HL Deb 10 October 2000 vol 617 cc180-229

4.30 p.m.

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

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

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

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, before we do so, perhaps I may intervene briefly. I wonder whether we should, indeed, again resolve ourselves into a Committee on the Bill. Noble Lords may wonder why the Minister has used the word "again". I would not blame them if they had forgotten that we have already had a day on this Bill. The first day of Committee took place as recently as 11th May and the Bill then disappeared into what I believe astronomers call a "black hole". That is my first point: that the thread or continuity of the Bill has been seriously disturbed by the long wait between the first and second days.

The second point that I want to make before we decide whether to proceed with the second day of Committee is that there are hundreds—and I mean hundreds—of government amendments. Since our first day in Committee, the Bill has been substantially rewritten. Indeed—this may be simply by accident but I suspect that it is by design—on the last day on which your Lordships sat at the end of July, 48 pages of government amendments arrived. I was here on the last day but the amendments did not catch up with me until the first week of the Recess, by which time, of course, people had scattered. Therefore, it was not a very convenient day on which to receive 48 pages of amendments.

I could perhaps forgive the Government. They reexamined their Bill and realised that it was not properly drafted. I thought, "Well, 48 pages of government amendments we can live with". However, back we came in the overspill and on the very first Monday another 48 pages of government amendments arrived on your Lordships' desks. Today, noble Lords will see that the Marshalled List is about the same size, if not bigger, than the original Bill. While I and the Liberal Democrats have a few modest amendments, it is a fact that of 135 pages, more than 100 are the responsibility of the Government. New schedules have been introduced and, even worse, amendment after amendment has been made to clauses and schedules which makes them almost incomprehensible to the average, non-lawyer reader.

The position is entirely unsatisfactory. This is an important Bill. It deals with the very fabric of our democratic society: free—I emphasise the word—political parties, free from government. It seems to me that the Bill unnecessarily ties up those free parties. The amendments—page after page of them—are a most unsatisfactory way for the Government to treat such issues. I shall not go into the manner in which the amendments have been drafted. The groupings, which we shall come to later, will be almost indigestible to your Lordships; they are certainly indigestible to me.

If this is the best that the Government can do, it would be far better if they decided not to proceed with the second day of Committee. They should take the Bill away for a new draftsman and new officials to see whether they can come up with a shorter and simpler measure which achieves the objectives without all the red tape.

Lord McNally

My Lords, it is probably par for the course for oppositions to express a certain synthetic outrage at the behaviour of governments. I am not sure that I want to go all the way with the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, with regard to the Bill being taken away. However, the Minister's response is made all the more difficult by the weight and strength of the complaints of the noble Lord, Lord Mackay.

The situation would not be so bad if this were the only instance when this has happened. However, we are moving away from this House acting as a revisory and advisory Chamber almost to the point where we are dealing with Bills which are different from the ones considered in the other place. If we and the other place are to do our jobs properly, I believe that government or the usual channels must consider this matter.

I said to one of our researchers, "I intend to say X, Y and Z on Tuesday". He replied, "Actually, you said that on the first day of Committee"—not that that will stop me saying it again, of course. I believe that the combination of the inordinately long gap between the two Committee days and the extraordinary cascade of amendments make the complaint of the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, valid and difficult for the Minister to reply to.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, perhaps I may intervene briefly to support my noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord McNally. I want to make this point in as unpartisan a way as possible. Governments of both complexions increasingly have been guilty of the type of outrage that my noble friend described. It is true that, as any form of existing business manager can testify, that is due largely to the avalanche of legislation and the inordinate hurry of all governments to introduce it as swiftly as possible in one legislative Session. This has become a disease which is undermining the standing and respect of Parliament.

I have perhaps bored your Lordships a number of times during the course of debates on reform of your Lordships' House. However, I believe that the time has come for noble Lords to consider seriously whether this type of behaviour is beginning to undermine the central purpose of your Lordships' House. I have always believed that that purpose is to ensure, with the greatest respect to another place, that the other place, under the control of the government of the day as it is, has a chance to do its job properly.

This is not the only example of such behaviour. As I say, governments of both complexions have been guilty of it. However, I am concerned that another place will find itself dragooned into looking at what is, in a number of parts, virtually a rewritten Bill at the fag end of the Session without the time to consider properly a subject which, as my noble friend pointed out, is fundamental to the health of our parliamentary and representative system.

I hope that the Minister, who is always most courteous to your Lordships, will be able to give some reassurance that, if we are to proceed with the Bill, adequate time will be given to another place, which is most directly affected by the provisions of the Bill, to examine the large parts of it which have been largely rewritten at the Government's instance because of the hurry in which their business managers had to introduce it.

Lord Renton

My Lords, having fought and won 10 general elections, naturally I am interested in the subject matter of this Bill. I have been in Parliament altogether for 55 years but I cannot recollect any occasion, as described by my noble friend on the Front Bench, when a Bill before your Lordships' House is being virtually rewritten by a mass of rather obscure amendments.

Surely the right course is for the Government to withdraw the Bill and reintroduce it, if necessary, for the first time in your Lordships' House so that Members of both Houses can see without an absurd amount of detailed scrutiny what the Bill attempts to do. I hope that what my noble friend has suggested will be observed by the Government because I believe that, as part of our parliamentary democracy, he is right.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I am grateful for noble Lords' contributions in this stimulating opening to our afternoon's deliberations. I was going to pay tribute to the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, for what I felt was friendly fire, or at least constructive criticism. I have to take that on the chin. I accept that we, in government, have in some ways been culpable in creating the difficulties that have surrounded this Bill.

But that said, there are a number of points which should be fairly considered. The noble Lord, Lord Mackay, said that the Bill had been largely rewritten.

I accept that there are a large number of amendments. There is no doubt about that. But that is due to a number of factors. One of those is that as we said throughout the course of this Bill, in another place and here too, we are trying to get it right. Getting it right comes at a price. As Members of the Opposition will appreciate, getting it right means that sometimes you have to consult. That word was used extensively yesterday on the airwaves. It happens to be true about this Bill. We want to get it right because, as the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, said, this goes to the heart of our constitution. If we are to do that, then it is down to us to ensure that when we do, we reach the right conclusions.

This is a complex Bill. The noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, made a very important point. This Bill is about the other place. It is about regulating the way in which elections are conducted, donations to parties are made and sponsorship is organised. There has not been much regulation of those activities in the past. This Bill, in one leap, attempts to set that right so that we can demonstrate publicly that we are cleaning up our act.

Simplicity is what we should like to achieve. This Bill is complex to achieve some simple ends. Regulation is necessary. That is what we have tried to do in seeking to bring forward amendments. We have consulted and listened carefully to all parties. We shall continue to do that throughout the course of this legislation.

I make one final point on government amendments. Yes, there are a number of government amendments. Noble Lords will no doubt have noticed that there are some amendments to amendments. Many of those amendments are triggered by earlier amendments discussed throughout the passage of the legislation. We shall bring forward many amendments during the course of our debates and deliberations. They are stimulated also by reasonable points made by members of opposition parties who have co-operated in making sure that we try to get it right.

Therefore, we have had an unfortunate break in the thread of continuity—a useful expression, I thought. But that has enabled us to have time to pause for reflection. We have a busy agenda. We want to see that agenda through. It is true that this Bill has had to take its place in a longer queue. But now we are here, I suggest to your Lordships that it is only right that we should give it due consideration.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I wonder whether the Minister can assure us that the Government will use their best endeavours to ensure that when the Bill returns to another place it will not be rushed through and another place will have a proper opportunity to discuss the massive changes which have been made since it left that House.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, obviously, I cannot speak for another place but it will no doubt wish to consider carefully that very helpful consideration. I believe that it should.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House again in Committee accordingly.

[The DEPUTY CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES (Lord Murton of Lindisfarne) in the Chair.]

4.45 p.m.

Clause 12 [Education about electoral and democratic systems]:

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish moved Amendment No. 42: Page 8, line 30, leave out ("and any pending such systems,").

The noble Lord said: In moving this amendment, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 45, 46, 48 and 49 which stand in my name. I shall also, of course, address the same issues as does my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth in his Amendment No. 42A and as my noble friend Lady Fookes does in her Amendment No. 47.

These amendments taken together could have been narrowed down to one amendment; namely, that Clause 12 should not stand part of the Bill. Indeed, if the Minister really wants to simplify the Bill, he could move to strike out Clause 12 because nothing in that clause is really relevant to what many of us believe an electoral commission should be about.

I take the view that the electoral commission is the referee on elections and electoral matters. It is not in the business of being a propagandist for anything in the system. It is there to be a referee; to see that there is fair play; to see that the rules on donations are obeyed; to see that the reporting of expenditure during elections is properly obeyed, and so on; and, although it is dealt with extremely inadequately indeed, as I hope we shall be able to persuade the Committee later, to see that referendums are properly and fairly conducted in this country—if we have to have referendums, that is.

This series of amendments addresses a role to be given to the commission in Clause 12. The particular words on which I wish to focus are "current electoral systems in the United Kingdom", "promote public awareness or and "any pending such systems". Further on there is reference to: current systems of local government and national government", and "any pending such systems" and it then goes on to refer to, the institutions of the European Union".

When one goes back to what I might call the source document for all this legislation—namely, the Neill report—Members of the Committee will look in vain for any suggestion in that report that the commission should have any of those responsibilities. Indeed, although not directly but indirectly referring to other tasks to be given to the commission, the Neill committee says very clearly at paragraph 11.4, We agree that a new body is needed not only on the above grounds", and it has gone into all the arguments that we rehearsed on Second Reading, but also in order to implement many of the specific recommendations in this report". As I have said, none of the roles in Clause 12 is recommended in the Neill report. It goes on to say: We would only make the obvious point that the Election Commission cannot, as some of our witnesses seemed 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".

It seems to me that on all the issues involved in this group of amendments are issues for governments, political parties and for Parliament. They are not issues for the elctoral commission. We all know, because we all read the press, that there are some talks going on between the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats about changing our electoral system. I do not quite know where we are on that, but the talks are going on.

Would it be the electoral commission's responsibility to mount a campaign explaining what the different electoral systems are? For example, the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead—surprise, surprise—came to the conclusion that we should have PR and it should be the alternative vote system. Parliament has not decided anything about that yet; it has not been asked. I suspect that the Government have decided; they do not want to make any changes, but they want to string their Liberal friends along for a little longer.

But leave that aside. The fact is that on the table, there is an alternative vote proposal from the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead. I ask a specific question. Would it be within the powers and responsibility of the commission, as laid out in this clause, to explain to the electorate what an AV system is?

Let us go a little further. In Scotland, when we were discussing what kind of electoral system the new Parliament should have, there was some argument about what kind of PR system we should have. At the stage that it was still being argued, would it have been within the powers of the electoral commission to go out and do a propaganda exercise in favour of one or other system?

Would it be a reasonable responsibility of the electoral commission to explain the new system to the electorate once Parliament had decided that the Scottish Parliament would be elected by the top-up list system? If that is what the Government mean by "pending system", I am less concerned. However, I would be greatly concerned if it meant any kind of system floating about in the ether, or even any system still being discussed in Parliament but not yet agreed.

I therefore see no need for this funny wording; that is, "pending systems". My noble friend Lord Norton may have given the Government a way out of this dilemma by making clear exactly what would be within the responsibility of the electoral commission.

That is the first of my series of questions: what exactly does the Minister mean by "pending systems"? I certainly hope that it does not mean that the electoral commission will be asked to do the kind of job that I freely accept that the Liberal Democrat Party should be doing; that is, to advocate changes in our electoral system. As Members of the Committee know, I do not greatly approve of such changes. However, that is their decision. They can get on with it. I would have no problem with that job being done by the Electoral Reform Society. However, I certainly do not think that it should be done by the electoral commission, which is supposed to be the neutral referee on electoral matters.

I turn to the second interesting point. Clause 12 (1)(c) provides that the commission shall promote public awareness of the institutions of the European Union. I am not one of those who get too upset about the European Union. I am reasonably content with membership of it. However, I suspect that, like this Government, it has a terrific desire to regulate, interfere and control. I tend to agree with those members of the present Government who think that we should not adopt the euro; at least not for a long time and not until it proves to be a good deal more successful than at present. We have got out of the position of being a member of a currency that requires to be sustained on the foreign exchange markets. I believe that we should stay in that happy position.

I do not understand the meaning of subsection (1)(c): the institutions of the European Union". Does that mean that in the current situation, for example, the electoral commission would explain the advantages of the euro to the people of Britain? Would it explain how the European Central Bank works? What will it explain to the people of Britain? What do those words mean? What has that to do with the electoral commission as set out in the Neill report and that which we all agreed needs to be a referee? It cannot be a referee if it is being a propagandist for a politically controversial issue. Whether Members of the Committee like it or not, the issue is politically controversial. The electoral commission would be brought into disrepute if it was seen to be taking one side or the other in the arguments for or against the euro. That must be the last thing we want.

Amendment No. 49 would remove subsection (4)(b), which states: making grants to other persons or bodies for the purpose of enabling them to carry out such programmes". That refers to programmes of education or information. What are we talking of here? We come back to pending systems, European institutions, changes that may be coming over the horizon or those that the Government may wish. What kind of bodies will be funded by the electoral commission? What kind of work will they do?

My right honourable friend Sir George Young asked similar questions in the other place. He stated: That is part of the Government's citizenship education proposals, but it is wholly inappropriate to place that duty with the commission. As drafted, the Bill brings the electoral commission—a fully independent body, free of any suspicion of political partisanship, to use the Government's own words—right into issues of the fiercest political controversy".—[Official Report, Commons, 14/2/00; col. 709.] That is what is wrong with the whole clause. However, it would be equally wrong if the electoral commission were to fund bodies which were to take part in partisan arguments and discussions. That would be a great pity.

The only suggestion which Mr Mike O'Brien could make as to a body which might be given money by the electoral commission was a body called the Citizenship Foundation. I am not sure whether that body is entirely neutral. I believe that it campaigns on certain aspects that are not universally agreed within this country. It is perfectly free to do so; I do not complain of that. However, it should not be funded by an electoral commission, which is supposed to be the referee.

Mr Mike O'Brien made that statement on 14th February. In all the many months since then, I wonder whether any other example has occurred to Ministers of bodies which might be funded by the electoral commission under subsection (4)(b). Frankly, if the Government cannot come up with better answers, I suggest that we remove subsection 4(b). In fact, I suggest that we remove the whole of this clause, thus simplifying the Bill. That would make things a good deal easier and would free the electoral commission of the suspicion that the Government may want to use it in future as a vehicle for putting across propaganda, either about European institutions or—in my opinion, this is even worse—about changing electoral systems. I beg to move.

Lord Norton of Louth

I rise to speak to Amendment No. 42A. I am also responsible for Amendment No. 44. My amendment is designed to address two problems with the existing wording of subsection (1) of this clause. Both concern the scope of the subsection. The problems are addressed in other amendments grouped with this one. However, my amendment seeks to encompass them in what is, in effect, a redrafting of the subsection. It also has the effect of rendering unnecessary subsection (2).

The first problem concerns the use of the word "pending" in paragraph (a). My noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish is concerned that this could lead to ambiguity and would allow the commission to promote the case for electoral systems that have not yet been introduced, and may never come into force. I appreciate that subsection (2) seeks to clarify the term. However, it does not necessarily resolve the ambiguity. As I read subsection (2), Parliament could approve a new electoral system for use in a future election and authorise the Secretary of State to give effect to it by order. The system would not be in force and may never be in force, but once the measure was enacted it would be pending.

I can see the case for the electoral commission having the responsibility for giving advice on how a new system works once it has been approved by Parliament. My amendment makes it clear that that responsibility will only apply once a new system has been approved and will be used at the next national or local election. The amendment thus imposes a clear limit. It is also practical, as the obvious time to give information to voters is shortly before they are to use a new system. I believe that my amendment meets the objection of my noble friend, while allowing the commission to provide advice on a system that is not current.

The second problem addressed by the amendment is the scope of paragraphs (b) and (c). My noble friends Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish and Lord Astor seek to delete paragraph (c). As we have heard, they believe that it is not the job of the electoral commission to promote public awareness of the institutions of the European Union. I agree. However, I believe that the same argument also applies to paragraph (b).

The electoral commission is a body set up to fulfil certain functions in respect of elections, referendums and the registration of political parties. The general functions are embodied in Clause 4. The areas of competence of the commission are clear. By "competence", I refer to its expertise. The commission is to be given the personnel and resources to carry out those general functions as embodied in Clause 4. The competence of the commission— remind the Committee that it is called an "electoral commission"—does not extend to current systems of government in the United Kingdom, nor to institutions of the European Union.

Those who specialise in the politics and government of a particular country or a particular region are likely to know something about the electoral system or systems within that country. But those who specialise in electoral methods or other particular aspects of a political system are not necessarily experts on the political systems that employ those electoral methods. Promoting awareness of systems of government is not some incidental task that can be fulfilled by a body which specialises in elections and referendums. That is the key point. It is a major undertaking in its own right.

I realise that under subsection (4), to which my noble friend referred, the commission may make grants to other persons or bodies for the purpose of enabling them to carry out those functions. But that falls foul of two objections. The first is that the commission itself is not necessarily qualified in terms of its own knowledge to decide what persons or bodies are best qualified to carry out such tasks. The second is that it is not clear that the power itself falls within the scope of the Long Title.

I touched upon the problem of Clause 12 in relation to the Long Title at Second Reading. The noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, did not respond in replying to the debate but, with his usual courtesy, he wrote to me afterwards. The noble Lord pointed out that the Long Title refers to an "Electoral Commission" and that Part I sets out the commission's general functions. He went on to say, In undertaking programmes to promote greater participation in the democratic process, including by voting at elections, the Commission must be free to explain not just how we vote, but also the role and relevance of the bodies that we elect". The general functions of the commission listed in Clause 4 relate clearly to the other matters embodied in the Long Title. The functions listed in Clause 12(1)(b) and (c) do not. Paragraph (a) can begin to fall within the Long Title in that it can be related to election campaigns. In his letter, the Minister confers on the commission a responsibility that is not embodied in the Bill. Under that clause the commission is required to promote public awareness of electoral systems and systems of government. That may or may not produce, greater participation in the democratic process". That suggests to me some confusion as to what is intended by the clause. It appears to confer on the commission a responsibility which takes it beyond that which is required for fulfilling the functions adumbrated in Clause 4 and beyond that encompassed by the Long Title of the Bill. I repeat: the functions embodied in subsection (1)(b) and (c) are not incidental to the fulfilment of the commission's other functions. There is nothing in the Bill that imposes upon the commission the responsibility to encourage greater participation in the electoral process.

I appreciate, of course, that the Long Title can be changed. I do not want the title to be changed. I want this clause to be amended to ensure that the commission sticks to those matters on which it has expertise.

5 p.m.

Lord Shore of Stepney

I am on the side of the noble Lord, Lord Norton, as opposed to that of the noble Lord, Lord Mackay. I believe that Amendment No. 42A meets the situation which the Government have in mind. That situation is this: the Government produced such massive changes in the electoral systems in Scotland, Wales and Greater London that half the electorate did not understand what they were all about. Clearly, there was a need for some education in electoral systems, particularly those that had been newly introduced, but only after they had been placed on the statute book, not just generally floated about—I am sure my noble friends did not have that in mind. So I fully understand the need to explain the ever more complicated systems of election on which we are embarked.

I should perhaps declare that I am a member of the Neill committee and therefore I have some connection with the proposals in the report. I apologise to the Committee for not immediately revealing that highly significant fact. But that leads me on to my next point. Promoting political awareness in general is a rather dangerous task to give to an electoral commission and I do not believe we had that in mind either one way or the other. In fact it did not even occur to us when we were considering the functions of the electoral commission when we framed our report. However, whether or not the Government are right in giving the commission the task of promoting political awareness, the crucial question is: awareness of what?

Promoting awareness of election systems—that is, the technicalities of elections—does not seem to me a great offence. I would have no difficulty with that, although I am not a partisan of it. Where I strongly draw the line is in promoting awareness of, the institutions of the European Union". as set out in Clause 12(1)(c). As the Committee will be aware, paragraphs (a) and (b) relate to electoral systems in the United Kingdom and currents systems of local government. But in paragraph (c) we suddenly leap into, the institutions of the European Union". If I felt for a moment that we had an electoral commission that would tell the truth about European institutions and how they impinge upon the farcical element of democracy as represented in the European Parliament; if I felt that that could be made plain by the electoral commission, I would feel reasonably satisfied. But we are clearly on controversial ground in that regard and it would be very foolish of the Government to try to put that into the hands of an "independent" body. Are any of us really independent on this issue? If paragraph (c) is to be taken literally, the commission must tell the truth, not only about election to the European Parliament—we cannot even vote for a person of our choice; we have to vote for a list—but also about the European Commission, the European Court of Justice, the European Central Bank and the Council of Ministers. Is it wise to hand over that responsibility to the election commission? I doubt it and I urge my noble friends to rethink our position on this matter.

Baroness Fookes

I rise to speak to Amendment No. 47 which stands in my name. It deals precisely with the points made by my noble friends and the noble Lord, Lord Shore of Stepney. The Bill states: The commission shall promote public awareness of … the institutions of the European Union". I have several objections to that and suggest a modest amendment. Instead of "institutions", the provision should read, "the current electoral systems of the European Union". That at least brings it back to the electoral system.

I have an objection on a point of principle in relation to the Long Title of the Bill, mentioned in another context by my noble friend. I do not see how this paragraph can possibly be considered as part of the Long Title. The Long Title talks precisely about the electoral commission and every other part of it relates to electoral systems. The paragraph refers to, the institutions of the European Union". That has nothing whatever to do with electoral systems. I believe therefore that this paragraph should not be part of the Bill on the ground that it is not within the Long Title.

But even if that were not so, it is not wise to encumber the new commission, which will have a large number of duties to perform, with another vague task in promoting public awareness. It has much else to do that is more important. This is just a little bit of frippery which we can well do without.

I feel strongly that the Bill would be far bettter without the entire clause. But if the Government cannot be persuaded to adopt that course, at least Amendment No. 47 would make it more relevant.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton

As might be expected, I cannot support any of the amendments before us and I believe that Clause 12 should stand part of the Bill. It would be remiss of the Government not to take the opportunity of using the electoral commission to provide voter education, which is so greatly needed. A number of noble Lords have referred to the need for that.

The noble Lord, Lord Mackay, said that he did not believe that that was what the commission was about. I first advocated the step to the electoral commission in 1991: I suggested that part of its brief should be voter education. Therefore, I am particularly pleased to know that if one waits, things finally happen. I believe that the Government's proposal is right and that we would be wrong not to take the opportunity to promote public awareness of elections and electoral systems.

As regards electoral systems, I understand "pending" to relate to those systems which have already been agreed by government and will be put into place. During debates on the Scotland, Wales and London Bills we heard many complaints from the Opposition that educating people about the various systems was not being addressed. We now have an opportunity to do so.

As regards what might happen if we change the electoral system for Westminster, perhaps I may correct the noble Lord, Lord Mackay. The noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, did not suggest an AV system but an AV-plus system. Irrespective of my personal views on the need for electoral reform, I hope that the commission will be 100 per cent impartial. It would be wrong for it to take a side on the kind of system which should or should not be available. It might disagree with what I want but I would not be happy about partiality. We have discussed the membership of the commission at length and I believe that as a result of its definition it is certain to be impartial in that respect.

The argument applies equally to Europe. It would not be right for the commission to become involved in political matters relating to Europe. The suggestion that it might become involved in the argument about the euro is a red herring. However, as we are in Europe it should, in a factual sense, explain to people the European institutions and the ways in which the British Government work with Europe. The noble Lord, Lord Shore, suggested that that would be difficult and that it could be done only if the commission told the truth. It can tell the truth if it is factual and unbiased. That is what citizenship education in schools is all about. It explains the way in which we are governed and the role of our politicians in an unbiased way. I would have thought that the same could apply in Europe.

We need to be told because people do not understand about the institutions of Europe. They do not know the difference between the Commission and the Parliament. They do not understand the role of the Human Rights Commission or Court. If we are asking people to vote in an election which will have consequences for those bodies, it is only right that we ensure they understand what they are voting for.

Finally, I turn to grants. We are giving the electoral commission many serious responsibilities and it could take on the responsibility of knowing to which organisations it should give grants. That would maintain its impartiality and ensure the impartiality of the organisations it is assisting. That is crucial in ensuring that people have a greater awareness. An opinion poll published last year or the year before identified how few people knew the meaning of "first past the post". They know what to do when they get into a polling station but they do not have a clue why they are doing it or what the outcome will be.

The Earl of Onslow

I thank the noble Baroness for giving way. Is not this the most appalling denigration of the British people? They knew perfectly well what they were doing when they kicked the Tories out at the last election and I may even be right in saying that they were right. But to say that they go in, put a cross on the paper but do not have a clue what they are doing is de haut en bas like an 18th century duchess talking around a servant girl.

5.15 p.m.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton

I want to say to the noble Earl only that I would never be a duchess. The important point is that the opinion poll clearly showed that people know what to do when they go into polling stations—they know where to put a cross—but they do not know the mechanics of why they are doing it because they do not understand. The evidence is not mine; the position has been made clear. If the noble Earl would care to look at Hansard—I cannot quote chapter and verse but I shall try to find it—he will see that the issue was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, during debates on the different electoral systems. I do not remember whether it was during debates on the Scotland, Wales or London Bill but during one of them he said that people do not even understand "first past the post". It is not what I am saying but in the general sense.

The Earl of Onslow

With great respect, the fact that my noble friend Lord Mackay said it adds no force to the argument at all. It is denigrating to pretend that the people do not understand how to vote for their lords and masters.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton

That is not what I am saying. I am sorry that the noble Earl seems determined to misunderstand what I am saying. I repeat that in a general sense it is crucial that people understand the mechanics.

Lord Norton of Louth

I disagree with the premise of the argument which the noble Baroness advances, but that is not the issue. I do not disagree that there is a need for greater education when the electoral system is introduced, nor do I disagree that the commission should be impartial. The question is whether it is the appropriate body to undertake such tasks. It is not a question of impartiality or education; it is a question of whether it has the expertise to undertake the task or whether we should give it to others.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton

I am pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Norton, raised that point. We are giving the commission an enormous amount of responsibility and we expect it to have a great deal of expertise on how political parties and elections are run. Therefore, I do not believe that it is beyond the bounds of possibility that it could explain the electoral systems to the electorate. I also believe that it should take over the job currently undertaken by the Home Office to inform the electorate how to register and to obtain postal votes. That would be a significant role for the commission and is part of voter education. I hope that that answers the point.

Lord Norton of Louth

Perhaps I may respond by saying that it does not. Those matters fall within the election process and are not at issue. No one has challenged the provisions of paragraph (a); paragraphs (b) and (c) raise the problem which takes us beyond the issue she has identified.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton

I am sorry, but I cannot believe that how one votes is nothing to do with the electoral process. Of course it is. I believe that it is a continuation of exactly that role. I hope that the Committee will reject all these amendments and will allow Clause 12 to stand part of the Bill.

Viscount Cranborne

Perhaps I may first address myself to the question of the Long Title. We are fortunate in the services provided so ably to us by the Clerks when we table amendments to legislation in your Lordships' House. They adjudicate as a matter of course on whether those amendments are within the Long Title of the Bill.

My memory of my time as a business manager for the previous government leads me to remember that officials within the government machine sometimes adjudicated on difficult questions of whether the original drafting of a Bill and particular clauses within it lie within its Long Title. I remember long, and sometimes vigorous, discussions on those points not only between Ministers and officials but between officials themselves.

There is considerable doubt whether Clause 12 comes within the Long Title of the Bill. As a non-lawyer reading the various phrases of the Long Title beginning with the words "to make provision about", there is perhaps even greater confusion here than has been so clearly identified by my noble friend Lord Norton; namely, whether subsections (1)(b) and (c) and (4) "make provision" or introduce something completely new into the Bill. Perhaps the Minister can assist the Committee when he comes to reply.

My collective memory, which is purely anecdotal and perhaps needs to be confirmed by the Minister when he comes to reply, is that very often when there was confusion within government about whether certain clauses came within the Long Title of a Bill Clerks of both Houses would be asked, sometimes informally, for their opinion. Did that happen when the Government gave no doubt detailed consideration to the question whether to include Clause 12? If so, although the Minister will not be able to say precisely what advice was given, can he tell the Committee why he believes that it comes within the Long Title? Since this is questioned by so many experienced former Ministers and people who occupied offices in another place, for example my noble friend Lady Fookes, should we not take expert advice on the matter?

This is a matter of considerable importance for a number of reasons, in particular the future reputation and standing of the commission. I see the noble Lord, Lord Neill, in his place. I hope that he is the first to recognise that if the commission is to be set up it is essential that it should be generally regarded with respect and its impartiality should be beyond question. Otherwise, its establishment will do very little good and it will be dragged into the political arena, particularly in areas of enormous political controversy. I refer not only to electoral systems but, thanks to Clause 12—if it is accepted in all its current glory—matters which are of enormous importance to the future of our country and excite political controversy, whether it is our continued membership of the European Union or the nature of our future association with the EU. If the commission's impartiality is put at risk by asking it to do things that go beyond its clear remit of adjudication, the Government will not do either themselves or the institutions of this country a favour by asking the Committee to approve Clause 12.

I have nothing to add to the remarks of my noble friend Lord Norton about subsection (1)(a). His amendment encapsulates something which I am happy to accept. I hope that the Government will also accept it. It is much clearer and simpler than Clause 12(2), which perhaps attempts to do the same kind of job.

It is important to illustrate why I believe the function of propaganda is so insidious and the Government have been seduced by it. I am about to say something which noble Lords on the other side of the Committee may regard as a little tendentious, but I do so all the same. The Government suffer from what I regard—perhaps not in an entirely complimentary fashion—as the "BBC syndrome". Some things are so blindingly obvious to metropolitan man and woman that the Government cannot conceive that sonic may fundamentally disagree with their views. Therefore, in the generosity of their hearts, and because of their natural pedagogical tendencies, they are only too delighted to educate us—that is an expression which they constantly use—as to the self-evident right ness of everything in which they believe. They maintain that stance even if it is patently obvious that the overwhelming majority of the people of this country do not agree with them. When the overwhelming majority do not agree with them they ignore that fact. Although they are paid-up, sincere believers in our system of parliamentary democracy, nevertheless they characterise those who do not agree with them as extremists, even though they may form part of the majority.

That is a mindset from which the Government unquestionably benefit; it gives them enormous self-confidence and certainty. It never occurs to them that they might just be wrong. In that they share the kind of prejudice which has brought the BBC into such disrepute. That is a clear warning as to why we should not drag the commission down the same road by agreeing Clause 12. It is a great shame that they have so needlessly complicated the electoral arrangements that people need to be educated as to how they work.

I do not know whether the noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton, for whom I have the greatest affection and respect, ever stood for election in another place; she probably did. My experience during the relatively short period—two Parliaments—in which I had the privilege to serve as Member of Parliament for the constituency of South Dorset (as it was then) was very different from that of the noble Baroness. My constituents were extraordinarily clear about how the system worked because, after all, it was relatively simple. They knew that if they gave me more votes than anybody else I would win; if not, I would lose. It was patently obvious that they did not need any education on that point.

Infinitely more complex and different systems have been introduced for the Assembly for Wales, the Scottish Parliament and the citizens of London. That is a highly sophisticated body of people who no doubt understand it better than I do. Nevertheless, I can understand that they need to be educated. I regret that those systems have been introduced, but for the moment I must accept that they are in place. Therefore, since the Government have got themselves into a mess there is some sense at least in trying to explain to the electorate the complications of the system.

But if the Government want Clause 12 they would be extremely wise to drop paragraphs (b) and (c) of subsection (1) and, instead of subsection (2), adopt Amendment No. 42A in the name of my noble friend. They should drop subsection (4) and any idea that the body should be financiers of any other organisation that it might commission to carry out the education function, because if it made grants to one rather than another it would be making a judgment about that organisation and so would compromise its independence.

I hope that the Minister will take advice by consulting through his colleagues the Clerks of both Houses on whether the clause is within the Long Title; and if it is, explain to us why. I hope that he will also listen to the advice he has received about the contents of the clause. The majority of the clause is not only unnecessary but is positively prejudicial to the good standing of the commission before it is even launched.

5.30 p.m.

Lord Neill of Bladen

I had not intended to speak this afternoon. I should like to make it clear that as the chairman of the committee which produced the report, it did not seem appropriate for me to comment on whether the Bill has the matter right or wrong. I do not want to play that part. But I understood the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, to be inviting me to speak about the role given to the electoral commission.

I should disclose one other interest. The noble Viscount referred to the constituents of South Dorset in flattering terms as being a group of people who realised that the candidate with the largest number of votes was likely to be elected to the House of Commons. I was one of his constituents.

I am expressing my own personal view about what Clause 12 purports to do. 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. How does one explain the electoral systems of this country in a wholly neutral way? If one thinks of a clause which says that people can be employed to run programmes, who does one invite to run such a programme? Obviously the natural place to go would be to the politics departments in universities. Let us imagine a professor of politics having to give a completely neutral lecture about the electoral system; any professor who accepts the burden of neutrality should not be in his job at all. He should have a clear view.

Could the electoral commission teach one how to achieve tactical voting? Could it do that and point out in which constituency that would be most likely to be successful? 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. My opinion having been invited, I have expressed it. I regret that I shall not be able to stay because I have a commitment elsewhere. I hope that that has been of some assistance.

Lord Clinton-Davis

I listened with great interest to what the noble Lord said. He expressed an opinion based on the information given to his committee. But I draw the line when it comes to the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne. For him to say that he was not partial is really straining the imagination.

Viscount Cranborne

I am grateful to the noble Lord. I would be horrified if the noble Lord went away from the debate thinking I was impartial. I am very much the reverse.

Lord Clinton-Davis

That is what I thought. That is what I am complaining about. Affectionately though I look at the noble Viscount, his knowledge of this particular issue baffles me. I refer to Clause 12(1)(c). I served on the European Commission for four years. It should have been longer. The British public simply do not know enough about the value of the work of the individual organisations which make up the European Union. I do not see why the commission should not be able to press these issues in a perfectly straightforward way. It does not have to be biased. It does not have to adopt a position where it favours the Commission or does not favour the Commission or the other organisations which make up the European Union. Textbooks have been written about the issue which do not take up a "for" or "against" position.

Briefings are written in English or German or whatever. The English edition is in pink. Everyone looks at them very carefully, particularly before a Commission meeting, not with a view to getting a distorted view of the issue but with a view to getting a balanced view of the position.

With regard to paragraphs (a) and (b) of Clause 12(1), I do not see why the commission has to be prejudiced one way or the other. I adopt the view that the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, adopted when describing that. Whatever view one takes with regard to Clause 12(1)(c) on the institutions of the European Union—I know my noble friend Lord Shore of Stepney takes a particular view—it is irrelevant as far as concerns the job of the commission. Clause 12 states that the commission shall promote public awareness of the different institutions. So it should.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

The noble Baroness, Lady Gould, is passionately enthusiastic that people should he educated about the system. I agree with her with regard to the new systems, which are very complicated.

The noble Lord, Lord Neill, has now left, but I think he has a house in Scotland. I am not sure whether he was there at the time of the Scots referendum but he will perhaps be more aware than some of us of what happened in Scotland. Any of us who experienced the Scots referendum knows that once the voting system gets into an election, it becomes a huge electoral issue. The way people learned how the system worked during the Scottish referendum depended very much on who was explaining it to them. The noble Baroness will understand that as a political person. Once it is in the system, it is a very political matter indeed.

I do not know whether in schools in her part of the country the discussion of electoral systems or indeed political systems becomes politicised. But certainly where I live, which is in Nationalist country, it is very difficult for a teacher to tackle the subject without politics coming into the matter. I do not blame teachers at all. I have taken part in this exercise myself and know how difficult it is. The discussions become politicised.

The noble Lord, Lord Neill, made a powerful statement that he feels that this is an inappropriate role for the commission. I am sure the Government will pay attention to that. They certainly should. It was courageous of him and he may be criticised for making it. I think that he was right to do so, and I am sure that the Government will pay attention.

I should like to make one point. The noble Baroness, Lady Gould, said that she assumed that pending electoral systems were those which had been agreed by the Government. I imagine that she meant to say "agreed by Parliament". It is too soon for the matter to come into the public domain and be discussed by the commission.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton

The noble Baroness is correct. The word should have been "Parliament".

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

On that point, I would suggest to the Committee that my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth has the position right in Amendment No. 42A, which seeks to insert the words, any electoral system that has been authorised by enactment, but is not yet in force, for use at the next national or local election". It must be something that has not only been approved by Parliament but has been enacted, so that it is the system that people will use. To teach them about that is very different from teaching them about systems which people are advocating and discussing and which may or may not be accepted. That is a political matter.

If the Government are to accept an amendment, it should be Amendment No. 42A. But, having heard my noble friends Lord Cranborne and Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish and indeed the noble Lord, Lord Neill, how much better it would be 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.

Lord Warner

It seems to me that the case has been rather strongly made in contributions from the opposite side of the Committee for Clause 12(1) and (2) to remain as presently drafted. The cat was slightly let out of the bag when the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, said that people knew how to vote for their lords and masters. That was a quite revealing phrase about elections in this country.

The Earl of Onslow

When I said "our lords and masters", I meant our Government. Those are what they are; that is what we choose them to be; and that is what we are quite grown up enough to do. That is why I am not patronising the electorate and some noble Lords opposite are.

Lord Warner

If the noble Earl reads Hansard, he will see that he was talking about electing our lords and masters. That is the phrase he used. If he reads Hansard, he will see that that is what he was saying elections are all about. I shall not pursue the point. I have registered it already.

Perhaps I may refer to some of the points made by noble Lords opposite. They reveal some of the worst aspects of what I would call the political closed shop. The cat was let out of the bag by the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, when he referred to things being dragged down into the political arena. That chimes with much of the public concern about politics and political institutions. I should have thought that Clause 12 as presently drafted would do a good deal to improve people's understanding and recognition of the worth of the public institutions for which they are voting. If they received that information from an independent body rather than from the political classes, they might possibly have a higher regard for some of those institutions and some of the people who work in them.

It would be for the benefit of the status and standing of politics and of the institutions that are involved in politics if some of the passing on of information was taken out of the political arena and given to an independent body, which could then exercise its judgment about how to put that information in the public arena. That would be a sensible way to proceed. I fully support the Government in standing firm on Clause 12(1) and (2) as presently drafted.

Viscount Cranborne

Before the noble Lord sits down, I hope he will agree that I was not against an information function. I was against confusing it with the independent functions of the commission. On his more general point, does he agree that there is probably a deep and unbridgeable divide between his position and mine? I happen to believe that the electorate is best qualified to judge; he believes that a platonic class of guardians should judge rather than the electorate.

Lord Warner

I believe that the electorate are able to judge which party or candidate to choose in any election. I also believe that the electorate might appreciate information about the institutions and electoral systems through which they are voting from an independent source rather than from the political classes, whom they might possibly see as having an axe to grind when putting that information in the public arena.

5.45 p.m.

Lord Norton of Louth

Before the noble Lord finally sits down, perhaps I may say that I have been a long-standing advocate of political education. I believe that it can be delivered neutrally; and contrary to what the noble Lord, Lord Neill, was saying, I believe that it could be provided neutrally by politics professors. I declare an interest as a politics professor. If they were wearing their academic caps, it could be done well. There are means of doing it. We are not arguing about whether there should be education; we are arguing about the appropriate body to deliver it. There are mechanisms for doing it independently of the parties. The noble Lord missed the basic point. He is arguing that there should be education. I am certainly not arguing against that. I am saying that, because of the way the electoral commission is composed, it does not have the expertise to carry out that task.

Lord Warner

I disagree with the noble Lord.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead

I am inclined to support the opening words of the noble Lord, Lord Mackay. He rightly expressed deep concern that the electoral commission might at some point take it upon itself to take initiatives contrary to the will of Parliament and outwith its remit. I know that Northern Ireland is a very tiresome place but on this occasion I think that we can be of some assistance. I shall give two examples.

In Northern Ireland we have had for a long time a neutral animal—he is supposed to be neutral—in the name of the chief electoral officer. A former occupant of that office once bullied a Minister into attempting to deny to the people of Northern Ireland holiday votes, which had been introduced by Her Majesty's Government in the Representation of the People Act. The Act embraced Northern Ireland but was not solely about Northern Ireland. The Minister and the chief electoral officer got together and threatened resignation if their views were rejected. It fell to me, with some considerable assistance from the Home Secretary of the day, to ensure that they were defeated in their conspiracy. There we had a case of a senior, and ostensibly neutral, electoral officer—an appointed officer—not very different in kind from what is being proposed for the commission; his role should have been restricted to implementing the law made by Parliament and nothing else, but he took it upon himself to act contrary to what he knew to be the view of the government and Parliament of the day.

I have a second example. On another occasion the chief electoral officer, when conducting a proportional representation election, advised electors publicly, by taking space in the newspapers at public expense, to vote down the ballot paper. "Don't stop", he said, "You must go right down it". His objective was to ensure that the very small parties at the bottom of the ballot paper would benefit from transferred votes as candidates were either elected earlier or their votes became valid at some later stage. It was a pure political initiative on his part without approval from or reference to Parliament or the government of the day.

On the question of education, I share the view that it is not the business of the commission to educate people, in particular about the institutions of the European Union. I fear that it would be impossible to secure an impartial opinion on all the complexities of the various institutions within the European Union.

Finally, I think that such a commission would be even more vulnerable to foreign interference than was the old system of the Speaker's Conference which designed boundaries. Again, the experience of Northern Ireland can come to the aid of noble Lords. The situation is plain. The last boundary commission was forced by a foreign European government—they even boasted about it—to go back to the drawing board. The first report of the Speaker's Conference on constituencies in Northern Ireland, reporting at the same time as on the remainder the United Kingdom, did not suit the Irish Government.

The Irish Government made no secret of the fact that they had ordered Her Majesty's Government to ensure that the boundary commission, technically presided over by the Speaker of the House of Commons, designed a different number and pattern of constituencies. That was done and was then implemented by the United Kingdom Parliament. On that occasion, the triumph of foreign interference was that a very hardworking, moderate and constructive SDLP Member of another place, Dr. Joe Hendron, was ousted by one not so constructive politician in the shape of Mr Gerry Adams from the constituency of West Belfast. That happened because the Irish Government blundered and did not know what they were doing. They transferred into Joe Hendron's constituency a huge slab of IRA supporters, not only individual voters, but also access to their printing presses which were used to produce forgeries of the identity cards needed to vote in Northern Ireland.

I am afraid that the new commission would be even less likely to stand up to pressures from one foreign government, still less could it resist the pressures described by the noble Lord, Lord Shore; namely, from a whole gaggle of European nations, should they decide to get together. For that reason, I believe that Clause 12 is fairly dangerous.

Lord McNally

This has been an interesting debate which has produced some recognisable faultlines. I was interested in the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Neill. Clearly, some glamour still attaches to the role of Member of Parliament because he was flattered by the fact that his former Member of Parliament praised the judgment of his constituents and then accepted his invitation to intervene in our debate.

Perhaps I may say that I agree with parts of the Neill report and, as I made clear at Second Reading, I disagree with other parts. It is important, when discussing the Bill, to remember that the Neill report is not carved in tablets of stone and that the noble Lord, Lord Neill, most certainly is not Moses. I thought that his intervention was ill judged, in particular since he has now departed. We are now left with a dilemma. Will we work through the remainder of the Bill on the assumption that the noble Lord's silence denotes approval, or will he pay us visits from time to time to pronounce on other aspects?

As I said, I think that the Neill report is a good and solid bit of work done by good and solid citizens, but Parliament should not be overawed by it; it should take it for what it is—a good contribution to our debate.

It is certainly a better contribution than we have heard from some of the Benches. The noble Lord, Lord Mackay, and the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, seemed to rush away from any proposal about information like Dracula from garlic—although I would concede that the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, said that he was in favour of information. That, of course, is what we have been talking about today. We have not been discussing propaganda, but rather information and education.

One of the faultlines that has revealed itself in this debate is the complacency demonstrated on this side of the Committee about how our political institutions are working at the moment. It is worth remembering that our debate—which has embraced many different facets and involved a large number of pieces of legislation—was not started by the noble Lord, Lord Neill. It arose out of a growing concern among politicians of all parties at the low esteem into which politics, politicians and our political institutions were falling. What is being proposed may or may not provide the answer to those problems, but to assume that what we have is the best of all possible worlds would be to demonstrate complacency of the most dangerous kind. We need to encourage more people to become involved in the political process and I believe that that requires education to be delivered in its broadest sense.

In some ways it is almost pathetic to observe that soon we shall be celebrating 30 years' membership of the European Union. Despite that, it is generally accepted that there is widespread ignorance as regards its workings and operations. I believe that that is the case because people generally feel that the subject is so politically charged that it is best simply to avoid giving out proper information.

I also think that one of the reasons why governments all too frequently reach for referenda is a failure of confidence by Parliament and parliamentarians themselves. I am still sufficiently old-fashioned to believe that the great issues of the day should be settled in Parliament by the elected representatives of the people rather than by ducking such issues and shuffling them off to be decided by referenda. But perhaps that pass was lost a long time ago. Given that, let us at least put in place a framework in which people can hold informed discussions and then make informed decisions.

I am sorry to see that, in the course of the broader debate about the need for constitutional reform, we still witness what I shall call the "short-term slide-rule approach". Every idea put forward is carefully measured to calculate the short-term political interest of one party or another. If this Bill moves forward, I hope that this House in particular will examine some of the proposals in the broader context of how we can make our democracy more effective and how we can engage more fully and better inform our people in the process.

I agree that Clause 12 should be retained. Perhaps it would have been better, as an alternative, to establish two commissions—although I suspect that the same complaints would have been made about commission B as those that have been made today about the commission as a whole. Indeed, I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, when she stated that the experience that the commission will gain from one side of its operations will prove very useful when carrying out its duties under Clause 12.

I am pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, believes that it is possible to give unbiased information. Teachers do it all the time. I believe that it would be wrong to decide that the commission could not gain the expertise so to do. Broadly, we support the retention of Clause 12, not for any short-term party advantage, but because we believe that it will underpin the broader interests of our democracy and the fuller interests of what the Bill as a whole is trying to do.

6 p.m.

Lord Norton of Louth

Before the noble Lord sits down, although I do not dissent from what he said about teaching, I do not think that he has made a case as to why the electoral commission should be the body to undertake that task. The noble Lord has conceded that teachers quite often can impart information impartially. They can do that because they are trained as teachers of politics. It is when people who are not trained try to do so that the problems arise. I cannot see how the electoral commission will comprise people with that degree of expertise; they will not be trained to impart that kind of information.

Lord McNally

I said that teachers can do it. I do not believe that teachers exclusively can do it. The commission will gather a body of expertise and may well bring in expert information. If, for example, we gave the task to the Central Office of Information, some on the Conservative Benches would say, "There is a department of government carrying out government propaganda". The noble Lord says, "Not the commission", but I suspect that some of the complaints against the idea of information and education would be levelled against whichever body was chosen to carry out the task.

Lord Renton

The two points that I wish to make override each of these amendments. The first point is this. The commission is to consist of not less than five and not more than nine members. Do the Government contemplate that decisions must always be unanimous? They may very well not be. If decisions are not unanimous, and if the commission is not equally divided, will the majority view always prevail? If that happens, those members who do not agree with the majority will find themselves obliged to support matters of public education with which they do not agree. That seems to be an unfortunate—indeed, an impossible—constitutional position.

My second point—I can put it quite briefly—is this. We are told in subsection (6)—this overrides all the previous parts of Clause 12 and the amendments we have discussed—that the total expenditure, shall not exceed such sum as is for the time being specified for the purposes of this subsection"— that means even Clause 12— by an order made by the Secretary of State with the consent of the Treasury". The commission could be involved in vast expenditure in carrying out this huge range of public education. If the Treasury decides that it must not have the money, it will not be able to fulfil its functions. But if the commission is told, in effect, that it can have as much money as it wants, we shall have to consider, as will Members of another place, whether that is a justifiable use of public expenditure.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

Usually the speaking notes on these matters suggest that one should thank the Committee for an interesting and wide-ranging debate. There is always a column on the prepared grid sheet which contains the word "risk". This one contains the words "possibly contentious". We have had the full range in this afternoon's debate.

I have found the debate fascinating. It has made me think back to my days at secondary school, when I was in the sixth form and we were introduced to something on the timetable called "civics". I remember the very first question in our very first lesson on civics. A lad at the back put his hand in the air and asked the teacher, "What does it mean?" I thought that said it all.

It also says a lot about our debate today. It strikes me that there is an element of fear in some of the contributions that have been made—fear that someone may begin to understand and comprehend the depths of the various political systems, the way in which we elect governments, the reasons we elect governments, the relationship between different parts of government, governments abroad, how we relate to the European Community and so on.

Clause 12 is a valuable clause. It begins to set out how we may take some important, tentative steps towards improving the quality of voter education. The commission will have a vitally important role to play in promoting a greater sense of citizenship and in encouraging greater levels of participation in the democratic process. In view of some of the turn-outs for local elections and European elections over the past few years, the argument is well made for an electoral commission which has, as a small part of its function, the role of promoting greater knowledge and understanding of our political institutions and the way in which governance works.

The electoral commission's work in this area will subsume the campaigns presently run annually by the Home Office in connection with the registration of electors and the campaigns conducted at the time of a parliamentary election to remind people of the timetable and procedure for applying for an absent vote. Additionally, the commission will take on responsibility for any ad hoc campaign needed to explain new voting systems—for example, the one mounted in respect of the elections to the Greater London Authority. The setting up of the electoral commission offers an opportunity to transfer responsibility for such campaigns to an independent body which is free from any suspicion of political partisanship.

Earlier in the mists of the debate surrounding this piece of legislation, pleas were made that it might be right and appropriate to have political figures as members of the electoral commission. We have stood resolutely steadfast against that. We believe that it has to be a rigorous, robust and independent electoral commission. I hope that that fact will begin to have some bearing on the suspicions that some Members of the Committee have expressed today. I believe that there is an important educational role for a robust and independent electoral commission.

It will not be for the commission to promote alternative electoral systems or alternative systems for local, regional or national government, to which the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, referred. It is clearly right that the commission should not distribute even purportedly factual literature about systems of voting or government which have not been adopted in this country. This starts to get to the root of some of the awkward questions that have been asked.

But that is already the effect of this clause as it stands. Subsection (1) refers to current and pending systems of voting and government. Subsection (2) makes it clear that "pending" simply means arrangements which are on the statute book or included in subordinate legislation but have yet to come into force. It means no more than that.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

I thank the noble Lord for giving way. We have more than two systems of election in this country, but perhaps I may refer to only two. We have a first-past-the-post system for Westminster and a list system for the Scottish Parliament. Will the electoral commission be able to educate the public outwith Scotland on the merits of the list system in order perhaps to soften them up for a change in the electoral system at Westminster?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

I think that the electoral commission would tread very carefully in that territory. It would reflect that it should be addressing only the education of the section of the community where that piece of legislation applied. I take the narrower view which lies behind the meaning of "pending" in this legislation.

As I said, "pending" means arrangements which are on the statute book or included in subordinate legislation but have yet to come into force. A case in point might be the new arrangements for London government. The Greater London Authority Act received Royal Assent in November 1999. Had the electoral commission been in existence at that time, it would have been entirely appropriate for it to have initiated a campaign after November 1999 to explain the purpose of the authority and the system for the election of the mayor and Assembly.

Lord McNally

I hope that the Minister will not get himself talked too much into a corner by the timidity of the noble Lord, Lord Mackay. How London is governing itself and how the system is working may well be of wider interest to people in other parts of the country. An information and education campaign about how the Scottish system or the London system is working would be of general interest. This is not creating new systems of government; that is for Parliament to do. Ministers should resist the crouched fear that a more informed electorate will somehow escape their grasp.

The Earl of Onslow

It is not a question of fear of the electorate: on this side of the Committee we have nothing to fear from the electorate. Quite rightly, they booted us out last time. They are intelligent enough to know it. They may even put us in next time, but that is a bit more "iffy". I have no fear of the people; I have no fear of their not making the right choice. The cringing is on the other side of the Chamber: "They're not well enough educated. They don't know. They can't choose their leaders". They have not made a mistake since 1945.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

I am enjoying the good-natured banter. Long may it continue.

This matter is important. I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord McNally, that we should not be too narrow in our view of these matters, but the commission clearly has to work within the powers as they are set out.

I am not, therefore, clear about the concerns that lie behind Amendments Nos. 42, 45 and 48. If Parliament has legislated for new electoral arrangements or if subordinate legislation has been made for such arrangements but commencement is delayed to just before the start of the election campaign, it seems perfectly reasonable that the electoral commission should nevertheless act to promote public understanding of how those arrangements will work.

Turning to Amendments Nos. 42A, 44, 46 and 47, the Government consider it an essential part of the commission's voter education function that it 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. One of the reasons why we have poor turn-outs at elections is that people fail to see the relevance of the body being elected. 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 (1), which Amendments Nos. 42A, 44 and 46 would remove, the commission's ability to make any meaningful impact on the level of participation in our democratic institutions would be severely constrained. With turn-out at last May's local government elections falling below 30 per cent, this cannot be in the interest of any political party or of local democracy in tins country. It will not be for the commission to be apologists for the policies adopted by those institutions; its role will simply be to convey, in a dispassionate and neutral manner—the manner referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth—in an educated, informed, constructive, thoughtful process, the importance of exercising the vote when those bodies are elected.

With regard to Amendment No. 49, the purpose of subsection (4)(b) is to enable the electoral commission, in carrying out its educational role, to harness the efforts of others. We envisage that the commission might wish to make grants available to organisations such as the Citizenship Foundation, which I believe was the body referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, or possibly Operation Black Vote, which campaigns to increase registration and participation among ethnic minorities and to encourage them generally to become involved in voting. We appreciate that there may be a fear that grants may go to politically partisan organisations with their own agenda. But we think that we can rely on the commission's good sense in that regard, given its independent and robust nature.

A number of other points were raised during the debate. I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Neill, in his analysis of the role and function of the electoral commission. The Government have listened by and large to the fruits of the Neill report; but we do not, as the noble Lord, Lord McNally, said, have to buy into everything that is said in the report; nor do we always have to agree with the noble Lord, Lord Neill, in his analysis.

I cannot agree with the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne. I believe that the Long Title is adequate. Functions are, after all, part and parcel of the establishment of the commission, and the Long Title refers to its establishment.

I believe that I have covered most of the substantive points raised. I hope that having heard what I have said in addressing the points raised and describing the way in which the commission will work, Members of the Committee will find themselves able to withdraw their amendments and thus enable us to have a commission that will be able to get on and do an effective job in raising the standard of knowledge about the institutions of our democracy.

6.15 p.m.

Lord Norton of Louth

Before the noble Lord sits down, perhaps I may ask him to return to this point. I think that there is a sleight of hand in his line of argument that because this has to do with elections and, therefore, people involved in elections need to know more about government, that somehow brings this matter within the scope of the Bill. I do not accept that people who are experts on the subject of elections are necessarily competent in terms of their expertise to broaden the subject to talk about systems of government. It is a major task in its own right and it is necessary to address the very problems that the Minister concedes.

I accept that there is a case for making sure that people are aware that greater participation in politics is necessary. However, I do not believe that this provision by itself is the way to do it. A much wider approach is needed through the education system. We are moving in that direction. That is not at issue. The issue is whether the commission will be qualified in terms of its composition, referred to by the Minister, to carry out this task and, therefore, whether it falls within the Long Title of the Bill.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

The commission will be interested and involved in a whole range of matters. It will examine boundary issues; the auditing and financing of parties; the registration of political parties; and the way in which donations are made and whether they are permissible; and it will carry out research in some of these matters. It seems to me that an electoral commission that is essentially interested and involved in the process of our democracy and our constitution is the institution to which we ought to turn to conduct impartial education and information campaigns. It is far better for a body that is at arm's length, which is robust and is independent of government, to carry out that important work.

I am grateful to the noble Lord for his input into this debate. He has confirmed one important point; namely, that these things can be done neutrally. I agree with him. That is what the commission should be doing and I expect that it will conduct itself in that way.

Lord Norton of Louth

I agree, and I am not disputing the "arm's length" aspect. That is not at issue so far as I am concerned. It is the fact that a body is being set up that will develop expertise in elections, political funding and referendums. However, Clause 12 seeks to take its expertise beyond that, to a much broader role which it will not be qualified to undertake.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

Before I sum up the debate on my amendments, perhaps I may make a point which I hope the noble Lord will be able to answer. I hear what he says about the importance of the electoral commission explaining to the public the importance of local government, and so on, so that they will turn out and vote.

I note from subsection (3) that the electoral commission will not have that role in Scotland in relation to Scottish local government. Does that mean that the electorate does not have to be informed about Scottish local government, and that the Government are happy with the turn-out? Who will do the job of the electoral commission so far as concerns local government in Scotland? I wonder whether the noble Lord can help me. Clearly, he cannot, but he may be able to help me later.

This has been an interesting debate. I am sorry that some Members of the Committee have not listened to the point being made by those of us on this side of the Chamber. None of us disagreed with the electoral commission having a role in helping to explain systems of election that were already in place legislatively. That is not our problem. Our concern is that, as matters relating to how the electorate is allowed to vote and the systems used possibly become more controversial—

Lord Bassam of Brighton

Both the noble Lord and I ought to have read subsection (3) of Clause 12, which makes it clear that this is a devolved matter. We should both have stuck more closely to the script.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

It may be a devolved matter, but that still does not answer the question: who is going to do it? I presume that it will not be the Scottish Parliament. Who will do it if the electoral commission cannot? That is the point I am making.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

The Scottish Executive.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

So it is the Scottish Executive! I thought that this was to be done in a neutral, non-political way by the electoral commission. How can it be done neutrally and non-politically by the electoral commission in the rest of the United Kingdom, but be done by the Scottish Executive in Scotland? The Scottish Executive is led by a friend of mine who has many merits, but impartial is not one of the words that I would use to describe him.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

No doubt the Scottish Executive will decide and determine how to conduct its affairs impartially in this regard.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

This is just part of the—

Lord McNally

Has not the noble Lord noticed that the leader of the Scottish Executive is helped by a friend of mine? Therefore, the neutrality is absolutely guaranteed.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

If I may say so, that actually makes me even more concerned.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

Perhaps I may further assist the noble Lord. If he turns to the Marshalled List, he will see that Amendment No. 50 provides some assistance in this respect. It says: The Scottish Ministers may by order provide that, despite subsection (3), the Commission may perform the functions conferred by this section in relation to local government elections or to local government in Scotland". I should point out that we have already debated that amendment.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

I am grateful to the Minister. That may well give me the answer that I was seeking; in other words, the Scottish Executive could actually ask the electoral commission to undertake this role. However, it seems odd that one of the results of devolution is that this Parliament sets up an electoral commission stating that it cannot deal with local government in Scotland; but, if the Scottish Executive asks the commission to do so, it can. It might be much simpler if we retained total responsibility for the matter and gave it directly to the electoral commission.

We have had an interesting debate. I do not wish to comment on all the speeches and all the points that have been made. However, there are some points that I must cover. My noble friend Lord Onslow said that perhaps the Conservatives deserved to be kicked out at the last election. I should tell the Committee that that is not the unanimous view of everyone on this side of the Chamber. Indeed, it is well worth pointing out that, unlike the other side of the Committee, my noble friend proves that we are not pager driven; neither are we forced to be "on message"—

Lord Dubs

Does the noble Lord agree with the comment made by the noble Earl, Lord Onslow?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

Certainly not. I thought that I was doing a splendid job.

We have heard from many speakers, some of whom waxed very lyrical. I was most interested in the contribution made by the noble Lord, Lord Warner. As a senior policy adviser to Jack Straw, I just wonder whether he had a hand in some of the original discussions on the Bill. That would, perhaps, make him a little more enthusiastic for it than might otherwise be the case. However, I shall leave the matter there.

The most substantive comment from the Government's side came from the noble Baroness, Lady Gould. There is no disagreement between us about the electoral commission performing a role to educate and inform the electorate about systems of voting. However, I am not sure that people need all that much education and help, unless we make the system enormously complicated. Like my noble friend Lord Cranborne, I think that they understand first past the post perfectly well. My proof is the way that, initially in Scotland and then in the rest of the United Kingdom, people were able to use tactical voting in first past the post to deliver the result— in my view wrongly—that they wished to see come about. I believe that the electorate do understand first past the post. It is fairly simple. Indeed, people have had a fortnight to watch it at the Olympic Games, where the winner wins, the loser loses—but the loser is not suddenly given some extra help in order to beat the winner.

I should point out to the noble Baroness that I do not think that I would ever say that the electorate needed some education on first past the past. However, during the passage of the Scotland Bill I may have said that we would have to be sure that the electorate were informed about, and understood, the new system that would operate in Scotland. Interestingly enough, I believe that the electorate did understand perfectly well what they were about, but they did not perhaps appreciate—the political parties, understandably, acted against correct information in this respect—that they could split their vote between the first past the post constituency vote and the list system. If we look at other countries where this system has been run for longer, we can see that there is a lot more ticket splitting than we saw in Scotland. In my view, judging from my observations, one of the reasons why it did not happen in Scotland is that all the political parties in all their propaganda were looking, for perfectly understandable reasons, for a double Labour vote, a double Conservative vote, a doubt Liberal Democrat vote or a double SNP vote—

Baroness Gould of Potternewton

Is that not why we need an independent voice to explain the system?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

Yes. We do not disagree on that point. I do not think that the lack of understanding was that great, although that may have been so at the margins because of the way that the political parties put it. If an electoral commission had explained to the electorate that they could "split the ticket", so to speak, that might have led to a little more ticket splitting. I agree that one of the tasks of the electoral commission could be explaining to people—I prefer to use the word "explaining" rather than "educating"—what the electoral system is, if it has been changed. But I still do not think that that would have helped to increase the turn-out in any way for the European parliamentary elections. I believe that the electorate understood perfectly well what the system was: it was a rigged one, and they did not want too much to do with it because they like voting for individuals.

The Minister rightly said that we can take comfort in subsection (2). Our problem is that we are concerned about the use to which the commission may be persuaded to put these powers in the future; in other words, that it may act as an explainer for a system that has not yet been introduced. Therefore, our amendments were all designed, if you like, to put a belt and braces on this particular exercise. I have to say that I prefer the amendment of my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth to those that I have tabled. I believe that he makes the position absolutely crystal clear. I believe that the use of the word "pending" is sloppy; indeed, it can have two meanings. It is all very well to say, "If you read further on you will understand it", but why should we always be asked to read further on before we can understand something? If it is possible, why cannot the position be made clear when it first appears? I believe that it is perfectly possible to make it clear on the first occasion. In my view, my noble friend's amendment is perfectly clear.

The noble Baroness, and others, were very keen to believe that the electoral commission would be impartial and that, therefore, we need not worry. No doubt we would have been told four or five weeks ago that the Lottery Commission was impartial and that we need not worry. But that is certainly not the view that a High Court judge took on the matter. I am afraid that it is not a good enough argument to say that an electoral commission will always be impartial. That may be true of one that is yet to be appointed and I could be convinced that the people on it would be impartial. However, it is not axiomatic that commissions appointed by government are impartial. Anyone who believes that should read the High Court judgment about the Lottery Commission. I am not content to rest on the view that electoral commissions will be impartial and that, therefore, we can leave such matters to their good sense.

The second group of amendments deals with the institutions of the European Union. I do not disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, that the workings and the detail of the EU are not as well understood in this country as they should be. However, I do not honestly think that it is the purpose of the electoral commission to set the matter right. Goodness alone knows, the European Commission spends enough money in this country trying to educate people about the institutions of the European Union. Indeed, it has even produced comics for youngsters which it subsequently withdraws because it is thought that they may be counter productive. I am not really surprised! The EU spends quite a lot of money on trying to persuade people—perhaps I should say "trying to explain to people", and not put it in a partial way—how the European Union works. I do not believe that that ought to be a role for the electoral commission. Yes, explaining how the electoral system for the European Parliament works is a role for it. We have agreed that and the amendment of my noble friend Lady Fookes would make that absolutely clear. I, for one, was not convinced by the Minister on this point.

The third group of amendments relates to making grants. I am totally unconvinced in this respect. I do not believe that this continued extension of the role of the electoral commission is right. The Minister read out the important roles the commission will have to fulfil. Frankly, I believe that those important roles are more than sufficient without the commission becoming involved in the other aspects that have been mentioned. I am not at all convinced that it ought to adopt grant-making powers to other bodies. It would then have to police those other bodies to ensure that they imparted impartial information. That adds to the role and responsibilities of the commission.

6.30 p.m.

Lord Clinton-Davis

The noble Lord also referred to the role of the European Commission. Some material that emanates from the headquarters of the European Commission in this country is discounted. Whether that is right or wrong is by the way; it is discounted. Would it not be advantageous for the commission to explain what the European Commission and all the other institutions of the European Union do?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

I am sorry to have to disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis. It is for government, the European Commission itself and those of us involved in public life to explain to people what these bodies do. I do not think that it is a matter for the electoral commission, especially as—the noble Lord knows this—it is a matter of some controversy. The very fact that he admits that the material issued by the European Commission to inform the public is discounted by many people underlines my point. If the electoral commission put out the same kind of material to explain the same kind of issues, its impartiality might be brought into question by some people who might not approve of what it said. That process would endanger the other roles of the electoral commission which are much more important.

I was pleased to hear the assurances which have been given. Those assurances may be referred to in the future if anything goes wrong with the electoral commission and it ceases to be the impartial body the noble Lord thinks it will be. I should have liked to hear the Minister say that he would reconsider the wording of the measure so that the meaning of "pending" is made crystal clear and we do not have to refer to another part of the Bill to confirm that meaning. We shall have to return to the institutions of the European Union. I am certainly not convinced about the grant-making bodies. When we reach the relevant amendment I may wish to test the opinion of the Committee.

The Earl of Onslow

Before the noble Lord withdraws the amendment, I have a question for the Minister. What is meant by the term, institutions of the European Union as they are not defined? Do the common agricultural policy and the common fisheries policy comprise institutions? What are the institutions?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

I take the institutions to mean in this instance the functioning parts of the European Union. That measure enables people to understand exactly what they are voting for.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Viscount Allenby of Megiddo)

Before I call Amendment No. 42A, I inform the Committee that if this amendment is accepted I cannot call Amendments Nos. 44 to 48.

Lord Norton of Louth moved Amendment No. 42A: Page 8, line 30, leave out from ("Kingdom") to end of line 39 and insert ("; and (b) any electoral system that has been authorised by enactment, but is not yet in force, for use at the next national or local election").

The noble Lord said: For the reasons I have advanced I believe that Amendment No. 42A would improve Clause 12. As the Government have not indicated that they will give ground with regard to Clause 12, I wish to test the opinion of the Committee.

6.34 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 42A) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 70; Not-Contents, 129.

Division No. 1
Allen of Abbeydale, L. Colwyn, L.
Astor, V. Cranborne, V.
Astor of Hever, L. Dixon-Smith, L.
Beaumont of Whitley, L. Dundee, E.
Biffen, L. Flather, B.
Blatch, B. Fookes, B.
Boardman, L. Freeman, L.
Bowness, L. Garel-Jones, L.
Brabazon of Tara, L. Glentoran, L.
Brougham and Vaux, L. Harris of High Cross, L.
Burnham, L. Henley, L.
Byford, B. Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, L
Caithness, E. Hogg, B.
Carlisle of Bucklow, L. Home, E.
Carnegy of Lour, B. Howe, E.
Clark of Kempston, L. Jopling, L.
Laird, L. Peel, E.
Lamont of Lerwick, L. Renton, L.
Lucas, L. Roberts of Conwy, L.
McColl of Dulwich, L. Ryder of Wensum, L.
Mackay of Ardbrecknish, L. Seccombe, B.
Mancroft, L. Selborne, E.
Marlesford, L. Selsdon, L.
Mayhew of Twysden, L. Sharples, B.
Molyneaux of Killead, L. Shaw of Northstead, L.
Monson, L. Shore of Stepney, L.
Montrose, D. Stodart of Leaston, L.
Murton of Lindisfarne, L. Stoddart of Swindon, L.
Northbrook, L. Strathclyde, L.
Northesk, E. Swinfen, L.
Norton of Louth, L. Thomas of Gwydir, L.
O'Cathain, B. Vivian, L.
Onslow, E. Wade of Chorlton, L.
Palmer, L. Willoughby de Broke, L.
Park of Monmouth, B. Young, B.
Acton, L. Harris of Greenwich, L.
Addington, L. Harris of Haringey, L.
Alli, L. Harrison, L.
Alton of Liverpool, L. Haskel, L.
Amos, B. Hayman, B.
Andrews, B. Healey, L.
Archer of Sandwell, L. Hollis of Heigham, B.
Bach, L. Hoyle, L.
Barnett, L. Hughes of Woodside, L.
Bassam of Brighton, L. Hunt of Chesterton, L.
Berkeley, L. Hunt of Kings Heath, L.
Bernstein of Craigweil, L. Irvine of Lairg, L. (Lord Chancellor)
Blackstone, B.
Blease, L. Islwyn, L.
Bragg, L. Jay of Paddington, B. (Lord Privy Seal)
Brennan, L.
Brooke of Alverthorpe, L. Jenkins of Putney, L.
Brookman, L. Judd, L.
Brooks of Tremorfa, L. Kirkhill, L.
Burlison, L. Layard, L.
Carlile of Berriew, L. Lea of Crondall, L.
Carter, L. Lipsey, L.
Chandos, V. Lockwood, B.
Christopher, L. Lofthouse of Pontefract, L.
Clarke of Hampstead, L. Macdonald of Tradeston, L.
Clinton-Davis, L. McIntosh of Haringey, L.
Cocks of Hartcliffe, L. MacKenzie of Culkein, L.
Cohen of Pimlico, B. Mackenzie of Framwellgate, L
Crawley, B. Mackie of Benshie, L.
Davies of Oldham, L. McNally, L.
Dholakia, L. Maddock, B.
Dixon, L. Mar and Kellie, E
Donoughue, L. Mason of Barnsley, L.
Dormand of Easington, L. Massey of Darwen, B.
Dubs, L. Milner of Leeds, L.
Elder, L Molloy, L.
Evans of Temple Guiting, L. Morris of Manchester, L.
Evans of Watford, L. Nicol, B.
Falkland, V. Orme, L.
Farrington of Ribbleton, B. Parekh, L.
Faulkner of Worcester, L. Pitkeathley, B.
Filkin, L. Ponsonby of Shulbrede, L.
Fyfe of Fairfield, L. Prys-Davies, L.
Gale, B. Ramsay of Cartvale, B.
Gibson of Market Rasen, B. Rea, L.
Gladwin of Clee, L. Rendell of Babergh, B.
Goldsmith, L. Rennard, L.
Goodhart, L. Renwick of Clifton, L.
Goudie, B. Richard, L.
Gould of Potternewton, B. Sainsbury of Turville, L.
Graham of Edmonton, L. Scotland of Asthal, B.
Grenfell, L. Scott of Needham Market, B.
Hamwee, B. Sharp of Guildford, B.
Hardy of Wath, L. Shepherd, L.
Sheppard of Liverpool, L. Turner of Camden, B.
Shutt of Greetland, L. Walker of Doncaster, L.
Simon, V. Wallace of Saltaire, L.
Smith of Gilmorehill, B. Warner, L.
Steel of Aikwood, L. Warwick of Undercliffe, B.
Watson of Invergowrie, L.
Stone of Blackheath, L. Wedderburn of Charlton, L
Strabolgi, L. Whitaker, B.
Symons of Vernham Dean, B. Whitty, L.
Taylor of Blackburn, L. Wilkins, B.
Tomlinson, L. Winston, L.
Turnberg, L. Young of Old Scone, B.

Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.

6.43 p.m.

[Amendment No. 43 had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.]

The Deputy Chairman of Committees

Before calling Amendment No. 44, I have to inform the Committee that if the amendment were agreed to I cannot call Amendment No. 45.

[Amendments Nos. 44 to 48 not moved.]

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish moved Amendment No. 49: Page 9, line 1, leave out paragraph (b).

The noble Lord said: I thought the reply on this amendment was entirely unsatisfactory. I beg to move.

6.45 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 49) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 59; Not-Contents, 128.

Division No. 2
Allenby of Megiddo, V. Hogg, B.
Astor, V. Home, E.
Astor of Hever, L. Howe, E.
Beaumont of Whitley, L. Jopling, L.
Blatch, B. Laird, L.
Boardman, L. Lamont of Lerwick, L.
Bowness, L. Lucas, L.
Brougham and Vaux, L. McColl of Dulwich, L.
Burnham, L. Mackay of Ardbrecknish, L.
Byford, B. Marlesford, L.
Caithness, E. Mayhew of Twysden, L.
Carlisle of Bucklow, L. Molyneaux of Killead, L.
Carnegy of Lour, B. Monson, L.
Clark of Kempston, L. Montrose, D.
Colwyn, L. Northbrook, L.
Cranborne, V. Northesk, E.
Dixon-Smith, L. Norton of Louth, L.
Flather, B. O'Cathain, B.
Fookes, B. Onslow, E.
Freeman, L. Palmer, L.
Garel-Jones, L. Park of Monmouth, B.
Glentoran, L. Peel, E.
Henley, L. Renton, L.
Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, L. Roberts of Conwy, L.
Seccombe, B. Strathclyde, L.
Selsdon, L. Swinfen, L.
Thomas of Gwydir, L.
Sharples, B. Vivian, L.
Shaw of Northstead, L. Willoughby de Broke, L.
Stodart of Leaston, L. Young, B.
Acton, L. Islwyn, L.
Addington, L. Jay of Paddington, B. (Lord Privy Seal)
Alli, L.
Amos, B. Jenkins of Putney, L.
Andrews, B. Judd, L.
Archer of Sandwell, L. Kirkhill, L.
Bach, L. Layard, L.
Barker, B. Lea of Crondall, L.
Bassam of Brighton, L. Lipsey, L.
Berkeley, L. Lockwood, B.
Bernstein of Craigweil, L. Lofthouse of Pontefract, L.
Billingham, B. Macdonald of Tradeston, L.
Blackstone, B. McIntosh of Haringey, L.
Blease, L. MacKenzie of Culkein, L.
Bragg, L. Mackenzie of Framwellgate, L.
Brennan, L. Mackie of Benshie, L.
Brooke of Alverthorpe, L. McNally, L.
Brookman, L. Maddock, B.
Brooks of Tremorfa, L. Mar and Kellie, E.
Burlison, L. Massey of Darwen, B.
Carlile of Berriew, L. Milner of Leeds, L.
Carter, L. Molloy, L,
Chandos, V. Morris of Manchester, L.
Christopher, L. Nicol, B.
Clarke of Hampstead, L. Orme, L.
Clinton-Davis, L. Parekh, L.
Cocks of Hartcliffe, L. Pitkeathley, B.
Cohen of Pimlico, B. Plant of Highfield, L.
Crawley, B. Ponsonby of Shulbrede, L.
Davies of Oldham, L. Prys-Davies, L.
Dixon, L. Ramsay of Cartvale, B.
Donoughue, L. Rea, L.
Dormand of Easington, L. Rendell of Babergh, B.
Dubs, L. Rennard, L.
Elder, L. Renwick of Clifton, L.
Evans of Temple Guiting, L. Richard, L.
Evans of Watford, L. Roper, L.
Falkland, V. Sainsbury of Turville, L.
Farrington of Ribbleton, B. Scotland of Asthal, B.
Faulkner of Worcester, L. Scott of Needham Market, B.
Filkin, L. Sharp of Guildford, B.
Fyfe of Fairfield, L. Shepherd, L.
Gale, B. Sheppard of Liverpool, L.
Gibson of Market Rasen, B. Shore of Stepney, L.
Gladwin of Clee, L. Shutt of Greetland, L.
Goldsmith, L. Simon, V.
Goodhart, L. Smith of Gilmorehill, B.
Goudie, B. Stoddart of Swindon, L.
Gould of Potternewton, B. Stone of Blackheath, L.
Graham of Edmonton, L. Strabolgi, L.
Hamwee, B. Symons of Vernham Dean, B.
Hardy of Wath, L. Tomlinson, L.
Harris of Greenwich, L. Turnberg, L.
Harris of Haringey, L. Turner of Camden, B.
Harrison, L. Walker of Doncaster, L.
Haskel, L. Wallace of Saltaire, L.
Hayman, B. Walmsley, B.
Healey, L. Warner, L.
Hollis of Heigham, B. Watson of Invergowrie, L.
Hoyle, L. Wedderburn of Charlton, L.
Hughes of Woodside, L. Whitaker, B.
Hunt of Chesterton, L. Whitty, L.
Hunt of Kings Heath, L. Wilkins, B.
Irvine of Lairg, L. (Lord Chancellor) Winston, L.
Young of Old Scone, B.

Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.

6.55 p.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton moved Amendment No. 50: Page 9, line 9, at end insert— ("(7) The Scottish Ministers may by order provide that, despite subsection (3), the Commission may perform the functions conferred by this section in relation to local government elections or to local government in Scotland. (8) Subsection (6) shall not apply to the expenditure incurred by the Commission in performing their functions exercisable by virtue of an order made by the Scottish Ministers under subsection (7); but such expenditure shall not exceed such sum as is for the time being specified for the purposes of this subsection in an order made by the Scottish Ministers. (9) The Scottish Ministers shall reimburse the Commission for any expenditure incurred by them which is attributable to the exercise of any of functions mentioned in subsection (8). (10) Section 146(5) shall apply to an order made by the Scottish Ministers under this section as it applies to an order made by the Secretary of State under this Act and the reference in that section to enactments shall include a reference to any enactment comprised in or in an instrument made under an Act of the Scottish Parliament. (11) The power of the Scottish Ministers to make an order under this section shall be exercisable by statutory instrument subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of the Scottish Parliament.").

The noble Lord said: I beg to move.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

I would not normally intervene, because we have already spoken to the amendment, five months ago, but I am surprised to see it appear on the Marshalled List with an asterisk. An asterisk means that either the amendment is new—I know that it is not—or it has been altered. I want to know why it has been altered.

While I am at it, I also want to know what will happen if the Scottish Ministers decide not to confer the functions. If there had not been an asterisk, I would not have read it, so the Minister has the asterisk to thank for this intervention.

Bearing in mind subsection (10), if it is found that an amendment is needed to a United Kingdom Act or order, how can it be done by Scottish Ministers in the Scottish Parliament? Who will be able to do it? I am a little puzzled by that.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

I knew that I should be grateful for an asterisk. The amendment is starred because the words "by order" have been added in subsection (7). Those words were missed out in error previously. It is clear from new subsection (11) that the power in new subsection (7) to extend the electoral commission's voter education function to cover Scottish local government elections is intended to be exercised by order.

On the noble Lord's second point, if the Scottish Executive decided that it did not want to buy into the electoral commission, one would assume that it had its reasons. That would be a matter for the Scottish Executive.

Thirdly, I am advised that there is no need to amend UK legislation for the Scottish Executive to exercise the powers.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 12, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 13 [Boundary committees]:

Lord Bach moved Amendment No. 50A: Page 9, line 13, leave out subsections (2) and (3) and insert— ("(2) Each Boundary Committee shall consist of—

  1. (a) a chairman, and
  2. (b) not less than the appropriate number of other members, appointed by the Commission.
(3) For the purposes of subsection (2) "the appropriate number", in relation to a Boundary Committee, is—
  1. (a) two, if no functions fall to be exercised by the Committee by virtue of section 17(1), section (Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland)(1) or section 18(1) (as the case may be); and
  2. (b) four, if any functions fall to be so exercised.").

The noble Lord said: I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 50B, 52A, 53A, 53B, 54A, 55A, 55B, 93A, 313A, 322R and 322T. Despite the apparent detail, the purpose of the amendments is straightforward. The intention is that the Bill should provide for the transfer of the functions of the existing parliamentary and local government boundary commissions to the electoral commission.

The case for such a transfer is simple. The Jenkins commission on the voting system, about which we have already heard today, pointed to the need for greater co-ordination of the work of the four parliamentary boundary commissions. In addition, a review of the Local Government Commission for England, which reported in 1998, concluded that a merger between the parliamentary and local government boundary commissions for England would lead to improved efficiency and greater effectiveness and coherence in the review of boundaries from ward level up to Westminster constituencies.

As it stands, the Bill provides for such a merger of functions within the electoral commission. However, the apparent role of the commission essentially is to delegate the exercise of the existing commission's functions to the boundary committees which it will be required to establish.

On reflection, that is not entirely satisfactory. The full benefits of a merger of the existing boundary commissions would not be realised unless the electoral commission had a clear strategic role in directing and co-ordinating the work of the boundary committees. Without such strategic oversight, there is a danger that the new arrangements will not represent any great advance upon those which exist currently.

The key amendments in this group are Amendments Nos. 52A and 93A. Amendment No. 52A would insert a new clause which would replace existing Clause 15. The new clause would give effect to a new schedule, inserted by Amendment No. 93A, which amends the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 so as to set out the respective roles and functions of, on the one hand, the electoral commission and, on the other, the boundary committees in relation to the review of parliamentary constituency boundaries.

The new schedule is rather lengthy. However, in large part that is because it would also make a number of equivalent changes to the provisions of the Government of Wales Act 1998 and the Scotland Act 1998 concerned with the review of electoral boundaries in respect of the National Assembly for Wales and the Scottish Parliament.

The principal points are that, under the revised arrangements, responsibility for keeping under review the distribution of parliamentary constituencies would rest with the electoral commission. It would be for the commission to make a report to the relevant Secretary of State, recommending changes to constituency boundaries. Where the commission decided to make a report, it would then be for the relevant boundary committee to carry out the required review and to submit to the commission proposals as to the recommendations for inclusion in its report.

The commission could ensure that the four boundary committees took a consistent approach to the review of constituency boundaries by issuing directions to each committee. However, any such directions would themselves need to be consistent with the rules for the redistribution of seats.

On receipt of a committee's report, the electoral commission would have five options. It could: first, accept the proposed recommendations; secondly, accept the recommendations subject to modifications agreed with the committee; thirdly, reject the recommendations and require the committee to reconsider its proposals; fourthly, reject the recommendations and require the committee to undertake another complete or part review; and, lastly, in the case of a review into only part of the area for which the respective committee is responsible, take no further action.

We hope and expect that the commission would never have to exercise the option of requiring a further full review. However, it is right that the commission should have that in its armoury; for example, to cover a situation where a committee had failed properly to apply the rules for the redistribution of seats.

A number of the remaining amendments are consequential upon the revised arrangements. Amendments Nos. 53A, 53B, 55A and 55B are concerned with the order-making powers in Clauses 17 and 18. Those clauses empower the Secretary of State and the National Assembly for Wales to transfer to the electoral commission the functions of the Local Government Commission for England and the Local Government Boundary Commission for Wales respectively. The amendments would require that the arrangements effected by any such order were consistent with the respective roles of the commission and the boundary committees, as set out in the new schedule.

The new clause inserted by Amendment No. 54A makes parallel provision for the Scottish Executive to transfer to the electoral commission the functions of the Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland. Amendments Nos. 322R and 322T make minor consequential changes to Schedule 21.

Amendments Nos. 50A and 50B are concerned with the membership of the boundary committees. Amendment No. 50A provides that, where the functions of a boundary committee extend to the review of local government boundaries, the committee must have a minimum of five members rather than three. That is simply an acknowledgement of the workload of a boundary committee involved in both parliamentary and local government boundary reviews.

Finally, Amendment No. 50B requires that at least one member of each committee has experience of local government matters in the relevant part of the United Kingdom and also, in the case of the boundary committee for Wales, that one member is a Welsh-speaker. Beyond that, I hope that the changes speak for themselves. I beg to move Amendment No. 50A.

Lord Monson

Can the Minister assure the Committee that the transfer of functions from the existing Boundary Commission for Scotland to the new commission, as provided for in Clauses 13 to 15, will not further delay the reduction in Scottish representation at Westminster to English, Welsh and Northern Irish levels, as stipulated in the Scotland Act? The reduction in the over-representation of Scotland is already taking a scandalously long time.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton

Briefly, I want to say how much I welcome these government amendments and the amalgamation of the parliamentary and local government boundaries under the strategic oversight of the electoral commission. I believe that during our first Committee day discussion took place as to the role of the electoral commission and that, at that time, it was said that it would cover parliamentary boundaries only. I believe that both the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, and I were in favour of introducing local government boundaries into that system.

It seems to me that that will get rid of the rather ludicrous situation whereby local government boundaries are the building bricks for the parliamentary boundary but never the twain shall meet. At the moment I am working on a local government boundary completely unaware of what the parliamentary outcome might be. That seems very silly indeed. Therefore, I am delighted that this amendment is before us.

Perhaps I may ask my noble friend one small question. Does the timetable of five years, which was the timescale originally proposed for placing parliamentary boundaries within the work of the electoral commission, still apply?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bach, for his clear explanation of the amendments and, indeed, for the way in which he linked them together and explained them to us. I shall probably not be able to do so quite as cleverly as he did because, as the Committee will appreciate, there are quite a lot of amendments in this particular group.

Perhaps I may make two general points. First, I am surprised that at this stage all these amendments and a new schedule of considerable length have been added to the Bill. I wonder what would have happened if all the Committee proceedings had taken place shortly after 11th May, as the Government would have been left with a Bill which was not complete. It seems to me that perhaps their excuse for the long delay is that they had to burn the midnight oil on several nights in order to deal with some of those issues. However, when one considers that the Bill has already been through the other place, it is odd that this important aspect of the Bill—that is, the relationship between the local government boundaries and the parliamentary boundaries—has not been addressed until the rather postponed Committee stage in this House.

My second point is that I want to echo what the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, has just said. One of the daftest aspects of our system is the way in which we try to pretend that local government boundaries and parliamentary boundaries have no relationship. I have quite a revolutionary view: I do not believe that they should necessarily be coterminous. I believe that the determination to use multiples of local government boundaries when making up parliamentary seats has led to some of the nonsenses in the system, especially when one considers the numbers involved in different constituencies.

I shall not go on about that; I believe that noble Lords have heard me speak about it before. I should like to think that the electoral commission will have the courage to say that, although it is nice to follow local government boundaries—and I understand that—it is not imperative. Other issues are more important—in particular achieving a closer proximity to the electoral quota. One of the problems with the first-past-the-post system and the distortions of it in the current way that it is operating is that we have constituencies of disparate size. That is particularly true in Scotland. I shall not bore the Committee with a detailed explanation.

If one of the electoral commission's roles is in relation to quotas, will it be able to assist in ensuring that the Scotland Act's sections dealing with that are properly implemented and that the quota in the next review is the same as the quota for England and Wales?

Amendment No. 50B, I notice, contains some specification about the membership of the committee. It says that one member should be a person with experience of local government matters. On the last Committee day, I was told that the Government refused to specify membership of the committee to allow for a judge to be the chairman of the boundary commission, as has been the custom in the past. They would not specify that. But here they are specifying that there should be someone with experience of local government matters. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Bach, will define for the future what "experience" means.

The noble Lord, Lord Bassam, has experience of local government matters. Would that do? I have experience, although mine is a good deal more historic than that of the noble Lord, Lord Bassam. Indeed, the local authority of which I was a member has long since disappeared into history. I do not think the authority of the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, has yet disappeared into history.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

I am afraid so, yes. Brighton Borough Council is no longer, but Brighton and Hove Council is.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

The noble Lord, Lord Bassam, understands what I am talking about. Are we talking about that or are we talking about an official? What is meant by "experience of local government matters"?

Lord Clinton-Davis

Does the noble Lord recall his own past at all? I have every reason to believe that he has every justification for forgetting his past. But having said that, the words of which he complains were used in Conservative legislation time and again.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

I am not complaining about the words. I am merely asking the Minister what he means by them. I am happy about my past. I try not to talk about it too much. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, would remember that when it comes to the European Commission. Perhaps we should have a joint pact about not talking too much about our past. In this case, I am merely saying that I do not believe that my past qualifies me as a person experienced in local government after this passage of time.

I turn now to Schedule 3. Are there any new provisions in it which the Government are introducing? It is a very large schedule.

I make one final point. I am not sure whether this is the right time to raise it but we are talking about the boundary commission. If it is decided to uncouple the Westminster parliamentary constituencies in Scotland from the Scottish parliamentary constituencies in Scotland, would those rules enable the Boundary Commission for Scotland, under the electoral commission, to draw up separate boundaries for the Scottish Parliament? It would need to do that because the reason for uncoupling is that we should have fewer Members at Westminster than we should have in the Scottish Parliament.

The Minister may tell me that the Scotland Act currently does not allow for that. He is quite right. But I must tell him that, as I prophesied, there is already a considerable head of steam building up in Scotland about the uncoupling of those two numbers. I wonder whether this Bill would allow the boundary commission to look separately at those two aspects.

7.15 p.m.

Lord Bach

I am grateful for the contributions to this debate. I reply first to the noble Lord, Lord Monson. I am advised that the Bill will not delay the reduction in Scottish seats about which he is concerned. It is important to note that after five years, the boundary commission will go into the electoral commission. By that stage, the existing Boundary Commission should have reported—its fifth report. I believe that that also answers the question posed by my noble friend Lady Gould.

It remains the Government's intention to defer the transfer of the functions of the parliamentary boundary commission until around 2005; that is, when it has completed its fifth review. That will ensure that there is no disruption to the current review which is already under way in England.

I am grateful too for the general support, because that is how I took it, from the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, for the principle behind Schedule 3. It is that principle of bringing together the local and national boundary committees which is what is new about Schedule 3.

The noble Lord commented on disparate size. I have heard him speak before very interestingly on that issue. He should be well satisfied by the introduction of Schedule 3 because, at all important points, it means that the electoral commission is the powerful body which can decide what it does with a boundary committees review. One of the matters which I raised when I moved the amendment was to suggest that if a boundary committee had not looked in a proper way at the proper distribution of seats, then it should have done so and the electoral commission will be able to do something about it.

The noble Lord asked about experience in local government. On the face of it, both the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, and my noble friend Lord Bassam would be excellent candidates for a boundary committee on the basis of their extensive and widespread local government experience. But that would probably be confined to the areas in which they had practised their local government, if I may express the matter in that way. That is a matter for the commission to determine when making appointments to a boundary committee. That phrase reflects exactly the provisions of the Local Government Act 1992 in respect of the Local Government Commission for England.

I want to be extremely careful in answering the noble Lord's last question. I am not sure that I know the answer at the moment. It is an important question and I know that it exercises the noble Lord particularly. Therefore, I shall write to him with an answer to that particular question and place a copy in the Library as soon as possible.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

I thank the noble Lord for that. It is a rather complicated question. I probably know the answer but I always like to know whether I am right. I shall not tell the noble Lord what I think the answer is. I shall wait until I receive his letter.

I noted down one point when he was explaining the amendments and I forgot to raise it. He said that the electoral commission could do a number of things with a report from the boundary commission: it could accept it, amend it, send it back and so on. When he said that, I wondered whether the electoral commission would do that of its own accord or do I assume that those political parties which were aggrieved by the findings of the boundary commission would make representations to the electoral commission? Would they be allowed to do that? Would that be part of the process; that the political parties would make representations?

If that is the case, the electoral commission will be extremely busy after boundary commission reports. If that has not been thought about, perhaps it should be thought about.

Lord Bach

It seems unrealistic to suppose that attempts will not be made by all political parties or none to the electoral commission. But it will be a test of that body's independence as to how it responds to those requests. "Requests" may be putting it rather lightly. The decision as to what to do with the report of the boundary committee will be one for the electoral commission. We are sure that that will be taken in an independent, non-partisan way.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Bassam of Brighton moved Amendment No. 50B: Page 9, line 20, at end insert— ("( ) The Commission shall, where any functions fall to be exercised by a Boundary Committee as mentioned in subsection (3), so exercise their powers of appointment under this section and section 14 as to secure—

  1. (a) that at least one of the members of the Committee is a person with experience of local government matters in England, Scotland or Wales (as the case may be); and
  2. (b) that, in the case of the Boundary Committee for Wales, at least one of the members of the Committee is a person able to speak the Welsh language.").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

[Amendment No. 51 not moved.]

Clause 13, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 14 [Deputy Electoral Commissioners]:

Lord Bassam of Brighton moved Amendment No. 52: Page 9, line 36, at end insert— ("(A person shall not be appointed as a Deputy Electoral Commissioner if he is a person who (by virtue of section 3(3A)) may not be appointed as an Electoral Commissioner.").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 14, as amended, agreed to.

Lord Bach moved Amendment No. 52A: After Clause 14, insert the following new clause—

  2. cc226-9