HL Deb 14 March 2002 vol 632 cc1010-5

7.35 p.m.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 14th February be approved [20th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the draft order amends the National Assembly for Wales (Representation of the People) Order 1999 to bring legislation governing elections to the Assembly in line with legislation for parliamentary and local government elections in Wales.

These changes are required as a result of the provisions of the Representation of the People Act 2000, of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 and of the Representation of the People (England and Wales) Regulations 2001.

The main changes made by the draft order are in the following areas: to allow voters to vote by post without having to give a reason for their need to do so; to provide blind voters with a device which would assist them in voting without the assistance of a companion, if they so wish, and to allow persons with other disabilities to vote with the assistance of a companion; to ensure that the 1999 order is consistent with the new arrangements for rolling registration; to accommodate the new controls on the expenses of political parties set out in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000; to accommodate the changes made by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 concerning the description of registered political parties and independent candidates on nomination forms and ballot papers; and to make other consequential amendments to achieve consistency with the amendments to the Representation of the People Act 1983 in relation to the conveyance of voters to polling booths and the use of school buildings as committee rooms.

Wales Office officials have worked closely with their counterparts in the Assembly on this draft order and Assembly Ministers have been kept informed. Further, the changes made by the draft order have been the subject of consultation with the Electoral Commission, which supports the proposed changes.

All these changes are important but it is likely that the changes relating to postal voting and to voters with disabilities are those which are of the widest interest. The changes will mean that postal votes are accessible to all who wish to use them. This is a positive step to encourage the electorate to take part in elections by giving them more options for voting. The changes will also mean that all voters with disabilities will now be entitled to the assistance of a companion. Previously, this assistance was available only to blind voters.

I have already mentioned that the order provides that each polling station should be equipped with a device to allow blind voters, if they so wish, to cast their votes unaided. In addition, the order provides for a large format ballot paper to be displayed to assist visually impaired voters. All these provisions are in line with those which were in force at the last general election and were well received by disabled voters.

While the draft order would make a number of important changes to the Assembly's electoral process, further changes are required. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Wales proposes, therefore, to bring forward a further draft order which will include new provisions relating to individual candidates' expenses, the broadcasting of local items during an election period, the publication of exit polls and false statements in nomination papers. Further consultation will be required on these topics before a further order can be drafted. The second draft order will, however, be laid before Parliament well in advance of the next Assembly elections, which will take place on 1st May 2003.

The contents of this draft order are not contentious. They bring Assembly elections into line with parliamentary and local government elections in important areas such as accessibility to postal voting and assistance for voters with disabilities. All the changes are in the interests of increasing enfranchisement, encouraging the electorate to use their vote. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 14th February be approved [20th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton.)

Lord Roberts of Conwy

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her detailed exposition of the draft order and her justification of the need for it following the passage of further legislation relating to parliamentary and local government elections as outlined in the Explanatory Notes. I understand that there will be a further draft order before the next Assembly election on 1st May 2003.

The date of local government elections has been moved forward to 2004, so that it will not coincide with Assembly elections. Some believe that there are other, less noble reasons for the postponement, such as a wish to avoid facing the electors for as long as possible. Be that as it may, I believe that the reverse has happened in Scotland. The Scottish parliamentary and local government elections have been brought together, which, if we are interested in promoting voter participation, makes more sense. If the noble Baroness has a view on that, she may care to share it with us.

As a Welsh speaker, I am happy to reassure the noble Baroness that the Welsh language references in this draft order are impeccable, both in content and printing. I have only one query, to which I shall come straight away, in the hope that the Minister and her officials may be able to deal with it before the end of the debate. It relates to the new Article 50 at the top of page 6 and the power to vary provisions concerning election expenses. The new article states: After such consultation with the Assembly as appears to the Secretary of State to be appropriate, he may by order made by statutory instrument vary any of the sums to which this article applies". Subsection (3) states that such an order, shall be subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament". I take it that the Secretary of State will probably be the Secretary of State for Wales, though technically it could be any other member of the Government, and that the statutory instrument will be subject to the procedures of this Parliament, not those of the Assembly. If it were not so, the annulment procedure would be difficult to operate, since this Parliament does not, so far as I am aware, involve itself with statutory instruments originating in the Assembly. I should be grateful if the Minister would confirm my understanding of that procedure.

There are a number of welcome improvements in this order, especially those relating to voters with disabilities and those unable to read for one reason or another. I am glad that blind people who cannot use the technology at hand can still be assisted by another person and that similar assistance will be extended to others who need it. It is important that the assisted voter should be under no duress and should be able freely to accept assistance. The officer in charge of the polling station should ensure that that happens. I know that the Secretary of State for Wales is aware of the point and is considering it with his colleagues.

There are also new provisions for proxy voting by those engaged in education. I hope that all who benefit from these arrangements will be reminded that it is an offence to vote more than once, albeit in different constituencies. That point occurred to me and was also made by the Plaid Cymru Member for Ceredigion when this order was before the 10th Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation.

There is some clarification on the issue of individual candidate expenditure, as opposed to party expenditure. If we are to achieve uniformity and equality of opportunity between rival candidates, further definition and firm application of the rules is required in this area. We could debate this point at great length. However, we hear in mind that a further order is to be moved relating to candidates' expenses and related matters.

Anyone who wishes can now vote by post and can change to a vote by proxy. A proxy vote can also be changed to a postal vote. I suspect that those changes will be extensively used and we hope not abused. We are all concerned about low turnout and wish to improve opportunities to vote, but we must also respect the voter's right to abstain. Abstention of itself often carries a message.

Lord Thomas of Gresford

My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for her explanation of this extremely complicated order and congratulate the draftsman on a masterly piece of drafting. So far, no one has been able to find a flaw in it.

As a member of the Welsh Assembly Commission considering proportional representation for local government elections, I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Conwy, that our inquiries of all 22 local authorities in Wales revealed that the members of those authorities asked that the local government elections should be separate from the Assembly elections. They requested that for a variety of reasons: first, because they wish to receive their personal mandate in the election; secondly, because so many of them, particularly in West Wales, are Independents and therefore feel that a greater distinction should be drawn between Assembly and local government elections.

I am impressed by the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Conwy, approves of the Welsh. I was a pupil of his brother, a very eminent Queen's Counsel who later became a judge, and I recall that when I trailed after him in the Welsh courts where the Welsh language was being used, he would from time to time correct the interpreter. The noble Lord's language skills are absolutely without par in the whole of Wales.

With regard to the question of disability, we on these Benches welcome the extended provisions for people suffering from a variety of disabilities to be assisted in casting votes. Since those disabilities include the inability to read, perhaps we may see the end of the cross on the ballot paper and the introduction of one, two, three and four in proportional elections by single transferable vote in multi-member constituencies.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I begin with the concluding point made by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford. He may not be surprised to discover that I do not intend to be drawn into that debate today.

I thank the noble Lords, Lord Roberts of Conwy and Lord Thomas of Gresford, for their compliments on the quality of the Welsh language used in the draft order. As someone whose grandfather at the age of three was beaten were he to speak in any language other than English at school, when his ow n mother tongue was Welsh, I take particular pride in it.

Both noble Lords raised the issue of postponement. That is a matter for the National Assembly for Wales. Parliament gave the Assembly the necessary powers to change the years in which Welsh local elections are held. I note the views that have been expressed. However, I do not express a personal view. It is solely a matter for the Assembly.

The noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Conwy, raised the issue of the definition of candidates' expenses. Following the enactment of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, the financing and expenditure of political parties have been governed by that Act. The definition is necessary to distinguish such expenditure from that incurred by individual candidates, which is still controlled by the terms of the Assembly Elections Order. The reasoning behind the increased limits on election expenses is that the new figures bring the limits for Assembly elections into line with those for parliamentary elections.

The noble Lord also referred to new Article 50 of the 1999 order, which deals with election expenses. I can confirm that the Secretary of State's power by order to vary sums to which the article applies shall be subject to annulment pursuant to a resolution of either House of Parliament. I can tell the noble Lord that the statutory instrument will be subject to the procedures of this Parliament, not those of the Assembly; otherwise, as the noble Lord observed, the annulment process would be difficult to operate.

Both noble Lords mentioned absent voters and proxy votes. When the order comes into force, students will be able to request a postal vote without giving reasons. They will also be able to vote by proxy and, as the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, said, change the vote from postal to proxy and back. I note his view about abstention being the right of individuals. We all agree that people should not vote twice. Indeed, this process will be jealously and carefully monitored.

I should also tell noble Lords that the case for disabled voters is recognised as being very important. There are already some safeguards to protect individual voters with disability from coercion in the free exercise of the franchise. It is an offence under Article 87 of the 1999 order. We shall, course, raise the issue with the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions in order to consider whether any additional safeguards would be desirable.

I hope that I have answered all the points raised by both noble Lords. I commend the order to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.