we shall do nothing that is detrimental to the interests of such people. I hope that that is a clear statement which will give the noble Lord the reassurance he seeks.

I turn now to Amendment No. 96, which goes much further. If passed, it would, as I understand it, preclude the running of pilot schemes which involved early voting, changes in polling hours or voting on days of the week other than Thursdays. I should be grateful for the noble Lord to confirm that that is his intention. I cannot believe that he really wants to rule out—

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

Perhaps it may help if I save the Minister the next two paragraphs. I believed that I had made clear at the beginning that this is entirely a probing amendment to enable us to discuss "when" and to discover exactly what the Government are thinking. The Minister does not need to assume that I intend to press the amendment.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

I am grateful for that clarification. However, I was trying to get to the heart of the noble Lord's intent. I cannot believe that he wants to rule out a large number of the proposed pilots. If that is clear, then I am happy with that. As I explained, I have some sympathy with the restrictions that the noble Lord seeks to place on Saturday or Friday voting, but the wider limitation that he has proposed would make little sense.

Pilots have been put in place to test the arrangements. That is an important issue. I would have hoped that the noble Lord and other Members of the opposition parties would understand the value of the pilots. If we test them and they work, then clearly they can have wider application. It would be unreasonable and unfair at this early stage, when we are trying out new ways of including people in the electoral process, to rule out anything which has value and merit. On that basis I invite the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.

Baroness Fookes

It may of interest to the Committee if I describe briefly a pilot scheme which the city of Plymouth is seeking to introduce on early voting. The scheme seeks to introduce voting on Friday 28th and Saturday 29th April—on Friday from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. and on Saturday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.—at one central location, to be heavily advertised beforehand. I am not sure whether that would be acceptable to my noble friend Lord Mackay, but it may be of interest to consider how one authority is seeking to implement a pilot scheme.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

I thank my noble friend for that information, which illustrates one of the problems. I do not know the size of the Jewish population in Plymouth, but some may feel unable to vote on the Saturday. I suppose that the experiment allows them to vote on the Friday. It will be interesting to see whether the Government agree to that pilot and, if so, what are the results. A point arises from that matter, but I shall come to it in a later amendment.

I repeat that this is entirely a probing amendment to try to have a discussion on what the Government mean by "when". The Committee is well used to probing amendments. The intention is not to replace the word "when"; the proposal is merely a peg on which to hang a debate about "when". I am pleased to hear the Minister quote his right honourable friend the Home Secretary on the question of Saturdays and Sundays. That goes a long way to reassure me. I know that it will reassure many people in the United Kingdom who believe either in keeping Saturday as a holy day, or indeed, certainly in the case of the West Highlands, in keeping Sunday as a holy day. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish moved Amendment No. 97: Page 11, line 45, leave out ("where").

The noble Lord said: The amendment is entirely a probing amendment in order to discuss the question of what the Government mean by "where". Traditionally in this country we have voted in schools, town halls and buildings of that nature. I gather that the experiments seek to introduce voting in other places. For example, in the Minister's Written Answer to his noble friend Lord Hardy of Wath on 1st February, reference is made to a "mobile ballot box". Perhaps the Minister will tell us how he conceives of such a thing. I have heard of mobile shops and many other mobile entities, but a mobile ballot box is rather novel. Perhaps the Minister will explain what is meant by it.

I understand also that there are propositions about polls being held in supermarkets, although I do not see any mentioned in the noble Lord's answer to his noble friend. I have some reservations about that. Indeed, I have tabled subsequent amendments in order to make sure that that is done in an above-board manner. Some supermarkets are associated with senior politicians. There is a noble Lord on the Government Front Bench in this House who has a supermarket chain bearing his name. Until very recently one of my honourable friends in the other place ran a major supermarket chain. I am not entirely sure whether the governing party would have been happy if polling stations had been set up in Asda while Mr Archie Norman was still running it. It might have thought that that was not quite right because Mr Norman might use his position to rearrange the shelves near the polling booth or whatever. The same could be true—

3.30 p.m.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton

I find that argument most extraordinary. Is the noble Lord really suggesting that someone would be so devious—someone as senior as those to whom the noble Lord referred—that he would rearrange the shelves in his shops in order to make sure that the polling booth was where he wanted it? That is a nonsense argument and one which I hope is a joke.

Lord McNally

Before the noble Lord admits that to be a joke, given some of the shenanigans we have seen from Millbank over the selection of their candidate, is not anything possible these days?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

Anything is possible these days, as the noble Lord, Lord McNally, said. The shelves would have to be rearranged. Both the supermarkets I go to—they are different chains—have newspaper stands immediately at the entrance. On newspaper stands there tend to be newspapers. On a polling day, especially for a general election, those newspapers would contain political information. In the curtilage of the public buildings where polls are held no political material is allowed. That is right and proper. With all due respect to the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, those are the kinds of questions that would have to be answered in relation to supermarkets. The shelves would have to be rearranged. After all, if I wanted to help, let us say, the Conservative Party—I do not think that it is all that machiavellian—I could arrange that the Daily Telegraph was the foremost newspaper on the news stands. If I wanted to help the Labour Party, I might make the Mirror

Baroness Gould of Potternewton

I find this most extraordinary. Local elections are governed by rules. The rules state that there should be no political advertising of any kind within a space round the polling station. Yes, shelves would have to be moved, but that does not mean that it would be possible to put the Daily Telegraph in front of the polling station.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

With all due respect, the noble Baroness is making my point for me. One is not allowed to have that kind of material round a polling station. So I want some kind of explanation from the Minister as to how the Government will put polling stations into supermarkets without doing a lot more than just putting in the polling stations. How will they ensure that the electoral laws axe being obeyed? That is a simple question. I am grateful to the noble Baroness for helping to make it a little clearer.

I am also concerned about the politics of the matter. I know some people who, perhaps quite wrongly, would find it very hard to go into a supermarket run by the Co-operative in order to vote. They might think that that was quite wrong and that they were being asked to go into something which they associate with the Labour Party. That may be right or wrong, but I know that they do that. They might think that that was hardly a neutral place in which to vote. Some people on the Left might think that going into the capitalism of a supermarket was not the right place in which to vote. We have to think very carefully about this matter.

In addition, the supermarket might be quite keen to get the polling station rather than its competitors because that would draw in people to vote in the supermarket on that day. With a bit of luck those people might then do some shopping. That is what supermarkets are about. That is why they give the free offers: "Come and have a free ballot today and then do your shopping". They might even give discounts on shopping on that day to encourage people in. Perhaps that is what is intended in order to try to increase the turn-out.

I should be grateful if the Minister would run through what exactly the Government have in mind when it comes to changing the place of voting. What is a mobile polling station? How do they envisage that working? If we to go into places like supermarkets and shopping malls, how will they ensure that the same rigid rules, which the noble Baroness, Lady Gould has rightly drawn to our attention, are applied in those supermarkets as are applied currently in the public buildings where we are used to casting our votes? I beg to move.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton

I wish to refer to the noble Lord's final point about the buildings in which we are used to voting. I do not know whether the noble Lord has ever voted in a caravan, but I certainly have. We have always had moveable polling stations and we have always managed to abide by the rules that govern local government when that has happened. It has been done for the convenience of the electors, in order to ensure that they can get to the polling station. I hope that that will continue.

I am very interested in the concept of mobile polling stations. I have spent a good deal of time looking at the new democracies and how they encourage people to vote. I found it fascinating to learn that polling stations are taken to hospitals and old people's homes so that people can register their vote and not miss out by having to go through an absent voting scheme. I should like to hope that we might be as imaginative and as thoughtful as those countries are in providing the best possible means of making it easier for people to vote.

Lord Goodhart

I can go a little of the way with the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, but not as far as he goes. I find a little far-fetched the concept that Conservative-minded supermarket owners might fill the shelves near the polling station with bottles of Haig whisky. Indeed, I would certainly welcome the idea of having mobile polling stations in a shopping mall or set up in a pedestrianised shopping street. The one point on which I feel some concern is having polling stations inside supermarkets or other retail premises. Commercial matters can arise there. It can be regarded as giving that particular supermarket an advantage over its rivals. People may say, "Let's go and vote and do our shopping at the same time". I am not sure that having people going up and down the aisles and checking out at the tills while one is a few feet away casting one's vote is the way I should like to see voting carried out. I have reservations about the idea of polling stations being situated inside retail premises.

Lord Jopling

I have listened to the debate with a good deal of interest. I have been trying to put the comments that have been made by Members of the Committee alongside a most helpful brief I received from the Local Government Association—I imagine that many Members of the Committee have the brief—in which are listed at the back the applications that have already been made for various pilot schemes. Forty-four local authorities have proposed a total of 64 different pilot schemes. I am interested to see that there are only four applications for pilot schemes regarding where one votes out of 64. That does not seem to reflect very much interest. With regard to the debate we had a few minutes ago about when people should vote, there were 27 applications, which seems to be rather a lot. Almost all of those were with regard to early voting and only six were with regard to weekend voting. It is significant that only four applications have been made with regard to where one votes. Interestingly, all had regard to mobile ballot boxes; none covered the siting of polling stations in supermarkets. I agree with the comments of a number of previous speakers. It does not make too much sense to start changing the format of a supermarket in order to embrace a polling station. I understand that those who run supermarkets give huge attention to the use of space. Surely fundamental changes in the supermarket structure would be necessary in order to accommodate a polling station.

Like the noble Lord who has just spoken and the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, I have some interest in "mobile polling stations"; however, I am not sure what is meant by the term. Do we mean a caravan which is moved to a polling area and placed in one spot for the period when the polls are open? Like the noble Baroness, I remember caravans being used as polling stations in my former constituency. There is nothing wrong with that. But when I think of mobile polling stations, I am inclined to think more of the possibility of their being moved around. My former constituency in the Lake District included a large number of elderly people, as there were a large number of retirement homes. I could envisage it being helpful if arrangements could be made for a mobile polling station to call at certain times on retirement homes where the residents could come out and vote in person. I have always found that elderly people particularly like voting in person and much prefer it to a postal vote. All of us with experience of the elderly know their fierce sense of independence and how they like to make the effort to go to the polling station. Such an arrangement would be helpful for retirement homes.

A list of local authorities have made applications for pilot schemes; however, I see practically no interest in anything other than mobile polling stations, and not much interest in those. Therefore, I hope that our thoughts will be concentrated on mobile polling stations and not on any of the other options.

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My noble friend Lord Mackay has dealt with this proposal in a particularly even-tempered fashion. To that extent, I think he is wrong. If he reflects on his own political involvement, he will know that, however composed people may be during a general election campaign, when it comes to polling day, emotions tend to be somewhat aroused. Over the past 20 years, I have been engaged in many arcane arguments about whether posters can be leant against the railings of a school as opposed to being attached to them, with the consequence that the local chief constable has been telephoned. All manner of people become extremely excited about these events. Even-tempered as my noble friend may be about this matter, he is absolutely correct to understand that it is an issue that could cause real difficulty. I have never been more vigorously castigated by political opponents than when I once inadvertently entered a polling station wearing my party's favours. I was taken apart by those who were doing duty as polling agents.

Am Ito understand that if a polling station is to be within a supermarket, no one would be allowed to display their party favours; or, on the contrary, among and around the baked beans could we marshal an army of those wearing blue rosettes and that would be legitimate, while five yards away in what was a temporary polling station people were meant to be given the occasion to cast their vote completely freely and without any interference? There is real issue here, and clear rules are needed.

Like my noble friend Lord Jopling, I have no difficulty at all with the idea of mobile polling stations. Indeed, the idea of a caravan being placed in the car park of a huge supermarket such as Sainsbury at Nine Elms where people coming to do their shopping could slip in and vote and around which there would be a kind of cordon sanitaire, presents no difficulty. However, if the idea is that when people enter a polling station there are newspapers and all manner of things around and, frankly, a large number of people milling around with no interest whatsoever in voting, there really needs to be a requirement that we know precisely what would be permitted and what would not. I urge the Committee to note, as those who have engaged in party politics know, that as the day wears on, emotions can become very frayed indeed.

3.45 p.m.

Baroness Fookes

I hope that the idea of mobile polling stations will be pursued vigorously and in detail. I have one concern. If they are to be of the caravan or van type, there may be difficulty for those who are disabled in mounting the steps. They can often be quite steep. One would need to look carefully at precisely the kind of vehicle that would be used.

I, too, like the idea enunciated by my noble friend of having a mobile polling station in a supermarket car park, but certainly not anywhere within the building. A car park is one thing; the supermarket itself is quite different.

Lord Smith of Leigh

First, perhaps I may declare an interest as one of the foot-soldiers of politics who takes a great interest in these matters. The proposal challenges the 19th century assumptions about where people vote. We have always voted in public buildings, often in schools. But nowadays, when we are thinking about raising standards in schools, and whether a day's schooling should be lost, we need to think whether schools are the best places for people to vote.

As my noble friend Lady Gould said, mobile polling stations are not new in political activity. They exist in polling districts where there are no suitable public buildings. I agree entirely with the previous speaker regarding access. That is a critical point in relation to mobile stations. We cannot always obtain the type that are accessible. Certainly, the more people are interested in the idea, the more difficult it may become. We must not assume that mobile stations will be available everywhere when required; we shall all require them on the same day. Therefore, those who need them will have to book early, and the type that have ramps for easy access will tend to go first, leading to problems for the elderly.

I agree with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, on the need for the elderly to get out physically and vote. It is an activity that they enjoy. They are much more committed than many of the younger generation. I think the noble Lord's point related not so much to a mobile polling station, but to mobile ballot boxes. That possibility should be examined.

Lord McNally

This debate has given a whole new meaning to "chasing the vote"! I should like to clarify one point about the term "mobile". We all have experience of caravans being used as polling stations, but do the Government envisage experiments where a mobile station may be located at more than one place during a polling day— for example, at a railway car park during the morning and evening rush hour, and deployed to a shopping centre in the afternoon? Will there be more than one location for a mobile station, or will it simply be in one place?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, for providing us with a good excuse to "go the round" on this one. That is very helpful. I was entertained to hear the noble Lord becoming slightly "moral" in his remarks, but we shall put that to one side.

There have been a number of useful. I contributions. I shall attempt to answer the points made as best I can. The idea of using mobile polling stations is very much targeted on old people's homes (if I may use that term). A mobile facility can be taken to any number of locations during the course of polling day (or days) to assist elderly people to cast their vote. The noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, made the very important point that these structures must give easy access. The Home Office already makes available grants for temporary polling stations to provide easy accessibility. Whether one uses the same mobile facility to visit railway station car parks, bus stations, park-and-ride stops or whatever, is something that local authorities must work out.

I was interested in the comment of the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, about the pilot schemes. He is quite right that there are not many schemes which do other than seek our endorsement of early voting systems, which is understandable. In this field it is still early days. There are some interesting innovations; for example, electronic counting and voting, and so on. Applications for mobile voting have been received from two very different authorities: Windsor and Watford. We must study carefully how they make progress with the mobile facilities during local elections this year.

A concern was raised about supermarkets. Brighton and Hove Council is first in a number of areas. Last year it used Asda. No doubt a good Labour council has contributed to the profits of the former employers of Mr Norman.

Lord Jopling

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. The noble Lord referred to requests for mobile voting facilities from Windsor and Watford. According to my list, those authorities also include Sunderland and Norwich.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

I am grateful to the noble Lord for that correction. Having checked my list, it includes both local authority areas, together with other initiatives.

The Asda supermarket polling station was very successful and increased the turn-out in that locality, which was a marina site and a popular place for second homes. That was a helpful and well-conducted exercise. We seek to bring forward in the pilots new and different initiatives. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Fraser of Carmyllie, was absolutely right. These initiatives can lead to a good deal of heated discussion and debate. We must be careful that in introducing them we do not upset people—for example, that the job of those who staff them is not made more difficult—or overburden the police, who have a difficult task to perform on polling day.

If the guidelines are followed and the returning officer is satisfied that the polling station arrangements comply with the statutory requirements, I see little difficulty. A screened-off area in a discrete part of a building can work wonders. Last year I voted in a pub located just round the corner from the home of my noble friend Lady Gould. That polling station was screened off from the pub and was open all day. Although there were not floods of people—it was the euro-elections—the polling station was popular with, and well used by, those who knew where it was and wanted to participate.

It is strange that we have a history of voting only in draughty school halls and old church buildings. The distribution of those buildings is not necessarily best suited to today's diverse communities. If we encourage people to vote because the buildings that we make available are more accessible and better used, that is a good thing. That is what the pilot schemes attempt to achieve.

I hope that my response has given the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, an idea of the scope of our thinking. I am grateful to him for tabling a valuable probing amendment which appears to have elicited from all parts of the Committee a good deal of support for new and different places in which to vote. If that means that we can have longer polling times, that is all to the good. I hope that on this occasion the noble Lord will feel able to seek leave to withdraw the amendment.

The Earl of Sandwich

Before the noble Lord sits down, I wonder whether he wants to reply to his noble friend who asked whether a search should be made for an alternative to schools. It is a matter of pride not only for school governors and staff but for children that their schools are the centre of attention, at least for one day. Schools conduct their own mock elections. Often those activities are focused on general and local elections, both of which are significant events for schools.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

The noble Earl makes a useful point. In many areas, school buildings are the only major community facilities. They are a source of great pride and interest and become a focus for community activity. All that we seek to do in this legislation is to provide an opportunity for alternative premises to be used in addition to school buildings. Sadly, some school governors take the contrary view. They do not want the school to close for the whole day and the building to be used in this way; they want to carry on the normal routine. One understands that point of view, particularly if it enjoys the support of parents. School buildings will retain their importance in the conduct of democracy, both nationally and locally, but we should look for alternative buildings so that we have a good range, and perhaps a better distribution, of buildings to be used for the purpose.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

I am grateful to all Members of the Committee who have taken part in the debate. This is a necessary debate if we are to move away from the traditional voting system. Perhaps I may give the Minister a small piece of advice based on his last point. For very obvious reasons, the one way to make the noble Lord and his Government deeply unpopular with schoolchildren would be to decide not to locate polling stations in schools. It might even make them deeply unpopular with school teachers, but let us leave that to one side!

We have made a little progress on the question of supermarkets. Although perhaps I attempted to treat it in a light-hearted manner, my noble and learned friend Lord Fraser of Carmyllie reminded me of some of the battles that had been joined as to where party literature and posters could and could not be placed. Such matters would give rise to difficult issues in supermarkets. The concept of the reds, blues and yellows going into various shopping alleys to look for particular products may provide entertainment for a little while. One may have a game as to what they are shopping for as they mill around, and take the whole day to do it. However, there are serious problems if one uses buildings in which there are people present for other legitimate reasons.

Mobile facilities will give rise to difficulties; for example, the identification of those who have voted. I do not think it can ever be said that people must vote between 10 o'clock and 12 o'clock at the mobile station at their old folks' home. One would need another fixed polling station. There would have to be a relationship between the two polling stations to identify who had voted. That probably takes us into the realm of electronic voting, which I understand is also to be the subject of trials in some local authorities.

We have had a useful debate. The noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, tempted me to believe that voting in supermarkets would be a splendid idea. Close to the entrance to a supermarket, for example, there might be a display of alcoholic refreshments from my native country, bearing the slogan "Don't be vague, vote for Hague". I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 98 and 99 not moved.]

4 p.m.

Lord McNally moved Amendment No. 100: Page 12, line 1, at end insert ("and (c) the system of voting;").

The noble Lord said: When we debated the issue last night the Minister was clear that the Greater London elections were local elections. Who am I to deny him that? It is strange, therefore, that the largest of all local elections will be conducted under a system of proportional representation. The Bill is supposed to encourage experiment on the when, where and how of voting. Yet the Government have held back from experiment with the system of voting.

Let me confess, before the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, reminds me, that during our debate on the European Parliament elections, I was overly optimistic about the impact of proportional representation on the willingness of the electorate to vote. That is why there is need for further experiment. There is no doubt that local elections are bedevilled by low turn-out. I shall not make the ambitious claims that I made at the time of the European elections: that proportional representation at local level will immediately galvanise the population to use their vote. However, I believe that it is worth putting that concept forward as regards one of the experiments. If the London elections show a higher turn-out than other local elections, I hope that we shall be entitled to draw comfort from that impact of proportional representation.

Proportional representation in our local government might be a way of removing some of the abuses that have emerged in what have become one-party states dotted around our local government system. I shall not go into the details of that as regards PR but it is a factor to bear well in mind. It would be interesting to know why the Government pulled back from allowing some experiments in PR in local government elections.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

I looked at the list of amendments to see whether there was one on proportional representation; and I was not disappointed. I should have been surprised if the noble Lords on the Liberal Democrat Benches had not brought forward such an amendment.

The Bill's scope is limited to the ideas of the working party on electoral procedures. The purpose of the Bill is to give life and effect to those ideas. The working party was clear that its recommendations related only to electoral procedures. It did not consider electoral systems. I venture to suggest that there would probably have been little scope for agreement across all the parties involved in the working party had that been part of its remit. I suspect that the noble Lord will acknowledge that.

I do not dispute that the issue of voting systems is important. However, most people would argue that that matter should be dealt with in primary legislation which is fit for the purpose. That was the case with the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the European Parliament elections. I am grateful to the noble Lord for rehearsing the customary arguments. I understand the point about some of the abuses that the provision might check in some parts of local government where one party predominates exclusively for long periods of time. That is an important issue. Whether the amendment is necessarily the right way or the only way to deal with that issue is a broader political question.

There will be continued debate in this field. We have not yet seen the end of discussion and debates about proportional representation as an important feature of constitutional developments in the UK. We shall await with considerable interest the outcome of the Greater London Authority elections which rest in part on a form of proportional representation. So there is a continuing debate. It is not the end of the story and no doubt we shall return to the matter time and again. Perhaps the noble Lord will consider withdrawing the amendment.

Lord McNally

I appreciate the Minister's constructive response. I make one point. For Liberal Democrats it is no longer a matter of pleading poverty. In many local authorities we are the beneficiaries of a distorting electoral system. It is not simply that we are a third party. In many local authorities we are now the first party and benefit considerably from the winner-takes-all nature of politics.

However, the Minister responded in a constructive fashion, for which I thank him. The noble Lord, Lord Mackay, remained silent, for which I thank him. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 101 not moved.]

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish moved Amendment No. 102: Page 12, line 4. at end insert ("( ) No more than one such new scheme, at any one time, shall be approved in a given electoral area.").

The noble Lord said: The amendment provides that, where experimentation takes place, no more than one experiment at a time should occur so that one can assess the result of one change without the distortion of other changes. I referred earlier to the Written Answer to the Question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Hardy of Wath. Some local authorities propose two or three experiments. In some cases they are doing so ward by ward and that will probably meet my concern. However, in others the position is not entirely obvious. For example, the North Hertfordshire District Council would have Saturday voting, early voting and change to absent vote arrangements. If all three were allowed, and let us assume that there is an increase in the turn-out, these questions would then have to be asked. Was the position evenly balanced? Were all factors involved? Was only one factor involved and did not the others come into play?

If we are to learn from these experiments we have to be careful that they are conducted in a scientific way. One would not conduct a scientific experiment by including a number of variables in the experiment, but with only one variable at a time.

This is a probing amendment to see whether the Government have given some thought to the matter. If not, they should do so before deciding to agree on the experiments put forward to them by the local authorities. I beg to move.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

I have some sympathy with the noble Lord's comments. However, I invite the noble Lord to consider this point. He is right that a number of authorities have come up with multiple options for encouraging people to vote through the pilot schemes. My notes tell me that some 11 authorities seek to carry out more than one pilot. There are some 60 different schemes. Therefore we have the opportunity to see how they play in multiple schemes and in a single instance. So we have opportunities to understand how the multiple effect might affect turn-out; or the effect of a pilot scheme conducted in a discrete area. We can compare and contrast. That may well provide us with some clues as to the best way to encourage the electorate generally to participate in local democracy, or, at some future stage, in national elections. While I understand the noble Lord's concern, I believe that it is misplaced. What we are attempting to do here is to get the best out of having many flowers blooming at one instance and comparing that situation with isolated and discrete pilots. I trust that if the noble Lord takes on board those comments, he will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

I am grateful to the noble Lord the Minister for his response and I am pleased to hear that he appreciates my point. Although I understand what he is trying to say, I have my doubts about whether one could legitimately come to hard and fast conclusions if a number of variables had been introduced in the same area. One would then have to look to other areas where there was only one variable in order to appreciate the impact. I hope that the Government will not favour multiple variables over the whole field. When they agree these proposals, I hope that they will make sure that they have enough single variables so that they and we can come to a proper conclusion about the results of these different variables in the voting system. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 103 to 106 not moved.]

Lord Jopling moved Amendment No. 107: Page 12, line 15, leave out ("the authority concerned shall prepare a report on") and insert ("an independent assessment shall be made of").

The noble Lord said: I beg to move Amendment No. 107. We come now to consider what will happen once these pilot schemes have been tried out. A local authority will clearly wish to make a report. My amendment removes the duty to do so, but I do not believe that, in practice, any authority that has applied to carry out a pilot scheme would not wish to make a report. I do not see any point in saying that they must do it. If they do not want to do it, so be it.

The key point is that, once a pilot scheme has been carried out, there must be an independent assessment of it. Those of us who have had experience of local government know that a report would have to be approved by a local council, and no doubt at the end of the day the content of that report by a local council would be biased in favour of what the majority party on that council wanted to see, for electoral reasons, coming out of the pilot. For that reason, a report by a local authority alone would be utterly inadequate in assessing the benefit of these pilot schemes. It is essential, therefore, that there should be an independent assessment of each pilot scheme, which can then be submitted.

My noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish has tabled another amendment in relation to what should happen to a report by independent assessors, to which he will no doubt speak in a moment or two. However, the point that I wish to make as strongly as I can is that all these schemes must have independent assessments, which must start at the planning stage of the pilot scheme. The independent assessments must examine the conduct of the pilot scheme as it is carried out, monitor it, and then monitor the results at the end of the day. Simply to have a report by a local authority would be totally inadequate. We must have it done by an independent body.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My noble friend Lord Jopling has made a very valid point. He has mentioned my amendment, which is grouped with his. My amendment simply proposes that the Secretary of State should lay a copy of any report on any experiment before each of the Houses of Parliament together with a statement of his assessment of the experiment. Frankly, I am less worried about getting the Secretary of State's assessment. I am much more concerned with obtaining some form of independent assessment. I would like to see a local authority submitting its proposals for the assessment as well as its proposals for the experiment.

I shall not take up too much time, but I draw the Minister's attention to a briefing that we have received from the Local Government Association on this Bill, in which, at paragraph 5, it states: We understand some of the potential concerns around the roll out provision. For this reason, we have been keen to ensure that there is a proper independent evaluation of the pilots before a decision to roll them out is made". There is currently no provision for that. I doubt that I would accept an assessment from the local authority whose pilot it was, nor, dare I say with all due respect to the Home Office, from Home Office Ministers. Rather, I would want an assessment from some form of independent body. There are many universities that would, I have no doubt, be more than happy to conduct independent assessments of the various systems with which we shall be experimenting. It is therefore important that we should have some independent assessment before we ever consider rolling out any local experiment more widely to elections throughout the country.

4.15 p.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

I have quite a lot of sympathy with the thought behind both of these amendments. However, I do not believe that at this stage either of them is necessary, and I shall now attempt to argue why that may be the case.

The noble Lord, Lord Jopling, is understandably anxious to ensure that pilot schemes are properly evaluated and has suggested that reports on the pilots should be prepared not by the local authorities that are running them but by independent assessors. As I understand it, he is concerned that a local authority may take too subjective a view of its experiment and may not produce a report which gives the Secretary of State enough information on which to take a view of the success or otherwise of the innovation which has been piloted.

I do not, however, believe that this needs to be a real worry. Local authorities will carry out their evaluations in line with guidance issued by the Home Office, and that is very important indeed. If we have clear guidance in place, people will be able to understand exactly what we are seeking. There should not be too many problems, and we should therefore be satisfied with the way in which it will work.

The reports will have to provide factual information on turn-out and they will have to consider the take up of particular measures and the cost. The reviews will also involve structured interviews; they will seek the views of voters and, as importantly, non-voters, electoral staff, candidates and parties on the effects of the change being piloted and sampled. I do not believe that there is a risk that a report of this sort will be unduly coloured by the subjective views of local authorities. After all, they will be compiled by professional officers, and there will be a limited scope, in a sense, for members to become directly involved, which might add that extra element of subjectivity, important though that can be in some of these piloting arrangements. The local authorities will be in the best position to collect and collate all the material that is required. There is no real reason why they should be required to buy in outside help if they do not wish to do so. The local authorities have a duty and an obligation to operate quite properly and correctly within the guidance that will be issued by the Home Office.

I entirely understand the concerns of the Local Government Association. It is very enthusiastic for this legislation. It is very enthusiastic for pilot schemes, and I can understand why it may wish to bring in an independent element. In the future, of course, we shall only be able to roll out the pilots on a recommendation of the electoral commission, in legislation which comes later. That may well help us in this regard, and we can say more about that when we discuss Clause 11.

I hope that what I have said about the form in which the assessments are to be made will offer the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, some reassurance. I also repeat the assurances that have been given by my colleagues in another place about the publication of the evaluation reports. All the reports—not only those on schemes which we consider have been a success—will be placed in the Libraries of both Houses of Parliament and will be made available, without restriction, to anyone who wishes to see them, either at local level or centrally. To that extent, the noble Lord's amendment will, of course, be superfluous.

So, too, would be a further assessment by the Secretary of State. The evaluation reports produced by local authorities should provide all the information needed to reach a view on the success or otherwise of the various pilots. There is no need for the Secretary of State to put a further gloss on the material. Indeed, I do not believe that that would be right or desirable.

I hope that with those reassurances, my comments about the electoral commission and the way in which we would expect professional officers within the local authority to operate, the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Jopling

I am most disappointed with the Minister's reply. It is not realistic. It is all very well saying that we can rely on the officers of local authorities to make proper and correct reports, but those reports will be produced by members of the council, who are biased. In almost all cases throughout the country, they are members of political parties and they will look upon the pilot schemes with half an eye to their political advantage. I believe that the Minister has been complacent in his reply.

It is a matter to which we must return at a later stage and I hope that the Minister will consider more carefully the problems to which the reports could give rise. It is a pity that he has not been able to be more specific about the electoral commission. The Local Government Association has proposed that there should be three reports: one from the local authority; one by an independent assessment; and one from the electoral commission. I am not sure that we need as many as that, but if the Minister could undertake to ensure that the legislation dealing with the creation of the electoral commission will include a duty to provide independent assessments of the pilot schemes, that would go a long way to satisfying us.

I am most dissatisfied, but I shall listen to what the Minister is about to say.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

Perhaps my answer was not clear. In future, we shall be able to roll out pilots only on the recommendation of the electoral commission. Therefore, it will have a distinct role in engaging and assessing the way in which pilot schemes have operated and their future prospects. I should have thought that that would satisfy most of the noble Lord's points.

I have considerable sympathy with the points which he and the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, made. As the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, accurately said, many academic institutions have great expertise in making such assessments, having been involved in best-value pilot assessments and so forth. We understand the points, but we believe that we should try to make best use of the electoral commission when it is in place. It will have an important role to play in this respect.

Lord Jopling

I hope that the Minister's sympathy can be turned into something solid at Report stage. We must raise this matter again because it is vitally important. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 108 not moved.]

Clause 10 agreed to.

Clause 11 [Revision of procedures in the light of pilot schemes]:

Lord Goodhart moved Amendment No. 109: Page 13, line 13, leave out ("relevant elections of any description") and insert ("local government elections in England and Wales").

The noble Lord said: This is the last of what I see to be the three crucial amendments to the Bill. The first related to the free mailshots for the London elections; the second related to the right of access to the full electoral register for commercial organisations; this is the third and, in constitutional terms, it is the most important. It raised considerable concern on these and the Conservative Benches at Second Reading.

The issue of when, how and where we vote is extremely important. Previously, in its central principles, it was always dealt with by primary legislation. The schedules to the Representation of the People Act 1983 contain detailed rules about voting which in any other field would be left to secondary legislation. The rules set out in the schedules extend even to prescribing the equipment which must be present in polling stations. The constitutional importance of rules about voting was illustrated by the fact that when this Bill was debated in the other place, the whole of the Committee stage was taken on the Floor of the House.

Clause 10, which we have just debated, allows pilot schemes to be tried out in local government elections. There is no parliamentary control on the Secretary of State's approval of particular pilots. We did not object to that because it is right that the Secretary of State should have a reasonably free hand in deciding what is to be dealt with in pilot schemes in a small number of locations. However, Clause 11 allows pilot schemes to be made permanent and applied across the board not only for local government elections—the only kind of elections in which they have been tested—but for elections to Westminster, the EU Parliament, the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly.

We believe that long-term alterations to the voting system should have full parliamentary approval through primary legislation. That applies not only to the franchise and voting system, but also to the mechanics of voting. Secondary legislation is not enough. That is particularly true, even if it is the affirmative resolution procedure, in view of the proposals in the Wakeham report to restrict the powers of your Lordships' House to block statutory instruments.

The Select Committee on Delegated Powers and Deregulation recommended that the powers under Clause 11 should be restricted to local government elections; and that the read-out from the pilot schemes could be applied without primary legislation in local government elections, but in other cases could be applied only with primary legislation.

The amendments in the group are intended to achieve that. They would leave the Government free to introduce under Clause 11 secondary legislation to roll over the pilot schemes into permanent form, but primary legislation would be required for elections to the other place and to the other bodies which I mentioned.

Even in respect of local government, the reports from the local authorities operating the pilot schemes are not an adequate basis for a Clause 11 order. In that, I echo the points made on the previous group of amendments by the noble Lord, Lord Jopling. Therefore, the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee proposed a further safeguard that consultation with the electoral commission should take place before the Secretary of State could make an order even in relation to local government.

I was encouraged to hear from the Minister that in future there will be consultation with the electoral commission. I can quite see why that cannot be put into this Bill because the electoral commission is to be set up under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill which is further back in the queue of waiting legislation. But it is plain that the electoral commission should be consulted about all these regulations under Clause 11. That would require an amendment to Clause 6 of what I call for short the political parties Bill, under which, for example, the electoral commission is required to be consulted about the making of any regulations under the Representation of the People Act 1983 for which the affirmative resolution procedure is required. Regulations made under this Bill should also be added to that list.

In summary, we say that Clause 11 should not apply to any elections except local government elections in England and Wales, and should only apply to them after consultation with the electoral commission. I have said that I recognise that that cannot be dealt with in this Bill because the electoral commission is to be set up by a future Bill. But I hope that the Government will not use their powers under Clause 11, even as regards local government, until the electoral commission has been set up and is ready to advise. I ask the Government to undertake to amend Clause 6 of the political parties Bill and not to exercise their powers under Clause 11 before Clause 6 of the political parties Bill is in force.

I recognise that in practice that means that Clause 11 cannot be exercised in time for the local elections in the year 2001 because the electoral commission not only has to be set up by statute but also has to recruit staff and have members appointed. It will take some time before it can come into operation. Therefore, in practice, I believe that the electoral commission cannot operate until the year 2002. I believe that that is acceptable and even desirable. These are extremely important issues. There is no need for great urgency. I believe it essential that the electoral commission is involved in the process and that Clause 11 powers should not be exercised until the electoral commission is in a position to play its part. Having said that, I re-emphasise that this applies only to local government elections. We believe that Clause 11 powers should not be used at all other than as regards local government. I beg to move.

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Brougham and Vaux)

I have to advise the Committee that if Amendment No. 110 is agreed to, I cannot call Amendment No. 111. Likewise, in this group of amendments, if Amendment No. 115 is agreed to, I cannot call Amendments Nos. 116 or 117.

4.30 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

I support Amendments Nos. 109, 112 and 115. I shall not take much of the Committee's time. I wholly agree that there should be full parliamentary approval of primary legislation as stated by the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart. At Second Reading I took the stand that Clause 11 could not stand part of the Bill, as drafted—I remain of that opinion—in the sense that it was applicable to all types of elections referred to in Clause 11(7). But if Clause 11 is amended to relate exclusively to revision in the light of pilot schemes limited only to local government elections, well and good. As I understand it, that is broadly the effect of these amendments. That is why I support them. If these or similar amendments to such effect are not acceptable to the Government, then in my view this clause should not stand part of the Bill.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

On reaching Clause 11, I read it two or three times. I could hardly believe that the Government were bringing forward such a proposal. It seemed amazing to me then, and still does, that on the basis of local government elections in certain parts of England and Wales, and experiments conducted in those elections, the Secretary of State should seek the power by order, even an affirmative order, to roll out these experiments not just over the whole of England and Wales, but also for parliamentary elections, European Parliament elections, elections to the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales, and elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly and local government elections in Northern Ireland.

I am not entirely sure what has happened to poor old Scotland as regards local government but it seems unbelievable that, on the basis of experiments conducted only in England and Wales, there should be a roll out in Northern Ireland local elections and in the Northern Ireland Assembly elections, the Welsh Assembly elections and the Scottish parliamentary elections besides the European parliamentary elections.

On studying the clause further I thought that it might be arguable—I still use those words—that the affirmative order would be sufficient for rolling out over the whole of England and Wales the experiments conducted in local government in England and Wales; in other words, in respect of elections of a similar kind in the same part of the country. I therefore tabled my raft of amendments which would achieve pretty much the same as the amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart. So we are absolutely at one on the issue. I am not sure whether the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, believes that it would be fine and satisfactory if the roll out were only to local government elections and by affirmative order. I have to be persuaded about that; I believe that I could be. However, I certainly cannot be persuaded that they should be rolled out to parliamentary elections.

That leads me to the position that one either amends the clause along the lines of the amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, or those that I have proposed, or a mixture of both. Alternatively, one takes the advice of my noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway and votes against the whole clause and removes it from the Bill. I shall be interested what the Minister has to say.

I then thought to myself that the Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee would not like that. Indeed, it did not. I am not surprised. Some Members of the Committee may know that I was one of the founder members of that committee, now the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee, which probably explains why I missed out the word "Deregulation" in first mentioning it. We started off by looking at secondary legislation in a very serious way, considering whether it was right to do something by that method or by the affirmative or negative procedures.

Shortly after the committee was established, I was asked to join the government and became the recipient of some vigorous comments from the Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee. I believe I am right in saying that I took all the criticisms on board. I believe I am also right in saying that the last government, of which I was a member, took all the criticisms of that committee on board and attempted to accommodate them. It is fair to say the present Government have done the same. I therefore say to the Minister that we expect the Government on this issue to take the opinions of the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee to heart and make the necessary changes.

It is only fair that I should conclude by simply reading out what the committee said in order to reinforce the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart. When referring to such powers, it states in paragraph 25 of the, fourth report of 9th February: Such a power would be unacceptable to this committee. The issue of where, when and how people vote is a matter of great importance. The House may wish to consider amending the bill to limit the power so that it extends only to elections in the category in which the pilot was conducted and covered by the report, namely local government". I do not need to add anything to that statement, except to say that if the, Government do not take cognizance of what the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee has said here they will face a difficult debate once we examine the Bill on Report.

4.45 p.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

We have had a useful debate on this clause and I note all the important and interesting contributions that have been made. I acknowledge also the strong feelings which some noble Lords have expressed. Equally, I, too, have read carefully the report of the Select Committee on Delegated Powers and Deregulation, to which several noble Lords have referred.

The Government do not dismiss such views lightly and I would therefore like to explain to noble Lords why the Government believe that Clause 11, in its present form, should remain part of the Bill. As noble Lords are aware, Clause 10 of the Bill allows local authorities to apply to run pilot schemes at particular local elections. All such pilot schemes will need to be fully evaluated and, as I said earlier, a copy of the evaluation report must be sent to the Secretary of State within three months of the election concerned. I am happy to repeat the undertaking that has already been given that all such evaluation reports will be published. We shall certainly place copies in the Libraries of both Houses, so this will be a fully open and transparent process.

I ask noble Lords to consider what would happen if a particular innovation is a great success. Perhaps it has been tried in several local authorities of different demographic compositions and in each case turn-out has increased and the evaluation has shown that the electorates concerned welcomed the innovation. In such cases, we would want to apply the change more widely as quickly as possible. After all, speed is of the essence.

This is not only a theoretical argument. As many noble Lords will know, some 20 local authorities— both metropolitan and district councils—have applied to run early voting trials at the local elections in May of this year. The schemes have been well thought out and planned and, of course, will be fully evaluated. All told, several million voters will be given the opportunity to vote early. I contend that this is a large enough sample on which to make a judgment as to whether early voting does indeed make it easier for people to vote and, perhaps more important, whether it encourages people who would not otherwise have voted to do so.

If this clause were to be removed from the Bill, we could not introduce early voting or any other innovations that have been successfully piloted, except by introducing further primary legislation. Noble Lords know very well that demand for legislative slots always exceeds the amount of parliamentary time available. Who knows when my right honourable friend the Home Secretary might be able to secure a slot for the necessary legislation? I dare say that those who had already tried out the successful innovations would find it difficult to understand why they would have to wait for them to be available at other elections.

It is our hope that we shall have a steady stream of pilots over the next few years. It is quite possible that, each year, one or more successful innovations will emerge. However, the chances of securing several legislative slots in the next few years to apply such successful innovations more widely seems remote, to put it mildly. Instead, we have provided that any innovations which are shown to be a success can be rolled out more generally by order. Such orders will be subject to affirmative resolution procedures in both Houses, so Parliament will have ample opportunity to express its view, and, as I have already said, the evidence on which to form a judgment will be freely available.

Several of these amendments suggest that, because pilot schemes have been tried out in local elections, it should be possible only to roll them out to local elections; and indeed the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee has suggested something along similar lines. However, I cannot see the logic of this. If a particular innovation is a success and if it is popular with the public, why should its use be restricted only to certain types of election?

There would also be practical problems with this approach. In many areas, local elections take place much more frequently than any other kind of election, so the electorate would get used to being able to vote early, electronically, or over several days, using whatever method had been chosen. Imagine the confusion among electors if, when the general election came, they suddenly found that they could only vote in the traditional way. Many might well be caught unawares and might find themselves unable to vote at all.

It gets worse. Imagine that various innovations have been rolled out to local elections and so applied—perhaps, for example, to Brighton and Hove, a council close to my heart. However, imagine that it so happened that on the same day a by-election was scheduled to take place in one of the Brighton parliamentary constituencies. The effect of that could be that electors in one half of Brighton and Hove would be able to vote using the new, improved and innovative electoral procedures, while voters in the other half would not. That strikes me as being a recipe for confusion. For those reasons, we do not believe that a partial roll-out option is a sensible one.

The Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee also suggested that the electoral commission should have a role in determining whether pilot schemes should be rolled out. I can assure noble Lords that that is the intention of the Government. As I have explained in responding to previous amendments from the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, we do not believe that we can refer to the electoral commission in this Bill since that body does not yet exist; the Bill before us is the earlier of the two Bills.

However, I can assure noble Lords that we shall be bringing forward an amendment to the other electoral Bill—the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill—to provide that the Secretary of State will only be able to make an order under Clause 11(1) of that Bill—rolling out a pilot scheme—on the recommendation of the electoral commission. That is quite unambiguous; a roll out will be able to take place only if the electoral commission has recommended it.

Finally, I should point out that the notion of pilot schemes originated with the Working Party on Electoral Procedures. It is worth quoting from paragraph 3.1.14 of the working party's final report in which it states: Any legislation should in our view be framed to allow successful pilots to be rolled out widely without the need for further primary legislation". We have followed that recommendation in framing this Bill. No member of the working party, including the Conservative and Liberal Democrat representatives, dissented from the recommendation. The working party recognized—

Lord Campbell of Alloway

I thank the noble Lord for giving way. Perhaps the Minister should refer to Recommendation 28 of the working party's report, which makes no suggestion in support of the case for extending this beyond local government elections. The Minister has referred to one part of the working party's report, but perhaps he should refer to paragraph 18 or 28—I regret that I cannot quite remember which; at Second Reading my noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish referred to paragraph 18.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

Whether it is paragraph 17 or 18, the Government have framed their view around paragraph 3.1.14. When I referred to it during the debate on Second Reading, I thought that the reference was quite unambiguous.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

I am grateful to the noble Lord for allowing me to intervene. As my noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway has just said, I referred to this at Second Reading. I am referring to the final report of the Working Party on Electoral Procedures. Reading the paragraph concerning the rolling out of pilot schemes, there is nothing that leads one to believe that such rolling out of pilot schemes should be applied to all elections. On reading the paragraph again, no forms of election are mentioned other than local elections. It refers to, arrangements in pilot schemes in local elections", and over the page it refers to rolling out more widely.

While I accept that the noble Lord might be able to argue that that means that such schemes should be rolled out to all kinds of elections, it is equally arguable that it means rolling out more widely across local government elections in England and Wales. I regret that, as regards the final report of the working party, there is not much comfort for the Minister.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

I am happy to rely on the paragraph from which I have quoted. I, too, have been studying the paragraphs; I think that our position is unambiguous and I believe that the position of the working party was unambiguous. As I have already said, no member of the working party dissented from the conclusion, which represented views from across the political spectrum. Indeed, the working party recognised the difficulty—I believe that this is an important point—of finding parliamentary time for electoral procedures legislation. I hope that the Opposition parties will recognise the importance of modernising electoral procedures.

Viscount Cranborne

I apologise for interrupting the noble Lord. I have listened with great care to his arguments for not following the recommendation of the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee. I believe that the noble Lord was not a Member of this House before the last general election when, as Leader, sometimes against the strong inclination of my government colleagues, I always tried to ensure that the recommendations of that committee were followed by government. Indeed, I am sure that noble Lords opposite who were Members of this House at that time will remember that the then opposition were absolutely adamant that that was the right thing to do.

Does the noble Lord agree that, so long as the convention remains in place, this House does not vote against secondary legislation? So long as the government of the day retain a substantial working majority in another place, it is very difficult to argue that an order-making power, whether by negative or affirmative procedure, can be anything except a transfer of power to the government provided that it is not possible for what is being approved to be approved through primary rather than secondary legislation. Therefore, the noble Lord's argument that it is adequate to give this House and another place the opportunity to look at these important matters, which are the absolute grist to our method of government, and that they should not be given the opportunity for primary legislation in fact constitutes a great transfer of power to the government of the day over our basic electoral procedures.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

I believe that the noble Viscount makes a clever point. Of course, I would hope that the convention about secondary legislation and order-making powers would hold. However, no doubt that is something for the future. I believe that it is fair to say that, of course, it would be preferable if matters such as this—ideas for improving and modernising the electoral procedures—were to be approved by primary legislation. However, I believe that the argument which we are putting forward in this case is about flexibility. I would argue that this is an exceptional case. I believe that the process of scrutiny—rigorous as it is in both Houses but particularly rigorous here—is very important.

I apologise for speaking at such length on this matter. However, I recognise, as, clearly, do all Members of the Committee, that this is a most important matter. As I have already said, the scheme in this Bill will provide both Houses of Parliament with a full opportunity to debate the merits of any proposal to roll out an innovative electoral procedure. A recommendation from the electoral commission will be required. I believe that those are strong and important safeguards which we should develop and on which we should rely. Therefore, I hope—

Viscount Cranborne

I apologise for interrupting the noble Lord again. If it is true that he would like this convention to continue to be observed and if it is true that the government of the day have a working majority in another place, how can the affirmative procedure be a safeguard?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

There is a matter of tradition and history here. I am sure that the noble Viscount will be the first to agree that throughout 18 years of government by his own party it was proven to be a very effective safeguard. I have no doubt that he would argue that case. I believe that we must rely on the process of scrutiny to see us through such issues. Therefore, I hope that Members of the Committee will agree to the inclusion of Clause 11 because of the beneficial impact that the pilot procedures will have on extending and modernising our democracy. Because of those very important reasons, I believe that the Committee should support the inclusion of Clause 11 in its present form in the Bill.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

Before the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, winds up and decides what he should do with his amendments, perhaps I may intervene briefly in response to what I believe was an extremely disappointing speech from the Minister. He seemed to believe that we should be satisfied by his promises about the commission. In fact, the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee asked for that as well as primary legislation. I hope that the Minister will consider very carefully what he has done. I believe that he will go into the record books as the first Minister who refused resolutely to take on board the recommendations of the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee. Equally, if the pilots were a great success and if all the political parties agreed, there would be no great trouble in getting a piece of primary legislation through both Houses of Parliament. The Government have plenty—

Lord Bassam of Brighton

I did make the point that we had already accepted one of the proposals from the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee. That was in relation to an important consideration: the position of the electoral commission. I hope that the noble Lord will accept that point.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

Yes, I have accepted it and I believed that I had made that clear. I welcome that part but, frankly, it was not an either/or issue. It did not say that either one has primary legislation or one asks the electoral commission to deal with it. I am profoundly disappointed in the Minister's reply. I am profoundly disappointed in the attitude of the Government. If they will not listen to the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee, perhaps they should simply come forward with an amendment to wind it up. It is there to advise this House—and that means advising the Government. In this case, the Government seem to ignore that advice. I am not sure that the House will ignore that advice.

Lord Goodhart

The Minister will not be surprised to hear that I, too, found his response seriously unsatisfactory. I believe that the point which hit me was when he said that speed is of the essence. It is absolutely plain that when it comes to important and long-lasting constitutional reform, speed is not of the essence. It is important to give all these issues full and proper consideration. On any basis, I believe that it would be inappropriate to make permanent changes in the methods of voting simply on the basis of one-year trials in a few local authorities. We would need much more prolonged trials than that and in a properly selected number of different parts of the country.

We should also ensure that, before any change is made, there is an opportunity to seek the advice of the electoral commission. I certainly welcome the noble Lord's statement that the political parties Bill will be amended to provide that a roll-out can take place only on the recommendation of the electoral commission. Of course, that can happen only after the electoral commission has been set up. My understanding was—the noble Lord will correct me if I am wrong—that the Government were not proposing any kind of self-denying ordinance to say that they would not introduce roll-outs of any sort before the electoral commission has been set up. If they are not willing to give that undertaking, the position is that, within the next year or so before the electoral commission is up and running, the Government could, by secondary legislation, change the electoral system, not only for local government but for the next general election, which many people believe is now quite likely to take place on the same day as the local elections in 2001.

Finally and above all, the Minister will have heard the very strong support that he has been given, both from this party and from the Conservatives, with regard to the essential importance of reserving primary legislation for changes to any form of election other than local government elections. That being the case, I do not believe that this is the appropriate occasion on which to seek to divide the Committee. However, the Minister must be quite sure that we shall return to this matter on Report and that this is a very serious and important amendment. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 110 to 117 not moved.]

Clause 11 agreed to.

Lord Bach

I beg to move that the House do now resume.

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

House resumed.