HL Deb 20 November 2000 vol 619 cc589-630

(" .—(1) The Commission shall, before any Bill containing provisions for a referendum under section 99 of this Act is held—

  1. (a) give advice as to the question, or questions, to be asked;
  2. (b) make a statement as to the fairness of the wording of such a question, or questions, and the capacity of such a question, or questions, to be easily understood by the electorate.

(2) Any advice given under this section shall be made public prior to the date on which a Bill for a referendum under section 99 of this Act is laid before Parliament.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, noble Lords will realise that with Amendment No. 19 we are discussing government Amendment No. 171. In Committee, we discussed the issue of the question. Quite clearly, the question is one of the most important items in any referendum. It is not so much that both sides must agree on the fairness of the question, but proponents for both sides of the argument must feel that the question is fair. Then the result will be considered to be fair. The way in which the question is put is obviously of great significance. Anyone who studies opinion polls and examines results which are obtained by tweaking questions one way and another can see how important the question is in a referendum.

I tabled Amendment No. 19 after we discussed the Bill in Committee. The amendment would ensure that, when a government decided to proceed with a referendum, they would take the mind of the commission and publish its opinion. Therefore, when the detail of the referendum, including the quest ion to be asked, was discussed in a Bill before your Lordships' House and the other place, Parliament would know the commission's view on the question. I do not believe that any government would be able to ignore the view of the commission in relation to the referendum question. If they were to do so, there would be such a fuss that their position would simply be untenable.

The Government have tabled Amendment No. 171, which seeks approximately the same outcome but perhaps does not go as far as we would wish. It goes some way, but it does not make it mandatory for the government of the day to obtain the commission's approval of the wording of the question. As I said, if the commission were to tell a government that it did not consider the question to be fair, I do not believe that any government would be able to continue with it through both Houses of Parliament.

The Minister will explain to your Lordships exactly what his amendment seeks. I say only that noble Lords will note that the government amendment is three times longer than mine. I suspect that that tells us everything about this Bill, which is now 50 pages longer than it was when we started the Committee stage. I look forward to counting by how many pages it increases following this stage. I make no complaint about this extra page. However, I beg to move my amendment in order that we may discuss the Government's amendment.

Lord Norton of Louth

My Lords, I rise briefly to welcome Amendment No. 171, which has been tabled by the Government in response to our discussion on this particular issue at an earlier Committee sitting. I made the point then that, given the expertise of the commission, this could be made use of as regards the wording of any referendum. The point I made was that not only has one to look at a referendum question in terms of whether it is fairly put but also whether it is unambiguous. That is an extremely important point because referendum questions may often appear to be unambiguous to those who draft them but when put to electors they are capable of being interpreted completely differently. Research in the United States has shown that sometimes there can be a high level of mistaken voting by people who have misinterpreted the question.

Lord Lamont of Lerwick

My Lords, perhaps I may interrupt my noble friend. As someone who has just looked at these two amendments, I see that the Government's amendment—no doubt the noble Lord will address this point—is all about intelligibility. The amendment posed by my noble friend Lord Mackay was about the fairness of the question. These seem to me to be rather separate matters. Perhaps my noble friend would address that point, because it is possible to word a question in a way which is more likely to receive an answer "yes" or "no".

Lord Norton of Louth

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his intervention. The point I made at an earlier stage was about the importance of ensuring that questions were unambiguous and that the commission had a role to play in that respect. I very much welcome any move towards the question of intelligibility.

I was about to deal with the very point that my noble friend Lord Lamont has raised—the question of fairness. As my noble friend said, that is a different and separate point, in terms of making sure that the question is both balanced and unambiguous. I was going on to invite the Minister to address this matter.

The amendment itself is comprehensive in relation to intelligibility and it covers all the relevant circumstances that might be envisaged in this particular context. I very much welcome the amendment so far as it goes but, like my noble friend, I would invite the Minister to address the matter of equity as well as that of intelligibility. The government amendment is to be welcomed because it goes a long way towards meeting the point and I am interested to know whether the Minister would be prepared to go that little extra distance on the very point that has been raised.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I am pleased that the Government have given us half a loaf, although disappointed for the same reasons as my noble friend Lord Norton. I wonder whether the Government would also consider something else. It seems to me that no matter how wise the commission may be—and we have discussed its wisdom almost ad nauseam during these proceedings—that wisdom will always be a matter of judgment one way or the other as far as it is concerned. Of course, the members of the commission are there as wise men and women but not as elected wise men and women. They are there because of the rather curious 21st century view that wise men and women are better than elected men and women. That is a view to which I have never subscribed, as your Lordships who have had the misfortune of hearing me over many years will no doubt have realised.

I wonder whether the Government have ever actually considered that they might have avoided all this trouble in the first place if they had postulated that it should be impossible to hold a pre-legislative referendum. If they were to say that all referendums should be post-legislative, it would be very difficult for any government of the day then to emasculate parliamentary scrutiny of any proposal by means of the rather ghoulish accusation that anybody who disputed a piece of legislation introduced after a pre-legislative referendum was going against the will of the people.

I suspect that it would have been much better had we provided in this Bill that referendums should always pose the question: "Do you approve of this piece of legislation or not?" Then the matters of definition would not arise. However, as the Government have not taken that route, we must be grateful for small mercies.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, on the first day of Committee—it seems a long time ago—we debated the question of involving the electoral commission in settling the referendum question. The debate was good-humoured, penetrating and very thoughtful and I thought we had discovered a degree of consensus. I indicated that the Government were likely to bring forward an amendment, and this has how been done. The Official Opposition indicated that they were not likely to let the matter go and they too, very fairly, have brought forward their own amendment.

The two new proposed clauses are clearly alternatives and the Committee has to choose between the two. I have no doubt at all that the Government amendment is to be preferred and I hope to be able to convince your Lordships of that. Indeed, I hope I might even be able to convince the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, of that and to invite him to withdraw his amendment in favour of our own.

There are two main points of difference between the proposed new clauses. The first concerns the procedure for engaging the commission, and here I hope to convince all sides The procedures in the two new clauses are different but I do not believe that on reflection anyone could hold up the procedure proposed in the Opposition amendment as being superior to our proposal.

The procedure set out in the government amendment is simple and straightforward. The commission will notice that a Bill with a referendum question has been introduced into Parliament and will, of its own motion, publish its opinion. The procedure set out in the Opposition's new clause is rather more complicated and, for that reason, perhaps less satisfactory. Its essential feature is that, somehow, the commission must give its advice before a Bill is introduced. The obvious inference is that the Government or a Member of Parliament, when intending to bring forward a Bill, should at least give the commission an opportunity to comment, and perhaps even ask the commission to frame a proposal before the Bill is introduced. That proposal, I suggest, is unsatisfactory. Its effect is that a Bill cannot be introduced unless and until an outside body—in this case, the electoral commission—has opined on it. It would, I think, be the first instance in which Parliament had effectively bound itself in such a way. It would also provide rich opportunities for confusion. How is the matter to be put to the commission if there is not yet a Bill? Will the commission disclose that it has been approached? Will people have an opportunity to make representations to the commission to influence the advice it gives? I daresay that noble Lords, with their forensic skills, could find some sort of answer to those questions if there was anything really at stake. But they do weigh against the Opposition's new clause when there is a simple, straightforward and, I would argue, transparent alternative on offer, as in the government amendment.

The second main difference between the two clauses lies in the scope of the matters on which the commission is asked to give its opinion. I accept at the outset that this may be more contentious than the procedural aspect. Even here, however, I am not without hope. I thought that, in Committee, there was a good degree of consensus that the intelligibility of a proposed question was a matter on which it was preeminently sensible to engage the commission. I think that that is probably an opinion shared by most Members of your Lordships' House. It is in everyone's interest that if a question can be put in a clearer form, and we can reduce the risk of people voting for an outcome that they do not want, we should do it. That seems to be common ground. However, I should add that the intelligibility of a question also seems to the Government to be a matter on which the engagement of the commission is cost free. No government, I hope, will propose a question which is deliberately obscure; and no government, I hope, will feel that their honour is impugned if the commission is able to suggest some modest improvements.

Beyond that point, however—and the Opposition's amendment goes a good way beyond that point—we get into much deeper waters. I am uneasy about asking the electoral commission for advice on, "The question to be asked". I am equally doubtful about asking it for an opinion on the "fairness" of the proposed question. That may be a surprisingly candid comment, but it will be stuck to resolutely on this side. Whether a particular question should be asked, and whether it is a fair question, are matters which, as I think most Members of your Lordships' House would and should readily accept, are very much in the political arena.

If a government propose that a question should be asked, that will be because they believe that it should be asked. A government will, almost by definition, believe that it is a fair question to put. The opposition, whatever their political colour at the time, will, frankly, have a duty to oppose, should they wish to do so.

It is highly likely that the opposition of the day will look to find something to quarrel with in the form of the question. I would argue that that is part of the cut and thrust of our political process. I do not think that there is anything wrong with that. It means, inevitably, that the commission will be commenting on a matter which will, in due course, become one of party-political controversy. I would argue that that is not a good position in which to put the commission; nor—again, very frankly—would the commission necessarily have any special expertise in that area.

Lord Norton of Louth

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I understand the point he makes. However, perhaps I may draw his attention to the fact that there could be a methodological aspect to the question, rather than a partisan aspect. The commission could be looking to ensure—this is where expertise is involved—that there is no bias in terms of the wording of the question. I do not necessarily mean looking for deliberate bias in terms of those drawing it up. However, a wording may be constructed which might have a built-in bias, of which those drafting may be unaware. That would not necessarily be deliberate. I am not thinking in terms of an attempt to gain advantage by those drafting the question; I seek to ensure that the question, which might come under the broad heading of being unambiguous, is unbiased in the sense that the wording does not point people in a particular direction.

There is a technical aspect to this, which I mentioned in Committee. A noble Lord suggested that we should have a straightforward question which could he answered "yes" or "no". My understanding is that that is problematic because there is a bias towards saying "yes" in response to a question. That is the sort of thing of which I was thinking in terms of consulting the commission to avoid bias in the question.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, again, one person's bias may be another person's equity. The commission could find itself drawn into a political aspect which would be profoundly uncomfortable. That is not what we want from the commission. We have all set out our stall very much in terms of the commission being free and independent of the political process, although from time to time advised by it. However, I believe that that is where the commission properly sits. It is for that reason that I do not think we should taint the process.

As a politician, putting myself in that position, I am not sure on what basis I would want to respond to a request for advice on fairness or bias on a referendum question. I could only respond on the basis of what I personally happen to think about the issue in question. I do not think that there is an off-the-shelf technical answer to, for example, the question of whether referendum questions should be cast in positive or negative form, provided that they are intelligible. The Government's amendment looks after that.

I therefore suggest to the House that if your Lordships accept the Government's new clause, they will have the matter pretty much where they want it. For that reason, the Government's new clause is greatly to be preferred to the one tabled by the Opposition. I recognise that the issue is important, as I am sure will all Members of your Lordships' House. However, because of the political nature of any debate about fairness, equity, bias and so forth, it would be wrong to place those as questions for the commission to consider in giving its advice on intelligibility.

I am grateful for the support for the amendment we have moved, which I thought was a fair reflection of the debate in Committee, long ago though that was, and of the points raised then by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth. I think we have it about right. We have gone as far as we possibly can on that question. I accept that the question of fairness is a legitimate one for debate, but that debate should be had politically.

7.15 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, I indicated, perhaps over-generously, that I was pleased to see the government amendment on this issue. I fully accept the procedural points raised by the Minister; that is, that his amendment covers a situation in which the question would be in a Bill or in an affirmative order. Indeed, although I cannot understand or even conceive of it ever happening, it covers the situation in which the question might be in a negative order, which I find rather unbelievable. However, I accept that the amendment covers all eventualities about how the question would be addressed or dealt with in Parliament.

The problem comes down to the use of the word "intelligibility" instead of "fairness". The noble Lord came a little close to us when he said that certainly it should not be obscure. That is a little progress, at least towards the fairness attitude. However, as my noble friend Lord Cranborne rightly pointed out, these matters come into play only when we are not dealing with a post-legislative referendum. If we were, the question would be simple; for example, "Do you wish the Scotland Act to come into force: yes or no?" That is straightforward. However, the bias comes in if we are dealing with a pre-legislative referendum and are therefore not asking whether an Act should come into force.

The Minister seemed to find it hard to believe the point raised by my noble friend Lord Norton, that there could be an unintended bias in the question simply by virtue of the nature of the question. Such bias could work against the interest of the Government. Therefore, the electoral commission might well have a view about whether or not there was that kind of bias in the question. To put it perhaps at its most extreme, let us assume for the moment that at some date in the future enough of my fellow countrymen decide to elect the Scottish National Party to the Scottish Parliament, and on that basis look for a referendum to make Scotland free or to break up the United Kingdom.

I have to say to your Lordships that those two questions would receive quite different answers in Scotland. I believe both would get negative answers from the SNP; but the question phrased, "make Scotland free", would be likely to gain a bigger "yes" vote—though not perhaps a majority—than would the question phrased, "break up the United Kingdom".

That is an illustration in bold terms of where bias can come in. Noble Lords can be assured that if the Scottish National Party was devising the question, it would go for the "make Scotland free" form. Perhaps if my party or the governing party here were devising the question, we might be more tempted to go for, "breaking up the United Kingdom". That is the essence of the problem. Both are intelligible but they both also contain bias. If I can step aside for a moment from the position that I would take on those questions, I can see that the one question is as biased as the other; and that is what we are getting at.

However, we have made progress with the Government in these amendments and for that I am grateful. Without being churlish, I hope that the noble Lord will understand when I say that we will study carefully what he says and study his amendment as it appears in the Bill. I am not sure whether my noble friends agree with me on this, but we may well come back to the issue of fairness as well as intelligibility at Third Reading. However, I welcome the Government's amendment. It arises out of our debate. Whether or not it could have gone further is something we shall ponder between now and next week. For the moment, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 9 [Giving of advice and assistance]:

Viscount Astor moved Amendment No. 20: Page 7, line 2, at end insert— ("() Advice given under subsection (3), other than in confidence, shall be made public and available in a format that the Commission thinks fit to any relevant body to which this section refers.").

The noble Viscount said: My Lords, Amendments Nos. 20 and 21 relate to separate points in regard to the advice that the commission may give out.

We believe that non-confidential advice given by the commission to a political party should be made available to any relevant body whom it may concern or directly affect. The publication of such advice would be of benefit to both the other registered parties and to the political process because it would assist those bodies with their duty to comply with the provisions of this Bill and help to ensure that they were acting in accordance with the same information.

That would be helpful to the commission because it would avoid multiple applications for the same information and save other parties from having to "reinvent the wheel", as it were, on every occasion when general advice was required. In the distribution of such advice, the commission would be able to take advantage of current technology and limit any expense by sending out information electronically by e-mail, via circulars or in similar ways. Over time, the body of advice built up as a result of that distribution would constitute a valuable source of readily available knowledge to which all could refer without the need to return unnecessarily to the commission.

Amendment No. 20 does not seek to expose sensitive information which might prejudice the standing of either the commission or the body to which it gave the advice. It requires only that the commission publish open information and leaves the form and consequently the content of that publication to the discretion of the commission. Amendment No. 20 is in keeping with the general principle of clarity and openness that lies behind the Bill. It would be of benefit to the commission and help to make its life easier.

Amendment No. 21 concerns a slightly different point. It seeks to clarify the status of advice given by the commission. It is unclear whether following the advice of the commission would constitute a "reasonable excuse" defence to many of the offences created by the Bill—of which there are many. An individual may be placed in a position where he had followed the advice of the commission to the letter but that advice was subsequently ruled wrong by the courts. If that is so, we should look again at whether or not that individual should be guilty of an offence.

Indeed, what will be the legal status of advice given by the commission? Will the courts have to have regard to that advice or can they ignore it? But that would not be helpful; it would make it difficult and discourage people from going to the commission to ask for advice, which is presumably what we want. So Amendment No. 21 seeks clarification on the nature of advice, particularly on its status, and I should be grateful if the Minister could elucidate that point. I beg to move.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton

My Lords, on the face of it, Amendment No. 20 seemed very sensible. One should be able to learn from the advice given by the commission to one political party; for instance, on one occasion we had read out to us letters that had come from the Home Office in respect of the electoral register—letters from both the Labour and Conservative Parties—and that seemed OK. One could also say that any information given by the electoral commission should be impartial and therefore there is no problem. That seemed fine to me and I thought it was an amendment I could support.

Then I looked at the amendment again and realised that the wording, rather than the principle, is somewhat flawed. It says, Advice give under subsection (3)". When we look at that subsection it refers to advice given to, registration officers [and] returning officers at relevant elections". It may well be that a returning or registration officer is asking advice about a specific area. The request may not be confidential, but neither is it relevant to everybody else. Yet the wording says "shall be made public", implying that all such information shall be made public. That seems to me to be nonsense.

The wording, Advice given … other than in confidence", means that anybody who does not want the information disclosed has to remember to say, "This matter is in confidence". So the whole process, as the amendment is worded, is completely unworkable.

Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts

My Lords, I rise to speak to Amendment No. 21, which raises an important point.

We discussed in Committee the fact that this Bill will reach further down into the political structure than ever before and that local political parties will find themselves in the front line in a way that hitherto has been unheard of. We have referred to, discussed and agreed that the difficulty of persuading individuals to take on these posts at local level is considerable. If the posts carry with them other anxieties about prosecution and so forth, that difficulty will be greatly increased.

Amendment No. 21 at least offers individuals locally and political parties some shelter. It is important that we have a clear understanding from the. Government tonight as to what the position of advice given by the commission will be. That will affect individual local associations considerably. The passage of information will often take place at high speed. People will want to know what their position is and whether they can use the commission's advice as an air raid shelter inside which they can crouch. For the sake of those who run local associations, it is important that the Minister makes it clear that the commission's advice will provide them with considerable protection under the law.

7.30 p.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, Clause 9 is concerned with the provision of advice and assistance by the electoral commission to other bodies and authorities. Subsection (3) would enable the commission to act as a central point for the provision of advice and guidance on best practice to electoral administrators and to provide guidance to political parties, third parties and referendum campaign organisations on the arrangements they should make in order to comply with the controls on funding and expenditure set out in the Bill. Amendment No. 20 would require that such advice, except where provided in confidence, be made public and available to any body to which that section refers.

I am not at all persuaded of the desirability of such a provision. It goes without saying that any written advice or guidance in the form, for example, of circulars to registered parties should be generally available. There is no argument about that. But the amendment seems to have far more than that in its sights. It appears to propose that if party X or Y seeks advice from the commission on a particular matter, that advice should be made public and available to other political parties and campaigning groups.

I have no doubt that, like any regulatory body, the electoral commission will receive numerous requests for advice in relation to compliance with the Bill. Parties will seek advice on the framing of financial schemes; on how they should report changes as to their registered officers; and on whether particular donations or items of expenditure need to be accounted for. Some inquiries may simply be a matter of a telephone call. Others may involve an exchange of complex correspondence. The commission might also arrange meetings with party representatives or seminars for their benefit. I do not see that all of this should, or even could, be made public. What does the noble Lord have in mind? Are all these exchanges to be published in a report or posted on a website?

Furthermore, it seems to me that parties and campaign groups may be more reluctant to seek advice if they know that the advice given in relation to a matter of particular and perhaps sensitive concern to them will be made generally available. I note that the amendment provides for an exclusion where advice is sought in confidence. I suspect that it would simply become the norm for advice to be sought in confidence as parties and campaign groups tried to hide behind that, which would probably undermine the point of the amendment.

Amendment No. 21 would make it a defence for a person charged with an offence under the Bill or in connection with a relevant election to prove that he acted in accordance with the advice given by the commission. I should say, first, that I have every sympathy with the proposition that it would be rough justice if a person acted in accordance with advice given by a public authority and subsequently found himself prosecuted. In practice, I have little doubt that a prosecution would not be proceeded with where it was clear that such advice unwittingly encouraged the commission of an offence. Clearly, the onus will be upon the electoral commission to provide advice that is consistent with the provisions of this Bill.

I am not persuaded that it would be right to place this general defence on the face of the Bill. First, it begs questions about what constitutes "advice". Clearly, such a defence would have substance if the advice in question took the form of written guidance such as a circular letter to registered parties. But such a defence might be based on an unrecorded telephone conversation with a member of the commission's staff. There might be no way of establishing whether the commission was in full possession of the relevant facts before the advice was given. And there would be issues about whether advice given in such a situation could ever be assumed to be authoritative. Judicial proceedings would no doubt take account of such considerations but it seems difficult ground on which to frame a statutory defence.

There is, however, a more fundamental reason of principle why such a defence should not be at large. I say "at large" because there may be particular instances where it is appropriate to provide for such a defence. The Bill provides a case in point. Clauses 77(3) and 115(3) already make it a defence for a person charged with exceeding limits on campaign expenditure to show that they complied with a code of practice issued by the commission under Schedules 8 and 13. The relevance of such a defence in the context of those schedules is clear. In providing for the issue of such a code of practice, Parliament will be indicating that the provisions of Part I of those schedules, which by their nature cannot be wholly exhaustive, are likely to require interpretation and clarification in terms of detail. Since any such guidance will be in the nature of a gloss on the provisions of the Bill, it is quite proper to provide that it should be a defence to show that one acted in accordance with the guidance.

However, it would be quite another matter to provide that every offence in the Bill should attract such a defence. In creating a statutory offence, Parliament is asserting its intention that a particular course of action should result in liability to prosecution. It would be odd then to provide that Parliament's intention should be contingent upon whether the regulatory body interprets the Bill correctly. Ultimately, the question of whether an offence has or has not been committed must be for the courts.

I apologise for the length of my reply. I have tried to be thorough and cover all the issues raised. I hope that having heard my reply noble Lords will feel able to withdraw their amendment.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I am sorry that the noble Baroness thought that my amendment was unworkable. When I tabled it I thought that it was eminently workable. However, what is important is the Minister's comment about how the commission will disseminate information. That is helpful to the process. I accept that it is always difficult to know where the cut-off point is, but we know that the commission will look to see what was said as the Bill went through Parliament. It can look to see what the Minister said and that will be taken into account by the commission when deciding how to act. Therefore, the Minister's reply went a long way to satisfy my concerns.

Amendment No. 21 raises an important issue and I am grateful for the Minister's lengthy but helpful and clear advice. He said that written guidance must be taken into account by the court. It would be a defence and it is important that everyone knows that. As he said, any informal advice would be a different matter.

The Minister has given helpful answers to both points and I am grateful to him. I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until 8.30 p.m.

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

[The Sitting was suspended from 7.40 to 8.30 p.m.]

[Amendment No. 21 not moved.]

Clause 11 [Policy development grants]:

Lord Rennard moved Amendment No. 22: Page 8, line 13, at end insert— ("() "a policy promotion grant" is a grant to a represented registered party to assist the party with the promotion of policies for inclusion in any manifesto on the basis of which—

  1. (i) candidates authorised to stand by the party will seek to be elected at an election which is a relevant election for the purposes of Part II, or
  2. (ii) the party itself will seek to be so elected (in the case of such an election for which the party itself may be nominated);").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, Amendments Nos. 22 to 26 set out an alternative to the proposals for assisting the financing of democracy put forward by the Neill committee. This alternative removes the Government's principal objection to the proposals of the Neill committee. The alternative will cost the Chancellor of the Exchequer no more than the Conservative Party's proposals. It should, therefore, be a compromise between the two cases to be argued shortly between Government and Conservative Front Benches over the proposed tax concession scheme.

It is clear that the Government do not want the tax concession scheme. The absence from the Bill of measures to implement the Neill committee's proposals to give tax relief to political donations of up to £500 is the single greatest departure by the Government from the report on which they have relied very heavily to justify implementation of most of the Bill. It was made plain earlier in the debate that the Government's principal objection was simply that a tax concession scheme would mean more money going to those parties which were able to raise the most money from donations of up to £500. I said in Committee that I shared that reservation. The tax concession scheme could have the opposite effect to the Neill committee's intention to create a more level playing field in our democracy.

By these amendments the Government's principal objection is overcome. An equivalent sum of money to that which the Treasury estimates to be the cost of the tax concession scheme would be distributed instead by the electoral commission, not on the basis effectively of topping up the Inland Revenue donations of up to £500 but on the same basis as the commission distributes the policy development grants. With all-party agreement, the Bill already provides for policy development grants of up to £2 million per annum to be paid to the main parties in accordance with the specific recommendation of the Neill committee. It is not a huge step from the distribution of £2 million policy development grants to say that the commission should distribute up to a further £4 million in policy promotion grants. That figure could be varied to any level up to £4 million, which is the same cost as that estimated by the Treasury if the tax concession scheme was implemented.

If this is an alternative to the tax concession scheme, as I believe it should be, the Conservative Party should not be able to object on the grounds of cost. The costs are the same as the tax concession scheme which that party advocates; indeed, the sums are similar to those currently claimed from the public purse by the Conservative Party for financing the activities of the so-called war room in Conservative Central Office and the Leader of the Opposition.

The Government may also try to claim that £4 million is too much or is not the right priority, but: the sum is no more than they spent last year on promoting the fact that elections would take place for the London Mayor and Assembly. That figure is but one-hundredth of 1 per cent of the extra £43 billion which the Government repeatedly say is about to put into public services. If the argument is really about funding for schools and hospitals or paying for democracy, the Government should reconsider the £4 million per annum spent on their special advisers. I do not resent that expenditure because I am sure that the Government need that advice. We should recognise that democracy does not come free and that the Government already have a considerable role in paying for it. A little more government support is essential if we are to reduce the dangerous over-reliance of all the parties on a few millionaires. Faced with the options of the status quo or a tax concession scheme, I believe that this is the best way forward which will most certainly be recognised in time to come, if not immediately. I beg to move.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, I have listened with interest to the words of the noble Lord, Lord Rennard. The noble Lord appears to seek a compromise with the Government. I am opposed to the direct funding of political parties. There is a significant difference between the direct funding of political parties and tax relief. Clearly, the latter depends on how much financial support one receives from the electorate and one's supporters. That is a different issue from receiving financial help on the basis of the previous election, or the one before that. I understand that in Sweden one political party which has ceased to exist still gains funding because of the way that the system works. Clearly, that would not be possible if there was tax relief. While I admire, as always, the ingenuity of the noble Lord, I prefer tax relief, which was recommended by the Neill committee.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, has been open and honest as ever about his party's support for a general system of state funding for political parties. These amendments provide for such funding to be made by means of a policy promotion grant. The amendments seek to ride on the back of the scheme for policy development grants recommended by the Neill committee and provided for in Clause 11 of the Bill. But there is no disguising the fact that policy promotion grants are of an altogether different character. These amendments provide for nothing less than a state subsidy of £4 million per annum to help parties meet their election campaign costs. If these amendments were accepted the taxpayer would pay for the Liberal Democrat posters and newspaper advertisements at the next general election. I believe that there are more than a few people outside your Lordships' House who would find that a rather unattractive proposition.

The noble Lord clearly sees the scheme of policy promotion grants as an improvement on the Official Opposition's proposals for tax relief for political donations, which we shall no doubt discuss further tomorrow. It could be argued that these amendments address some of the rougher edges of the tax relief scheme. But among the objections to such a scheme is that it would be expensive to administer relative to the benefit involved and it would benefit disproportionately those parties whose supporters were in a position to make donations of up to £500 or more. A system of policy development grants disbursed by the electoral commission would overcome those objections. There would be no administrative costs for the Inland Revenue or the political parties to worry about and any costs to the commission would be unlikely to be significant. Fairness in the allocation of the £4 million fund would be assured as the money would be distributed by, and in accordance with, the scheme recommended by the commission.

Those advantages, however, do not do anything to address the fundamental point that a system of policy promotion grants would yet more clearly constitute state funding of political parties. No doubt there are solid public interest arguments for the disbursement of public money to help parties to fulfil their parliamentary functions or develop long-term policies. I do not believe, however, that the same kind of case can be made in relation to meeting campaigning costs. Nor does the proposal address the question of broadening political parties' sources of funding which was the rationale for the Neill committee's proposal in respect of tax relief. I believe that such an arrangement would provide political parties with even less incentive to encourage larger numbers of small donations. I put it to the House that a convincing case for any scheme providing for a general state subsidy for political parties has yet to be made out. I hope that the noble Lord will withdraw his amendment so that we can deal with another part of the main debate tomorrow.

Lord McNally

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, is it not time that we stopped having this competition in humbug between the two Front Benches about state funding? The pass on state funding was sold almost a quarter of a century ago with the Short money.

Lord Bassam of Brighton


Lord McNally

My Lords, the noble Lord lets out a groan from a sedentary position. What does he think Short money is other than state funding? Of course the pass was sold with the Short money intervention, and it was intentionally sold. It fed money directly into the coffers of the political parties. At the moment we see the Conservatives using some money for Central Office and some for other purposes. It seems to me that the Neill committee missed a glaring open goal by not cutting through the mutual humbug and saying that state funding is not a matter of lifting the skirts as though one had seen a mouse but is something to be welcomed as far preferable to an over-reliance on the big donors. Yet once again both Front Benches have missed the opportunity.

We will return to this matter because the tax concession is perhaps a worse second best. But for Ministers to condemn state funding as some great vice misses an opportunity. My noble friend is absolutely right. Within a decade, we shall be returning to this matter. The way the matter is dealt with in the Bill leaves in place all the temptation for abuse.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the noble Lord invites a response from the way in which he made his point. I ask him this question in response. We do not often fall out over these matters, but does he think that the case that was revealed last week during the discussion before the Committee on Standards in Public Life of the Conservatives using £3.8 million of public money to fund the campaign bunker was the right use of public funds? Does he support that contention? That is the logic of the position being put forward by noble Lords on the Liberal Democrat Benches. I would seriously question whether that is right. It seems to me that in their admission last week that that is how some of the Short money had been used the Conservatives themselves were not entirely happy with what they had done and that they had gone to the whole trouble of asking advice as to whether they should be using the money in that way. That seemed to be accepting that that was an inappropriate use of Short funds. If that is the case, the argument being advanced by the noble Lords, Lord Rennard and Lord McNally, is somewhat shot through with holes.

Lord McNally

My Lords, perhaps I may respond. I am not as shocked as some people about what the Conservatives were doing. The state funding that already exists displaces other funding to be used. We have always tried clever ways of funding. We have done it right from the beginning. We have done it with MPs' expenses and with other aspects of funding. We have always tried clever ways of doing it, often finessing it past taxpayers so they do not realise that some of these funds are going for political purposes. We have always said that it would be far better to give a block grant to political parties to use transparently at their discretion than to have all these rules and regulations which will add confusion and invite parties either to bend these artificial rules or to mistakenly bend them. However, it is an opportunity which the Government for their good reasons have fluffed, as the Labour government in 1974 fluffed it. As I said before, until the matter is faced up to, until we openly see the rationale of state funding of our political parties, we will have to run the risk of the other sources of funding perverting and distorting the political system. But we have had this argument and we will have it again.

Lord Rennard

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his earlier remarks and, in particular, for summarising so effectively the case for the amendments. He said that his only reservation or objection was that it may not he popular to use public funds to promote Liberal Party posters in a future election campaign. I fail to understand why a voter may object to paying for parties promoting their policies but is quite happy to pay for the research into those policies which will come from the policy development grants which the Government are happy to provide to the parties. Indeed, it is a wholly artificial distinction to say that you are prepared to use government money for policy development and not use government money to pay for the promotion of those policies. Once the Government have entered into the era of paying towards policy development, as they are about to do, that will allow the parties to free up resources for the promotion of those policies. We are dealing with an artificial divide.

I listened with interest to the noble Lord, Lord Mackay. I failed to hear, unless he made a point I did not note, the fundamental distinction between the £4 million or so provided from the public purse—the so-called Short money—to Conservative Central Office for the payment of a press team and a war room to campaign for the Conservative Party and the kind of grants which I am suggesting would legitimately be used for parties to promote their own campaigning purposes. I fail to see the distinction.

However, as at this stage I hear little support for my argument, I shall withdraw the amendment on the basis that what it proposes used to be Labour Party policy—I am sure that it will again be Labour Party policy—and that I believe it to be Conservative Party policy in practice, even if it is not said so openly at the moment. On that note, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 23 to 26 not moved.]

Clause 12 [Education about electoral and democratic systems]:

8.45 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish moved Amendment No. 27: Page 9, line 15, leave out paragraph (c).

The noble Lord said: My Lords, we now come to Clause 12 of the Bill, to which I have tabled a number of amendments. We discussed these issues in Committee on 10th October and they were also discussed in another place. The issues concern the duties given to the commission about "public awareness". Indeed, the clause heading states: Education about electoral and democratic systems". We are concerned, as we said in Committee and in another place, about some of the aspects of the duties given to the commission by the clause.

On 10th October the noble Lord, Lord Shore, said: Is it wise to hand over that responsibility"— he was referring to education— to the electoral commission? I doubt it and I urge my noble friends to rethink our position on the matter.—[Official Report, 10/10/2000; col. 190.] The noble Lord summed up the position quite well. I should like to draw his words to the attention of his noble friend Lord Bassam. Perhaps I may also draw to his attention the powerful words of the noble Lord, Lord Neill, in the same debate. My recollection is that what he said was not warmly welcomed by the Government Front Bench, who seem happy to accept those parts of the deliberations of the noble Lord, Lord Neill, whether they be the report we are discussing or regarding last week's efforts, when it suits them but when it does not suit them and they do not want to listen they become rather irritated if he speaks. The noble Lord said: My opinion is that it is a wholly inappropriate role to give to the electoral commission as we conceived it. I cannot see how it could carry out the duties conscientiously under Clause 12 without being drawn into political controversy …One has to think for only about two seconds about the role given to the commission to see that it is one which would get in the way of the other very serious obligations it has under other parts of the Bill".—[Official Report, 10/10/2000; col. 196".]

The Government seem intent on keeping this clause. I have therefore tabled amendments to correct what I believe are the worst defects within it. Amendment No. 27 seeks to leave out paragraph (c) of subsection (1). At present the subsection reads: The Commission shall promote public awareness of … the institutions of the European Union". Perhaps I may say that the institutions of the European Union seem perfectly capable of promoting themselves. Even the most neutral observer, which I would not pretend to be in this case, would think that to ask the commission to promote public awareness of the institutions of the European Union is likely to drag it at least into the margins of political debate, if not right into the mud of it. I believe that the inclusion of this duty is unnecessary. Worse than that, I think that it is wrong.

The Minister could help me greatly here. In the debate on 10th October, the Minister stated: People will be more inclined to vote if they believe that the body they are being asked to elect is relevant to them and will make a difference to the community in which they live. That applies as much to the European Parliament as it does to local councils. Without paragraphs (b) and (c) of subsection (l) … the commission's ability to make any meaningful impact on the level of participation in our democratic institutions will be severely constrained".—[Official Report, 10/10/00; col. 206]

In his defence of these parts of the clause, the Minister referred only to the European Parliament and to democracy. If that was all that was stated in the Bill, I am not sure that I should have tabled these amendments. Explaining to the electorate the European Parliament and how it is elected would be totally consistent with explaining how the other place is elected, as well as the Scottish Parliament in "Scottish only" terms, the Welsh Assembly in Wales and the Northern Ireland Assembly in Northern Ireland. It would be totally consistent, and I could at least understand that proposition. We decided, in Parliament, on the means to be used to elect the European Parliament. As the noble Lord will recall, it was an extremely complicated issue and a complex method was chosen which proved to be so difficult that in the end the electorate did not bother to turn out to vote in that European parliamentary election. Contrary to what the propagandists for proportional representation said would happen, when put to the test it failed to happen.

I can quite understand the noble Lord's argument. The noble Lord said that, once Parliament had passed the Bill which meant that in this country the European Parliament would be elected using the list system and that the order of the list would be determined entirely by the party machinery, it was clear that any electoral commission should have a hand in explaining to the electorate what it needs to do. I do not know whether such a commission should be deeply involved in explaining the merits of that system over other systems proposed to noble Lords when we discussed the European Parliamentary Elections Bill, but I understand the argument that the commission is well placed to explain to the electorate the method eventually chosen by Parliament.

However, that is not what is says in Clause 12(1)(c). It refers to, the institutions of the European Union". That is a good deal wider than what we have been discussing. Perhaps the electoral commission would be used to explain the thinking of the European Commission. That might lead it into extremely dangerous territory. For that reason, I believe that this needs to be clarified. If the only institution being referred to here is the European Union's democratically elected European Parliament, that should be what it says in the Bill. That is the only institution which is democratically elected, other than perhaps the Council of Ministers, where at least the Ministers are democratically elected.

The electoral commission should not have to get involved in arguments about the European Commission. If it did that, it might get involved in arguments currently raging as regards the number of Commissioners and whether countries such as the United Kingdom should continue to have two Commissioners where other, smaller countries have only one. One would not have to be on either side of the argument to recognise that this would present dangerous territory for the electoral commission without it going down exactly the kind of road against which the noble Lord, Lord Neill, warned your Lordships' House.

I should like to know exactly what the noble Lord means by, the institutions of the European Union".

If he is referring only to the European Parliament, surely we should introduce at Third Reading an amendment to make that clear on the ground that legislation should say exactly what it means.

Amendment No. 28 addresses the possibility that the commission could, or a grant made by the commission to another body could be used to, promote a type of devolved government in one area of the United Kingdom. Devolved regional government could be promoted in England, for example, because devolved government is already in place in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. I do not think that the commission should be doing that; indeed, I do not think that any body which is in receipt of public money should do that. These are issues which need to be decided by politicians rather than by the electoral commission. Amendment No. 28 attempts to remove a pothole into which the commission could easily fall.

I shall not speak to Amendments Nos. 29 and 30, because, in our enthusiasm to probe this clause, we have tabled two amendments which were decided in Committee. I apologise for that. I shall not speak to them at all.

My noble friend Lord Norton of Louth has tabled Amendment No. 30A, which I might describe as the "nuclear option". His amendment has much to recommend it; indeed, I am sorry that I did not table it myself. Earlier I reminded noble Lords of the words of the noble Lords, Lord Shore and Lord Neill. Perhaps I may end by quoting from the report of the Neill committee at paragraph 11.4: We would only make the obvious point that the Election Commission cannot, as some of our witnesses seem to believe, solve all problems and be a panacea for all ills. It is tempting, but not sensible, to say whenever in difficulty, 'Leave it to the Commission'. That is an approach we have sought to avoid in this report. Government, Parliament and others have to accept their responsibilities".

We are concerned to ensure that the commission is independent and above the political debate. That was the concern of the Neill committee and we could have no clearer indication of that than the words of the noble Lord, Lord Neill, and his committee's report. I hope that the Government will address the issues that I have raised and, no doubt, that others will raise later in this debate. I must say that the more that I read this clause, the more I am tempted to vote in favour of the amendment tabled by my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth. I beg to move.

Lord Norton of Louth

My Lords, I wish to speak to my Amendment No. 30A, which has been grouped with those tabled in the name of my noble friend. In Committee we debated at some length the wording of Clause 12. Various objections were raised to the provisions that it contains. I sought then to amend the wording of subsections (1) and (2) while my noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish sought to delete paragraph (c) of subsection (1). The Government resisted all the amendments that were tabled.

At the time of the debate in Committee, my noble friend Lady Carnegy of Lour said that, having heard the contributions made by my noble friends Lord Cranborne and Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, and that of the noble Lord, Lord Neill of Bladen, she felt that it would be better, to leave the clause out of the Bill and to arrange for the education of people in these matters to be done by another body".—[Official Report, 10;10/00; col. 198.] That is the conclusion that I have reached. Given that the Government have not accepted the amendments that would have improved the clause and given the choice between the clause as it stands and no clause, think that we should opt for no clause at all.

In Committee, the Minister made no convincing case for the clause as it stands. Much of the discussion that took place was tangential to the issue. Several noble Lords seemed to think that the amendments were prompted by distrust of educating citizens about politics. As I pointed out at the time—several times, in fact—the need for political education was not at issue. My professional life has been spent educating people about politics. I support the teaching of citizenship in schools. Where politics is taught at A-level, it tends to be taught well. It is taught well because those teaching it are trained in the subject and are keen to impart knowledge. Teaching politics entails informing people about politics and, in schools and universities, teaching students how to think, not what to think.

As far as I am concerned, the principle is not at issue. What does concern me is how to give effect to the principle. In Committee, I argued that the electoral commission was not the body to teach people about systems of government, be it local, national or supranational. It is not equipped to undertake the task, either directly or as an enabling agency. Several noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Neill, argued in Committee that seeking to undertake such a role may drag the commission into the realms of controversy. It would be covering topics that are contentious. That may be so, but my objection is more fundamental. The clause confers on the commission tasks that do not fall within its competence.

The competence of the commission encompasses the registration and financing of political parties and the conduct of elections and referendums. That is clear from the Long Title and from the provisions of Clauses 4 and 5. In respect of political parties, it is, in effect, a regulatory body. In respect of elections and referendums, it is a regulatory and an advisory body. There is nothing in the Bill, in terms of the composition of the commission or in the specific tasks that are adumbrated in Clauses 4 and 5, that establishes it as an educational body.

I was prepared in Committee to go some way to meet the Government by retaining paragraph (a) of subsection (1), allowing the commission to promote public awareness of electoral systems, at least subject to some amendment. The Government were not prepared to accept that, arguing the case for retaining the clause as it stood. The arguments advanced for the clause were not persuasive.

In Committee, the Minister explained what the clause sought to achieve. As I say, I have no objection to the objective of the clause. The Minister argued that the commission was an appropriate body to meet that objective. He said that the commission should, be empowered not only to promote understanding of the mechanics of the electoral systems used in this country, but also to promote awareness of the value of voting".—[Official Report, 10/10/00; col. 206.] The problem is that the commission is not qualified to undertake that particular task. The Minister seemed to think that because the commission was a body specialising in electoral matters, it was therefore qualified to educate people—or to buy in bodies to educate people—about electoral systems and, as electoral systems did not exist in a vacuum, that it was also qualified to teach them about political systems generally. I do not think that I am doing the Minister an injustice by expressing it thus.

By so arguing, the Minister was undermining the importance of that which he wants to achieve—that is, political education. If we believe in educating citizens about political processes, we need to undertake the task in a serious way. We do that by creating or drawing on those bodies that have the professional training and capacity to undertake the task. We do not achieve it by tacking it on to the functions of a body that is established for a completely different purpose. This function jars with those listed in Clauses 4 and 5.

I argued in Committee that it fell outwith the Long Title of the Bill. My noble friend Lord Cranborne raised the point and put various questions to the Minister as to its compatibility with the Long Title. The Minister said in response that he thought that the Long Title was adequate. He went on: Functions are, after all, part and parcel of the establishment of the commission, and the Long Title refers to its establishment".—[Official Report, 10/10/00; col. 207.] I do not think that the establishment of the commission can be read as independent of what follows in the Long Title. Clauses 4 and 5 adumbrate the functions that are clearly compatible with the Long Title and I think it appropriate to avoid doubt by sticking exclusively to those functions.

In my view, Clause 12 does not fit with the remaining provisions of the Bill. As my noble friend mentioned, it confers a function that was not envisaged by the Neill committee. That point was made by the noble Lord, Lord Neill, in Committee. Indeed, the noble Lord expressed the personal view, to which my noble friend Lord Mackay has referred, that it was, a wholly inappropriate role to give to the electoral commission as we [the Neill committee] conceived it".—[Official Report, 10/10/00; col. 196.] This is not then something to which the Government have signed up as part of the recommendations made by the Neill committee. It is an initiative of the Government—a well meaning initiative, but one that I believe is fundamentally flawed.

If we want to educate citizens about electoral processes, we should address the issue separately from this Bill. It is too serious an issue to be dealt with by some incidental addition to the recommendations of the Neill committee. The issue of teaching citizenship in schools was addressed by the Crick commission, of which my noble friend Lord Baker of Dorking was a distinguished member. This issue needs to be considered in a similarly serious, and constructive, manner.

For all these reasons, I believe that Clause 12 is inappropriate. It should be taken out.

Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts

My Lords, I find myself moved to join the root-and-branch option that has been so powerfully argued by my noble friend. I notice that page 9 of the Bill contains the words "public awareness". That is a weasel set of words—to which no one can object—beloved by the Civil Service.

As my noble friend Lord Mackay said, this is a matter of education. As has been said already, education is a very important and vital task, but it has nothing to do with regulation. The danger is that once education and regulation are put into the same body, various inherent conflicts of interest come to the surface.

Two immediately spring to mind. The first, is that the commission will necessarily have limited resources, and the disposition of those resources will have to be decided upon and divided between education and regulation. We were debating earlier how regulatory matters are likely to be fast moving and require instantaneous decisions; in such circumstances, if resources have been devoted to education with a lack of resources being devoted to regulation, those of our fellow citizens who are concerned with the undertaking of elections may well find themselves unable quickly to get the necessary advice and support.

The second immediate conflict of interest is that between the promotion of change and the maintenance of the status quo. As we begin the educational process, to what extent will this body be responsible for encouraging people to think about the options and for encouraging the debate on electoral reform, and to what extent is its duty to uphold the system as it presently stands?

I feel strongly about this issue. Earlier in the summer the Financial Services and Markets Bill passed through your Lordships' House. I am a member of the board of the Securities and Futures Authority and we are about to be subsumed into the new FSA. When that Bill was passed, tacked on to it was an educational requirement. That has already begun to make itself felt in the way in which the SFA has operated. Resources are now being moved inexorably towards educating the public at the expense of some of the disciplinary and enforcement procedures of that authority. The manpower and financial resources devoted to the market awareness side have increased quite considerably in the budget and are now under way within the FSA. I can foresee similar difficulties and problems with this authority. I see no way of avoiding it. Therefore, I believe that my noble friend Lord Norton has provided the only sensible option on this occasion.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton

My Lords, I am slightly puzzled at the venom with which Clause 12 is being opposed. I find it difficult to accept. Two of the major electoral commissions—those of Australia and New Zealand, both of which I have visited—see it as a major part of their role to provide education for the public and to create public awareness. Their role is similar to that of the electoral commission as proposed in the Bill. Therefore, if it is suitable for them, I cannot see why it would be unsuitable for the electoral commission here.

There seems to be a fear that the electoral commission will examine matters such as electoral reform and that it will advocate different electoral systems. I thought that we had covered that point in Committee when we discussed the whole question of "pending". I believe my noble friend said that "pending" referred to arrangements which are on the statute book but which have not yet come into force. That cannot, therefore, mean looking at a future electoral system for the House of Commons. I believe that is the fear behind objections to this clause.

I have a slight problem. The noble Lord, Lord Norton, is rightly adamant about the need for political education. The noble Lord devotes his life to that. The Crick report has established the principle of citizenship in schools. But a whole group of people have not received such teaching, either because it did not take place at university or because the teaching of citizenship was not allowed in school for a long period of time. Those people are electors and they should be given the opportunity to find out more about the way in which the country and the administration operate.

The noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, has perhaps accepted that there is a role for the commission in that regard—although he may withdraw his amendment in favour of that tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Norton. Again, I find it strange specifically to rule out the question of Europe. It rather implies that this country has no connection with Europe. Whether we like it or not, and whether we are pro-Europe or anti-Europe, it is a fact of life. We have connections with Europe and they will continue. Any voter education programme should explain the role of this Parliament vis-à-vis the institutions of the European Union as well as explaining the mechanics of voting.

The noble Lord, Lord Mackay, asks what is meant by "institutions". To me, it means not what the Commission says, but how it works—how it functions, what its relationship is with the European Parliament, and how that functions. That is what we are talking about when we talk about the "institutions" of Europe. I do not accept that information cannot be provided factually. With the greatest respect, to say so is absolute nonsense. So many commissions, including the Neill commission, have been impartial in their consideration. I cannot see why it is not possible for them to explain the institutions of Europe or of this country with the same impartiality. I find the opposite argument very difficult to accept.

Political education is essential for a healthy democracy. I believe that the previous government accepted that when, for instance, they set up the Westminster Foundation for Democracy in 1992. That was designed to provide advice to institutions and electors overseas. Many of us took part in Westminster Foundation delegations, particularly to the new democracies in eastern Europe doing exactly that, in an impartial and, we hope, professional way. I believe that the electoral commission will be independent, just as the Westminster Foundation for Democracy is independent, and that it should be able to perform that role. I can see no reason why it should not. It is right that any money allocated, whether it is spent by the commission itself or allocated to other bodies, should be used only for education purposes and not for propaganda.

9.15 p.m.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I am glad, once again, to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Gould. I believe we had similar exchanges in Committee on this very clause. I am also extremely glad that the noble Baroness mentioned the Westminster Foundation—a body that she acknowledges was set up by the previous government and one that I was privileged to serve on for a very short time before I was translated to this House in a ministerial capacity. Unfortunately, therefore, I was not able to experience the good work undertaken by the foundation for very long. However, I certainly took to heart the message that the foundation was established to propagate, as indeed did the noble Baroness.

During my time as Leader of the House, I tried in a small way to contribute towards the efforts made by this place, especially in conjunction with another place, to ensure a greater knowledge among the young of how Parliamentand our political system works—or, more accurately, I sometimes think, does not work. When this clause was debated in Committee, I was very struck by the approach taken by a number of speakers, although, I hasten to add, I do not believe that the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, was one of them. On realising that the Government's argument was perhaps rather weaker than they would like, they immediately fastened on to a few of the objections that some of us had raised and accused us of wanting to keep the electorate in ignorance. Indeed, I believe that my noble friend Lord Norton referred to this during the course of his earlier remarks. I do not resent that; it is a perfectly usual political ploy. Those of us who have been around for a bit recognise it for what it is: if you cannot answer the arguments set up against you, you invent one and attribute it to your opponents and then try to ridicule them on that basis.

As my noble friend said, this is not about a division in your Lordships' House as regards who is in favour of political education and who is not. All of us recognise that this is an area of great importance, especially at a time when people are increasingly uninterested in politics and seem to be unaware of the system that protects, or should protect, their liberties. I hope that we can lay that particular canard to rest. I am sure that the Minister will not be tempted to revive it because it will not fly—it is a canard imaginaire, if ever there was one.

The truth of the matter was, as usual, immediately spotted by my noble friend Lord Norton. This commission will consist of very great men and women. As we have observed during the passage of the Bill through this House, they will be selected for their enormous wisdom and not, perhaps, for their recent experience at the coalface of politics. We have decided that that would not be a suitable immediate experience for them. But, nevertheless, they will be selected as very great and good men and women of unimpeachable character, neutrality, judgment and wisdom. Of course, they must also be unpartisan and neutral. We are asking them to undertake an extremely difficult job—that is, before we get to the provisions in Clause 12.

Clearly the commission's job will be extremely complex and difficult—at least, the Government find it so. Indeed, they would not have felt the need to rewrite such a very large proportion of the Bill if that task were simple and easy to define. If it is difficult to define and to lay out in this enormous and weighty piece of paper, I suspect that the task we are asking the commission to undertake will be extremely difficult in itself.

In Clause 12 we are doing the classic piece of mixing apples and oranges. We have a set of apples into which, suddenly, we have injected an orange; in other words, we are asking the commission to do something completely different from anything else contained in the Bill. As my noble friend explained, we had an argument about the Long Title to the Bill. I do not intend to go into that in detail. However, no matter what the Minister said, it really stretches the imagination a little to suggest that the Long Title in any way covers Clause 12. I can only suppose that the phase, "for connected purposes" is alleged to cover Clause 12. I am not sure that that is exactly the same sort of phraseology as the gracious Speech at the opening of Parliament when everything including the kitchen sink can be put in under the phrase, other measures will be laid before you". We are talking about a specific piece of legislation in which highly complex matters of a fairly clear kind are being proposed. What we are now proposing to do is to graft on an entirely new function that really does not bear any relationship to it.

If I correctly understood the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, she suggested that all the commission had to do was to describe precisely the facts. That is an extremely seductive phrase. The noble Baroness always seems entirely reasonable, as indeed she is known to be. But we are talking here about some of the most contentious issues in modern day British politics, voting systems and constitutional arrangements which this Government have brought to the very forefront of political debate, and, of course, our own favourite great European home, the European Union. If the commission is to venture to describe factually electoral systems and the systems of the European Union, does not our experience suggest that the facts themselves are a matter of subjective judgment?

Baroness Gould of Potternewton

My Lords, I have lectured on electoral systems throughout the world. I do not think that I indulged in any subjective analysis; I just explained them.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, the noble Baroness gets her own back for when I explained that I thought that when I stood for another place my constituents in south Dorset did not need much explanation of our present electoral system because they knew perfectly well that if I obtained more votes than anyone else I would become their MP.

One of the extraordinary features of the love of complexity of this Government, not only in matters of taxation but also in matters constitutional, is that because they are addicted to vastly complex systems we have to put in place all kinds of measures to try to explain how they work. My contention is that this is not the place to do it because by asking the commission to undertake that task it is perfectly plain that we are venturing into ground where it would fear to tread. As my noble friend Lord Mackay made perfectly clear, if the noble Lord, Lord Neill, is anything to go by, certainly that kind of member of the great and good would run a mile before undertaking anything so potentially contentious.

I suspect that the European Union is a good example of that. After all, as my noble friend Lord Mackay pointed out, the European Union spends an enormous amount of what is ultimately our money promoting the European Union. It promotes it, in its own view, entirely neutrally. It says that all it is doing is explaining the facts. As someone who is highly sceptical of its version of the facts, all I can say is that I deeply resent my money being spent by myrmidons of the European Union in Queen Anne Street putting out what they regard as an unspun fact in such a matter that I feel that my money is being filched from me and that I am being asked to pay for an extraordinarily biased spin.

The facts with regard to the European Union are highly contentious. Just to give one example, we are constantly told that there is no question that the new Euro corps will be a European army. But we also know that we were told back in 1975—I studied the election literature the other day, which only goes to prove this—that if we voted yes, we would only join a free trade area. Yet somehow that fact has been transmogrified into something vastly more complex and more integrated than that.

I could go on but I shall not. It seems to me that we are asking the commission in one breath in all the other clauses of the Bill to be Olympian, neutral, unpartisan and to act as the great platonic guardians with which we increasingly festoon our constitutional arrangements in this country. However, in the same breath, in Clause 12, we are not tempting but obliging it to venture ever more into areas in which it will find it increasingly difficult to maintain its neutrality.

If the Government's intention is to ensure that the commission is launched with the seeds if not of its own destruction then at least of the destruction of its reputation, I can think of no better way than Clause 12. Although, as always, I greatly admire the ingenuity of my noble friend Lord Mackay, in trying to improve the clause with Amendments Nos. 27 to 30, I fear that its purpose is so flawed that the only logical conclusion is to delete it, as suggested by my noble friend Lord Norton. Given the choice, I should support Amendment No. 30A.

Lord Wedderburn of Charlton

My Lords, as we are on Report, I have to make my point before the Minister speaks. I should like to return to the micro level of the amendment. It is all very well the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, talking about a teacher exhibiting a point of view, but anybody in the institution in which I have taught for the past 36 years who does not say what is his point of view does not last a week.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, the noble Lord has made my point for me. I should have been very disappointed as an undergraduate if my teachers—poor things, having to try to teach me—had not put across a point of view. One expects that, although very often one is stimulated to reject that point of view. In that case, why ask an allegedly neutral body to do what we all expect teachers to do?

Lord Wedderburn of Charlton

My Lords, that is exactly the point. By setting out one's point of view at the start, one has a chance of giving what the noble Viscount might call a neutral view of the problem. However, let me return to my micro point.

The noble Lord, Lord Mackay, suggested that it might be better if, in Clause 12(1)(c), the institutions of the European Union", were replaced with a reference to the electoral system and functions of the European Parliament. On that as on all other issues relating to the European Union, one should take a pragmatic view. It is impossible to set out the system of government of the European Parliament without describing its relationship with the other institutions. I might prefer different drafting in the Bill, but what the noble Lord suggests is impossible, because it would not be honest with the audience. It would be essential to explain the place of the Commission—particularly now, with the dual channel—and the place of the Council. That is a small point, but I hope that the noble Lord will consider it.

Lord Lamont of Lerwick

My Lords, I support the targeted amendments of my noble friend Lord Mackay, but if they are not acceptable, I would prefer to go along the road suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, with the support of the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne. My noble friend Lord Hodgson identified the basic flaw in the clause. It is a mistake to ask a regulator to combine its regulatory role with an educative function. It is as though we were to ask the noble Lord, Lord Neill, simultaneously to rule on the way in which Members of this House conduct themselves and declare their interests and also to perform some educational function about the role of the House of Lords or lobbying in Parliament. It might be as though we were to ask the Financial Services Authority to propagandise about the importance of the financial services industry for this country.

The reason that that is a mistake is because it is a confusion of the main purpose for which the body has been set up. It could only be a distraction and mean that the commission would do its job less effectively. The noble Baroness, Lady Gould, made a very interesting speech. She said—

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, is it the core of the noble Lord's argument that regulators should not conduct any form of education or advice for those whom they seek to regulate? If that is the case, there are many regulatory bodies which carry out profoundly important matters of education to achieve a degree of regulation and to make it easier.

9.30 p.m.

Lord Lamont of Lerwick

My Lords, it is one thing for the Financial Services Authority to explain to practitioners in the City of London how the rules apply, why conflicts of interest arise and why certain rules are necessary. That is completely different from educating everyone in the country from John O'Groats to Land's End about the City of London. The Minister has given a totally inappropriate analogy.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for giving way. I declare an interest as a member of a regulatory body. We see as one of our functions to be able to educate the electors to make sure that they do not face problems in the future if they have them now. I cannot see that there is a divorce between a regulatory body and its educational role.

Lord Lamont of Lerwick

My Lords, I am not sure to which regulatory body the noble Baroness refers. But, as I have just said, there is a difference between educating the people immediately affected by regulation and trying to educate the whole country. The regulatory commission is essentially a regulator of political parties. It might be legitimate to say that it should explain to political parties what its purpose is and why this or that rule is necessary. That is completely different from taking on the huge burden of educating the whole country, not just about what it is doing but about all kinds of very difficult and contentious political questions.

In her interesting speech, the noble Baroness said that they do that in Australia so why should we not do it here? It has always seemed to me that one of the worst arguments for extending the role of government in any respect is merely to say that because something happens elsewhere, it ought to happen here. As a legislature it is our job to probe why an extension of functions is necessary and how far that should go.

I would be more convinced of the case that has been put forward and more reassured that this is not going to be a distraction from the real purpose of the commission if we were to be told something about the scale of the task to be attempted. We are vaguely told that it is to educate the public. What does that mean? How much money is going to be spent? I know the Minister will be unable to answer that question. How many extra staff will be needed and what proportion of the commission's time is to be spent on education?

If we are to be persuaded that this measure is remotely appropriate, it would be sensible to have some idea of the scale on which this very ambitious task is to be attempted. Otherwise it makes no sense to take away money that might have been spent on the education budget. I would need a lot of persuading that money spent on educating people about the institutions of this country would not he better spent in schools. How much is to be taken away from the education budget if this new provision is competing with that budget?

The noble Baroness made an interesting point. She said that the teaching of civics had grown up only relatively recently in this country. One of its purposes might be to reach out to that part of the public that had not had the benefit of the increase in civics education in recent years. That is all right, but how is the commission to do it? By what method is it going to reach out to every household in the land? By what methods will it communicate?

In the absence of, I submit, very reasonable questions of that kind, the whole purpose seems ill-focused, ill-thought out and in conflict with what is a very difficult job. I believe that this is a terrible distraction for the commission. Notwithstanding the interesting remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, I believe that it is a duplication of what is happening elsewhere in the system. That is why we have an education budget and adult education courses. We all know that many questions relating to the validity of, or alternatives to, our electoral system are discussed endlessly in O-levels, A-levels and in politics courses in universities.

The noble Baroness wondered why there was so much, as she put it, venom attached to this Bill. The reasons why I believe there to be so much anxiety, rather than venom, in relation to this issue are those given by my noble friend Lord Cranborne; that is, a distrust that these matters will be wholly dispassionately and factually discussed. When my son was studying for his A-levels, inevitably he had many questions about alternative electoral systems. He once asked me what the arguments were in favour of the first-past-the-post, single majority system. To the best of my ability I attempted to explain the issue to him and dealt with the inevitable questions about fairness. At the end of our discussion, he said to me, "Well, I think I'll aim off what you said for the benefit of the examiners". I am sure that for many reasons he was right to do that. We know that certain questions are not simply factual and that certain arguments will not be resolved without resort to debate about different and competing values.

I agree with the noble Baroness that it is perfectly legitimate to argue that political education in this country should extend to an understanding of the institutions of the European Union. Of course that is right. One cannot separate the European Parliament from other institutions. I have no problem with the idea that pupils in schools or elsewhere in the educational system will be told about the institutions of the European Union, whatever reservations I may have about their effectiveness, their cost and their functioning.

However, as my noble friend Lord Cranborne said, one worries about how that educational task will be carried out. Will it be carried out factually? Will it be totally divorced from the massive propaganda effort that we already have in this country from the European Union via its office not far from this House where it spends huge amounts of money on so-called factual information? It spends money on such facts as (it is alleged) millions of jobs depend upon the European Union—it took the National Institute of Economic and Social Research to show that that was a totally bogus claim. It also put forward the very arguable claim that the European Union has preserved peace in Europe.

Therefore, I believe that it is doubtful that we shall receive purely factual information. We have not heard anything about the body's funding, the amount of money involved or where the money will come from. I should like to be assured by the Minister that it will not be simply a distributor of propaganda from the EU and its institutions.

Lastly, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, for clarifying and reassuring me about the word "pending". I should be grateful if the Minister would confirm that for my benefit.

Lord McNally

My Lords, first, I claim one piece of consistency throughout the deliberations on this Bill. I have argued constantly that the Neill committee is not the last word on these matters and that it would be called in aid when one side agreed with it but that, when that was not the case, the committee would be quietly forgotten. As I said before, I believe that some of the work carried out by the Neill committee was excellent. It provided some good grounding for this Bill and for other legislation. However, I also think that it missed some very open goals. I had hoped to get that speech out during my noble friend's absence but I see he has crept back.

I also think that the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, is absolutely right. Behind some of the silky speeches we have heard this evening are the darker fears that haunt certain Members on the Conservative Benches. One of the hobgoblins they fear is that this clause is a cunning device to allow future campaigns on Europe and proportional representation. That is why every so often during the speeches there is a sudden, swift right turn into a good old piece of Euro-bashing. I do not think that there is in this clause any such intent or any possible use of the clause for such a purpose.

What has run through statements on both sides is an acceptance of what I would describe as a deficiency in civic education in this country, which in any democracy, becomes a threat to that democracy. It is an interesting thought that probably among the best civically-educated generation were the troops in the Second World War. It has often been said that the Labour landslide of 1945 had more to do with the Army Education Corps than almost any other single body. It made troops aware of their rights and responsibilities.

I also think that the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, and the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, came through with arguments which are often used to resist an idea—"Well, it's a good idea but not in this Bill; not in this way, not here, not now". Then, if that does not work, try, "Not by these people: we like these people and we do not want to burden them with too much work". As I say, they are silky excuses for inaction but they are dodging the real issue. I shall save the Minister making the point if I say that so far as I am concerned these are Conservative "ignorance-is-bliss" amendments. On constitutional reform, the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, made the point that this—

Lord Norton of Louth

My Lords, will the noble Lord give way? I hear what he says and should be grateful if he could identify at what point I fell foul of any of the objections he claims. I am all in favour of action this day; I am in favour of educating all the electors referred to by the noble Baroness; and, if the noble Lord wishes, I could even recommend the books that I think all should read—but modesty forbids. I believe that the arguments can be put in a balanced way, even though one might express a conclusion at the end. My point is that I am not sure that this body has the relevant qualifications. I want its work to be done by people even better qualified, in a way that this commission is not.

Lord McNally

My Lords, I heard the noble Lord's speech and began to think I had not heard one like that since the AEWU tore up its rulebook. The noble Lord seemed to be arguing that only professors of politics were suitable for imparting this wisdom to the public at large, whereas, as we know, a commission like this would acquire an expertise which would fully enable it to do this job.

I do not have the fears that have been expressed from these Benches. It is a role which is undoubtedly additional to the main purposes but is in no way contradictory to them. Let us be under no illusion. Perhaps I may say, in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, that just as, if the commission does the work with the EU, it should not be done, that is way beyond its powers; if the EU does it, it is a sinister operation from Storey's Gate. Let us make no bones about it. If the Government brought forward a separate Bill with a separate body to do that work, some of the same speeches would express the same suspicions.

I see no reason why Clause 12 should not be adopted and the responsibilities that it gives the commission be carried out with neutrality and independence. Perhaps I may give some advice to the noble Lord, Lord Mackay. He is obviously like one of those guys who wander into a fight in a bar and tries to reason with the two sides. If I were him, I would get out of the way. Let us test whether or not we want Clause 12. We certainly want it.

9.45 p.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, this has been a good and hugely entertaining debate, which I have enjoyed immensely. The issues are those on which we have had a "knock about" before. It seems to me that we have before us a choice between the Exocet and nuclear options. I suppose I am rather tempted to agree with the noble Lord, Lord McNally. Perhaps if Conservative Lords opposite really believe in the strength of their argument on the nuclear option, they should test the opinion of the House at some point—perhaps not this evening—and be honest about it. It seems to me that perhaps that is the right way forward.

This is an important function for the commission to have and to hold. Let us think about the turnout in Westminster by-elections, some of which are to be held on Thursday; the turnout in local government elections; and the turnout in European parliamentary elections. If we are trying to strengthen the roots of democracy, it must be in all our interests to ensure that we deal with ignorance and lack of knowledge and understanding of political systems.

We remain convinced that this is a proper function for an independent electoral commission. I believe that the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, made reference to the Australian and New Zealand commissions, which undertake this work properly. It does not seem to compromise their function. I do not accept that this is a dangerous task to give to an electoral commission. I remember when we debated the Representation of the People Act earlier in the year that noble Lords opposite made the argument and put the case for the commission having a far wider remit than the narrow role which some of them seem to have been tempted into suggesting today. They suggested that it should carry out research and development work. That seems to sit side by side with much of this important work. I do not hear a convincing argument from the Benches opposite against us ensuring that the commission can carry out such work.

The hobgoblins and sinister plots have been conjured up by noble Lords opposite to argue against an independent electoral commission conducting educational programmes. Perhaps I may ask the question: if the commission does not do such work, precisely what sort of body would be appropriate to carry it out? What would be its composition? How would we set it out? How would it relate to the work of the electoral commission? I have not heard any such arguments put convincingly this evening. I listened carefully to the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth. I could foresee a snatch squad of armed Lords Norton of Louth coming forward professing wisdom in all our schools and places of education, knowledge and wisdom. Perhaps I might even be tempted to trust an armed snatch squad of Lords Norton of Louth doing precisely that work. I believe that most people would benefit from it. But how would that other body be regulated and organised to carry out that work? It seems to me that the work c f the commission is precisely that which should be allied to the important educational role.

I am entirely with noble Lords opposite when they seek to constrain what the body might do to describing the mechanics and functions of and ways in which bodies such as the European Parliament or systems of election might work without loading that education in some way to add a preferential line of argument to one system or another. That seems to me to be entirely right and proper. These matters must be focused on education and nothing else.

The idea that the commission itself might be a vehicle to promote public participation in elections simply by talking up the grand European project or promoting the euro is the stuff of fantasy. If it talks about the European Union, it will not talk about the euro or anything else which advances one side as opposed to the other.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, I thank the Minister for giving way. Perhaps he will list what it is he understands the commission should interpret as, the institutions of the European Union".

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the European Parliament, the Council of Ministers, perhaps the work of the Commission. Those seem to be relevant to consideration of what European institutions might be. No doubt I could come up with a longer list if given time. But the mechanical, functioning, working parts of the institutions of the European Union ought to be known to the general public, particularly if they are involved in an election about them. I am sure the noble Lord will accept that, if we are seeking to provide wider knowledge about political institutions in this country, we might want to run through their mechanical parts. That seems to be entirely relevant.

Amendment No. 28 would require that any promotional campaign undertaken by the commission in one part of the United Kingdom should not concern itself with electoral arrangements in place confined exclusively to another part of the United Kingdom. I know that the noble Lord thinks this is all about softening up the electorate for a referendum on the voting system—that was certainly the argument put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson. This point was raised in Committee and I replied then that I thought it was a point on which the commission would wish to tread extremely carefully.

Having said that, I must again stress that the point of the provisions set out in the clause is not to encourage the commission to proselytise about the merits of particular arrangements. It will simply be concerned with promoting awareness of its existence and purpose. To that extent it would be wrong for material circulated by the commission in Scotland, let alone anywhere else, to dwell on the advantages of the additional member system.

Lord Lamont of Lerwick

My Lords, is the Minister intending to come to the questions asked about giving us a rough idea of the scale of operations, the amount of money envisaged and the amount of staff involved in this educational effort?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for posing the question again and reminding me of the point. If I do not cover it in my concluding comments now, I shall advise the noble Lord in writing of the approximate thinking of the Government and share that with other Members of your Lordships' House.

It seems to me to be taking matters a little bit far to require the commission to prepare different leaflets for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. That suggestion has the flavour of a Soviet-style news blackout. That a citizen living in one part of the United Kingdom might learn about the diversity of systems of government which exist as a result of devolution seems to me, generally speaking, to be rather a good idea.

The noble Lord, Lord Lamont, seemed to have difficulty accepting the point that regulators might carry out some functional educational role. I made quite a long list—Oftel, Ofsted, Ofgas, Ofwat (I was tempted to say Ofrail but thought it inappropriate), the Financial Services Commission, the Health and Safety Commission—of bodies which have to involve themselves as regulatory bodies in some form of education or another. Nobody says that that is irrelevant; that it is not appropriate or proper.

It seems to me that regulatory bodies will, from time to time, need to undertake educational work. Of course, this commission has a broader remit. But properly regulated educational activity by the commission would be of benefit and we might gather reassurance from the fact that a well-organised and regulated body like this which is involved in regulatory work is carrying out such educational functions.

Lord Lamont of Lerwick

My Lords, the Minister gave the example of Oftel. Would he say what educational function it has other than to telecommunications operators who are directly affected? What wider educational function does Oftel perform?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, no doubt Oftel determines what information it publishes and why and no doubt most of it is directed at those in the business. However, it has a wider role and I am sure undertakes to produce newsletters and information about its activities which are of greater and wider benefit. I am sure that the same will apply to Ofwat and the Health and Safety Commission. Without a wider knowledge of their regulatory role, the public are not so well protected.

Lord Norton of Louth

My Lords, I thank the Minister for giving way and I appreciate that he has been interrupted several times. He spoke of the education in which the regulatory bodies engage, but surely they are educating people in what they are doing and can deliver. That is separate from the task which is being given to this body.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the point I am trying to make is that part of being a regulatory body is the function of advising, informing and educating. The noble Lord, Lord Lamont, appeared to be saying that it was not the business of regulators to become involved in advising, informing and educating. I do not accept that, which is why I provided him with the list.

The breadth of the debate does your Lordships' House great credit. It has been useful and interesting and perhaps has told us more about where noble Lords opposite are coming from; they see a narrower role for the commission, while we see a broader but nevertheless properly circumscribed one.

I invite your Lordships to reject the amendment. However, I want first to answer the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, about the costs and functions of activities. Clause 12(6) provides that the amount spent on the educational function by the commission shall not exceed the sum specified by order made by the Secretary of State with the consent of the Treasury. The funding of that function will therefore be ring-fenced from the commission's general budget. I believe that I gave that answer previously. The sum will not be appreciably more than is spent currently by the Home Office on voter registration and postal voting arrangements at general elections. Perhaps such a bench-mark will help the noble Lord.

The noble Lord also asked about the term "pending". As I explained previously, "pending" means an electoral system that has been approved by Parliament. For example, the system of elections for the Greater London Authority was pending once the GLA Bill received Royal Assent. I refer the noble Lord to Clause 12(2). I am sure that that is consistent with a previous reply.

We have had a wide-ranging, entertaining and interesting debate and it is now for noble Lords to make up their minds. I hope that noble Lords opposite feel able to withdraw their amendment.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, the answer to my noble friend Lord Lamont that departments spend money only with the authorisation of the Treasury will not come as news to him as a former Chancellor of the Exchequer. Many of us complain about the dead hand of the Treasury on everything and the noble Lord has merely confirmed that nothing much has changed.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I thought that the noble Lord might have more insight into the dead hand of the Treasury, which is why I gave that answer.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, in many ways this has been not an interesting debate but a worrying debate because it has exposed problems with the clause. I wonder where it came from. Who suggested putting it in the Bill? It was not the Neill committee. I suggest that when the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, returns to his office tonight or tomorrow he should find out. If I were him, I would read the riot act about it.

The noble Lord was arguing for a clause which provided that the commission shall promote public awareness of its work. That was the argument when it came to Oftel, the FSA and everything else. Clause 12 gives the commission a much wider role. While I was prepared to accept at the beginning, very generously, that the commission should have a role in the electoral systems for countries, the other place, local government and the European Parliament, I did not receive a satisfactory answer about the institutions of the European Union. I do not believe—perhaps I am wrong—that the European Central Bank is an institution. Would the electoral commission become involved in that body, which perhaps would become an institution if everybody joined it? The commission will have more than enough to do.

While I listened to the debate I read the Long Title to the Bill, which refers to the establishment of an electoral, not an education, commission. The word "education" does not appear anywhere in the Long Title. I am prepared to make a half-concession that the electoral systems for the other place, local government and the European Parliament should form some part of the commission's responsibility, but this goes very much wider than that. I suggest to the noble Lord that he and his government colleagues should consider this matter very seriously. Does the Minister believe that, if the clause promotes such doubt that we have spent l¼ hours debating the matter this evening, it is wise for the electoral commission to embark on any of this stuff in case it casts doubt on its position as the regulator of the way that political parties should behave?

If I was appointed an electoral commissioner—clearly, that would not happen because I do not fall within the various rules—and decided, as a result, to study these proceedings, the moment that I read the present debate I would not bother with Clause 12 but would leave it sticking to the wall. If one starts down some of these roads one enters into political controversy which detracts from the main purpose.

I shall, very unhappily, beg leave to withdraw my amendment, but if my noble friend goes for the nuclear option I shall certainly support him.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 28 to 30 not moved.]

Lord Norton of Louth moved Amendment No. 30A: Leave out Clause 12.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am not convinced that the Government have responded directly to the precise points that I made in support of my amendment. The arguments advanced have been tangential to those points. I am not even sure that the draftsman of the clause has fully understood the issue, as is reflected in the marginal annotation. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, that there are alternatives to the commission. I am happy to advise the Minister on the routes that could be taken, including through the relevant professional bodies, although the alternative that he himself floated struck me as most attractive! However, because I do not believe that the point has been addressed by the Government, I stick with the arguments that I advanced. The noble Baroness, Lady Gould, at the beginning expressed the opinion that some noble Lords spoke with vehemence. I do not speak with vehemence; I speak as I do because I believe that I am right. I beg to move.

10.4 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 30A) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 28; Not-Contents, 65.

Division No. 5
Astor, V. Jopling, L.
Attlee, E. Lamont of Lerwick, L.
Blatch, B. Lyell, L.
Burnham, L. McColl of Dulwich, L.
Cranborne, V. Mackay of Ardbrecknish, L.
Cumberlege, B. Mancroft, L.
Dixon-Smith, L. Montrose, D.
Eden of Winton, L. Northbrook, L.
Elles, B. Northesk, E.
Fookes, B. Norton of Louth, L. [Teller]
Glenarthur, L. Park of Monmouth, B.
Henley, L. [Teller] Pilkington of Oxenford, L.
Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, L. Thomas of Gwydir, L.
Hooper, B. Willoughby de Broke, L.
Amos, B. Dixon, L.
Andrews, B. Donoughue, L.
Archer of Sandwell, L. Dubs, L.
Bach, L. Elder, L.
Bassam of Brighton, L. Evans of Parkside, L.
Blackstone, B. Farrington of Ribbleton, B.
Brennan, L. Filkin, L.
Brett, L. Gilbert, L.
Burlison, L. Goodhart, L.
Carter, L. [Teller] Gordon of Strathblane, L.
Chandos, V. Goudie, B.
Cohen of Pimlico, B. Gould of Potternewton, B.
Crawley, B. Grabiner, L.
David, B. Grenfell, L.
Davies of Coity, L. Hamwee, B.
Davies of Oldham, L. Hardy of Wath, L.
Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde, B. Harris of Richmond, B.
Desai, L. Hilton of Eggardon, B.
Hollis of Heigham, B. Ramsay of Cartvale, B.
Hoyle, L. Rennard, L.
Jay of Paddington, B. (Lord Privy Seal) Roper, L.
Sawyer, L.
Macdonald of Tradeston, L. Scott of Needham Market, B.
McIntosh of Haringey, L. [Teller] Shutt of Greetland, L.
Simon, V.
McIntosh of Hudnall, B. Smith of Gilmorehill, B.
MacKenzie of Culkein, L. Strabolgi, L.
Symons of Vernham Dean, B.
Mackenzie of Framwellgate, L. Taylor of Blackburn, L.
McNally, L. Tomlinson, L.
Maddock, B. Tordoff, L.
Mallalieu, B. Warwick of Undercliffe, B.
Morgan, L. Wedderburn of Charlton, L.
Puttnam, L. Williamson of Horton, L.

Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.

10.14 p.m.

Schedule 3 [Transfer of functions of Boundary Commissions]:

Lord Bach moved Amendments Nos. 31 to 33: Page 131, line 29, leave out sub-paragraph (7) and insert— ("(7) For subsection (5) there shall be substituted— (5) As soon as practicable after the Electoral Commission have submitted a report to the Secretary of State under this Act, he shall lay before Parliament—

  1. (a) the report; and
  2. (b) (except where the report states that no alteration is required to be made in respect of the part of the United Kingdom to which it relates) the draft of anOrder in Council for giving effect to the recommendations contained in the report."").
Page 133, line 2, leave out paragraph 4 and insert— ("4.—(1) Section 4 (Orders in Council) shall be amended as follows. (2) In subsection (1), for the words from ", whether with or without modifications," to "Boundary Commission" there shall be substituted "to the recommendations contained in a report of the Electoral Commission under this Act". (3) Subsection (2) (draft Order implementing recommendations with modifications) shall be omitted."). Page 136, line 47, leave out from ("for") to end of line 48 and insert ("the words from ", with or without modifications," to "the Commission" there shall be substituted "to the recommendations contained in a report of the Electoral Commission".").

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Clause 16 [Transfer of property etc. of the Boundary Commissions]:

The Deputy Speaker (Lord Lyell)

My Lords, if Amendment No. 34 is agreed to, I shall not be able to call Amendment No. 35.

Lord Bach moved Amendment No. 34: Page 11, line 41, leave out ("in accordance with section (Boundary Commissions: transfer of functions)") and insert ("by virtue of section 15(1)").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

[Amendment No. 35 not moved.]

Clause 17 [Transfer of functions of Local Government Commission for England]:

Lord Bach moved Amendments Nos. 36 and 37: Page 12, line 6, after ("transferring") insert ("(to any extent)"). Page 12, line 10, at end insert— ("(1A) An order under subsection (1) may make provision for—

  1. (a) transferring (to any extent) any relevant function of the Secretary of State to the Commission;
  2. (b) terminating (to any extent) any relevant function of the Secretary of State or the English Commission without transferring it to the Commission or the Boundary Committee for England;
  3. (c) modifying (to any extent) any relevant function of the Secretary of State;
  4. (d) preventing the Secretary of State from exercising any relevant function (including one so modified) unless he has sought and obtained such advice of the Commission as may be prescribed by the order, or authorising him to seek such advice in connection with the exercise of any such function;
  5. (e) modifying any relevant or other function transferred by an order under subsection (1) so far as it is to be exercisable by the Commission or the Boundary Committee for England;
  6. (f) conferring on the Commission functions with respect to electoral areas or other electoral arrangements relating to the Isles of Scilly.
(1B) In subsection (1A) "relevant function" means (subject to subsection (1C)) a function under—
  1. (a) any of sections 13 to 15 and 17 of the Local Government Act 1992 (local government changes in England),
  2. (b) any of sections 13, 14 and 17(4) of the Local Government and Rating Act 1997 (parishes and parish councils) so far as having effect in relation to electoral arrangements within the meaning of Part II of that Act, or
  3. (c) section 2(4) of the Greater London Authority Act 1999 or Schedule 1 to that Act (assembly constituencies).
(1C) Nothing in subsection (1A) authorises the transfer to the Commission of any power of the Secretary of State under any of the provisions mentioned in subsection (1B)(a) to make orders other than those effecting electoral changes within the meaning of Part II of the Local Government Act 1992; but, subject to that, the functions which may be transferred by virtue of subsection (1A) include functions with respect to the making of orders by statutory instrument.").

On Question, amendments agreed to.

[Amendment No. 38 not moved.]

Lord Bach moved Amendment No. 39: Page 12, line 29, at end insert— ("(6) The Secretary of State may pay to the Commission such amount as he may determine to be appropriate by way of reimbursement for any expenditure incurred by them which is attributable to the provision by them of advice to the Secretary of State in pursuance of an order under subsection (1).").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 18 [Transfer offunctions of Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland]:

Lord Bach moved Amendments Nos. 40 to 42: Page 12, line 31, after ("transferring") insert ("(to any extent)"). Page 12, line 35, at end insert— ("(1A) An order under subsection (1) may make provision for—

  1. (a) transferring (to any extent) any relevant function of the Scottish Ministers to the Commission;
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  3. (b) terminating (to any extent) any relevant function of the Scottish Ministers or the Scottish Commission without transferring it to the Commission or the Boundary Committee for Scotland;
  4. (c) modifying (to any extent) any relevant function of the Scottish Ministers;
  5. (d) preventing the Scottish Ministers from exercising any relevant function (including one so modified) unless they have sought and obtained such advice of the Commission as may be prescribed by the order, or authorising them to seek such advice in connection with the exercise of any such function;
  6. (e) modifying any function transferred by such an order so far as it is to be exercisable by the Commission or the Boundary Committee for Scotland.
(1B) In subsection (1A) "relevant function" means (subject to subsection (1C)) a function under any of sections 13 to 21 of, and Schedule 5 and paragraph 1(2) of Schedule 6 to, the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973. (1C) Nothing in subsection (1A)(a) authorises the transfer to the Commission of any power of the Scottish Ministers to make orders under any of the provisions mentioned in subsection (1B)."). Page 13, line 20, leave out ("of the functions transferred by") and insert ("functions in consequence of").

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Clause 19 [Transfer of functions of Local Government Boundary Commission for Wales]:

Lord Bach moved Amendments Nos. 43 to 46: Page 13, line 23, after ("transferring") insert ("(to any extent)"). Page 13, line 27, at end insert— ("(1A) An order under subsection (1) may make provision for—

  1. (a) transferring (to any extent) any relevant function of the National Assembly for Wales ("the Assembly") to the Commission:
  2. (b) terminating (to any extent) any relevant function of the Assembly or the Welsh Commission without transferring it to the Commission or the Boundary Committee for Wales;
  3. (c) modifying (to any extent) any relevant function of the Assembly;
  4. (d) preventing the Assembly from exercising any relevant function (including one so modified) unless the Assembly has sought and obtained such advice of the Commission as may be prescribed by the order, or authorising the Assembly to seek such advice in connection with the exercise of any such function;
  5. (e) modifying any relevant or other function transferred by an order under subsection (1) so far as it is to be exercisable by the Commission or the Boundary Committee for Wales.
(1B) In subsection (IA) "relevant function" means (subject to subsection (1C)) a function under—
  1. (a) section 30(3) or (4) or 31(3) of the Local Government Act 1972 (restriction on community applications during and after reviews), or
  2. (b) any of sections 54 to 60, 69 and 71 of, or paragraph 1A of Schedule 11 to, that Act (local government changes in Wales).
(1C) Nothing in subsection (1A) authorises the transfer to the Commission of any power of the Assembly under any of the provisions mentioned in subsection (1B)(b) to make orders other than those effecting alterations in electoral arrangements within the meaning of Part IV of the Local Government Act 1972; but, subject to that, the functions which may be transferred by virtue of subsection (1A) include functions with respect to the making of orders by statutory instrument."). Page 14, line 3, at end insert— ("() Nothing in this section shall be read as affecting the generality of subsection (6)."). Page 14, line 7, leave out ("transferred by") and insert ("in consequence or).

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Viscount Astor moved Amendment No. 47: After Clause 19, insert the following new clause—