HL Deb 01 March 2004 vol 658 cc443-6

3.6 p.m.

Read a third time.

Clause 2 [Pilot order]:

Baroness Hanham moved the amendment: Page 2, line 38, at end insert— ( ) A pilot order made by the Secretary of State under this section is subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, this brings us to the last stages in this House of the European Parliamentary and Local Elections (Pilots) Bill and I have one final amendment to put to the Minister. It is not one with which he will be unfamiliar, nor will he be particularly surprised by it.

I was grateful to the Minister for his openness and willingness to provide information in Committee and on Report. I was particularly grateful for the policy paper he put forward which clearly laid out a number of the matters we have discussed. It provided some resolution to some of the questions we have asked and discussed throughout the passage of the Bill. However, I am concerned that that information will not come to this House in the form of an order so that the House can decide whether it is appropriate.

The pilot order will lay the base for these elections and will provide all the information. The noble Lord, Lord Evans, or the Minister waved a thick document at me during Committee and asked whether I really wanted to have all of that. The probable answer is that we do. If not, we need to see a pilot order which lays out the principles for the two regions which will be considered. The principles are laid out, more or less, in that policy paper.

We in this House have had a great deal of input to the Bill. We have laid down all the parameters for it and it would be reassuring for this House to have the final stamp of authority on what is put forward in the pilot order. I beg to move.

Lord Goodhart

My Lords, the amendment is the same as one I tabled in Grand Committee. Although I did not repeat that on Report, I believe that it is desirable. There is no doubt that the pilot order will be sizeable and will contain considerable detail. Some of that is of serious importance. It will operate as a precedent if the pilots prove successful and are introduced generally in future for the procedure to be adopted in all postal elections. It is of considerable importance and it is desirable that your Lordships' House should have some form of input. For that reason, I am happy to support the amendment.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs (Lord Filkin)

My Lords, I seek to keep my remarks succinct to follow the excellent example given me by both the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, and the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart.

Essentially, I will say that I do not believe that the amendment is necessary; that there is good reason why we have never done it before; that there are risks of delay in doing so, and that we can offer something better.

On the first point that the amendment is not necessary: that is not simply the Government's view, it is the view of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. When the committee looked at this issue in some detail, mindful of the significance and scale of the pilots that we are talking about, it came to the conclusion that no parliamentary procedure was necessary. The committee's report explicitly stated that the issue of whether the negative procedure was appropriate was considered in coming to its conclusion.

As to the point about never having done it before, over 150 pilot orders have been made under the RPA 2000 for pilots at local elections. Fifty-nine pilot orders were required for pilots in May 2003, and over 30 orders have been made to permit by-election pilots. All these orders involved no parliamentary procedure.

The Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, while recognising that the pilot order would refer only to a one-off event, raised issues about how the pilot orders will be publicised. We intend to act on their recommendations. For example, the order will be available on the departmental website and will be supplied to political parties, disability groups and all regional returning officers. We will also produce an easy-to-follow précis of the most relevant parts of the order, which we will distribute in a similar way. The précis will not include large parts of the order, which will be made up of consequential amendments, as those could obscure the clarity of the policy.

We are also looking at the possibility of distributing the précis in accessible formats, including Braille and on tape. We will discuss this issue further with disability groups to try to ensure that we take on board their interests and concerns.

As for delay, were we to agree to this process, as the House will know, any Member in another place or here would have a period of 40 days after the order had been laid to table a Prayer to annul it. Until the annulment debate had been concluded, a number of electoral returning officers might feel that, out of caution, they had to keep preparing for a conventional election at the same time as the pilot postal election, which this Bill is all about. That would build in additional delay, risk and cost as a consequence.

However, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, was gracious enough to recognise, we have sought to consult and have as much openness and transparency as possible on the process of this Bill, including areas on which we have not been of one mind. We shared our draft policy paper because I could see no good reason why opposition Front Benches should not see it even before officials felt that it was complete, because thereby we would inform the parliamentary process and increase the openness of that process.

What I say now is in a sense better than what is being asked for, because if we agreed to this amendment the only formal powers of the opposition Front Benches would be to vote down the order. While that is theoretically possible, it has rarely been done. It is merely a nuclear option without much influence. Instead I give a commitment that we will continue to provide iterations of the policy paper as it develops, giving opposition Front Benches the opportunity to feed in their comments and allowing them informal scrutiny of any details that might change between now and the making of the order. In this way, your Lordships will not just have seen the policy paper at a certain stage, we will seek continually to share the policy paper with your Lordships throughout that process so that you will know about any further thinking before the order is made.

If any detail changes before the order is made, noble Lords will be made fully aware and have the opportunity to feed into the policy as it is finalised, rather than simply having the ability to oppose the order.

Finally, I will provide Front Benches with a draft of the order before it is made and will be happy to receive any comments on that draft, subject to reasonable expedition—one would not expect such comments to take months.

I hope that I am thus giving a continuing commitment to an inclusive process on the order, recognising that it is important that there is cross-party confidence in the detail of the order, without wishing in any way to imply that we are setting a precedent for all future orders. But we recognise that it is a significant order and it is right and proper that there is the fullest opportunity for opposition Benches to know what is going on and to comment. For these reasons, I hope that while I have not agreed with the amendment, I have gone further than might have been expected in seeking to meet the concerns that underpinned it.

Baroness Hanham

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. I never cease to be surprised by the Minister's responses and I am grateful for what he has proposed about ensuring that we see the draft order before it is published.

I reassure the Minister that I have no intention of dividing the House on this amendment today. However, despite being able to see the draft order, I believe that that would have been a better process. This House in particular has made immeasurable progress with this Bill and has been very instrumental in ensuring that all the matters that needed to be dealt with have been raised and have now been included. It would have been better if the House had been able to look at the matter formally had it wished. Nevertheless, we have made progress. The Government have responded on at least some of the things that we were concerned about. We will certainly want to scrutinise the draft order. I presume that if it will not be possible for changes to be made then we could bring some of those matters to the House in the form of Questions before the order is passed.

I want to thank the Minister and the noble Lord, Lord Evans, for their courtesy during the passage of the Bill. We will not divide the House, although this would have been a much better process, but in future, if there is to be further consideration of pilot powers, this establishes the basis.

The Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee undertook its own scrutiny of what was proposed, but it reported before our debate took place. While the committee took a proper decision, it would have been better if we had had the order. That brings us to the end of that discussion. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Filkin

My Lords, on behalf of my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer of Thoroton, I beg to move that this Bill do now pass.

Moved, That the Bill do now pass.—(Lord Filkin)

On Question, Bill passed, and returned to the Commons with amendments.