HL Deb 09 April 2001 vol 624 cc1027-56

5.25 p.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

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

Lord Elton

My Lords, on that Motion, may I ask the Leader of the House if she will put to the Procedure Committee—

The Deputy Speaker (Lord Skelmersdale)

My Lords, the Question is that the House do now again resolve itself into Committee.

Lord Elton

My Lords, I should have known better. Will the Leader of the House draw to the attention of the Procedure Committee that a number of noble Lords were not able to comment on this Statement—or, indeed, on the previous Statement on agriculture—and will she ask it to consider whether 20 minutes is enough for that purpose?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, it is not within my gift to refer a matter to the Procedure Committee. If the noble Lord wishes to do so, the Procedure Committee may well entertain such a submission. However, having myself experienced the handling of Statements on the summit conferences of European leaders, it is always the case that more noble Lords wish to take part than is possible in 20 minutes—but that is one of the conventions of the House.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

My Lords, in that case, would it not be reasonable for the Government to grant your Lordships' House a debate on the Treaty of Nice in advance of the Bill coming before us for ratification?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, will not expect me to say anything other than, "Nice try".

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I beg to move.

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

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly on Clause 1.

[The DEPUTY CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES (The Countess of Mar) in the Chair.]

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 2: Page 1. line 5, at end insert— ( ) In subsection (1 ), "local government election" means the same as in section 203(1) of the Representation of the People Act 1983.

The noble Baroness said: I can be brief. The amendment seeks to include in the Bill a definition of "local government election" by reference to an existing definition in the Representation of the People Act 1983, which defines "local government election" as, the election of councillors for any electoral area"— and which defines "electoral area" to include all those electoral areas with which the Committee is familiar, including parish and community areas.

I asked the Minister at Second Reading whether the Bill extends to town, parish and community councils, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, confirmed that it does. Indeed, the compendium letter from the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, which has been sent to many of your Lordships, also states quite simply "It does". I tabled the amendment before I received the letter. However, it may be appropriate to ask that if a definition was thought to be necessary in the statute passed in 1983, why is it not necessary now?

Stretching that point a little in order to make a point—this is the best place at which I can make it—perhaps I may refer to another paragraph of the compendium letter which refers to postal votes. It explains, among other things, that people who have submitted an application for a postal vote for 3rd May—for a particular reason appertaining to 3rd May—will have to submit a fresh application. I do not seek to argue the point, but can the Government ensure that returning officers are recommended to write to those who have applied for postal votes for that date to alert them to the need to apply afresh for the later date? There is scope for some confusion and some electors will assume that, having applied for the earlier date, their application will stand. I beg to move.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for tabling the amendment. As she said, it was tabled before my compendium letter was sent out. I hope that the letter has clarified the situation. As I explained, it is clear that the Bill as it stands covers elections to town and parish councils. That is certainly my understanding. Any elections to such bodies which would have otherwise been held in the period 3rd May to 6th June are also postponed. I accept that this is not spelt out in the Bill. However, it is implicit and I can assure the Committee that that is the case.

The noble Baroness asked about postal votes. We shall probably have to talk to the Association of Electoral Registration Officers to see whether what the noble Baroness suggested can be practically done. I am sure that it can be done. I take the point. It seems to be an important point and I shall certainly pass it on. With that, I hope that the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw her amendment.

Baroness Hamwee

I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

5.30 p.m.

Lord Norton of Louth moved Amendment No. 3: Page 1, line 5. at end insert— ( ) The provisions of subsection (1) shall not apply in respect of elections to unitary authorities.

The noble Lord said: At Second Reading, we discussed the case for delaying elections from 3rd May to 7th June in fairly general terms. There is a need to tease out why the elections should be postponed on a uniform basis. Local elections are not all held on the same day throughout the United Kingdom; normally local government elections are held in Northern Ireland on the third Wednesday in May, not on the first Thursday.

I can see why it is difficult to proceed with elections to county councils. In some areas it is extremely difficult to campaign: most of those involved in electioneering are busy trying to cope with the foot and mouth crisis. I can see that there would be difficulty in allowing elections to proceed in some counties but not in others. However, unitary authorities are a separate category. Only 11 have elections this year, and of those nine are electing one-third of the membership. Also, the authorities generally cover urban or suburban areas. I therefore felt it appropriate to ask the Minister to justify why these elections are included.

I can see that the explanation could be practical or moral. I checked on the practical explanation earlier: it relates to campaigning. It is not difficult to hold the elections at a particular time; the Government have conceded that it is physically possible to hold them. I doubt whether the present crisis will interfere substantially with local campaigning in unitary authorities. There may be a practical objection, in that it may be difficult for the parties nationally to have to cope with one set of elections on 3rd May and another on 7th June. That objection may also embody a political agenda which may not be confined simply to local elections.

The moral objection is that foot and mouth disease is a UK-wide problem, or at least a problem affecting most of Britain, and therefore the nation should be seen as acting together in facing the crisis. The decision to delay is thus as much symbolic as practical.

Given that the Bill was not subject to sustained scrutiny in another place—indeed, there was no debate at all at Committee stage—it is important that we use this opportunity to ensure that the Government justify the Bill's provisions in some detail. In that sense, the amendment is not designed to be hostile; it is designed to tease a response out of the Government and to give them an opportunity to place on record the reasons for this measure. It is important that people outside this House know why we are passing this Bill. Are elections to unitary authorities being postponed along with county council elections for practical or for symbolic reasons, or both? I beg to move.

The Attorney-General (Lord Williams of Mostyn)

As the noble Lord has economically pointed out, the amendment would remove unitary authorities from the scope of the Bill. That means that on 3rd May there would be elections in 11 unitary authorities, one of which is the Isle of Wight, where there are vast areas of agricultural land. It is true that there has been no occurrence of foot and mouth disease there so far. Another, surprisingly, is Blackburn with Darwen. It may sound like an urban area, but it is not. It contains significant rural areas, and there are confirmed cases of foot and mouth disease in Lancashire.

Most unitary authorities have some rural hinterland. In Berkshire, for instance, three unitary authorities are up for election in May. There have been confirmed outbreaks of foot and mouth disease in the county. I was reminded of what the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, told us; namely that Essex was the first county to witness the foot and mouth outbreak—and there are two unitary authorities in Essex.

The answer is that it is not a question that is either moral or practical. It seems to me that the general feeling of the country was expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee; namely, that it would have been unseemly to continue. I repeat, and stress, what my noble friend Lord Bassam and I have said on a number of occasions. We put off the elections with great care and caution, and indeed reluctance, for the reasons that were identified fully at Second Reading: so that we should be able to hold elections with the minimal period of delay, having arrived at a situation where mechanisms would be in place to bring matters under control.

Baroness Scott of Needham Market

In the spirit of this debate, I should be grateful to the noble Lord who moved the amendment if he could help me in my thinking. One of the difficulties with this patchwork approach is that someone somewhere has to make the decision as to which authorities should go ahead and which should not.

I have difficulty in thinking of an objective set of criteria that could be used in making such a decision. My fear is that in many cases the public perception would be that the decision had been made more for political reasons than for practical ones. Given that the issue of public support for elections is a prime reason for delay, it would be a nonsense to have a process that had less public support than when we started.

Lord Norton of Louth

I take the noble Baroness's point. I am very conscious of the argument that can be deployed against my amendment. I hoped that it would tease out with greater clarity the case for the Bill, which relates to the precise point that the noble Baroness was making; namely, the criteria that justify the measure. In that sense, I was disappointed with the Minister's response. It somewhat muddies the water. Saying that the reason is neither practical nor moral and using the phrase "would have been unseemly", rather than clarifying the criteria on which the Bill has been brought forward, adds to the confusion.

I hope that later amendments that I have tabled will serve the purpose of drawing out the reasons from the Government, so that we can be clear and we can send out the message. I am not making a case for the amendment and I do not intend to pursue it. I merely use it as a peg to draw out and make sure that we are quite clear in regard to the criteria for the Bill.

As I say, the noble and learned Lord's response, rather than clarifying matters, adds to the confusion. I hope that we may come to greater clarity when we debate later amendments. For the moment, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave withdrawn.

The Deputy Chairman of Committees

In calling Amendment No. 4, 1 must point out to the Committee that, if it is agreed to, I cannot call Amendments Nos. 5 and 6 on the grounds of pre-emption.

Lord Norton of Louth moved Amendment No. 4: Page 1, line 6, leave out subsection (2).

The noble Lord said: I have tabled two amendments which provide alternatives to the provision postponing the holding of by-elections. It is clear from what has just been said that they are mutually exclusive. I did so because there will clearly not be an opportunity to come back with amendments on Report which take into account the Minister's response at this stage. Looking at the Marshalled List, I see that other Members of the Committee have adopted a similar approach.

Subsection (2) provides that by-elections that would otherwise be held on 3rd May or in the period from 3rd May to 6th June should be postponed until 7th June. The reasons for this are not altogether clear. There seems little reason why by-elections should be postponed, be it for practical or for symbolic purposes.

By-elections can be held up to 3rd May. I fully understand the reasons. If they can be held under the present conditions, why cannot they be held in the period between 3rd May and 7th June? By-elections are not the strain on the time and resources of parties and candidates that full council elections clearly are. Is the odd by-election, the odd casual vacancy, going to draw away those who are centrally engaged in fighting the foot and mouth outbreak? If it is likely to do so, why not allow the local authority to ask the Secretary of State to make an order postponing a particular election? That is what the alternative option provides for.

However, I am more wedded to the principal amendment; I see little practical reason why such elections should not go ahead. There seems little place for postponing by-elections on symbolic grounds. Postponing or not postponing them will not send out a particularly strong signal one way or the other. They do not achieve high public visibility.

Leaving a local council seat vacant for over a month may not seem too important, but it may have important consequences. One or more casual vacancies could affect party control of a particular authority. Given that, why not allow casual vacancies to be filled? As I say, it seems somewhat perverse to have by-elections up until 3rd May when we are tackling a very severe crisis, but not to have them between 3rd May and 7th June. If they are to be postponed, then we need to be quite clear as to the reasons. I therefore look forward to a full response from the Minister. I beg to move.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

I am reminding myself that we are now at the Committee stage of this Bill. Nevertheless, I return to the point that I made earlier: an unseemly course of action may be unseemly because it lacks a moral basis. The first amendment would allow by-elections to be continued from 3rd May to 7th June. I believe that that would cause puzzlement to the general public. It might well be distressing because those "casual" vacancies could well be by-elections in significantly affected areas; for example, there might be by-elections in Cumbria or Devon—in other words, in the middle of the worst affected areas. I do not believe that that would carry public support.

If we are sticking to Second Reading principles, I agree that not every action in a Bill is necessarily perfectly justifiable on every conceivable basis. However, I believe that this Bill has, first, the general support of the public; and, secondly, the overwhelming support of this Chamber.

The noble Lord's second amendment falls into the Scott trap, if I may put it in that way, because it lacks any rational sustainability—

Noble Lords


Lord Williams of Mostyn

I should emphasise that that is not the Scott trap by way of unfortunate question; it is supporting the Scott analysis, if I may make myself quite plain in that respect. I know that the noble Baroness took that to be my meaning, but I could hear unworthy giggling to my left.

The second amendment would mean that a local authority was able to apply to the Secretary of State who would have to reach a conclusion that, the capacity to hold the election is affected substantially by the prevalence of foot and mouth disease". But when will he make such a decision? Will he do so a month before the election is allowed, in the second or third week, or in the week immediately before the by-election when there might be a very significant outbreak? Therefore, I believe, first, that the noble Baroness's question is not capable of acceptable rational answer; and, secondly, it is not workable.

Lord Norton of Louth

I am grateful to some extent to the Minister for that response. However, it worries me slightly because I can see the argument against my amendment; indeed, I am slightly worried because I believe that I could have put it better than the Minister. The arguments advanced by the noble and learned Lord do not get to the heart of the matter. Perhaps I may dissect the arguments deployed. The first is that there would be puzzlement on the part of the general public if the selection to fill a casual vacancy in a local government area went ahead. I doubt whether it would be a case of puzzlement. I doubt whether the general public would notice. They do not do so at present, and I cannot imagine that they would be that fussed about such a process going ahead. Therefore, I do not believe that the argument against my amendment can be addressed at that particular level.

Secondly, the noble and learned Lord said that if this occurred in an area that was affected by foot and mouth there would be a problem with it going ahead. In that case, my second amendment would kick in. So the Minister's objection to my second amendment is essentially in terms of drafting deficiency rather than being directed at the principle embodied within it. The arguments against my amendment are not convincing. They do not get to the heart of the argument both for postponing elections on a uniform basis and postponing by-elections.

Therefore, I make the same point I made when speaking to the previous amendment. There is a case here for the Government to enunciate clearly and sharply the reasons for the Bill. My amendments are not designed primarily to bring forward arguments as to why they are particularly deficient; they are designed to tease out the Government's intentions, and to give them an opportunity to place clearly and loudly on the public record the precise reasons for the Bill. I am worried that the Government have not yet risen to, or met, the challenge. However, I shall keep trying. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 5 to 7 not moved.]

5.45 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 8: Page 1, line 10. at end insert "; but any person who submits a nomination form which was completed prior to 1st May 2001, and which contains the name of a proposer, seconder or assentor who was registered to vote prior to 1st May 2001, but who is no longer registered to vote at the same time the nomination is submitted, shall be deemed to have been validly nominated if his nomination would have been valid for an election held on 3rd May 2001.

The noble Baroness said: Again, I can be brief with my introduction to this amendment, which was tabled before I read the Minister's letter. The amendment provides that any nominations proposed and seconded by an elector registered to vote before 1st May but who, because of the new rolling register arrangements, is not registered to vote when the nominations are submitted for the new date will, nevertheless, be deemed to have been validly nominated.

The Minister's letter says that the Bill provides that any nominations that were valid for the elections on 3rd May will remain valid for the elections on 7th June. First, I thought it would be helpful to get that point on to the record in the sense of it being included in the Hansard report of these proceedings. Secondly, can the Minister say how it is that the Bill makes such provision? For example, is it implicit in the provision that because it is the same election, but taking place on a later date, the nomination remains valid? I beg to move.

Viscount Bridgeman

This amendment mirrors the amendment that we tabled in another place. I understand that the point has been answered, as pointed out by the noble Baroness,- by the Minister's compendium letter. In the circumstances, we support the action taken.

Baroness Scott of Needham Market

Perhaps I may take this opportunity to ask the Minister a question that is related to this issue in so far as it deals with a matter that has arisen out of the delay in the election. We are technically still in a period that we would call "purdah" in local government; in other words, we are operating under certain restrictions as to publicity, who can speak, and so on. The period is set down in the Local Government Act 1986 where it refers to the period between the opening for nominations and polling day. I seek some clarification as to whether Royal Assent to this Bill will close that period of purdah and then re-open it at a later date, or, alternatively, whether local authorities need to have regard to such issues for the whole period between now and polling day on 7th June.

There is a particular importance in this respect. The guidance that deals with the situation recommends that senior elected members seeking re-election should not act as spokesmen for their authorities, and so on. However, given the fact that part of the rationale behind this delay is the need for clear leadership, both locally and nationally, it seems to me rather strange to tie the hands of the very people locally who deal with such issues. Therefore, some clarification would be appreciated.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

As the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said, the matter was covered in the letter. Where valid nominations have been received for elections that have been postponed, it is the case that they will remain valid for 7th June without the need for the candidate to go to the trouble of collecting fresh signatures and submitting new nomination papers. Any candidate in that position in England and Wales will be able to withdraw his nomination at any point up to the new closing date of nominations—10th May—and will then have a further opportunity up until the 15th May to withdraw once he has seen the statement of persons so properly nominated.

Clause 1(2) says: If the day of election for a local government election in England or Wales to fill a casual vacancy would otherwise be 3rd May 2001, or a day after that day but before 7th June 2001, it is to be postponed to 7th June 2001". We believe that the wording of subsection (3), which follows, covers the issue now under discussion. Therefore, we do not believe that there is need for the amendment. Quite simply, the Bill provides that anyone who is validly nominated for an election that is deferred remains validly nominated for the new election, whatever may have happened in the interim to those who signed his nomination papers. It does not matter if, as a consequence of rolling electoral registration, those people have been removed from the relevant electoral register. I am sure that the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw her amendment because, as I said, the issue is covered by the Bill. I hope that my explanation has further clarified the situation.

I hoped that the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, would raise the issue of purdah. Since she raised the matter with me earlier, I have taken further advice. The Government do not issue specific guidance but the code of recommended practice on local authority publicity was updated on 2nd April this year. From the period of the notice of election until the election takes place all forms of proactive publicity for candidates and other politicians involved in the election should cease. We are not aware of any other guidance from the LGA or within government on these matters. Effectively, a period of purdah is in place as regards the elections that were to have taken place on 3rd May until the Bill is enacted. Once the Bill receives Royal Assent, the current purdah period will cease until, of course, the election process starts again. That purdah cannot be lifted until the elections are completed on 7th June. I hope that that clarifies that point.

Those who take a leading public role in dealing with problems on the ground must exercise their positions of leadership effectively. I do not think that any reasonable person would object to the leader of x or y county council issuing a statement which had a direct bearing on tackling some of the problems associated with foot and mouth disease. I hope that that clarifies that issue.

Baroness Hamwee

The Minister's comments were helpful. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Viscount Bridgeman moved Amendment No. 9: Page 1, line 18, at end insert— (6A) Paragraph 6A(1) of Schedule 12 to the Local Government Act 1972 (date of annual meetings) is to have effect for the year 2001 as if for "June 30" there were substituted "July 31".

The noble Viscount said: This amendment would put back by a month the deadline for the annual meeting of police authorities and other joint authorities to which councils nominate members. When the matter was raised in another place Mr Mike O'Brien said that the power in Clause 7 would allow an order to be made to postpone the date on which police authority annual meetings had to be held and that he hoped that that provided reassurance. I note that that is confirmed in the Minister's letter. However, why cannot that be specified on the face of the Bill as our amendment suggests? The annual meeting date for councils is postponed on the face of the Bill. Why cannot similar provision be made for the annual meetings of police authorities and other joint authorities? I beg to move.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

As I indicated in the letter, we propose to use the order-making power in Clause 7 to postpone the latest date by which police authority annual meetings must be held. We have in mind to put the date back to 31st July—as the amendment proposes—but we are open to representations from the Association of Police Authorities, which might want a slightly later date. The reason we have not included the provision on the face of the Bill is simply that that would fix it permanently, as it were, and we do not want to do that. However, I give a firm undertaking that we shall use the order-making power in that way and that we are very much open to representations. I hope that that satisfies the noble Viscount.

Baroness Hamwee

I was trying to find a way to ask the question I am about to ask. The Minister's reference to representations provides me with that opportunity. Last week a number of noble Lords mentioned the work that new councils will have to do. I refer to the introduction of new council constitutions. I have only just discovered that there is some problem with the date of the introduction. It is understood—I do not know whether that is more than a rumour—that the date for the introduction of the new constitutions under the Local Government Act 2000 will have to be delayed because there is a problem in laying the regulations. I hope that the Minister can clarify that point. I am sorry that I have not given him more opportunity to establish the position in order to report it to the Chamber and, perhaps more importantly, to those many thousands of councillors who will be anxious to know what the position is.

Lord Hanningfield

Before the Minister replies, I hope that I may add that this morning I discussed a programme in Essex. I was disappointed not to see any reference to the matter in the letter we received as in the debate last week several of us mentioned the problems of submitting a plan by the end of June. I have been told that we are awaiting further draft regulations. Perhaps the Minister will clarify the position.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

As the Committee is aware, I am not the local government Minister, interested though I am in local government given my background. I am not in a position to answer the points raised by the noble Baroness or the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield. I appreciate from what has been said that the matter is of concern. If I were involved in a local authority that might be affected by the matter, I too would express that concern. The best I can do in the circumstances is to undertake to consult with my colleagues within the DETR and ensure that there is a clear line taken on the matter. I am more than happy to write to those who have mentioned the matter and who intend to participate in the discussion. I shall place a copy of that response in the Library.

Viscount Bridgeman

I thank the Minister for replying to my question. Before I withdraw the amendment, will he confirm my understanding of the letter; that is, that it is the intention to use the powers for the year 2001 only?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

That is the clear intention.

Viscount Bridgeman

I thank the Minister for that reply. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (The Countess of Mar)

In calling Amendment No. 10, I point out that if it is accepted I cannot call Amendment No. 11.

Viscount Bridgeman moved Amendment No. 10: Page 1, line 20, leave out "50%" and insert "75%

The noble Viscount said: Amendments Nos. 10 and 11 are probing amendments as regards the levels of increase in election expenses. The Government have increased the limit by 50 per cent in recognition of the postponement. Some candidates may already have suffered abortive expenditure. These amendments merely seek to explore why the figure of 50 per cent was chosen rather than any other figure. Does not the Minister agree that the extension as it applies to all candidates, whenever they were nominated, will significantly advantage candidates who are nominated in May as they will have the full 150 per cent to spend in one month, whereas candidates who are nominated in April may have already spent some of their expenses limit up to two months before the election? What consideration have the Government given to that point? I look forward to the Minister's reply. I beg to move.

Baroness Hamwee

On Second Reading I said that we were concerned that any increase in the expenses limit might tend to favour those who have cash available, but that, on balance, we thought that the figure of 50 per cent was about right. We could not support a higher limit.

I have given the Minister notice of my next question. What constitutes expenses for the purposes of assessing the limit? It seems to us that there may well be a difference between expenses in the normal sense of the term and expenses in the circumstances that we are discussing. For example, if leaflets have been printed with the date 3rd May but are not delivered and are pulped, would the cost of those leaflets be included in the expenses limit? It would be extremely helpful to be given clear guidance as to what constitutes expenses in these circumstances. Some people may never have had to address the question of what constitutes expenses because they have never been able to afford to spend much.

6 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

I accept the basis on which the noble Viscount has put forward his two alternatives for the Committee's consideration. I quite understand why he has done so.

I accept that some candidates may already have produced posters, rosettes or leaflets giving the date as 3rd May. The decision to postpone was announced on 2nd April, more than a month before the elections were due and before nominations had closed. We anticipate that only a relatively modest amount of expenditure so far made will turn out to be abortive.

I was asked why 50 per cent was chosen. Obedient as I always am, I simply repeat what the Home Secretary said in another place. With his usual rather attractive candour, he said that the decision was based on instinct rather than scientific analysis. There can be no other answer. It is interesting that on this occasion the Conservative Party is the party of high spending.

We have considered what the proportionate response should be to the problem of expenditure that in some instances will be wasted and will need to he made up. It is true that a county council seat does not have quite the same allure as a seat in the United States Senate, but we do not want money to be more important than democratic argument. I have taken advice from people who are much more familiar with local elections than I am and most of them seem to think that this is a proportionate response.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, asked about material that had been printed but was pulped before it was disseminated, as opposed to being pulped by the ungrateful electors. Ultimately, this is a matter for the courts, but our judgment is that it would probably not be counted against expenses if it was not used.

Viscount Bridgeman

I thank the noble and learned Lord for his candour in explaining the arithmetic behind the figure that has been arrived at. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 11 not moved.]

Clause 1 agreed to.

Viscount Bridgeman moved Amendment No. 12: After Clause 1, insert the following new clause—


  1. (1) Notwithstanding anything in the Representation of the People (England and Wales) Regulations 2001, an electoral registration officer shall supply, free of charge and on request, one copy of the relevant items to any of the relevant persons.
  2. 1039
  3. (2) Unless the request is for the supply of a printed version, the copy shall be supplied in data form.
  4. (3) In this section—
    • "the relevant items" means the most recent version of any of the items specified in Paragraph 46(1)(a) to (c) of the Representation of the People (England and Wales) Regulations 2001, where those items are published before 7th June 2001;
    • "the relevant persons" means the persons specified in Paragraph 47 (5) to (7) of the Representation of the People (England and Wales) Regulations 2001."

The noble Viscount said: During the passage of the Representation of the People Act 2000, the Government clearly stated their intention to make the full electoral register available to electoral users. Perhaps the clearest expression of that intent was made by the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, who told the House: The full register will be available for electoral purposes to elected representatives, political parties and candidates. This is clearly sensible".—[Official Report, 29/2/00: col. 465.]

In another place, the Home Secretary also gave a similar assurance. For obvious reasons, Members of another place, political parties and candidates at elections need to be able to use the electoral register for electoral purposes.

The relevant regulations under the Representation of the People Act, which provide for the full electoral register to be made available to MPs, local councillors, political parties and council and parliamentary candidates, were approved by your Lordships' House in February. However, it has subsequently become apparent that the wording of the regulations does not reflect the Government's intentions.

The regulations provide that elected representatives, candidates and political parties can request a free copy of the register from electoral registration offices. However, some registration officers around the country are interpreting that as meaning only a copy of the electoral register published in February, after the annual canvass, not the monthly updates that are being made under the new system of rolling registration introduced earlier this year.

That results in elected representatives, candidates and political parties sometimes having to use out-of-date copies of the electoral register, which become increasingly inaccurate as the year progresses, given that the register is now updated every month.

In practical terms, that situation could cause a good deal of confusion for candidates and canvassers around election time. In respect of the local government elections, the confusion will be made even worse by the postponement provided for in the Bill, because the registers will undergo a further update before 7th June. Many new voters could be added to the register in the interim period, but candidates and political parties will not know how many, where they live or who they are. If a general election were to be called, voters who had recently moved home and re-registered could find that the freepost mailing from candidates was addressed to the wrong voter.

The situation is even more confusing precisely because some registration officers are willing to provide the updates and some are not. It is not the fault of the registration officers. They do sterling work, often in difficult circumstances and with limited resources. It is the fault of the regulations, which are unclear. Some registration officers are uncertain and understandably wish to err on the side of caution. We should bring clarity to the situation.

On a related issue, the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, will doubtless remember the extensive—indeed exhaustive—debates that he had with my late noble friend, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, during the passage of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. As the Minister will recall, several of those debates concerned the requirement placed on political parties by that Act to verify that every donor who gave more than £200 was registered on an electoral register somewhere in the United Kingdom. Lord Mackay pointed out that without a centralised version of the registers, that would be an almost impossible task. He received considerable support from the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, whom I am happy to see in her place, and the noble Lord, Lord McNally. The Government gave an undertaking during those proceedings to provide the Electoral Commission and the political parties with a centralised, up-to-date, computerised version of the electoral register. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Bach, told the House on 21st November last year, it will be some months before that solution is put in place.

In the interim period, parties are having to check for themselves that a donor is on the electoral register. As I said earlier, some electoral registration officers are unwilling to provide political parties with the updates to the rolling register because of the lack of clarity in the regulations, despite the comment of the noble Lord, Lord Bach, that, It is desirable that both the political parties and the electoral commission have easy access to electoral registers".—[Official Report, 21/11/00; col. 696.] All that makes it even harder for political parties to ensure that they are compliant with the new Act. The situation that has arisen as a result of the regulations is clearly contrary to the intentions expressed by Ministers during the debates in your Lordships' House last year.

I thank your Lordships for your patience in listening to this slightly long speech on this modest but important amendment, which would enable councillors, local government candidates and political parties to receive the rolling update as well as the annual published register. It would exclude parliamentary candidates, because it would not be within the Long Title of the Bill to include them.

The Government recognise that the existing regulations are deficient. In another place on 26th March, the Under-Secretary of State, Mr O'Brien, stated in a Written Answer that the Government were planning to publish amendments to the regulations to allow elected representatives, political parties and candidates to be supplied with the amendments to the registers. However, my understanding is that those new regulations will be some time in coming and they will certainly not be made before 7th June.

The amendment would reduce confusion for electoral registration officers, candidates, political parties and electors. That confusion will arise in greater measure as a result of the postponement of the local government elections provided for by the Bill. The amendment would help the elections on 7th June, whether local or also perhaps national, to run more smoothly. It would correct an anomaly in the regulations that is clearly contrary to the expressed intentions of the Government and of Parliament as a whole. I commend the amendment to your Lordships and I hope that it will attract support from all sides of the House. I beg to move.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

What the noble Viscount said with his usual moderation is quite right. The situation needs to be put right. I do not dissent from his summary and analysis. It was intended that the monthly updates would be available more widely than is provided for in Regulation 47. He is quite right.

As I understand the matter, he is also right that some electoral administrators are interpreting the regulation in a generous way. Some interpret it in a restrictive way and believe that they are unable to provide the monthly updates to MPs, councillors, political parties and candidates. That is not a satisfactory situation.

We are looking at the best route via which we may achieve what everyone agrees should be the position. I believe that we have two alternatives: we may bring forward special amending regulations or we may lay regulations before the summer to implement Section 9 of the Representation of the People Act 2000.

It is plain that the House does not want the Bill to be delayed. Equally, it is plain that the noble Viscount has identified an area which is not acceptable. I hope to be able to bring before the House a dedicated regulation as soon as possible after the Easter break. I also hope that I have given as firm an indication as I reasonably can as to what we propose to do.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

I apologise for intervening in this debate, but I want to spur on the noble and learned Lord in his efforts to bring forward the amended regulations in good time by making two further points about the difficulties of trying to work on out-of-date registers, even if they are only a month or two out of date.

Everyone who has canvassed in elections knows that one is frequently asked whether a person whom one meets is on the register in a particular area. In the past, the canvasser has been able to look at the register, if he has it with him, or has been able to check with his office and provide the information. However, if the information is out of date, it is possible that he will mislead the electors or be unable to provide them with the correct information.

My second point concerns the problem of electoral numbers. I understand that electoral registration officers are advised to use a suffix system of numbering where additional electors must be fitted into the list in a subsequent rolling register, or leave blanks where electors have moved away or died, so that the numbers are not entirely consecutive. That is obviously an easier way in which to deal with the register. However, electoral registration officers can, and sometimes do, renumber the whole register from month to month between one rolling register and the next. Obviously, it may be convenient to do so if many changes have occurred in an area during the course of a register from February to February.

However, again, if the candidates and parties are using old electoral numbers, it will add greatly to the problems if they do not have an up-to-date register. That means that it is important that the noble and learned Lord does as he aims to do and brings before us the amended regulations to correct the position.

Baroness Hamwee

From these Benches we add our encouragement and anticipatory thanks. In referring to the numbers on the register, I believed that the noble and learned Lord was going to talk about the calculation of expenses limits. I assume that the total numbers on the register are relevant for that purpose, too.

There are many reasons concerning the exercise of democracy why the register to which everyone works should be the correct one. It would be a great pity if, having made this important and very welcome change to the provisions, it was not put into effect throughout the country.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

I accept those supplementary points. Of course, the registers are currently available. We are dealing with updates from April and, therefore, the number of people in question is relatively small. However, I accept that that is not the point of principle for which the noble Viscount contends, and I hope that I have dealt as accommodatingly as possible with his concerns.

Viscount Bridgeman

I am sure that I speak for my noble friend Lord Cope as well as for myself. The Minister has given a most helpful reply, and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

6.15 p.m.

On Question, Whether Clause 2 shall stand part of the Bill?

Lord Norton of Louth

I gave notice of my intention to oppose Clause 2 in order to give the Government the opportunity to explain why the postponement of local government elections to 7th June is to apply to Northern Ireland. In the Second Reading debate in your Lordships' House, both the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, and the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, questioned why local elections in Northern Ireland should be postponed. The same question was raised in the other place during debate on the Bill.

At Second Reading I advanced four criteria that should be met in order to justify postponing the date of elections. The first was that there must be a clearly recognised crisis. There is a crisis in Britain but it is not clear that the situation in Northern Ireland constitutes a crisis. Northern Ireland does not have the same instance of foot and mouth disease as exists in England, Wales and Scotland.

The second criterion was that the crisis had to affect materially and substantially the capacity to hold an election. Although precautions are in place in the Province in order to deal with foot and mouth disease, there is not necessarily a reason to suppose that the local elections could not go ahead on the scheduled date. The case for postponement in Britain is that many people who are engaged in electioneering are tied up in fighting the crisis and, in any event, would have difficulty in campaigning in the way that they would wish. It is not clear—I put it no stronger than that—that such a situation pertains in Northern Ireland. How many of those engaged in local government in the Province are tied up with tackling the problem of foot and mouth disease?

The third criterion was that there must be all-party support, and the fourth that there must be adequate parliamentary scrutiny. The need for Clause 2 has been questioned by Members from different parties. However, thus far, remarkably little discussion on the provision has taken place, and there has been only one attempt in the other place by the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to justify its inclusion.

Given that, I believe that it is important that the Minister is given an opportunity to justify the inclusion of the clause. Local elections were not scheduled for 3rd May in Northern Ireland. They are held on the third Wednesday in May and were scheduled for 16th May. Given the present situation in the Province, it is not clear why they should be delayed to give more time for the foot and mouth crisis to be brought under control.

The justification given in the other place was that a UK-wide response was necessary. But why is that necessary? Local elections are not held on a UK-wide basis on the same day. Therefore, why do we need a uniform date now?

It has been suggested that there is a political motivation for the delay, unrelated to foot and mouth disease. The Minister in the other place has acknowledged that, if local elections were to be held at the same time as a general election, turnout for local elections would be likely to increase. Experience supports that proposition. However, formally, we do not know the date of the next general election; or perhaps we may take the word of the Minister in the other place, Mr George Howarth, as confirmation of the date.

If the intention is to ensure a coincidence in the date of both local and general elections in order to boost turnout, should that not be a matter of considered debate rather than something achieved as a largely undiscussed by-product of a Bill brought in ostensibly for a different purpose?

The Minister may be able to assuage my concerns. I say that having seen his compendium letter. As I said in opening, my purpose in giving notice of my intention to oppose the stand part Motion was to provide the Minister with an opportunity to explain why the clause was included. The severity of the programming Motion in the other place meant that there was no time in which to discuss the clause. The task of ensuring adequate scrutiny thus falls to this House. I look forward with great interest to the Minister's response.

Lord Smith of Clifton

I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, for his probing Question because it takes up a concern that I expressed at Second Reading. I remarked then that, in introducing the Bill, the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, had paid scant attention to the Northern Ireland aspect, although, as I pointed out, it comprises over half the Bill.

I specifically asked the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General to explain in his reply the reasons for including Northern Ireland in the Bill, given that, as I pointed out and as the noble Lord, Lord Norton, also mentioned, there has been only a single outbreak of foot and mouth disease in Northern Ireland and that could hardly be a reason for postponing the local elections there.

With a superb display of his courtroom skills, the Attorney-General studiously ignored that request and said that he would write to me regarding my more detailed questions. He employed the well-worn diverting ploy of saying, "Never mind the ball, watch my feet!". He humoured and flattered your Lordships' House with considerable flair but avoided the question that I had posed.

The fact of the matter is that the Government, quite ill-advisedly in my view, are disingenuously trying to use the foot and mouth epidemic in Great Britain as a rather implausible fig leaf to camouflage their real motives for applying the Bill to Northern Ireland. The compendium letter referred to the query of the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, which echoed my query, but the rather weak answers given compound the deviousness.

There is no need for the Government to be coy. Their real intention, as the noble Lord, Lord Norton, has explicitly said, is to hold local and general elections on the same day in order to maximise voter turnout and, one hopes, support for the pro-Belfast agreement parties. Those are both eminently laudable aims. However, it does not serve democracy to prevaricate and dissemble in the way the Government have done. The Bill—or at least the major part of it that concerns Northern Ireland—was clearly prepared weeks ago with that covert purpose in mind. The Government have been too clever by half—they have employed the reasons for postponing the local elections in Great Britain as some sort of excuse for doing the same in Northern Ireland. That patently does not hold up.

The actions proposed by the Government—postponing the local elections in Great Britain and in Northern Ireland—are identical but the real reasons for them are quite different. So far as concerns Northern Ireland, the Government's case would have been better served if they had been open and honest and not attempted to use the foot and mouth outbreak in Great Britain to justify the postponement of the local elections in Northern Ireland. In the black arts of politics, openness can be more machiavellian than deviousness.

That lack of candour has undoubtedly provoked the noble Lord, Lord Norton, into opposing Clause 2, which will apply to Northern Ireland. The noble Lord is wholly justified in raising the issue again in an attempt to get a straight answer. However, I am relieved to hear that he will not test the opinion of the Committee. As I said, Liberal Democrats appreciate the desirability of holding general and local elections on the same day in Northern Ireland because that will maximise voter turnout. However, I wish that that would he clearly admitted by the Government.

Lord Monson

I want to support the arguments that were well presented by the noble Lords, Lord Norton and Lord Smith. This is an emergency Bill that will cope with a grave national emergency. That is why it was rushed through the other place so quickly using the guillotine procedure, to the great indignation of many honourable Members. That is also why it is being rushed through this House almost as quickly. Happily, as has been said, the emergency does not afflict Northern Ireland, where there has been only one case, which occurred quite a long time ago and which has not spread. Even the Government do not pretend otherwise.

Even if the epidemic had hit Northern Ireland hard, postponing the elections by a mere three weeks—or, to be specific, by 22 days—could have made no difference. There may or may not be a case for synchronising local and national elections in the Province. Many noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, and others who know the Province much better than I do, favour the status quo.

Even if there is on balance a good case for change, an emergency Bill of this sort is a totally unsuitable vehicle. Accordingly, I support the noble Lord, Lord Norton, in his opposition to the clause. Unlike the noble Lord, Lord Smith, however, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Norton, will consider testing the opinion of the Committee.

Lord Fitt

I rise to reinforce what I said in your Lordships' House last Thursday. Since then, I have spoken with many people in Northern Ireland, all of whom are of the same opinion: that the inclusion of Northern Ireland in a Bill relating to the deferment of elections has absolutely nothing to do with foot and mouth disease and that some other reason lies behind the proposal. I suspect that some of the major political parties in Northern Ireland are not happy at the prospect of going to the polls and that they have made representations to the Government.

It is not right for the Government in Westminster to try to decide which way the people in Northern Ireland should cast their votes. Much legislation relating to terrorism has gone through the House during the past two or three years. Some of it has been controversial, including that relating to the release of prisoners and an amnesty for prisoners. During our debates on those matters we were told, "But Northern Ireland is different because of the terrorist activity, which has lasted for many years. We should not apply the same standards here". In this case, the Government have departed from that dictum. They say, "Northern Ireland is not different; it is exactly the same". I remember that someone once said, "Northern Ireland is as British as Finchley", but that was a total mistake.

There has been only one case of foot and mouth disease in Northern Ireland which, thankfully, was contained within that one location in County Armagh. There are suspicions that it got there in the first place because terrorist organisations were engaged in a scam to get livestock imported from England into Northern Ireland and then taken over the Border.

One of the main reasons why we should not agree with the proposal is because two systems of voting are involved. The voting system for the genera] election involves the first-past-the-post system, which applies in other parts of the United Kingdom. The voting system in the local authority elections involves proportional representation, in which one votes for number one, two, three, four, five, six or seven, depending on how many candidates there are. Many people, particularly those who are older, find going into a polling station and being met with two different types of ballot paper greatly confusing. That might involve the same extent of confusion as that which we saw during the last American presidential election in the state of Florida and in Miami. We should remember how long it took the authorities to decide the outcome of that election.

My main reason for opposing the proposal involves my experience fighting elections in Northern Ireland during the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, which were times of great terrorist activity. The terrorist organisation that now wears the mantle of democracy and is engaged in legitimate ballot-box politics at that time ordered people not to vote. It threatened people if they went to polling stations to vote and it shot policemen who were guarding ballot boxes. There was much intimidation in all of those elections, but the Government did not say that the peculiar circumstances that operated in Northern Ireland were a reason for calling off the elections. The Government said that the whole democratic process must be adhered to and that there must be no dilution of it. Irrespective of the dangers that then existed, they said that we must continue with the elections.

That has all gone by the board on this occasion. I repeat that the Government's approach has absolutely nothing to do with foot and mouth disease and everything to do with representations that have been made by certain political parties for the elections to be deferred in the hope that that will help their cause. That is a violation of democracy and that is why I oppose the clause.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

I hope that if the elections are held on the same day in Northern Ireland, all goes well. I am sure that we all hope that. I also hope that the special circumstances in Northern Ireland will not make that any more difficult.

I want to raise one or two small points about the problems of having elections to different bodies on the same day. That arose in Scotland, when the Scots Parliament was elected on the same day that local government elections were held. When the noble and learned Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, wrote to my noble friend Lord Cope, he was kind enough to send me a copy of his answer. He has taken on board the problem that I described.

Therefore, I hope that the publicity issued before the election will help. But not knowing all the intricacies of the situation in Northern Ireland, I cannot quite imagine the problems which will occur. The Government seem to have thought very hard about this and feel that political considerations override the others in this case. It certainly cannot be about foot and mouth. However, I hope it goes extremely well.

6.30 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

The noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, accused me of being devious, disingenuous and dissembling and even worse, said that I was behaving like a lawyer.

It is true that there has been only one confirmed case of foot and mouth disease in Northern Ireland. We all hope and pray that that will continue to obtain. But a few weeks ago, I could have said that in area X, a particular part of Wales, for example, there has been no report at all of foot and mouth. As it happened, I was down in west Wales on Friday and Saturday and there has now been a reported case. So I do not believe that simply to say that there has been only one case so far is necessarily determinative of that point. If I were anything to do with farming in Northern Ireland and someone said to me, "There has only been one case", I should meet that with deep displeasure.

Lord Monson

I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for giving way. How is postponing the elections for 22 days going to make things any better?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

I have not suggested that it would make things any better. I was about to develop my argument, which I think is a proper one, that the mere fact that there has been only one case confirmed is not determinative. In fact, Northern Ireland depends particularly on agriculture in that economy, which has been battered extensively, for the reasons of which my noble friend Lord Fitt spoke, for the past 30 years. I know that these facts are in the compendium letter but not everyone will have had the opportunity to read it. Five per cent of jobs are in agriculture while the figure for the United Kingdom as a whole is only 1.6 per cent. So one has to have a fairly careful approach.

I believe that the careful, prudent and precautionary step to put off the elections to the same date in Northern Ireland is right. Those who are irretrievably bathed in cynicism will either not listen or not agree, but that may be their problem rather than mine.

I turn to some specific points. Apart from the point that there has been only one confirmed outbreak, which I do not take as a point of value at all, the Northern Ireland Minister for Agriculture, to whom we should pay some attention, has called—I use his phrase—for the fortress farming approach to be maintained. Nineteen road blocks are now in place in a 10 kilometre surveillance zone in Newry and Mourne. It has been said that there has been some confusion.

Lord Fitt

I should point out to my noble and learned friend that the Northern Ireland Minister is a lady. Unless she has had a sex change over the past week, she remains a lady. But she has made representations to Europe and the parliamentary authorities there have said that Northern Ireland can be classed as a disease-free zone. She made representations to Europe to that effect. It has been agreed that Northern Ireland should not be classified in the same way as all the other areas in England and that it is a disease-free zone.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

Of course, and all our efforts must be to try to keep it that way. I believe that it is responsible and prudent to maintain that slight deferment.

My noble friend Lord Fitt and the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy, spoke about combined polls. My noble friend Lord Fitt said that elderly voters sometimes become confused. I believe that the noble Baroness was referring to the generality of voters. We shall be using additional publicity to inform voters if—and I stress I do not know—there is a combined poll.

I should say about Northern Ireland, with which I have had a lot to do over the past years, that it has been polled more often than any other part of the United Kingdom. Over the past years, it has had a poll, on average, once every 14 months. So I do not believe that it could be described as an unsophisticated electorate. "Bored witless" might be one description but it cannot be described as unsophisticated and not knowledgeable about the voting mechanisms and the process.

Quite often in the past it has been asked why Northern Ireland should be treated differently. If there is an election, which is coincident with the local election, then that would mean that Northern Ireland would be treated similarly to the rest of the United Kingdom.

Many of those points have been put in the compendium letter. I have repeated them briefly because not all Members of the Committee will have seen those points in the letter. I anticipate that I shall not have convinced the noble Lord, Lord Norton, but equally, he has not convinced me, so we must part amicably, as we always do. I think it is a perfectly reasonable, sustainable part of the Bill. Had this step not been taken, I believe that there might have been quite vigorous criticism as to why Northern Ireland was not potentially capable of being treated in the same way. I put "potentially" and I put "capable" because I do not know the date of the election. If I did, I should be a happy man beetling down to William Hill this very second.

Lord Monson

The noble and learned Lord accuses those of us who oppose this clause of cynicism. However, I refer him to the Explanatory Notes on the Elections Bill produced, I assume, by his department.

The notes first refer to Northern Ireland in any substantive sense in paragraph 15 which states: The Bill takes the opportunity", and note carefully that word "opportunity", to bring Northern Ireland electoral provisions into line with those of the rest of the UK". So it is nothing to do with the proportion of people engaged in agriculture or foot and mouth or anything like that. It is using the Bill as a convenient vehicle to bring the provisions in Northern Ireland into line with those in the rest of the United Kingdom. Who is being the cynic now?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

What the noble Lord has said absolutely underlines what I said a second or two ago. This is capable, potentially, of bringing Northern Ireland into line. That is no different from the Explanatory Notes phrases which were read out. I did not accuse any Members of the Committee of cynicism in adopting the stance that they did. I said that if any Members of the Committee failed to accept what I said, they might have been bathed in cynicism. But, of course, I never resort to personal abuse of any sort in this House, whatever the temptation.

Lord Norton of Louth

First, I do not criticise the Minister at all for putting on record what was in the compendium letter; quite the reverse. That is exactly the sort of material that should be put on the record and I am extremely pleased that he did so.

Secondly, I was not trying to persuade the noble and learned Lord of the argument against the clause. Rather, I was trying to create the opportunity for the noble and learned Lord to make the case for the clause and, in some way, willing him on to do that. I hear the points he has made which I believe are reasonable. I should have liked him to go a little further in some of the justification but I believe that he made a better case for Clause 2 than he did for some of the provisions of Clause 1. Given that there is agreement about the nature of the Bill, I believe that it would not be wise to divide the Committee on it. That would not achieve any purpose. My purpose has been achieved by the noble and learned Lord putting on record the case, so that it is quite clear and self-contained in relation to this particular clause. Therefore, I no longer oppose the Question that this clause shall stand part of the Bill.

Clause 2 agreed to.

Clauses 3 to 5 agreed to.

Clause 6 [Compensation]:

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 13: Page 3, line 22, after "may" insert ", by way of an order pursuant to Section 7

The noble Baroness said: Amendment No. 13 proposes that any compensation scheme made by the Secretary of State should be made by way of an order under Clause 7, that is an order exercisable by statutory instrument subject to the negative procedure. In the next group of amendments we shall debate the desirability or otherwise of a scheme of compensation. However, I believe that it is generally agreed that to pay compensation out of the public purse to election candidates is not a small matter. As the Bill provides for orders in Clause 7, it seems to me that it would be entirely proper for any scheme brought forward by the Government to be brought before both Houses of Parliament, or at least for there to be the opportunity for both Houses of Parliament to consider the matter.

The Government have already indicated that they do not intend to make the scheme available for candidates who are representatives of the registered political parties, only for individual candidates and, of course, for local authorities. The compendium letter from the Minister indicated that the Government hope to be able to announce the details of the scheme before the delayed elections on 7th June. I should hope that is the case.

I am aware that the Minister indicated that there will be consultation with the parties, presumably in both Houses. I am not sure what form that will take. I believe that this is an important provision and one in which the order-making power should apply. I beg to move.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

I am grateful to the noble Baroness for tabling the amendment. The Bill contains a power in Clause 6 for the Secretary of State to establish a scheme to compensate local authorities and candidates for the additional costs which they incur as a result of the postponement. It would be fair to say that there is general agreement that compensation should be paid to local authorities for their additional costs. The noble Baroness drew attention to the fact that that was confirmed in the compendium letter.

In respect of the candidates there is all-party consensus which might better be described as an all-party self-denying ordinance that no compensation should be paid to candidates of registered political parties. I confirm that we will respect and abide by that consensus. We recognise that independent candidates may have a better case and we will entertain claims from independent candidates who suffered genuine and significant losses as a result of the delaying of the elections. Again, as I indicated in my letter, we would be more than happy to discuss the detail of that with opposition parties. It is also worth drawing attention to the briefing note issued by the Local Government Association. The association welcomes the Government's recognition of the additional costs involved in postponing the elections and our willingness to compensate councils and candidates who are particularly affected. There has been a broad range of welcome for the proposal.

We do not see the need to make the power to establish a compensation scheme subject to the negative resolution statutory instrument procedure. We are not alone in that view. The Select Committee on Delegated Powers and Deregulation, whose views on such matters we always take seriously, had this to say: The Committee decided, for the sake of completeness, to refer in this report to the power in clause 6 to make a scheme compensating local authorities and candidates who incur additional expenditure because elections are postponed to June. The Committee does not regard this as a delegated power and sees no objection to leaving it as an informal administrative matter not requiring the formality of a statutory instrument". In the light of that view, the view expressed by the Local Government Association, and our generous disposition to consult on this matter, I hope that the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw her amendment.

Baroness Hamwee

I shall do so, but not before I have expressed disappointment in that reply. I do not think that it addressed the point. I accept that the Government have indicated that they will consult with the parties, but consultation is not the same as allowing both Houses of Parliament to consider the matter. I do not argue for the affirmative procedure. We are talking of payment from the public purse to individuals. I am straying, as I believe did the Minister, on to issues covered by the next group of amendments. We need to ask ourselves whether it is right to allow the Government to come up with a scheme which will judge who should be paid compensation; on what basis it should be paid and, frankly, one which is likely to be arbitrary.

My noble friend Lord Goodhart raised with me the question that the provision in Clause 6(1) could be read as referring back to Clause 1(7). That is the provision which allows an increase in expenses of 50 per cent to be paid. He asked whether that would mean, for instance, on the basis of Clause 1(7) that an individual candidate spends 50 per cent extra and, because of the wording of Clause 6(1), he says to the Government, "I want to be paid the excess"? That may sound fanciful. However, it is the sort of reason why the Committee should have the opportunity to consider the scheme.

I note also that the Minister did not give any further indication of the date when this proposal will he introduced. Perhaps I may say that I hope that this will be dealt with swiftly and not at the last minute. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

6.45 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 14: Page 3, line 23, leave out "or candidate who

The noble Baroness said: As I have just said, we have already strayed onto this ground. Nevertheless, the argument needs to be made and answered, even if briefly. Amendments Nos. 14, 15 and 16 seek to leave in place the provision for a scheme for compensation to local authorities but not to any candidate, whether independent or otherwise.

I do not want to be tedious on this point. I have already stated that we are talking of money paid from public funds. I wonder whether the public would think it right that any candidate for election should be able to have recourse to public funds to support him or her in that election. As a matter of principle, to be entitled to make such a claim is not right.

The Minister referred to the "all-party self-denying ordinance" and spoke of the scheme not applying to candidates representing registered political parties. That was not wholly clear in the winding-up speech on Thursday. First, there was an undertaking that the scheme "would not be for candidates"—which were the words used—but later the reference was to independents only. I do not know whether the Minister feels that he has anything to add to what he has already said. I give him the opportunity to do so by moving the amendment. I beg to move.

Baroness Hanham

We had considerable discussion on this matter at Second Reading. Perhaps I may reemphasise that the proposals that independent candidates should at least be given the opportunity to put forward a claim now has all-party support. There was a suggestion at Second Reading that the Conservative Party had somehow tried to kibosh that proposal. I want to be clear that there has never been any intention by this party to do anything other than support the position that those supported by parliamentary parties should not seek compensation in this way.

It was correctly said by the Home Secretary in another place that there may be people who already suffer financial problems as a result of being farmers who have been exposed to current difficulties. Therefore, it seems proper that there should be a scheme of some kind. I understand that the Home Secretary, or someone in his department, will have to adjudicate, but provided it is confined to independent candidates and does not extend to members of political parties we will support the proposal.

Baroness Scott of Needham Market

I want to make two brief observations. First, given that the decision to postpone the county elections was made the day before nominations closed, I do not have a huge amount of sympathy with anyone who has incurred a great deal of expenditure. After all, candidates could not be sure who would be standing against them, to which party they belonged and so forth. Most prudent candidates would not print leaflets until they had such information. Having it ready on the computer is another thing.

Secondly, I can imagine that it would be difficult to ascertain whether a candidate was independent. It is easy to tell whether someone is standing under the banner of a party but whether he or she is a member and what the links might be would be difficult to ascertain.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

A few points for clarification have emerged during the short discussion. It was not our intention to suggest that the Conservative Party wanted to put the kibosh—a great term which my mother loved using—on the proposal. The compendium letter which we dispatched made it plain that we wanted to respect the fruits of all-party consensus on the issue.

Baroness Hanham

My accusation, if it was that, or dart was not directed at the noble Lord.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

I am grateful for that clarification. It is on the record.

As regards the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, we are talking about independents who are not members of a registered political party. The letter clarifies that issue. In another place, the Home Secretary gave a clear example of what he had in mind and it was precisely that which the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, raised; that of the farmer candidate who had suffered as a result of foot and mouth and had then lost a large amount of money on wasted election literature.

I suspect that few people will fall into that category. As the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, said, it would be unusual for the large chunk of literature to be produced by independent candidates prior to the closing of nominations and so forth. However, my experience is that initial leaflets are prepared at that stage. They can cost perhaps £150, depending on how many are to be distributed and how far, so a significant sum of money could be involved. We want to have the facility for compensation in such situations.

I accept that there will be administrative difficulty in seeking to ensure that the money has been spent in the way that was claimed. However, I cannot believe that that is an insurmountable problem and I am sure that most people who stand for local government are straight in the way in which they approach such matters. I would not want to cast doubt on their bona fides and believe that we must take such things at face value.

We are simply trying to be helpful. We respect the position of independent candidates and our approach is designed to achieve that objective. For those reasons, I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, will feel able to withdraw her amendment.

Baroness Hamwee

I support the Minister's point that members of a political party should not receive compensation under the scheme. I dare say that I am not the only Member of the Committee who has come across members of local authorities who sit as independents but who are members of a political party. Will the Minister confirm, or seriously consider the point, that in assessing a claim for compensation the Government will ensure that the question is asked: "Are you a member of a political party, whether or not you are standing under the banner of that party?"

Lord Bassam of Brighton

It is entirely proper that the individual is asked whether he or she is a member of a registered political party. That is the important question.

Baroness Hamwee

I thank the Minister for that answer, which is helpful. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 15 and 16 not moved.]

Clause 6 agreed to.

Clause 7 [Consequential provision]:

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 17: Page 3, line 38, at end insert— ( ) The powers provided by subsection (1) shall not extend to altering the date of 7th June 2001, wherever it appears in this Act, to any other date.

The noble Baroness said: The amendment was tabled before we received the Minister's letter. It seeks to provide that an imaginative use—I was going to say "devious"—of Clause 7 should not be made so as to change the date of 7th June. The letter gave me a categorical assurance that the order-making power in Clause 7 could not be used for that purpose. It indicates that the order can be used only to make the necessary changes which are consequential on the main provisions of the Act. Clause 7(1) refers to consequential, transitional or supplemental provisions". Can the Minister confirm that it would not be possible to use Clause 7 in that way? I beg to move.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

This is the final amendment to which the compendium letter refers. Perhaps I may say on behalf of all Members of the Committee how grateful we are to the officials at the Home Office. They had to work very hard indeed. Our Second Reading debate was on Thursday and they delivered this full and helpful letter on Friday. It has been of great assistance in the efficient running of this business. So often the work of officials goes unsung—not unheeded but unsung—and I am grateful to be able to say that on behalf of the Committee.

I give the absolute assurance that the order-making power cannot be used to change the date of the deferred elections from 7th June or for that matter to change the date of any other elections.

Baroness Hamwee

I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord. I shall not sing my thanks to the officials. I am mindful that I am keeping some Members of the Committee from choir practice. We are very much aware of the work which went into the letter, which was extremely helpful. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 7 agreed to.

Clause 8 agreed to.

Schedule: [Northern Ireland: Modification of Election Provisions]:

Lord Smith of Clifton moved Amendment No. 18: Page 7. line 9, leave out "may" and insert "shall

The noble Lord said: Amendments Nos. 18 and 19 will place an absolute duty on the returning officer to make arrangements for the opening of the ballot boxes for the parliamentary election and any ballot papers for the local election to be taken out. By the same token, he can make arrangements for the opening of the ballot boxes for the local election and any ballot papers for the parliamentary election to be taken out. I attest to the point made by the noble and learned Lord about the sophistication of the Northern Ireland electorate, given its experience. I had never voted so frequently as in the eight years that I lived there. No matter how skilled and practised in voting the Northern Ireland electorate may be, there is no guarantee that every single paper will end up in the correct ballot box. We believe it is essential that there are suitable arrangements in place to ensure that there is as little confusion as possible, and it should not be left to the judgment of individual returning officers. I beg to move.

7 p.m.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

I support the amendment. I very much wonder why the Bill does not say "shall". I believe that I indicated at Second Reading that this was included in the Scotland Bill. I have not checked to see whether this matter was compulsory. However, as a polling agent I was informed at the time that it would happen. Polling agents had to be present when the box was opened and resealed before it went to a central place for the votes to be counted. At the polling station where I was located a number of ballot papers, which were colour-coded, were placed in the wrong box. Provided the people who did the count were not colour blind there was no problem. However, it was good to see that happen. I would have thought that this would be a good idea in the context of Northern Ireland where this is a very sensitive matter. Before I am satisfied I believe that the Minister needs to explain why it is not compulsory. I am sure that if it was compulsory it would work better. It sounds like a small point but when there is a count, tension is high, and I am sure that it is higher in Northern Ireland than anywhere else. It may be—I am not sure—that Scottish voters are less sophisticated than those in Northern Ireland. But I believe that we are also quite canny in deciding which votes go into which box. Mistakes can be made. The Minister needs to look at this matter rather carefully.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

I believe that we are entirely agreed on the purpose identified by the noble Lord and the noble Baroness. We are agreed that the reconciliation of ballot papers which have been put into the wrong box is a very important element in the conduct of a combined election where separate boxes are used. I can reassure the Committee that the chief electoral officer and deputy returning officers who conduct any combined election are fully aware of the need to use this procedure in the present circumstances, because it is their obligation to ensure that there is a fair election. They must complete a ballot paper account before counting the votes.

The only reason why the word used is "may" and not "shall" is that circumstances surrounding elections change. Procedures that are sensible and useful now may need to be amended in due time, and we simply offer returning officers a degree of flexibility. But the clear intention is that these steps shall be taken in the first elections. There is no hidden plot or mystery about it: that is the reason.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

With respect, I do not believe that the noble and learned Lord gives an adequate answer. The opening of a ballot box after the end of the poll is a very sensitive issue. Anything can happen if people "may" open a ballot box, but if they have to do so and polling agents must be present nothing can go wrong. It must be a formal ceremony, as it were, which is witnessed by all the parties. If it is not compulsory, returning officers may not believe that it is necessary, and it may happen in one place and not in another. Is that good enough?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

I take the point raised by the noble Baroness, but it would not be competent for anyone other than the returning officer to open the ballot box or make these arrangements. We simply insert "may" and not "shall" because in different circumstances in future returning officers may need a degree of flexibility, and that is all that we offer. They fully intend to follow these procedures. It is their statutory duty to ensure a fair election, and a fair election will involve the steps which the noble Baroness specifies.

Lord Smith of Clifton

I too would have preferred "shall" rather than "may". I cannot quite envisage other circumstances which would require flexibility. Nevertheless, I am reassured by the response of the noble and learned Lord that returning officers will be enjoined to observe what are in effect guidelines. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 19 not moved.]

Schedule agreed to.

Bill reported without amendment. Then, Standing Order No. 46 having been suspended (pursuant to Resolution of 5th April), Bill read a third time, and passed.